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Steps Five and Six on the Yogic Path

Last month, I wrote about the first four steps on the eight limb path of yoga as outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. If you missed those, check out the blog posts for the Yamas and Niyamas and Asana and Pranayama.

Today, the focus is on the fifth and sixth steps: pratyahara and dharana.

Pratyahara is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. “Ahara” means “food,” or “anything we take into ourselves from the outside.” “Prati” is a preposition meaning “against” or “away.” Together the words mean “gaining mastery over external influences,” so pratyahara is generally translated as "withdrawal of the senses."

Pratyahara occupies a central place in the eight limbs as it is both an external and internal aspect of yoga. When we engage in pratyahara, we gain some level of control over our unruly senses, which helps us to become more attune to our inner self and better prepared for meditation. As stated in the Bhagavad Gita, "Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady."

How does this play out in the modern world? Most of us suffer from sensory overload, and overstimulation. We're constantly bombarded with information, loud noises, bright colors, the ding of notifications from our smart phones, and messages encouraging us to consume more and more. We have become so accustomed to sensory activity that we don’t know how to quiet our minds, making meditation more difficult.

Practice pratyahara by taking some time away from outside inputs. Some examples include fasting for periods of time, spending time in silence, focusing on natural impressions such as the blue sky, a tree, or a flower, and doing a visualization exercise to create your own inner impression using your imagination.

The previous limb on the path, pranayama, contains an element of pratyahara since it involves bringing the attention inward using the breath. Pratyahara also prepares us for the next step, dharana, by withdrawing our attention from outward distractions.

Dharana translates as mental concentration. This is done by focusing your attention on one thing. This practice is often used in meditation. For example, the focal point might be your breath, the flame of a candle, or a mantra that you repeat silently over and over.

However, you don’t have to be sitting on a meditation pillow to experience dharana. I find that this applies when I’m engaged in sport. For example, when I’m riding my mountain bike, I’m focused only on the task at hand. I’m completely present, otherwise I would likely fall off and hurt myself.

You may have heard athletes talk about being in the zone during a game – that is also dharana. The same is true for a musician or an artist who is completely focused on their craft.

The more you can tune out the distractions and bring your focus to one thing, the better prepared you’ll be to move to the final two steps on the eight-limb path, dhyana and samadhi, which I’ll cover in a couple of weeks.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this series, and for information on the workshops that I’ll be hosting this Fall on the eight limbs of yoga.

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