Chapter 16: Concept and scope of pratyāhāra in management of mental health – Foundations and applications of Indian psychology, 2e, 2nd Edition

16

Concept and scope of pratyāhāra in management of mental health

K. M. Tripathi

The last five decades have seen a growing body of research in the areas of mental health and stress disorders on the one hand, and in the potential and promise of yogic practices in bringing about positive neuro-physiological and psychological changes on the other. A large number of medical reports showing the efficacy of yogic practices in the management of psycho-physiological problems have been published in a variety of journals. As far as the utility of yogic practices in managing mental problems are concerned, they are usually applied as an adjunct to other psychotherapeutic systems, or as part of psychosomatic rehabilitation and relaxation training.

The system of yoga can be conceptualized as one of self-healing. Following the technical definition of yoga, derived from Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtras, one could consider vipāssanā, transcendental meditation, and śavāsana as techniques of pratyāhāra, the control of the senses. Through pratyāhāra, one can attain complete isolation from both internal and external stimuli. Thus, the practice of pratyāhāra can help in managing the stresses of personal life and in regaining composure. Pratyāhāra has been described differently by different schools of thought. The aṣṭāṅga yoga view, the early and later Upaniṣadic view, and the Jain and Buddhist views are described below:

Pratyāhāra in aṣtāṅga yoga

In the aṣtāṅga or Eight Limb yoga of Patañjali, there are eight elements:

  1. Yama (moral instructions)
  2. Niyama (self-purification)
  3. Āsana (posture)
  4. Prāṇāyāma (rhythmic breath control)
  5. Pratyāhāra (sense withdrawal)
  6. Dhāraṇā (concentration)
  7. Dhyāna (meditation)
  8. Samādhi (higher unitive consciousness)

These eight limbs have been divided into two categories, viz., bahiraṅga yoga (exterior yoga) and antaraṅga yoga (interior yoga). Since antaraṅga yoga leads to meditation and transcendence as well as to the higher spiritual levels, it occupies a focal place in aṣṭāṅga yoga. The process of antaraṅga yoga begins with a perception, reflection or query, which finally leads to a momentary or prolonged state of transcendence. The whole course of antaraṅga yoga is a cognitive yogic practice, and not merely physical exercise as popularly perceived. The cognitive or psychological part of the eight-limb approach of yoga begins with pratyāhāra, which occupies a special conjunctive place between bahiraṅga and antaraṅga yoga. Thus, pratyāhāra can be seen as the entry point from bahiraṅga into antaraṅga yoga. In fact, without a proper comprehension of the concept, components, practice and application of pratyāhāra, further psychic upliftment in yoga is not possible.

The term pratyāhāra consists of three Sanskrit parts, viz., prati (in response to, obverse, opposed to, against), ā (near, towards) and hṛ (to bring back properly), and thus it literally means ‘the act of collection’ or ‘to step back purposely in order to attain the right mode of consciousness in a more powerful way’. According to Patañjali,

The state of physical cutting-off of contact between the sense organs and their respective objects, i.e., the reflections of the sensory world in the mind, is called pratyāhāra. Regular practice of pratyāhāra leads to attainment of greater control over the senses and the functioning of the organismic system, and gradually the ability of complete attention and concentration is achieved (Yoga Sūtra, 2.54−56).

Here, the term indriya (translated as senses), used by Patañjali in reference to pratyāhāra, should be comprehended within a wider perspective, as all the mental processes and components that intervene in the interaction between consciousness and the material world. All these mental processes or components are subject to the practice of pratyāhāra. Thus, the entire process of antaraṅga yoga seems to be a continuum of pratyāhāra that initially starts with cutting off the interaction of the external sense organs with their respective objects, followed by disconnecting the manas, that is, sense-mind, from the senses. Further, at a more advanced level the buddhi (intellect), the discriminatory element of the mind, is detached from the mind, and finally the ātman, the real Self, is isolated from all mental impacts. Patañjali provides only a very brief account of pratyāhāra in the Yoga-Sūtras. In the later Upaniṣadic literature, the concept and methodology of pratyāhāra is duly developed into a more technical and applicable procedure. In modern times it has emerged as a powerful technique for mental health management, working through the modification of the mind-matter interaction.

Pratyāhāra in the Upaniṣadic scriptures

Pratyāhāra in the early Upaniṣadic literature

Pratyāhāra as a process and a continuum leading to self-realization is lucidly depicted in the Taittirīyopaniṣad, one of the earlier Upaniṣads (chapter 3, Bhrigu Valli), as the progressive experience of the five sheaths of the true Self, viz., corporeal (physical), biological (vital), psychological (mental), gnostic (supramental) and the beatific (spiritual). In its second chapter, the Bhagavad Gītā emphasizes the need for and importance of controlling the fickleness of mental activities (Bhagavad Gītā, 2.58−62, 67−68). While advocating the state of withdrawal from the senses inwards, the Gītā asserts that the one who is able to withdraw the senses from their corresponding objects, like a tortoise withdraws his limbs within the shell, finally attains perfection of the intellect (Bhagavad Gītā, 2.58).

Pratyāhāra in the later Upaniṣadic literature

Described below are the conceptualizations, rationale, techniques and outcomes of pratyāhāra as proposed in the later Upaniṣadic literature, composed between the 9th to the 13th centuries AD:

  • Pratyāhāra is the introverted state of mind (Triśikhā-Brāhmaṇa Upaniṣad, 30).
  • Detachment of senses from their respective objects, finally leading to a restrained state of mind, is called pratyāhāra (Maṇḍala- Brāhmaṇa Upaniṣad, 1.7; Yoga Cūḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad, 120; Darśana Upaniṣad, 7.1; Yoga-Tattva Upaniṣad, 68).
  • Pratyāhāra is the pleasant state of consciousness that observes the mind preoccupied with the impacts of objects of senses, and requires repeated and sustained practice (Tejobindūpaniṣad, 34).
  • The same notion is depicted in the Amṛtanādopaniṣad (Pratyāhāra-lakṣaṇam, 5) with greater clarity. It says that pratyāhāra is the practice of realizing that the five senses and their respective sensory objects are the sources of agitation in the mind and consciousness, and it finally deems them as the extension and emanation of the serene Self, just as the divergent beams of the static sun give rise to different colours, shades and forms.

In the Śāṇḍilya Upaniṣad (1.17.1: a pañcavidha pratyāhāra) and the Darśanopaniṣad, five different kinds of pratyāhāra are described as follows:

  • Forcible withdrawal of the sense organs from the objects of sensual pleasure with which they interact.
  • Looking upon everything one sees as the ātman, the true Self.
  • Giving up the desire to attain the fruits of one’s actions and observances, performed as part of daily living.
  • Turning one’s attention away from all material things and thoughts.
  • Projection of prāṇic (vital) energy and mind on the 18 vital regions of one’s body (marmasthānas) by shifting attention from one point to another in a prescribed, sequential ascending and descending order.

Thus, as per the description of pratyāhāra available in the later Upaniṣads, the popular practices of yoga-nidrā, yoni-mudrā and śavāsana, as well as certain other kinds of meditation practices, are actually different kinds of pratyāhāra. These are described in a subsequent section of this chapter.

Role of Jainism and Buddhism in evolving technical and practical strategies

Gautama Buddha evolved a technique of meditation based on certain aspects of respiration and supported by the practice of certain observances, and called it vipāssanā. It was widely advocated for modifying one’s state of mind as well as for uplifting one’s level of consciousness. Presently, it is a widely used technique of meditation, and has shown positive clinical results. Another technique of meditation, prescribed by the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha (10th–12th century AD) and known as anapana-śati, also leads to positive and psychotherapeutic effects. The later Jain literature lucidly elaborated a similar and allied process which focused on related problems, and which evolved into the practice called prekṣā. The prekṣā method (Mahaprajna, 1980; Mishra, 2003−2004) has been found to be a very powerful and effective technique for controlling one’s internal functioning, for restraining the five senses, and for getting rid of mental afflictions (Muni Nathamala, 1970). On the basis of the description found in Jain literature and the later Upaniṣads, many fruitful techniques modified to suit specific needs can be derived. Vipāssanā and prekṣā are described in some detail in a later section of this chapter.

Pratyāhāra: Contemporary issues

In recent years, through integrating the shamanic and Upaniṣadic views, Sri Yogendra and his disciples have made a remarkable contribution towards understanding and conceptualizing the applicable aspects of pratyāhāra. Yogendra (1997) defines pratyāhāra as ‘deconditioning the mind’ from its customary activity toward internalization. Pratyāhāra serves as a bridge between the control of the external senses through the first four stages of aṣtāṅga yoga and control of the internal senses through the last three stages, viz., dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi. It is an exclusive practice of yoga ‘to discover one’s inner self and experience subtler thoughts and feelings’. Sequeira (1997) emphasizes that pratyāhāra is the practice of turning one’s sensory orientations inwards, for introspection and for the analysis and re-analysis of one’s reflections. After reflection, one is able to prioritize one’s needs in order to set one’s priorities right and curb the wilful nature of the senses. Pratyāhāra is sense-control leading to self-control. It is one’s sensations, perceptions, notions, imagination, and other mental activities that become the subject matter of study when the mind turns inwards for introspection. Introspection helps to regulate and modulate these mental activities by understanding their nature and field of operation, and is a means of redirecting their energy. Perfection in pratyāhāra confers a deep mental relaxation. The basic procedure begins with attaining a state of physical relaxation (by assuming a relaxed posture) followed by mental relaxation (through pratyāhāra), leading to the relaxation of the vital (prāṇic relaxation). The greater the relaxation of the body and mind, the greater the ability to communicate with one’s internal aspects. In recent years, the term pratyāhāra has come to be used to refer to the process of roping in/reining/ withdrawing/ manoeuvring/ marshalling the jumble of thoughts and feelings which tumble about on the screen of the mind in a disorganized and disoriented fashion (Modi, 1997). The process leading to pratyāhāra requires one to pay attention to one’s thoughts and day-to-day actions, watch the sensory inputs, reactions and behaviour, and observe their interplay. It allows for intelligent and insightful decisions based on observation, and this helps in honing the buddhi (intellect). It makes one vigilant against disturbing thoughts, feelings and actions.

Application models for pratyāhāra

To facilitate a better understanding of the process and role of pratyāhāra, three models are described below:

  1. Children’s classroom model (Modi, 1997): The disorderly crowding of thoughts, emotions and images in the mind when one begins meditation can be compared to a class of mischievous children who have been asked to move out of the room in an orderly queue. Just as a class monitor tries to bring about order and organization in a classroom, pratyāhāra is an important preparatory step in the practice of meditation, to bring about order and organization in mental activities.
  2. Recess-time announcement model: This model proposes a comparison between the scattered romping of boys in the playground during recess time and the swarm of ideas, feelings, images, reactions and thoughts in the mind during meditation. In the case of schoolboys, if an important announcement has to be made, order needs to be restored; similarly, one needs to bring about order in the mind during meditation. To establish order in the playground, a special bell might be rung, the boys might be asked to stand in lines according to the classes they belong to or in increasing order of height; similarly, a step-by-step method needs to be followed to calm the mind.
  3. WRIDASM model for pratyāhāra: Pratyāhāra involves many psychological techniques, which can be represented by the acronym WRIDASM. The letters in the acronym stand for the following psychological processes:

W

Withdrawing the senses followed by witnessing of reflections.

R

Rallying and regulation of reflections.

I

Introverting attention and introspection of mental activity.

D

Detachment of senses from their objects and deconditioning of the mind.

A

Attempting abstraction.

S

Sensory control leading to internal seeing.

M

Manoeuvring and marshalling.

Popular techniques of pratyāhāra

In this section, seven popular techniques of pratyāhāra are outlined.

Upaniṣadic technique of pratyāhāra

The Kṣurikopaniṣad (6−10), one of the later Upaniṣads, prescribes that an aspirant of yoga should bring the senses under control and make his mind and prāṇa steady and strong (in the region of the heart) by using the thumb, aided by the little finger and the ring finger, and fixing their tips on the root of the thumb. He should then fix his eye and mind on the different sense organs and the limbs. Finally, the mind and the prāṇic (vital) force should be channelized to the suṣumnā nāḍi. (The suṣumnā nāḍi, iḍā nāḍi and piṅglā nāḍi are the three channels of prāṇic energy flow in the ‘subtle body’ as described in the yoga system, and are referred to as the central, left and right channels respectively.) One shifts one’s attention and fixes it in the great support of the heart, shining like a blood-red lotus of anāhata. Breaking through that lotus, the attention should reach the throat or viśuddhi. Then it should be fixed in the middle of the eyebrows on ājñā and finally in the sahasrāra at the top of the head (anāhata, viśuddhi, ājñā and sahasrāra are four of the seven cakras, the critical yogic points in the suṣumnā).

Yonimudrā

Yonimudrā is an important traditional haṭha-yogic technique, which forms a continuum with pratyāhāra. It starts with the ordinary consciousness but finally reaches a higher, transcendental state (Dhyānabindūpaniṣad, 86; Yoga-Cūḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad, 59). In the simpler form of yonimudrā, after assuming a meditative posture the eyes are closed by the index fingers pressing the eyeballs; similarly, the ears are closed by the thumbs and the nostrils are pressed by the middle fingers. The ring and little fingers are placed above and below the lips respectively. Yoga experts prescribe a varied degree of pressure on the respective parts of the face: pressure on the ears 100 per cent; pressure on the eyes 50 per cent; pressure on the nose 25 per cent; pressure above and below the lips 10 per cent.

For the purpose of pratyāhāra, yonimudrā as proposed by Yogendra (1997) involves strong imagery-building techniques. A beginner in the practice of yonimudrā is advised to concentrate on the area of the forehead and build images. The images consist of happenings in the sky, such as the scene of dawn followed by sunrise, the diffusion of sunbeams, the scene of sunset followed by the panorama of dusk, followed by twinkling stars scattered in the whole area of the forehead. The meditator then has to imagine the gradual rising of the moon followed by the gradually increasing and gentle darkness. Yonimudrā techniques range from those for beginners to those suited for advanced practitioners.

Yoga-nidrā

Certain references to yoga-nidrā can be found in the later Upaniṣadic literature (Śāṇḍilya- Upaniṣad, 1.17.1), but in modern times the technique of yoga-nidrā has been developed and propagated by Swami Satyanandaji (1976), the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, Munger. The term yoga-nidrā means yogic sleep. Although the technique of yoga-nidrā was developed by the Bihar School of Yoga, it contains a good amount of tāntric components and has hypnotic effects. Research pertaining to the medical efficacy and the physiological and psychological effects of yoga-nidrā has brought to light many positive findings, which have been reported in prestigious journals. The component of resolve (not to be confused with will-power) plays a significant role in yoga-nidrā. A wide range of techniques of yoga-nidrā have been developed to suit different needs, and it is very popular.

Vipāssanā

The Buddhist tradition uses the term vipāssanā. It is derived from the Sanskrit term ‘vipaśyana’, consisting of two terms ‘vi+paśyana’, which mean ‘special visioning’. The special feature of vipāssanā is profound concentration on different aspects of respiration, which leads to the regulation of subtle internal physiological and mental processes directly or indirectly associated with the process of respiration. The variations in respiration are linked with various affective states and related autonomic functioning. It is difficult to exercise control over one’s affective states and their related autonomic functioning, but it can be achieved, albeit indirectly, by conscious control over one’s breathing. This control over affective states and autonomic functioning, and consequently the ability to calm one’s mind, leads to a blissful state, followed by the attainment of higher stages of consciousness.

Prekṣā

The technique of prekṣā was propounded by Acharya Tulsi, a renowned Jain spiritual leader and social reformer, on the basis of ancient Jain literature, and has been further propagated by his disciple Acharya Mahaprajña. The term prekṣā means to observe and experience the internal psychic and vital functions in order to regulate them. Prekṣā is quite similar to the Western bio-feedback technique, the difference being that bio-feedback is carried out with the help of certain gadgets, while prekṣā is done with the help of individual consciousness and will-power. An effort is made to feel and observe internal physiological and biochemical changes and the faculty of resolve is used to regulate them. Jainism does not place much importance on rigorous breathing exercises. Like yonimudra, prekṣā also has a range of techniques for both beginners and advanced practitioners.

Śavāsana

Śavāsana is a classic Indian yogic technique prescribed for psycho-physiological relaxation. The word śavāsana is a combination of two words, śava and āsana, which means the dead-body posture. The description of śavāsana may be found in classical haṭhayoga literature with varied nomenclature (Haṭha Pradīpika, 1.32; Gheranda Saṃhitā, 2.4, 2.19), but is mainly depicted as śavāsana (corpse pose) or mṛtāsana (dead pose). The classical haṭhayoga literature does not provide detailed instructions on how to use this technique, which may be due to the fact that the instructions vary, depending upon the teacher and the requirement of the learner. The techniques of śavāsana have been developed by health scientists in contemporary times to address the problems of psychosomatic illness. A noteworthy three-stage clinical technique for śavāsana has been developed by Datey and Bhagat (1975) and Datey et al. (1969). The first stage of Datey’s technique is to lie down flat in a relaxed and comfortable posture. In the second stage, breathing should be unusually deep and long, and one should concentrate on the abdominal movements. In the third and last stage, Datey suggests concentrating on the coolness of inhalation and the warmth of exhalation. In this śavāsana technique, a relaxed posture is not sufficient. As the meaning of śavāsana is a dead body-like posture, one’s body should be, as far as possible, tensionless at the muscular level, passive at the vital (prāṇic) level, and relaxed at the mental level.

Figure 16.1. Kramika śavāsana (corpse pose)

Source: Tripathi, 1987

Another technique of śavāsana has been developed by Tripathi and Singh (1984) in the Manasa-Roga and Rasayana Clinic, I.M.S. Banaras Hindu University. In this technique, effort has been made to enhance the psychological efficacy of śavāsana. The technique has been developed in such a manner that it not only follows the traditional yogic criteria, but also incorporates the fruitful components of other techniques, so as to emerge as an effective, scientific relaxation technique. The description of this technique is given in Figure 16.1.

Three of the most important exercises are as follows:

Relaxation of prāṇic activity by simple contemplation on breathing

This technique helps to lower the rate of metabolism, calm the mind and promote ‘body-talk’ (awareness) to enhance the influence on internal activities.

Procedure: One should lie down in a relaxed manner, like a dead body that has no control over its limbs. After lying down comfortably in śavāsana, attention should be turned to the immediate environment. An effort should be made to decipher the tactile sensations, smells and sounds present in the immediate environment. The next step is to expand the circle of attention to the outward environment in all directions simultaneously. At first, the clear sounds originating from the most distant places should be attended to, followed by an attempt to attend to the minute sounds of the immediate environment. The next step is to move the attention inwards and observe the sensation of the breathing pattern. The breathing pattern should be observed in the following manner:

  • It should be kept in mind that the duration and amount of air inhaled and exhaled must be equal.
  • A soundless and effortless pattern of breathing is adopted, but the breathing is deep and prolonged.
  • The effects of inhalation and exhalation are observed, that is, the depth of inhalation is observed at the neck/throat region, at the umbilicus and below the navel. If possible, the pressure (intensity) of the exhalation is measured in centimeters outside the nostrils.
  • The physiological and psychological functions occurring during inhalation and exhalation are observed.
  • One inhalation followed by one exhalation completes one respiration cycle. It has been found that as the observation of respiration progresses, it becomes lighter, minute and subtle, till it becomes negligible.

Relaxation of mind by shifting the track of mental activities

This stage involves imagining the soul leaving the body. In this exercise, one visualizes the body lying on the ground. Then one visualizes the place around the body and shifts attention to the areas beyond the body. Then one has to imagine the soul gradually levitating and simultaneously expanding in size, which will finally lead to an expansion in the area of vision. One imagines and visualizes the sight of the city, then the outskirts of the city, thereafter the whole region, the whole state, the whole country, the subcontinent, the entire continent and finally, the entire earth. This experience leads to the emergence of a wider range of vision as the smaller one is replaced. Gradually, after the vision of the earth disappears, the soul is imagined to be ascending upwards and passing through the solar system, as well as through the galaxies. After spending some time in infinite space, the soul then begins to descend and everything appears again in their respective order in reverse. Passing through the galaxies and the planet systems, the soul reaches the earth and floats in the air as light as a dry leaf or a piece of cotton. Finally, the soul approaches the body and enters it.

Body-talk

After the above exercise, one experiences an added freshness and energy, and observes a consequent increase in the flow of blood to various parts of the body, starting at the toes and gradually ascending upwards through the heels, calf muscles, knees and thighs. Thereafter, one feels the same in the perineum, below the navel, as well as around the abdomen. Then the concentration moves to the centre of the chest, on to the neck and chin, followed by the lips, the tip of the nose and between the eyebrows. The blood flow then passes through the forehead, the apex of the head, and lastly to the hind part of the head, touching the ground. The same parts of the body are then attended to in descending order, starting from the head. While attending to the head, if thoughts, feelings, ideas and images swarm the mind, they are to be observed for a while. Then the focus of attention shifts to the point between the eyebrows, also referred to as the point of the third eye. A sparkling light is imagined to be shining at this point of focus. Then attention shifts to the eyes, where the reflections of light and colour are to be observed. At the nose, breath as well as smells are observed, at the mouth wetness and taste, at the throat the cool of the inner side of the neck, at the chest the palpitation of the heart and the movement of the lungs, at the stomach the movement of the gastro-intestinal system and the heat at the perineum. Lastly, attention passes through the thighs, knees, calf-muscles, ankles and toes. This leads to a feeling of freshness and energy in the body. This technique requires building strong visual imageries involving all five senses equally. One has to imagine oneself lying on a sloping grass field in a garden under a tree, or by the banks of a lake or pond in full yet gentle sunlight, with the wind gently blowing the fragrance of flowers and birds chirping all around. One then has to attend to all the clear sounds originating from a distance in the environment, followed by the minute sounds in the immediate environment, and only then the immediate sounds, touch and smells. Then attention is turned inwards, and breathing is observed. Finally, one has to open one’s eyes, look around for a while and then gently sit up, and before standing and resuming normal activity, the normal active phase is revived by sitting calmly for a minute.

It may be hard to believe that the imagination of death can bring about relaxation, yet the state of death and the experience that follows death are perceived in different cultures as relaxing. Greater relaxation can be achieved through the incorporation of these relaxing components into the instructions of śavāsana. The dead body essentially does not breathe. Thus, in the practice of śavāsana one has to concentrate upon the pattern of breathing until it becomes too minute to detect. This in turn induces silence in the mind. Although a dead person is in a state of thoughtlessness, it is difficult for most people to keep the living mind quiet because it is a human tendency to think. Instead of interrupting the natural process of thought, it can be allowed to continue on a tensionless path. It is for this purpose that the author uses instructions about imagining the soul leaving the body, travelling and then returning to the body; and the last set of instructions about imagining a pleasant place helps bring about feelings of freshness.

Introspection

The author proposes that this practice be followed before going to bed at night and after waking up in the morning. For this exercise, one either needs to lie down or sit in a cross-legged position in a calm state of mind. The mind is then left free for thoughts to swarm in, and after a considerable amount of time has been spent reflecting on these thoughts, attention should be focused on the routine of the day, beginning with waking up in the morning, the people with whom one interacted, what the interactions were about, the reactions the interactions elicited, etc., till the time one went to bed. Each detail of the day has to be recalled vividly, in a systematic and sequential manner. One then has to observe all the happenings of the day as a neutral observer, the positive and negative events have to be examined, accomplishments stored away, and the things remaining to be accomplished to be planned. After everything has been reviewed, the author suggests that the mind is to be left free for thoughts to come and go, and they have to be observed neutrally without trying to either suppress them or care about them, or feeling good or bad about them. These thoughts can be compared to the rising and falling of a wave. However, if a thought, desire, feeling or memory disturbs the mind, the body has to be loosened and 10 to 11 deep breaths taken. If, at night time, this leads to sleep, one should let sleep overcome oneself. If one wants to remember something or commit something to memory, it can be done before sleeping, and this committed or memorized idea will become rooted in behaviour.

Before practicing this in the morning, the author suggests that one should wash one’s face, hands and feet and be seated in a cross-legged position, keeping the back straight. Then the same method described above has to be followed, and plans for the day ahead can be made. Thereafter, one should let the mind relax for five to seven minutes. Finally, 20 to 30 deep breaths need to be taken, the respiration observed, and then one can begin with the daily routine. If at some point during this exercise one feels like noting salient points, that can also be done.

Pratyāhāra as a method of psychic modification and mental health

Elucidating the concept and methodology of pratyāhāra, the later Upaniṣads assert that just as the practice of āsanas alleviates minor aches and pains of the body, the practice of pratyāhāra helps in ridding oneself of mundane ills, afflictions and mental disorders (Yoga- Cūḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad, 109; Darśana Upaniṣad, 7.9). In the Yoga-Sūtra, Patañjali emphasized that practising pratyāhāra on a regular basis helps in attaining greater control over the senses. Control over the senses not only implies components of the external senses, but also a mastery over the internal senses, including the propioceptive, introspective and kinesthetic senses, and the sensory areas of the mind. All these lead to better control over the functioning of the organism, finally leading to control over the self. Certain traditional practices of pratyāhāra (Śāṇḍilyopaniṣad, Darśanopaniṣad and Kṣurikopaniṣad), including vipāssanā, provide an opportunity to change the style of thinking and feeling, from a stress-prone to a less stress-prone one. The process and instructions used for śavāsana, yoga-nidrā and prekṣā help the person to forget worldly worries and tensions. Instructions regarding concentration on the body are also included when attention is centred on different parts, from the toes to the head, and then back to the toes. This concentration yields a new energy to both the entire vital system and the body.

During the practice of pratyāhāra, when one sits calmly and detaches one’s senses from external objects, one conserves psychic energy, which would have been wasted through sensory interaction with the material world, and through a reactive attitude. It is believed that in order to conserve or revive psychic energy, one needs to isolate oneself and go into seclusion. Usually only the lower brain functions are active during external sensory involvement and continuous stimulation, and there is insufficient policing over the regulatory mechanism of the internal psycho-physiological and autonomic sympathetic nervous system. As the external sensory involvement and the resulting reactive tendencies calm down, it gradually brings forth the realization that the actual locus of control lies inside oneself, leading to a greater relaxation of the autonomic sympathetic nervous system. Gradually, with practice, one is able to establish better communication with the regulatory centres of the autonomic sympathetic activities in the brain. Consequently, one’s affective states settle down. It is evident that the stressful and hypersensitive contemporary life-style creates a number of emotional problems. One is always reacting to one’s environment and situations present around oneself. These emotions, if not observed in the right perspective, can lead to mental disorders or neurosis. Due to lack of time or lack of will, people tend to avoid this introspective technique to locate the causes of the problems, and the consequence is reactivity and the corresponding affective state. The eyes are closed during pratyāhāra to de-condition the mind from its usual sensory activities; they bring about a change in the style of thinking and emoting, and categorize mental reflections to regulate mental activity. This effort, by and large, calms the mind. When one isolates oneself for constant and deep reflection, one begins to organize one’s notions, emotions, reflections and reactions on one’s psychic screen; this not only decreases the complexity of the problems, but also reduces over-sensitivity and reactivity, which in turn encourages a healthier style of living.

The internal physiological functions can be regulated through the practice of āsanas and yogic breathing, and the regular practice of prekṣā and the ‘body-talk’ of śavāsana can regulate bio-chemical changes and endocrine secretions. Further, different yogic practices may offer individualized devices to overcome the fears, anxieties and stresses of day-to-day living. Through a sincere and regular practice of introspection, one is able to rearrange one’s priorities and needs and modify one’s behaviour accordingly. Thus, a composed state, which is considered a favourable environment, is created to resolve conflicts, and a way to manage these conflicts is actively sought. The five sheaths in the Tattirīyopaniṣad (described earlier) represent the psychotherapeutic process of pratyāhāra in all its depth. In the Tattirīyopaniṣad model, at the initial exterior corporeal stage, the practitioner undertakes an analysis of the dietary habits, waking and sleep patterns, and daily routine of the client in terms of proper and improper styles of functioning with the help of appropriate literature and instructed guidance. At the next stage, that is, at the inner vital level, the management of psychosomatic factors and the regulation of autonomic functioning take place through the practice of āsanas, prāṇāyāma and yogic relaxation. It should be kept in mind that certain aspects of pratyāhāra are always indirectly present in all practices of yoga, including āsana and prāṇāyāma; otherwise, their yogic effectiveness would be doubtful. If at this stage the problem still persists, one needs to probe into a deeper psychological level. Here, the connative complexity of behaviour is probed to bring about emotional catharsis, followed by the analysis and re-analysis of day-to-day reactions and reflections. Further, cognitive conflicts and complexes are detected and resolved, and problem management techniques formulated. This results in psychic emancipation, accompanied by feelings of relief and delight, which falls within the purview of the beatific level.

Concluding remarks

In general, all psychotherapy aims at the resolution of emotional suffering and promotion of well-being in clients. Thus pratyāhāra qualifies as a form of psychotherapy, as it attains these goals and takes the practitioner closer to the larger goal of self-realization. Our conclusion is in agreement with that of Fritjof Capra, who in his book, The Turning Point, (1981) notes that yoga resembles psychotherapy more closely than it does religion or philosophy.

Classical texts consulted

Yoga-Sūtra
Bhagavad-Gītā
Tattirīyopaniṣad
: Bhrigu Valli
Triśikhā-Brāhmaṇa Upaniṣad
Maṇḍala-Brāhmaṇa Upaniṣad
Yoga-Cūḍāmaṇi Upaniṣad

Darśanopaniṣad
Yoga-Tattva Upaniṣad
Tejobindūpaniṣad
Śāṇḍilya Upaniṣad
Kṣurikopaniṣad
Dhyānabindūpaniṣad
Haṭha Pradīpika
Gheranda Samhitā

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