Click. Open the App. Click. Start.
Adjust the camera. Adjust the mat. Adjust the props.
Wait. Click. Admit. Click. Admit. Begin.
Speaker view is fun as scrolling becomes more captivating than the actual program. Gallery view starts with one clear image and ending with multiple small heads. But if you are one of those lucky ones to participate in a larger group you will end up talking to thirty five (or more), squares with or without heads.
Every profession is on display including the Svāmis and Yógis, whether the platform is Zoom or Google Meet. Screen time indulgence for both children and adults has been revolutionized. I-phone screen time discipline monitoring is a flop. WFH is the latest abbr. Masks are fad. Six feet is the exact distance from where you can throw a hug to your best friend.
If someone had told you this was going to be the new normal when you screamed happy new year (2020), you would have rolled your eyes and ROTFL.
Seriously. COVID 19 has left only disaster and anguish on its tirade through every part of the world. Sure, this too shall pass. In the meantime, there has been a rise in anxiety and depression because of being cooped up. We need to regroup, recuperate, and reopen to receive the new world we will be living in. We can certainly do that with the eight steps of Rāja Yóga.
You already know that practices of yóga are geared towards training you to go inward. Now that the outside world has new implications via the digital platform, turning inward has become a great challenge. The organs, that are making you ‘zoom’ outward have to be trained to help you turn inward in order to stay motivated and levelheaded. These organs are called the senses, indriyās, इन्द्रिया:.
Indriyas, Sense organs
In the simplest terms, your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin are the sense organs. The Indriyas are the organs with which we connect to the outside world – the world of material and shiny objects. They tend to have a bad reputation because we blame them to be the cause for our unbridled desires and temptations.
Our senses are the hooks we use to cling to the world. We are oblivious to the illusion the senses create and end up dwelling in their temptations. Every advertisement you see has ample power to make it a must-have on your list and can get you sprinting to the store. Today, you don’t need to get up except to get your wallet to fish out the credit card and click for the object to appear at your doorstep.
Remember, these sense organs can be our allies if we use them correctly; and they can, as easily, turn out to be our deadliest foes if we fail to use them properly. Yógis insist that it is crucial to know their nature, their functions and how they relate to you, your personality. Why? Because they can magnify our cravings, weaken our resolve and thrust us deeper into the tumultuous waters of addiction if we are not vigilant.
Yóga philosophy compares a human being to a building with ten doors (senses). Five are exit doors referred to as motor organs and five are entrance doors called the sense organs.
Karmédriyas (Five Exit Doors – Motor Organs)
Karma means action. Indriyas, senses are the means; also called the organs of action or a means of expression. Hence, they are the five exit doors.
- पाद Pāda – feet
- हस्त Hasta – hands
- वाक् Vāk – mouth
- पायु Pāyu – rectum/anus
- उपस्थ Upastha – genitals
Actions of these motor organs are locomotion, dexterity, speech, excretion and reproduction.
Jnānédriyas (Five Entrance Doors – Sense Organs)
Jnāna means knowing. Indriyas (Senses) are the means: also called five cognitive senses or organs of perception through which the knowledge is presented and collected. Hence, they are the five entrance doors.
- चक्षु Chakśu – eyes
- श्रोत्र Śrotra – ears
- घ्राण Grāhṇa – nose
- जिह्व Jihva – tongue
- त्वग् Tvak – skin
The essence of these Indriyas is called tattva – vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Consciously, actively and intentionally witnessing these ten senses as they function is an important part of all yóga practices. The senses are also discussed by Śri Krišṇa in the Bhagavad Gītā.
Sense Organs and the Mind
For instance, when you are day dreaming, your mind has taken you across thousands of miles to your last vacation. Recollecting the memory of a wondrous sunrise yógāsana on the sand or a lazy afternoon with your favorite book – you smile with pleasure and wish you were there now. Where are you reliving these experiences – through your sense organs or the mind?
By themselves the indriyās are just physical organs. They need the mind, your attention within the organ for them to be useful. Svāmi Śivānanda says the mind and the senses are one; the senses being just an extension of the mind. Just as the sea is fed by the rivers and cannot exist without the rivers, the mind is fed by the senses and cannot exist without the senses.
The mind when associated with the eyes makes the eyes capable of perceiving external objects. Behind every sense perception there is the principle of cognition; hearing is not a mechanical function, it is a function of cognition. The eyes can only see, ears can only hear, the tongue can only taste, skin can only touch and the nose can only smell. But the mind is the common sensory aspect to all because it can see, hear, taste, feel and smell – independent of the senses. In the Gīta, the mind is termed as the sixth sense (15.7). (Svāmi Satprākāśānanda)
What is significant here is that the mind and the senses are very important factors of human personality because all our knowledge depends on them. All sensations and the knowledge gained through them are possible only when the object you perceive impinges on your senses. Each of the five organs of perception is responsible for a particular kind of knowledge from the external world. The mind, however, being common to all sense organs, is responsible for all kinds of knowledge. (Svāmi Satprākāśānanda)
For example, your eyes may see a person but you may not hear him, even though your hearing organ, the ears may be in good operating condition. Most people call this “absentmindedness”, i.e. the mind was absent, not ‘present’ within the organ of hearing. Your attention was elsewhere and hence you could not hear the person.
Here is a popular mindfulness practice called the Five Senses Exercise you can do to get to know your sense organs. The idea is to use your five senses to focus on your environment to observe how your senses operate and how your patterned thoughts emerge in an attempt to slow down.
Five Senses Exercise
Set aside some time (15-30 minutes) in your day to do this exercise. Spend a few minutes in each step before you proceed to the next one.
- First, notice 5 things that you can see. Take your time as you look around and become aware of your environment. Pick out something that you don’t usually notice. Then, notice things that you normally see and your mind’s habituated response to it.
- Second, notice 4 things you can feel. Bring attention to the things that you’re currently feeling, like the texture of your clothing and your seat or the smooth surface of the table you’re resting your hands on, the pen you are holding or the keys that your typing on.
- Third, notice 3 things that you can hear. Listen for and notice things in the background that you don’t normally notice. It could be the birds chirping outside or an appliance humming in the next room. Then, listen for the things that you usually hear and your habituated response to it like your neighbor running the lawnmower or your children yelling when you are trying to concentrate.
- Fourth, notice 2 things you can smell. Bring attention to scents that you usually filter out, either pleasant or unpleasant. Catch a whiff of the pine trees outside or food cooking in the kitchen and notice your reaction to them.
- Finally, notice 1 thing you can taste. Take a sip of a drink, chew gum, or notice the current taste in your mouth.
You can follow this up with Śunmukhi Mudra practice to redirect the senses and calm the mind. Click on the link below to find the steps to practice this mudra.
Training the Senses
The preliminaries steps (as in the above exercises) to understand what watching your thoughts means, to discover the presence of your habituated patterns of thought, and how to intervene before a thought becomes an action or speech is in itself a deep study.
When we stimulate the senses unduly, vitality flows out through them like water from a leaky pail, leaving us drained physically, emotionally and spiritually. Those who indulge themselves in sense stimulation throughout their lives often end up exhausted, with enfeebled will and little capacity to love others. But when we train the senses we conserve our vital energy, the very stuff of life. Patient and secure within we do not have to look to externals for satisfaction. No matter what happens outside – whether events are for or against us, however people behave towards us, whether we get what pleases us or do not – we are in no way dependent. (Eaśvaran)
Many teachers ask, ‘without laying down the groundwork how do you expect to succeed?’ Paramahamsa Yógānanda translates a verse in the Gītā (2.60) – “the eager, excitable senses forcibly seize the consciousness even of one who has a high degree of enlightenment, and who is striving for liberation” – as a warning to a smug devotee who is unaware that temptation is lurking below the surface or merely dormant, waiting for the right opportunity to show itself. Where does that leave neophytes like us?
When the senses are trained, they will participate harmoniously in the supreme stilling of the mind. As we interact with people, as we work and play, we of course need to send our senses out a bit. But in deep meditation they will obediently return (after diligent practice), as good servants should when the master or mistress – the soul – is entertaining a special guest – the Beloved Spirit. (Eaśvaran)
Here are a ten ways to train the indriyās, senses as recommended by Svami Śivānanda, Svāmi Vivekānanda and Paramahamsa Yógānanda. Each of these warrants learning and deep study from an experienced teacher or Guru to understand and apply them to daily practice.
- चित्त-अवलोकनम् Chitta Avalokanam: Observe the mind run about like a monkey; notice the changes each day as the mind oscillates between restlessness and quietness
- विचार, Vichāra: Enquiry and मननम्, Mananam – Introspection
- दृढनिश्चय, Drdhaniśchaya: Willpower to put in the right effort, Tapas
- दम, Dama or यम, Yama: Restraints (1st Limb of Rāja Yóga)
- प्रत्याहार, Pratyāhāra: Withdrawing /training the senses (5th Limb of Rāja Yóga)
- उजायी प्राणायाम, Ujjāyi Prāṇāyāma: Victory or Ocean Breathing with Só-Hum meditation
- कम्भक, Kumbhaka: Retention and Suspension in Prāṇāyāma (4th Limb of Rāja Yóga)
- वैराग्य, Vairāgya: Non-attachment
- त्याग, Tyāga: Renunciation
- षण्मुखी मुद्रा – Śunmukhi Mudra – Six Faced Seal
Where can we begin? With the Five Senses Exercise and Śunmukhi Mudra.
You can also observe your senses when you are watching a movie or using any of the digital platforms to notice your habituated patterns of operation. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself.
- Do you always need popcorn or coke when you watch movies? Are you checking your phone at the same time?
- What ‘Zoom Sense’ are you operating on? What part of Zoom is entertaining you? Scrolling or Gallery view? Do you always opt to take control to admit people so you know who attended and who did not? (unless you are assigned)
- Are you able to keep your hands and body still while listening to someone speaking?
- Do you get easily distracted?
See if you can come up with other such questions and, if you are willing, share them through the comments section so we can all use them in our introspection.
In any case, for the next few months get ready to take extra care of your senses as you continue to work, help your children with their schoolwork, socialize with family and friends – all virtual of course; and follow the 2020 presidential campaign (cast your much needed vote) by being mindful and using the exercises provided to calm the senses and preserve your sanity.
Satprakāśananda, Svāmi. 2000. Mind; According to Védānta. Complied and Edited by Ray Ellis. Śri Ramakrishna Math, Printing Press, Mylāpore, Chennai, India.
Eaśvaran, Éknāth. 1978. 3rd Edition 2012. Passage Meditation. Nilgiri Press, Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. Tomales, CA.
Yógānanda, Paramahamsa. 1995. 2nd Edition 1999. God Talks With Arjuna. International Publications of Self-Realization Fellowship, Encinitas, CA
Vivèkānanda, Svāmi. 1956. 2nd Edition 1982. Rāja Yóga. Rāmakrišna-Vivèkānanda Center of New York, NY.