One way to test how difficult pratyahara is, says B.K.S. Iyengar, is to go for a walk and at the same time try not to comment or judge or even name what you see hear or smell:
“Even on a country walk, though you might be able to stop yourself from saying “beautiful” it will be almost impossible not to let yourself name the objects -teak tree, cherry tree, violet hibiscus, thorn bush, etc.”
Pratyahara is the 5th limb of yoga and it is concerned with taking us from the outside to the inside, with withdrawing the senses, so that the yogi like an inner-naut can travel within and find the “Self”.
Maybe more upsetting to me was to hear his description of how we are not really receptive at all, and how we are unable to greet, say, a sunset, to let it in. Rather our senses look out with inquisitive fire, naming, owning what they see “as if life was a nonstop shopping spree”.
Ouch! That hurt. Probably because it’s true.
These are in no particular order some descriptions, definitions, purposes I found on pratyahara. They are all from Iyengar unless otherwise noted. I spared the quotation marks as they are all or partly quotes. My favorite is #7:
1.- The yogic purpose of pratyahara is to make the mind shut up so we can concentrate.
2.-Pratyahara is built brick by brick through yama niyama, asana and pranayama, then utilized in dharana dhyana and samadhi. It is the fifth petal of yoga, also called the “hinge” of the outer and inner quest. It is the pivotal movement on yoga’s path.
3.-Iyengar says that in Sanskrit, pratyahara literally means “to draw toward the opposite”. The normal movement of the senses is to flow outward and this limb is concerned with going against that grain, a difficult reaction.
4.- Pratyahara is mano-vrtti nirodha, it directly works from the mind like a pneumatic tool to cut its outgoing habits by changing its direction to penetrate inwards towards the core.
5- Pattabhi Jois says in Yoga Mala that yoga is a path we step into and that will lead us towards unveiling the Self. I remember being disoriented as I could not grasp what “Self” meant. Pratyahara, says Iyengar: helps the mind to acquire knowledge of the Self.
6.-When at the stage of prathyahara the aspirant requires stable and intense self-study … [because]… the ego takes pride even in this controlled mind. At that point the mind has to direct the energy towards concentration (the next step), or fall for the ego’s uprising. There lies the difficulty in pratyahara.
7.- Pratyahara is a tableland for maintaining, sustaining and retaining what is gained through the previous limbs.
8.- Pratyahara is a samskara -a culture on the mind. As I [Claudia] see it is a “new wiring” of sorts where we change directions as the attention constantly goes out and instead we rein it inside.
9.- Pratyahara undoubtedly is very difficult, as it has to be firmly established on asana and pranayama which discipline the organs of action, perception, and mind.
10.- Swami Vivekananda (who introduced yoga and Vedanta to Europe and America) calls Pratyahara a “gathering towards“, as in freeing it from the thralldom of the senses. He says that when we can do this well we shall really possess character and have made a long step towards freedom; before then: “we are machines”.