As I meditate, I am occasionally distracted by sounds or vibrations. These things happen outside of my body and are picked up by my senses. My senses then draw my mind outward, seeking understanding of what is going on around me. As I deepen my practice it is important to become aware of my senses and their tendency to draw my mind outward. Eventually they will come under control. This is the 5th limb of Patanjali's yoga: Sensory Control or Pratyahara. Without this control, mental concentration and meditation are impossible as they are constantly interrupted by distraction.
The very beginnings of Pratyahara can be done while practicing Postures (asana). You may notice that your eyes often wander around the room, moving quickly from one object to another. The first step of Sensory Control is to hold the eyes still in a Drishti gaze, which is simply focusing the eyes for awhile without moving them. You will notice both how difficult this can be and how quickly it quiets the mind.
Each of the senses draws the mind outward in a slightly different way and therefore has a slightly different technique for its control. These practices have become an obsession for me lately, and I can feel my mind gradually turning inward. Mental Concentration and Meditation follow logically from this place!
I will be leading a workshop about Sensory Control (Pratyahara) at Inner Fire Yoga on July 30.
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.
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