Prana Artwork
Season 1 - Episode 5

Pratyahara Talk

30 min - Talk


In order to give ourselves the opportunity to try to become who we really are, we need to be able to bring our awareness in from the outside. Dr. Svoboda talks about the importance of Pratyahara—drawing the senses inward—for the healthy circulation of Prana, especially in today's world with the many external distractions that surround us.
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Jul 21, 2016
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(waves splashing) Greetings again. Today, my subject is pratyahara, a sanskrit word that literally means against taking in. Practically means the movement of your sense organs from their normal direction, which is external, into a direction that they don't normally move, which is internally. Pratyahara, as you may know, is the fifth of the eight limbs of Patanjali's yoga. It comes after limb number four, which is pranayama, and immediately prior to limb number six, dharana and it links these two together.

If you are attempting to follow in a linear fashion these eight limbs, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi, then you will... employ pranayama to prepare yourself for pratyahara. In fact, one need not always go linearly in one direction. One often in fact needs to go in the reverse direction, sometimes to take one before another and pratyahara often, especially in the world in which you and I are living, is something we frequently require in order to be able to perform dharana, which means to be able to concentrate on something, or to perform pranayama, which does not mean, as a friend of mine says, torturing of the nostrils, but it means in fact actively encouraging the prana to circulate in the organism in a positive and agreeable way. Pratyahara is also often essential, especially nowadays, for the proper practice of asana and the word asana of course is a word which literally means a seat.

I am seated, I can say that I am performing an asana. I can say that the thing I'm seated on is an asana. So to be able to sit and to be able to sit for an hour without moving, which is a very reasonable and desirable thing to be able to do, is only going to be possible if you are able to not be distracted by things that are happening on the outside of your sense organs. Now your sense organs, and they have been around in the world of vertebrates for many of hundreds of millions of years, your sense organs are available to us and have succeeded in doing their jobs very well for so long because they have very simple jobs and their jobs in fact are two. The job of any sense organ in any living being on any one day is to find things to eat and to detect predators so that you can avoid being eaten.

Life lives off of other life. We are always eating things, there are always things interested in eating us. In the past, this was a literal kind of thing and occasionally you still may find yourself being tracked by some very large carnivore. That's very rare nowadays. It's more likely that you're going to be eaten instead by all sorts of people, places, and things that are trying to suck your prana away from you.

Every time you contribute your attention to something, you are contributing your prana to it and the more things that are able to grab your attention, the more directions your prana will be sucked away from you. Your sense organs are always tempted to get entangled in the world because they're always being allured by one thing or disgusted and disturbed by another thing. You're always being encouraged by things in the world to not go in this direction and to go in that direction according to whatever agenda that thing in the environment has as it applies to you. So those very sense organs that were useful for us when it came to try to determine what we could eat in a world that we knew very little about practically and in a detailed fashion, those very sense organs that made us aware of the presence of predators and kept us alert to prevent ourselves from being preyed upon, from turning ourselves into prey, those very sense organs are easily entangled, are easily confused, are easily enthralled by the svengali-like nature of all the attractive advertising and all of the things that are trying to drag our attention away from us. So when our sense organs get entangled in the world because prana moves along with intention, that means our prana gets entangled with the world also and when your prana is not centered in your organism, when the prana's not circulating nicely and easily and freely inside your body, then the prana is going to get potentially deficient, it's potentially going to get knotted up in different places and it can cause all kinds of imbalances in its flow, which will lead to imbalances in the fabric of your organism and ill health will come your way.

It's bad enough that we have many, many more things trying to attract us in the past than we did, but it's more the case that in addition to these things, we are paying less attention than we should to the outside world because and I can assure you I travel very frequently and I go to many different places and I know people in many different countries and in the countries I regularly visit, including Australia and India and Costa Rica and Canada and the United States, everyone, particularly the younger generation, has their face in a screen, maybe it's the phone, maybe it's the laptop, maybe it's the tablet, walking down the street, sitting in the train, at the table in the restaurant, everyone is looking at something other than the food that they're eating or the other people that they're with or the trees and the birds and the flowers and the moon up above and all those other things that we should be paying attention to because those are the things that are giving us information about the environment that we're in and it is the relationship that we possess between ourselves and the environment and that determines what is the nature of the reality that we personally are experiencing. So when you are completely focusing your attention on something else, you're pouring your prana into that thing, but that thing is not even present in your environment as an actual thing, but it's something that is sucking your awareness into some virtual server in the sky reality somewhere. This magnifies the problem by at least one order of magnitude and if that were not enough and let me assure you that would be enough except for the fact that it is not enough because there is one other disturbing trend that is only becoming more and more disturbing as time goes by and that is the so-called hallucination that we call multitasking. Multitasking is physiologically impossible. Let me reiterate that, multitasking cannot be done.

Your mind can focus on one thing at a time and only one thing at a time. When people multitask or pretend to multitask or tell one another that they're multitasking or worst of all tell themselves that they're multitasking, what they are actually doing is shifting very quickly from one thing to another, from one focus to another. Not only is this inefficient, it also wears out your ability to focus much more quickly than it would normally during the day. So very soon instead of focusing on one thing, doing one job, moving on to the next thing, focusing on it, doing that job, moving on to the third thing, focusing on that and doing that job, you are doing five jobs inefficiently and really not getting that much done and of course you're not getting anything done because you're also checking your email and your Facebook and your Twitter account every two minutes to find out if there is anything new. Please remember that every time something new happens, you get a little surge of dopamine in your system, a little surge of that reward chemical that makes you really happy and so you're always looking for a new piece of news, a new image on Instagram, a new video on Vine, whatever it may be.

You're always looking for something new so that you can get a little bit of extra dopamine. The problem with that of course is that you get habituated to a certain level of that neurotransmitter and then that same level will not give you the same satisfaction and then you try to multitask more and then you try to search the web even more and then you try to find new media and new methods to try to do even more and you get caught up in the more and more and more. You get caught up in the passion of trying to find out that thing that finally is going to satisfy you, that finally is going to make you feel like you are satisfied, satisfied meaning santosha that where you can actually feel like you have finally yes, now you have it, you have that thing that is going to be the best thing since sliced bread that you will never have to think of anything else about, but you're never going to find that if you look outside of yourself because there is no one thing outside of yourself that is ever going to be sufficiently satisfying because even if it is extremely satisfying, there will always be some moment that you are not able to interact with it and in those moments you will be miserable because you are separated from it and a disturbingly large number of young people and very likely a bunch of not so young people as well sleep with their phones not only on, not only next to their ears, but right under the pillow just in case something should happen during the night that they must come to grips with. But of course there's always that concern that somehow even in the middle of the night, even with all kinds of alarm systems, you might miss something. So you're never going to actually be sleeping really soundly because you'll always be wondering, while you're busy trying to dream, what it is that you're missing.

This is the world that we are living in and this is why pratyahara is so essential. Turning away, ahara, means to take in. Hara means to take, ahara means to take in. Ahara is a very common sanskrit word for eating. Ahara means food because that's the main thing we take in, eating physical food.

It applies to all the sense organs, but the main thing that we take in that's most important for our physical bodies is physical food and it's very essential for us to have our sense organs working externally when we're eating physical food so that we can know whether that food is good for us or not. We can know whether it smells right. We can know whether it's the right temperature in order to be properly digested. If we are paying attention to something else then the food when we're eating, it is much less likely that that food is going to digest properly because we have not applied our own prana to the food, we have not tagged the food with the prana, we have not welcomed the food into the organism with that awareness that is going to assist it to move through the digestive tract and get properly digested. We have failed the food and that means we've failed ourselves because that food is going to turn into ourselves.

So pratyahara doesn't mean take your senses away from the universe 24 hours a day because then you would first go into samadhi. It would be a permanent samadhi and soon you would disappear from the manifested universe in the current form in which you are living. What pratyahara really means is to remove the senses from the external world when it is necessary to do so, put them inside the body, let them remain quiescent without going outside until it is necessary for them to go outside again. Pratyahara, like pranayama, is a type of discipline like asana, like niyama, like yama. It's all forms of discipline.

It is informing your organism how it should behave. It is training your organism how it should behave. It is encouraging your organism to behave in an appropriate way. It is of course extremely understandable... why we become confused about what is good for us and what is not good for us.

Part of the problem is of course advertising telling us that we need that and we don't do that and we are unsavory wimps if we do not have the latest vehicle and that we are completely useless troglodytes if we have not procured the latest phone, et cetera, et cetera. Another problem is... We define ourselves as human beings in the context of our environment. Human being is completely helpless when it is born. It remains completely helpless.

Many, many, many animals can live independently just within a day or a few days of birth. Human beings can live independently only after many, many years and during that period we have to be agreeable, we have to fit into whatever social structure we're part of so that people will in that social structure will continue taking care of us. So we are always defining ourselves in the context of our environment and we're always trying to understand not only who we can be, how we can activate our potential self-potential, but also how much we can activate our self-potential, how individual we can be, how unique we can become without alienating so many people that we no longer fit into the social circle in which we were born or are trying to live in and are then expelled from it and then are wandering around as an independent, but not yet well-centered in one's self kind of individual. The faculty in a human being that determines I-ness is called ahamkara. Aham is sanskrit means I.

It's made up of the letter a, the first letter in the sanskrit alphabet. Ha is the last letter in the second sanskrit alphabet. So it's the alpha and the omega, aham. It's everything that has to do with you. Kara, the thing that creates.

So ahamkara creates I-ness, it identifies with things, it makes us say that these things are part of us. I have this body, I live in this place, I do this job, I have these preferences, I have these desires, this is all part of me. A big part of what it means to be me is to be able to feel like I have a sense of self-definition is that there is a certain me that actually is me that this me is something that either I have already become or that I am moving in the direction of becoming and ahamkara is in charge of all of these senses of I-ness, who I was at one time, who I am now, who I am going to be and the sense organs of course play an important part in the self-definition because the sense organs are always telling us. Sense organs, we are smelling, we are seeing, we are hearing, we're getting information from the outside world as to whether that person that I believe myself to be is actually coming across to the external environment as that person that I actually am. There was a movie made a few years back about a young man who thought he could live with grizzly bears and who unfortunately had an unhappy and terminal experience at the end of his experiment.

He believed himself to be someone that he was not. He believed himself to have achieved a state of existence that was not the state of existence that he had actually achieved. So determining who we are and deciding who to become is something that we all have to do. We all have to actually and practically do it as we grow up and we're being told by different people, being told by our parents who we are and who we should be and not be and our peers are influencing us and the images we see in the movies and the people that we meet that interact with us. All of these influences that come into us we are digesting as best we can and trying to determine out of all of this where we fit in and this is what ahamkara is doing.

In the past, there was a certain greater ease of doing this because there was less external attention-drawing influences. In the past, when you were growing up you had your parents or your grandparents or auntie or uncle who would tell you the myths that related to the society in which you were born and they would tell you the myths, maybe they would show you a picture or something like that, but if you wanted to really see how those stories were being expressed in your awareness, you had to visualize them. So children were taught to visualize from an early age. Progressively as time has gone by, we have lost a great deal of and are losing generation by generation more and more ability to visualize because from very early ages we are provided the images that other people want us to see, we're provided images that we integrate into ourselves that are someone else's images, they're not our own personal images and therefore it's much more difficult to become whoever it is you are because you no longer have real access to your own images and even if you did, children nowadays are not being taught to maintain focus for any length of time. They're taught to pretend that they're multitasking.

They're given this thing to look at that they're excited by and that thing to look at and this to hear and that to eat and that to smell and they move from one sense to another and one focus to another so fast that there is no opportunity for them to grab hold of one thing and move forward in it. So taking the sense organs away from all of these different temptations, all of these different... Siren-like items that are dragging our awareness away and trying to pull us onto the rocks of the various dangerous reefs that are part of our world. In order to give ourselves the opportunity to try to become who we really are, we need to be able to bring our awareness in from the outside whenever we need to do that. We need to have that capability.

And among the many things that we as individuals in the postmodern world are trying to become, probably the most important thing is to try not to actually become any one thing and get stuck there. My dear friend and colleague Dr. Claudia Welch was fortunate to have spent time not only with her guru, Sri Ajab Singh, but with his guru as well, Sri Karpal Singh, and both of those gurus and particularly Sri Ajab Singh always said don't ever try to become anything because as soon as you say I am a yoga teacher, you have limited yourself to your concept of what a yoga teacher is. You can honestly say you're a student of yoga. You can honestly say that you have learned certain things, you have integrated these practices into yourself and you can share them with other people, but as soon as the ego of being a yoga teacher or an ayurvedic doctor or a philanthropist or a butcher, baker, candlestick maker or anything else, as soon as that ego comes in and you start to invest yourself in that thing and other people start to tell you, because now other people will tell you all kinds of things about how great you are or how terrible you are or how great and terrible you are at the same time or how you're not worthy of being either great or terrible, people will tell you all kinds of things and the more that you're attracted by these things, the more you'll be tempted to invest yourself in your self-definition even more and the more you invest in always diversify your investments, oh people who are out there on the other side of the camera lens. Always diversify your investments especially when it has to do with how you're investing yourself in yourself.

In order to be able to do this, you need to be able to pull yourself back from all of those things that have already grabbed hold of your attention, that are already dragging you in a particular way and that's why practicing pratyahara is so important. My mentor the Aghori Vimalananda used to say interiority is the key. That's how he defined pratyahara, not closing off all of your sense organs like that and physically interdicting the interaction of the sense organs with their objects, but cultivating a desire to keep your prana on the inside, to extend yourself only when there is something that you need to sense, to bring your prana back and experience that thing accurately and carefully and prepare yourself so that you can perform whatever kind of action might be required in the context of whatever that thing that has appeared in your environment is requesting you to do. Interiority is a wonderful thing to try to active in yourself. It has been my experience and I have also heard this from many experts that to try to do this on your own initially in the place where you live is extremely difficult simply because in the place where you live all of the temptations are very familiar and they all have their hooks in you and they're all, more than you are probably aware, dragging your attention away as it is.

So often one of the first things that you should try to do when you are ready to try to perform pratyahara is to go on retreat and sometimes I know you will say I don't have the time and there's this and there's that and a bunch of excuses and that's fine. We don't expect that you should go out into the forest where there is nobody and stay there for a month or two. We do expect that what you could do is simply take one day out of your busy life and go into a quiet part of your house, inform the rest of your family that you are not going to be communicado for the day, turn off all of your electronic devices, if need be inform everyone that you know that you're going to be gone for 24 hours and disconnect from the reality that is your ongoing daily life just for the space of 24 hours or even 12 hours. Start if necessary with three hours, but do something that actively disconnects you from your life and it will be much easier for you to disconnect yourself from the outward pouring of your sense attention. But once you have started to do this and it would be great if you could do this one day a week and possibly reduce the amount of food you eat, maybe eat only one particular thing on that day and remaining silent, meditating, singing internally, reciting mantras internally, doing something that keeps you away from all those things that are dragging your attention away and once you have gotten comfortable with the day, move to one week.

Go to someplace where you can be if not completely alone then mostly alone for the majority of the day during that one week and let it be away from your house, let it be away from your normal life because the entire idea about retreat is that there is a break, you're creating a break between what was and what will be. You've created a break from what is normal, what is average, what is everyday, what is the mundane, profane world and you're taking some sacred space of your own so you can commune with yourself and you can commune with the reality of reality. So... Pratyahara, interiority, something that is most critical now in the world, something that I encourage all of you to experience for yourselves. Namaste.


Ariadna L
3 people like this.
A fantastic talk, thanks so much! I've loved it, it's so clear and practical for everyone today. I'll be recommending it to my friends.
Caroline S
Great talk thank you.  We can start small, the house suggestion, a few hours in a week sounds a good first step.  I am going to try that !

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