Pratyahara, the 5th limb, is often defined as “withdrawal of the senses”.  But what does that really mean?  What exactly do the “senses” consist of, and how does one ‘withdraw” from them?  Before this can be addressed, we need to come to an understanding of what could be considered the “sensory body”.

Anatomy of the Sensory Body

As you know, there are 5 cognitive senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch - jnanendriyas in sanskrit, literally meaning the “knowing senses”.  In yoga philosophy, the citta, in the meaning of the yoga sutras as the “heartmind”, aka the mind and emotions, is considered the 6th sense - our ability to both think AND feel is, on at least one level, nothing more than another sensory organ, receiving input from our environment.  

According to yoga, there are also 5 active senses - eliminating, reproducing, moving, grasping and speaking - these are the karmendriyas, literally meaning “the senses of action”.

The jnanendriyas receive input from our environment and communicate it with the mind.

The karmendriyas are how we respond to the environment.  (I encourage you to try to find an action that doesn’t fall within one of the active senses).

This input is received by the antahkarana, the inner instrument.  The antahkarana  is made up of four relevant aspects:

  1. manas - part of the lower mind, through which the mind interacts with the environment.  The manas is similar to the sensory “superintendent”, taking in sensory impressions and data and interacting with the environment.
  2. ahamkara - the ego - that place of attachment and aversion; all the lower case “self” ways we identify ourselves, i.e. rich or poor, old or young, gay or straight, atheist or religious, brown or white, etc.  Our sense of self and all its misperceptions. 
  3. citta - the memory banks, the storage unit for all our samskaras, the impressions left behind by all of our experiences.
  4. buddhi - the higher mind, the closest we come to the individual consciousness in the physical body - each aspect of the “lower” mind provides the buddhi with information and competes to be heard and considered.  From this information, the buddhi tries to make the best response.
  5. The antahkarana can be illustrated as follows:

Sensory Interference

Pratyahara is the bridge from the physical to the mental discipline of yoga.  Almost anyone who has ever tried meditation rightfully complains that they cannot still their mind long enough to get any benefit.  The truth is, ANYONE can meditate if given the right instruction.  Pratyahara is the key.

It is readily apparent how the cognitive senses interfere with our ability to meditate.  Our eyes, our ears, or thoughts, our emotions, all vie for our attention, and for good reason - each of those aspects evolved or were created within us in order for us to be able to protect ourselves and respond appropriately to life.  However, our nervous system being bombarded with all this information makes concentration and meditation difficult.  Practices that train our nervous system to pay less attention to the various input makes deeper meditation possible.  

Each of the cognitive senses operate on a spectrum from gross to subtle: with our eyes we can see images AND our mind can create mental images; we can both hear AND imagine sound, etc.  The active senses operate on a spectrum as well: we can both eliminate AND imagine eliminating, we can both speak AND create monologue in our minds, etc.  Although all of these abilities can interfere with our ability to meditate, the primary culprits are our ability to create mental images and our ability to create monologue in our head.  

Preliminary Practices

The first step is to become intimately familiar with the sensory body.  Study the anatomy of how we see, hear, smell, taste and feel.  Study the structure of the sensory organ and how the information gathered by it is communicated to the mind.  Also, look at both the gross and subtle aspect of the senses.  Then consider each of the ways the active senses are expressed by the body.  Bring awareness to the organs of elimination and reproduction, how you move, grasp and speak.  Look at both the gross and subtle aspects here as well.  

Second, do awareness practices that focus on the senses.  Move through each sense, focusing your awareness there and bring curiosity to that space.  Consider how the mind seeks more pleasant input and seeks freedom from unpleasant input.  Bring a “fine tuning” to each sense, carefully considering all the input and bring to it a crisp focus.  For the mind and emotions, bring a curiosity to how they arise and how they interact with the body. Determine for yourself whether thinking and emotions is nothing more than another sensory organ.  Generally cultivate a strong relationship with the sensory body and develop a visualization practice for each organ. Cultivate a witnessing presence that perceives all of the input and how it communicates with the nervous system.

And third, commit the aspects of the antahkarana to memory and direct your awareness to the instrument and how all the aspects interact with each other.  Discover for yourself if the concepts resonate with you.