Lately I have become occupied with the concept of Pratyahara or withdrawal of sensory focus. It is the 5th limb of yoga according to Patanjali. He gives it its own limb, yet I rarely hear anyone speak of it or teach it. Whenever I ask fellow yogis about it, they often say something to the effect of "turn your attention inward." This is not enough for me.
Near the end of the Katha Upanishad is the first clear definition of yoga that we have. It describes yoga as the stilling of the senses.
The chariot metaphor we have all come to quote so often - that equates yoga with reigning in the horses that are drawn toward environmental stimuli - is a description of sensory control (the horses are our senses).
The first several historical instances I have studied, including the Katha Upanishad, the Yoga Vasishta and even the Bhagavad Gita, define yoga as the control of the senses to still the mind. These predate Patanjali's Yogasutras, where he includes 3 higher limbs.
Right now I am toiling under the belief that Pratyahara is the first element of the union that is yoga. I don't doubt that there are higher states to pursue, but for now I am researching, studying and practicing sensory control.
ps. As I understand it, food is a sensory object. A yogi must control his cravings for food the same way he controls his cravings for visual distraction.
The Yoga Yajnavalkya states that "A monk may have eight mouthfuls of food daily; those in retirement, sixteen mouthfuls; a householder, thirty two; and students as much as they wish."
The other day I ate at Qdoba. I got a bowl with rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. I counted my mouthfuls as I ate. After 20 mouthfuls I lost interest in eating any more. I had eaten about half of the bowl.
Have you ever counted your mouthfuls?
I have become acutely aware of my relationship to food. I often put edible things in my mouth out of boredom or tiredness. It distracts my mind and brings all my attention to my senses and my belly. I am comforted.
As I read more old yoga texts I am struck by how often they refer to restraint and austerity as vital to the path. Some even say that restraining food intake is of the highest importance. They are of course not talking about yoga in the modern, western, health and fitness way, but in a mental and spiritual way.
Regardless, it is illuminating to note how powerful is the attachment to food, eating and the sensations of eating. If we aspire to things like mastery over the senses (Pratyahara), we must come face to face with our attachment to food.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga