Pratyahara means to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses, according to Viniyoga founder T.K.V. Desikachar. When you are able to control the senses, then it is much easier to control the mind.
Pratyahara is such an important step in the evolution of a yogi. Swami Chidananda has a great analogy of this. He says:
Transcending the mind is the purpose of Yoga. Suppose there is a big paper-kite. It will not fly by itself but will drop down. In order to make it fly you want a thread to be attached to it. You slightly pull the thread. If the thread is not there, it will not rise higher. But after it has risen high in the atmosphere, the thread acts as a bar. Then it breaks the thread and goes further higher up in the atmosphere. Similar is the case with the mind. Initially the mind is useful in going up. But at last you have to go beyond the mind.
We use the mind in a helpful way when we practice yama, niyama, asana and pranayama. But once we become adept in those practices and start practicing pratyahara, we discover that we don’t really need the mind or the senses that much anymore.
“The senses are like a mirror,” Swami Satchidananda says. “Turned outward, they reflect the outside; turned inward, they reflect the pure light. By themselves the senses are innocent, but when allowed to turn outside they attract everything and transfer those messages to the mind, making it restless. Turned inward, they find peace by taking the form of the mind itself.”
A great example of pratyahara is a woman practicing pain-relieving techniques during childbirth. She may be going through transition, which is arguably the most painful event of labor (when the cervix dilates from seven to 10 centimeters), and she is breathing effectively and diverting her mind internally to a place where she is OK with that pain. She is practicing pranayama and pratyahara. She is able to block out the pain and charge through, clearing the baby’s path to birth.
In raising children and coping with difficult situations, a great asana to practice is balasana, or child’s pose. In balasana, your body is turning inward and your mind instinctively tunes out your environment. Here, by practicing this form of pratyahara, you give yourself time to contemplate the situation and look at it from a fresh perspective. You may have an answer to your problem after sitting in balasana for a minute or two. Plus, think about it: balasana is a pose that children instinctively practice when they sleep or even when they are upset. They remember and use their internal wisdom.
Another form of pratyahara is the practice of yoni mudra. In this, you use your hands to block off your ears, eyes, nose and mouth. According to The Sivananda Companion to Yoga, yoni mudra resembles a tortoise retreating within its shell. “During the day the mind is constantly bombarded with information and stimuli from the five senses,” the book states. “Only when the senses are brought under control and the mind is no longer pulled constantly outward, can you hope to be able to concentrate…By allowing you to rest undisturbed inside your mind, yoni mudra makes you more fully aware of the tyranny of the senses.”
To do yoni mudra, close your ears with your thumbs, cover your eyes with your index fingers, close your nostrils with your middle fingers and press your lips together with your remaining fingers. Then release the middle fingers gently to inhale and exhale while you meditate. This will help you move on to your concentration practice, or dharana.
See the next chapter: “Eight Limbs of Postpartum Yoga: Dharana”
Series sources can be found here.