The 5th Limb
A question I receive a lot is about the 5th limb of Classical Ashtanga yoga. The Sanskrit word for this is pratyahara. It’s translated to mean "sense withdrawal".
There are probably many ways to achieve sensory withdrawal. The most natural is it arises as we develop prana or life force within the body. It’s a result of a concentrated mind.
There’s also ways to develop this consciously. The simplest way I’ve found is as follows.
Examine all five of your senses. Think about how you use each of them in your life experiences. Then determine which one is the strongest. This can take some time for people to determine. And some people have two. That is fine and this choice is not concrete. You won’t mess anything up if you choose "the wrong one".
Once you’ve picked one sense, you examine why you picked it. What are the experiences you based your decision on to state this as your greatest sense? For example, I recently had a person tell me it was her sense of smell. Another told me it was touch, and another told me it was sight.
If you determine your strongest sense is smell, what smell makes you feel nostalgic or gives you a blissful feeling? These are two distinct triggers, but either will work. If you say roses, great. When you finish your breathing practices and/or chanting before meditation, center in on your sense of smell. Imagine you smell roses. I understand they are not there and this may be frustrating at first, but sit with it. See if you can "smell the roses".
If your choice of sense is touch, I would ask you why. When we’ve determined why, I would have a mental exercise for you to perform based on what you told me. It could be imagining circles being rubbed on your hand or a blissful feeling throughout your body (noting where it started and where it went), or waves of imaginary touch through the arms, the legs, or the back.
If your choice of sense is sight, I would ask you what an important image is to you. What's the most detailed thing you can you see in your mind’s eye without having to see it in the physical world? Then I would tell you to put all of your attention on this image in your mind while meditating.
The teachings of yoga constantly change the more you practice them. They are based on the state of consciousness of the individual. Sometimes, it seems like certain principles, practices, or rules go against one another. However, if you look at them through a teaching lens, particularly teaching individuals, as yoga is based on the spiritual progression of the individual, what is medicine for one person may be poison for another.
For example, the Yoga Sutras state that asana (postures) and pranayama (breath techniques) are used until one has achieved a certain state of consciousness, namely samadhi. After achieving this state, they are no longer needed. Does this mean that I should throw away asana and pranayama after a year of practice? No, it does not. The state of samadhi can take lifetimes to receive.
The practices given above for sense withdrawal may, in turn, sound paradoxical. The practice certainly is based on the word alone. And yet, many times in life and in yoga we need to move into something rather than avoid it. By isolating one sense, you begin to shut out the external use of the other four. The first thing that happens is your ability to concentrate increases. Then you shut out the other four senses, and may even start to smell, feel, or touch the thing you’re concentrating on. From there, the other inner senses activate: you may start to see an inner light, feel bliss, hear a sound or vibration, etc. This is the senses turning inward. It is an important step and often not explained. The deeper we go with these inner senses, the more concentrated we become on our aim. The outer world falls away and the inner world opens up.
The two I've left out are hearing and taste. If you’d like more information on those, feel free to leave a comment below or email me at email@example.com.