Pratyahara is a Sanskrit word that means “to hold back,” and it denotes the fifth limb of Patanjali’s classical eight-limb system of yoga. Simply put, the practice requires you to detach your normal outwardly directed awareness from the world around you, retract it, and redirect it inward toward the self.
The result of such efforts is that the senses—your sight, hearing, taste, and the like, which trot along behind awareness like loyal dogs—naturally turn away from the world, too. This effectively cuts you off from distractions in your environment, collects your usually scattered awareness, and prepares you for the sixth and seventh limbs of classical practice, dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). The process is traditionally likened to a tortoise pulling its head and limbs into its shell. Vyasa, Patanjali’s earliest commentator, aptly compares our senses to a swarm of bees, equating our awareness with their queen: “Just as bees follow the course of the queen bee and rest when the latter rests, so when the mind stops, the senses also stop their activity.”
While this makes for some fine imagery, Patanjali and his commentators did little to clarify how exactly to practice pratyahara. Thankfully, there are a few concrete techniques. One of them is recorded in the Yoga-Yajnavalkya-Gita (“Yoga Song of Yajnavalkya”), which takes the form of a teaching dialogue between the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife, Gargi.
Yajnavalkya’s technique, called vayu pratyahara (wind withdrawal) or prana pratyahara (life force withdrawal), involves fixing your awareness and your breath sequentially on 18 vital points, called marmans, in your body. Varying sources highlight different points (traditional Ayurvedic sources name 107), but Yajnavalkya’s 18 marmans are the big toes, ankles, midcalves, “roots of the calves,” knees, midthighs, perineum, “center of the body,” generative organs, navel, heart center, “throat well,” root of the tongue, root of the nose, eyes, spot between the eyebrows, forehead, and crown of the head. Yajnavalkya suggests following the sequence from the crown to the toes, but many of my students prefer climbing from toes to crown.
To experience vayu pratyahara, take any comfortable seated yoga pose or your favorite reclining position, such as Savasana (Corpse Pose).
If you like, touch each marman so that each energy center is clearly anchored in your awareness. You could even imaginatively invest each point with a favorite deity, teacher, or mantra, which is another traditional practice. Then pinpoint your awareness in your big toes for the ascending sequence (or the crown of your head if you’re descending) and imagine you are breathing into and out of them.
Consciously climb the 12-rung marman ladder to your crown. You can run through the points rapidly, spending just a breath or two at each one, or if you have the time and inclination, you can linger at each point for several breaths or longer. The former version of the practice challenges your ability to quickly and decisively direct both your awareness and breath; the latter challenges your ability to concentrate both awareness and breath over time.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article Still Life by Richard Rosen