2.54 – By turning attention within (pratyahara), consciousness ceases to come in contact with the objects of the senses. It then mirrors one’s essential nature.

स्वविषयासंप्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूपानुकारैवेन्द्रियाणां प्रत्याहारः ॥५४॥

sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah

  • sva – of self; one’s self; one’s own
  • vishaya – object of sensory experience; content; subject matter; impressions
  • asamprayoge – non-contact with; disconnection
  • chittasya – of consciousness
  • svarupe – nature; quality; essence; appearance; original form
  • anukarah – imitation; resemblance; copy; mirroring
  • iva – like; as
  • indriyanam – of the senses; sense organs; powers of the senses
  • pratyaharah – internalization of awareness; withdrawal of the senses; drawing back; turning within

2.55 – From the practice of pratyahara comes supreme mastery of the senses.

ततः परमावश्यता इन्द्रियाणाम् ॥५५॥

tatah parama vashyata indriyanam

  • tatah – due to that; from that
  • parama – highest; supreme; most excellent
  • vashyata – mastery; influence; control
  • indriyanam – of the senses

Commentary on Sutras 2.54 and 2.55:

In today’s world, there are more distractions than ever, more lights and sounds and sensual experiences to get lost in. We have access to food from every corner of the world. We can listen to any song we wish to hear by speaking it into our phone. Virtually any information we wish to acquire is only a mouse click away.

This is beautiful and horrible, the source of great pleasure and suffering. But it’s not the perpetual circus that’s the problem, nor is it the senses. Life should be enjoyed, and doing so will not stunt our spiritual growth. But we do need balance.

The waves of consciousness have to become still if we are to perceive the truth of who and what we are. That will never happen if our attention is continuously directed outward through the senses and into the world. Like a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell, we must learn to remove our consciousness from the chaos. That is the practice of pratyahara.

As with all the other limbs of yoga, pratyahara can occur naturally and spontaneously, but it often requires gentle, focused effort. We have to work inside until we establish an inward current. Then the process becomes effortless.

We should create a distraction-free environment to make this process easier, especially in the beginning stages of our practice. The less noise and movement the senses have to latch onto, the less trouble we’ll have directing them inward. When we’re learning to tune in to inner lights and subtle sounds, wearing earplugs and an eye mask can even be helpful.

The process of withdrawing the senses cannot be separated from the other limbs of yoga. The same is true for any of the eight limbs. Each blends into the next. Cultivating the yamas and niyamas balances our inner and outer lives, allowing us to sit still, calm our breath, and direct our attention inward.

Both asana and pranayama are ways of practicing pratyahara. During the sixth limb, concentration, our attention is directed toward an object of meditation. And as we concentrate on that object, our attention is drawn away from the senses and directed further and further inward. So concentration is also a way of practicing pratyahara.

The more we take the time to withdraw our consciousness and energy from externals and focus it within, the more mastery we gain over the senses. Yoga teachers often use the metaphor of a chariot with five horses to depict this.

If the horses (the senses) are out of control, the chariot (body) and charioteer (the higher intellect), who is holding onto the reins (the mind), get pulled along for the rough ride. By reining in the senses, we become their master and control the direction we wish to go in. For the yogi, that direction is toward Awareness.