Our senses play an important role in yoga, but in a different way than you might think. Instead of searching for information from the outside world, in yoga, we strive to turn our senses inward, even when we are doing active, vigorous poses. It’s one of the ways that yoga is different from traditional exercise.
From Outward to Inward
Most of the time, we need to know what is going on around us. Our senses help us navigate, serving as a connection between our brains and our environment. When it’s time for yoga, however, we need to dial down the sensory input we are receiving. There is little of it that we need for our practice of yoga poses. We are better served by keeping our awareness within the boundaries of our body.
Softening the Senses
How do we go about moving deeper within while practicing a yoga pose? A first step is to soften the organs of perception. They are usually on high alert, particularly when the body is moving.
Start by softening your eyes. Let them recede, using less effort to focus or stare. Relax around the mouth, making sure the tongue is not pressed into the roof of your mouth. It is also possible to relax and release around the nose and the ears. The skin should feel as if it is draped over the body, not tight or hard. It is the muscular body that presses outward toward the skin, not the opposite. In short, the senses should be in a receptive mode rather than a seeking mode.
Some of these actions may sound like those we use during savasana, corpse pose. If the mind can remain quiet, but attentive - like in savasana - during the practice of active yoga poses, then the effects of yoga will arrive much faster. The poses become more effortless, and both the body and mind move deeper.
We should know that the eight limbs of yoga do not operate independently of each other. Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, is withdrawal of the senses. It is necessary for the higher limbs of yoga, concentration and meditation, but it is also helpful for both asana and pranayama - yoga poses and regulation of the breath. Pratyahara serves as a way to bring us toward a meditative state while practicing yoga.
Try working with the sensory organs to see how they affect your yoga practice. Normally, our senses serve as a connection to the outside world, a bridge from outside to inside. When we practice yoga with pratyahara, softening the senses so they recede, we pivot that bridge around. It then takes us from the inside mind to the deeper layers of the self.