What does yoga have to do with the senses? Well, quite a bit when you dive into yoga philosophy and the idea of yoga as a practice to quiet, still or focus the mind.
One of the commonly referenced texts on yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, from which comes the eight limbs of yoga. The third and fourth limbs of yoga are the most recognized in the West, these are the postures or Asana, and Pranayama or generally speaking the breath practices used to control energy (prana).
The fifth limb of yoga, Pratyahara, is the first of four limbs associated with meditation. Pratyahara is most commonly translated as the withdraw from the senses, and is a practice that can enable more and more stilling, focusing or quieting of the mind – we can practice Pratyahara in our day to day lives and during our yoga practice by being more aware of how we use our senses.
This practice can help you experience yoga as defined by Patanjali as the stilling of the mind-stuff – which may also translate to less stress, better sleep, more peace, and more joy – isn’t this what we all want?
Practice In Everyday Life
Let’s talk about everyday life first. Pause for a moment and think about everything you have taken in through your senses over the past 24 hours – everything you have seen, heard, tasted, smelled and touched. If you are like most modern folks it is a lot!
Now consider that everything you take in through your five senses is being processed by your mind and creating more and more mind-stuff that needs to be digested or processed. If the processing doesn’t happen right away, it may happen when you lay down to sleep and all the sudden you have a racing mind, in the middle of the night when you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep due to all the thoughts, in your dreams, or when you are trying to focus on something else like work, a conversation or your yoga practice and meditation.
What we can learn from Pratyahara is that everything we take in through our senses effects us in some way. The more you take in, the more you will need to digest. Just like paying attention to your food diet, you can also pay attention to your sensory diet. What are the things that are necessary and beneficial to take in, and where might you limit or reduce toxic or unhelpful sensory input? As you reduce the input you may find over time that you are able to find more stillness in your mind.
Let’s be honest though, it can be really hard to go from lots of sensory input to very little, so just like changing your diet if you want it to last and be sustainable it may be best to explore small changes over time.
If you have a TV on all the time, can you carve out some time when it is turned off?
Perhaps while driving spend some time without the radio turned on.
How do you take in your news? Do you hear the same news over and over through out the day? Might you reduce your news sources so you still know what is going on without feeling bombarded or overwhelmed?
Explore sitting outside or by a window and taking in only the sounds and sites of nature.
In Your Yoga Practice
This month and next month in most of the classes I am teaching we are exploring how to beneficially use your senses in practice and how also to withdraw from the senses and go more inward. Let’s explore each sense one by one with some thoughts on how the senses can be used beneficially and where they might be a distraction in practice.
Benefits – feeling grounded and supported by props and the earth, identifying how we are distributing the weight in our body, helping us to feel and activate various areas of the body, use of mala beads while practicing mantra meditation.
Practice limiting – irritating clothing, fidgety movements, any physical irritations in Savasana
Benefits – the eyes can help guide our neck into alignment, visual focus can greatly enhance balance, focusing the eyes can also help to maintain presence in practice, and you can see and adjust your own alignment.
Practice limiting – looking around, intensity in the eyes (practice soft gaze), looking at your watch/phone/clock etc.
Benefits – chanting and the Ujjayi breath (a breath practice where your breath is audible to you) are both ways of using sound to keep your mind present and are thought to have other benefits to the nervous system and the mind. Music may also be beneficial, although the effect can vary greatly person to person.
Practice limiting – sounds that put you on alert, such as notifications from your phone or email, and music that may take you out of the present and reduce awareness in your practice (for example songs that evoke a lot of memory).
Benefits – the practice of yoga can help us experience an enhanced sense of taste, one way this may happen is when our system is balanced there is a higher production of saliva, also through cultivating mindfulness we can be more present with what we are eating or drinking. Perhaps exploring eating mindfully after yoga practice without other distractions.
Practice limiting – eating immediately before practice, drinking anything other than water or a light tea during practice, or chewing gum during practice.
Benefits – natural smells, such as from essential oils or nature, may help you feel certain qualities (for example lavender can be calming, while mint can be invigorating) and may also assist you in staying present.
Practice limiting – use of artificial smells or smells that may distract you from your practice.
Lastly, the Sixth Sense
One of the very practical reasons for withdrawing from the senses is that when we limit the input from the external, the teachings of yoga suggest that then we are able to access our intuition – the ability to know things not from the external but from the internal.
Albert Einstein shared a similar perspective, saying that “the only real valuable thing is intuition” and “the intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why.”
So if you are searching for the answer to something, perhaps instead of taking in more, take in less, sit quietly and see what comes to you.