The Eight Limbs of Yoga–Part VII
Time for some more study of the Eight Limbs of Yoga! The Eight Limbs of Yoga come from the yoga sutras of Patanjali, and are a blueprint for how to live a life of contentment and compassion. In the last Limb by Limb entry, I delved into the 4th limb called Pranayama. This concluded the first 4 limbs, all of which deal with personal ethics, how to master your body and how to control your breath.
I have mentioned this before—there is a purposeful order in which Patanjali understood and wrote the 8 Limbs. According to him ,yoga is the science of the mind, so it is very important that each step, each limb, prepares you for what is coming next. Like any training you do for a sport or instrument, for example, there are things you must learn first so that you can build upon that knowledge and achieve success with what lies ahead. The limbs are training your mind to eventually reach a place of Enlightenment. It is a process—one that can take longer than a lifetime, but no matter how many limbs you master, each one improves your life in some way.
These next four limbs move away from ethics and the physical self and over to the mind. The 5th limb, which I will be elaborating upon today, is called Pratyahara. Pratyahara is the ability to control your senses and withdrawal from them. Just like Pranayama, Pratyahara is another way to control the mind. Again, this takes years of diligent practice. On their own, the senses are innocent but it is the mind that pollutes them. Temptations from the senses will always present themselves. You cannot turn off your senses; you can only learn how to control them.
This is why the goal of Pratyahara is to learn how to control your senses. While in your physical body, you cannot escape the world in which you live in. Your senses will always try to lead you to engage in momentary pleasures. But by learning how to control your senses, you begin to gain mastery over freeing yourself from your mind and your senses. By doing this, you are truly free. Nothing can bind you and you are not afraid of anything.
The senses distract the mind. When you smell fresh baked bread coming from the kitchen, your nose says that food is being prepared and you get excited. The eyes want to have a look and the tongue wants to taste. Everything outside of yourself becomes an endless cycle of the senses—one sense sends your mind correlating messages, which then leads to another sense sending yet another.
Because the senses are like a mirror, they reflect what they focus on. When you turn your senses to the outside world, your mind reflects the distractions and attractions your senses pick up on that surround you. When you turn your senses inward, however, your mind can only focus on the purity of itself. It is you, and you alone, who decides where to focus your mind.
It is not easy to control your mind or your senses. It is certainly not easy to completely withdrawal from your senses either. One way to refocus your senses, however, instead of abandoning them, is taught to us in the Bhagavad Gita.
Arjuna, who represents the individual self, is having a hard time understanding how to control his senses. He is unsure he can win the war with the senses that incessantly distract him. He asks Lord Krishna for help. Lord Krishna becomes Arjuna’s charioteer and like magic, Arjuna becomes more calm and devoted. The chariot’s white horses in the story represent the eyes, nose, tongue, ears and sense of feeling. These are the pancha indriyas, or five sensory organs. The sole purpose of these organs, according to the Hindu system, is to engage them in spiritual pursuits. When Arjuna learns this, he is able to control his senses. You, too, can focus your senses on faithfulness to your spirituality. You, too, can ease your mind from suffering and instead embrace your senses fully without the distractions of the outside world. Your senses will take the form of what you focus on. So, according to the Bhagavad Gita, turn your attention to your devotion for the Divine and your senses will follow.
As with all the limbs, Pratyahara is a rigorous practice and must be taken seriously. It is important to understand that it can take years to even come close to harnessing in the senses. Do not fret. Just continue to practice. Continue to use the tools Patanjali has given to you. With them, you can eventually control your senses and see beyond their interference. Then you can be free from outside distractions so that you are prepared for the next limb, Dharana, which asks you to free yourself from the distractions of the mind.