II.54 स्वविषयासम्प्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूपानुकार इवेन्द्रियाणां प्रत्याहारः

sva-viṣayāsamprayoge cittasya svarūpānukāra ivendriyāṇām pratyāhāraḥ
sva-viṣaya-asamprayoge cittasya svarūpa-anukāraḥ iva indriyāṇām pratyāhāraḥ

“Withdrawal of the senses is like an imitation of citta‘s own true nature–citta separates from its [accustomed] objects.”

Pratyāhāra, which literally means “withdrawal” (prati-, “back,”+ ā-, “near,” + hṛ, “to carry”), is the fifth limb of yoga. Like all the limbs, it is not discrete or separate from the other limbs. It is implicit in every act of yoga. Today’s sūtra makes this clear.

The withdrawal that Patañjali describes here might be accomplished with a physical removal of the body, as on a retreat or vacation. Indeed, the first dictionary meaning of pratyāhāra is “marching back troops” from the field of battle. A stepping back or down is a recurring part of the spiritual path–Moses visits the mountain top; Jesus goes to the desert; in the Indian tradition, sages withdraw to the forest. The change of scenery, new activities, the removal from regular social obligations, are surely a significant part of such retreats. All facilitate the act of pratyāhāra that Patañjali here describes.

Yet Patañjali is not talking about a physical removal. He specifies that this withdrawal is “of the senses” (indriyāṇām). This is a retreat that can happen anywhere, in one’s own city, on one’s own block, in one’s own home. It is an internal process. In pratyāhāra, Patañjali says, citta (consciousness, the mind) imitates (anukāraḥ) its own true nature (svarūpa). Citta, in some sense, becomes more like its own self.

Svarūpa  is an important word in the Yoga Sūtras. At the start of Chapter One, Patañjali uses svarūpa to describe the goal of yoga practice–“to stand in the true nature of the seer” (I.3, tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam). Sva means self and rūpa means form, and svarūpa, then, is one’s own form: it comes to mean identity or essential nature. Yoga leads us to ask the question Who am I? and prompts us to let go of our fixed ideas of self, certainly definitions of self established by external values, by concepts like good/bad, honor/shame, worthy/unworthy–all of which could be considered identification with the vṛttis (thought patterns). See I.4 and II.48.

To imitate svarūpa is to see, sense, feel directly, not through the screen of past conceptions. When does this happen? When citta (consciousness), Patañjali tells us, separates from its objects (sva-viṣaya-asamprayoge). Traditionally, commentators have defined sva-viṣaya, “its objects,”  to mean things of the material world, and have considered the senses and the attraction to objects of the senses to be almost dangerous. This does not fit with my experience. I would rather explain sva-viṣaya to be the accustomed objects of my senses, the objects I have limited myself to witnessing.

Generally speaking, the mind does limit what we see. As legendary vision therapist Richard S. Kavner explains in Total Vision, the eye is not a camera. The mind decides what is important; it makes categories to sort and order our impressions into a kind of hierarchy of interest.  In yoga practice, we “separate,” make space, distance ourselves, you might say, from our habitual hierarchy of importance. In that space, we see more like the essential self, with the freshness of our original nature.

There is another important aspect to self and the practice of pratyāhāra, as relates to all the limbs of yoga but perhaps especially āsana and prāṇāyāma. When we turn our awareness to the body and breath, to the subtle sensations of physical responses, to the body in space, engaged with the elements, we may begin to sense our selves differently. I have previously written of psychiatrist  Bessel Van der Kolk’s work with traumatized patients and how significant a role the practice of yoga can play in their healing. He writes: “One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations; we need to register and act on these sensations to navigate safely through life.” (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, p. 274; also see earlier postings on II.3 and II.7.)

Turning inward, says psychotherapist Peter A. Levine, is how we come to a more instinctive and fuller understanding of our lives. He helps his patients pay attention to their inward “felt sense,” not their feelings or thoughts per se, but their direct experience. He quotes Eugene Gendlin to define felt sense: “A felt sense is  not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time–encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail.” (See Waking the Tiger.)

The felt sense, according to Levine, is pre-verbal, instinctual; it is not conceptual. Indeed, Mr. Iyengar might describe it as the sensing of the subtle body and the locating of the deep intuitive self–buddhi, or intelligence, the aspect of self said to be closest to essential self.

It is the predicament of many of us that we have been cut off from our physical, instinctive selves. Indeed, both Van der Kolk and Peter Levine describe how dissociation from physical experience can become a chronic condition in those who have suffered trauma.

Yoga has offered me a path of healing from my own dissociation. I turn to my practice in a regular way to help myself “hook up” again inside myself. The inward opening of the felt sense of myself allows me a retreat, a separation from my habitual ways of seeing and being. It helps me come into the integrity, the oneness of my own self. This brings with it a sense of responsibility–but also empowerment.

Our lives are intricately interwoven with others–parents, spouses, children, friends. Women, in particular, are raised to define ourselves by others. As yogis, we learn to let go of those definitions and experience self in a vivid, immediate way. Adrienne Rich speaks powerfully to this “burning” sense of self:

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning.

–Adrienne Rich, “Song”


Pratyāhāra is the culturing and civilizing of the senses of perception. In much of our life, memory supersedes intelligence. Memory triggers the mind, and because the mind is triggered by memory we go for past experiences only. Memory is afraid that it may lose its identity, so before the mind has a chance to call upon the intelligence, memory comes in and says, ‘Act! Now! Immediately!’ That is known as impulse, which commonly governs our actions. … [The] act of going against memory and mind is pratyāhāra. With the help of intelligence, the senses commence an inner journey and return to their point of origin.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Tree of Yoga, pp. 60-61

“In the above sūtra there is a clear emphasis on ‘withdrawal’. But this is commonly understood to mean the rendering of the senses unresponsive to the outer impacts of life…. One may ask: Does spirituality mean a state of insensitivity? Does it demand a deadening of sense responses? Does one go to the door of Reality with a consciousness that is dull and unresponsive? Surely this cannot be…. Our senses need to be re-educated so that they grow in extraordinary sensitivity, feeding the brain with innumerable sensations, thus enabling it to be greatly activised…. To put it differently, the senses must be re-educated to look or feel anew the flower and the tree, the cloud and the bird, the river and the sea.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 216-228

Pratyāhāra typically arises as one focuses on the indivisible sensation fields that were the objects in the two previous limbs of yoga, sitting (āsana) and breathing (prāṇāyāma). To maintain awareness of these fields, attention must narrow its scope from the kaleidoscopic panorama of multi-sensory inputs to just those impressions that evoke the felt sense of the body quietly seated in āsana, then in the more circumscribed field of breath energies.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, pp. 42-3

• Has yoga helped you be a better observer?
• Has yoga helped you become aware of habitual patterns of thoughts? Has it helped you recognize what objects tend to attract your attention?
• What do you experience when you turn inward?  What helps you most to do this?
• Does yoga connect you to nature?


adjective in compound

one’s own, self


in compound

object, aim (from viṣ, “to act”)


masculine noun, 7th case singular, “in”

disconnecting, separating (from a-, “not,” + sam-, “with,” + pra-, “toward” + yuj, “to connect”; samprayuj, “to join together”)


neuter noun, 6th case singular, “of”

consciousness, mind, life field (from cit, “to perceive, to observe, to know”)


neuter noun in compound

own form, essential nature (from sva, “own,” + rūpa, “form”)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

imitation (from anu-, “after,” + “kṛ, “to do”)



as if, like


neuter noun, 6th case plural, “of”

senses (from Indra, name of lord of the atmosphere,  + –ya, suffix that designates belonging)


masculine noun, 1st case singular

retreat, withdrawal (from prati-, “back,” + ā-, “near,”+ hṛ, “to carry”)


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