The fifth step on our yoga path is pratyahara, meaning control of our senses.
In order to have control over anything we must be aware of what it is. So with pratyahara, we begin to study the five senses and see how they control us. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling are all apart of our daily (and often unconscious) living. As we begin to study these senses we start to understand the control they have over us.
Examples? That daily food craving we give into, that may not be so healthy. What about the unkind words people say to us, or we say to them, and how that makes us feel? What about the craving for human contact or touch we may not receive from the people who love us? What about the smell of something that triggers you to a time past, pulling you out of your present moment? Or what about harmful things we see around us, whether in real life or on t.v. that cause negative thoughts or nightmares?
Of course, I am using negative examples here, to emphasize the purpose of this study, control and withdraw of the senses. The senses obviously affect us in positive ways as well, but this also results in a thing called ‘attachment’ which we reflected on in the Yamas as ‘non-possessiveness’. So even the positive aspects of our senses can turn into an unhealthy form of attachment or possessiveness.
Once we understand how our senses control us, we begin to take control of them by withdrawing from them. The best way to do this is often in meditation. We turn inwards (I would suggest reflecting on the Niyamas too), and focus on our pranayama (breathing) and we let go of the outside stimuli around us (sight, sounds, taste, touch, smell). We focus only on what is inwards, and have no doubt this can be a huge challenge. The senses may actually become MORE strong in the beginning, continuing to wield their control. Only over time and with practice can you break through this barrier and find peace within, without the satisfaction of outside influences.
This is a step I struggle with the most. Food cravings are especially hard for me to ignore, or substitute. Yet it is also a step that I am determined to master, and I am very aware of how my super-sensitive senses affect me (for better and worse 😉 ) each day.
The final piece of this fifth step is once we can comfortably withdraw, we now have control over our senses, they do not control us. We can go into the world and be fully aware of all the senses without them bombarding us with negativity. We are controlled by our own selves. This is pratyahara.
Next week we will study the sixth step, Dharana (concentration).