In the first four limbs of Raja “Royal” Yoga, we explored the preliminary practices that were developed in ancient India to prepare the body-mind vessel to receive the powerful energies of awakened Consciousness. Patanjali was clear; these first four limbs are designed to cultivate a vibrant, refined, and purified nervous system that can withstand the long hours of meditative absorption that the last four limbs facilitate. The practice of meditation is the vehicle to enlightenment in the yogic tradition, systematically and carefully crafted to tune the mind toward the deep spaciousness behind thought, bringing ego to a zero-point of stillness and releasing Awareness from its illusory identity to the mind-stuff posturing as a personal self.
In our normal everyday waking life, that which is aware within us is continually drawn toward the sensory impressions derived by our five senses. What we call our material world is the product of our organs of perception, habitually organizing the sense data to produce the life we live.
That which is aware, conscious, and present within us becomes entangled with these sense perceptions, thus identifying and therefore localizing in the particular space-time location facilitated by the perceiving organism.
Prana or Life Force Energy
This conscious energy, otherwise known as prana or life-force, when focused outwardly toward the world allows our full participation on the stage of life. Yet this ongoing involvement continually distracts awareness form its self-knowing, obfuscating its deeply hidden powers and potentials. The constantly refreshing images of the world consistently distract awareness from its inherent freedom, pulling its vast nature into the limitations imposed by the sensory-motor world.
Of course, this allows us to live in the world with all its joys and sorrows, but in moments of stillness we are called toward a deeper ideal. Something within us of immense potential whispers to us in moments of inspiration, or in moments of deep suffering, gently calling us toward an ancient inner journey of awakening.
The yogi or yogini is someone who answers this call, creating the vibrant environment in body-mind so that it may be quietly transcended in the final Self-actualizing flash.
Asana and Pranayama
Asana liberates the energy that gets stuck in habitual behavioral-perceptual patterns. Pranayama gives us techniques to mobilize, stabilize, and harmonize said energy. With pratyahara, the fifth limb on the royal road to awakening, we learn to direct the energy inward so as to gradually uncover the full radiance of our deepest Self. We shed layer after layer of mind as attention is continually redirected to the depths within, eventually piercing through the restless surface to discover the pristine stillness of pure awareness.
Pratyahara means withdrawal, and is a systematic set of practices that gathers the forces of the mind normally engaged in worldly affairs. The practitioner learns to withdraw, collect, and extricate the life-force from its involvement with the senses so that it may be directed toward an inner central focal point. This is the first step in deep meditation practice.
One sits in their preferred meditative posture and trains awareness to extricate and dis-attach it-Self from the sensory world of matter, thereby freeing up conscious energy otherwise used to experience the external world. By freeing up conscious energy, inner vistas open as one learns to observe and witness the contours of deep mind.
Yoga teaches that the material realm of the senses is but one plane in an otherwise multi-dimensional cosmos. Called the gross realm, physical reality posses strict limits and boundaries on the subtler aspects of being, ultimately leading to the suffering and alienation that haunts our modern world.
With pratyahara we learn to tune awareness to the subtler dimensions of mind, ultimately unveiling vast internal realms of consciousness that lead to nothing less than a confrontation with our true Self. Who are we behind our thoughts, our identities, our personas, our constructs? Pratyahara is the first step on this wondrous journey of awakening.
As explored in the previous limb of pranayama, breath is the central vehicle that the practitioner uses to assist in this “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness.” Breath awareness allows us to stabilize the agitated mind so that it may be gently guided inwardly over and over again.
We train to witness internal states as we redirect attention to the inner terrains of being. We come back in on the inhale, we clear the field on the exhale; return on the in, release on the out.
Going Deep Within to Source
Even though thought and emotion may seem as “the within,” yoga teaches that they are merely ripples on the surface of a subtle dimension of Being that spans oceanic depths. Deepening levels of subtle spiritual energy unfold and open as one encounters an expanding horizon of sentient energy. An inner cosmos is revealed, as one begins to peer into the Infinite itself; vast and open, boundless and free.
A familiar silent spaciousness is touched where all is resolved, whole and fulfilled, at rest in the Divine embrace of the eternal One. We return home, where we are loved, and where we are healed. This is the fulfillment of the yogic path; the final samadhi of awakening to the indwelling Light.
This, of course, is not easy as we wrestle with the grind of daily life. Most of us don’t have the luxury of living in a monastic setting solely dedicated to the spiritual pursuit. Therefore our minds are restless, distracted, and wild, pulled and pushed by endless webs of desire. Pratyahara is the first step in meditation practice that initiates the taming of the mind, training it to come back to the center within, over and over again.
Once attention stabilizes in its inward gaze, the next limb on our eight-limbed journey toward Self-actualization is applied. Slowly we learn how to access our innermost potentials, with the promise of revealing the truth of Who and What we ultimately are.
Eugene A. Alliende has been practicing meditation and yoga for twenty years and facilitates weekly meditation groups and classes at his healing center. His passion is the exploration of consciousness, and how a deeper understanding of our true nature can help heal the individual and the world. Read his book Dimensions of Being here