Yoga and the senses

Most Yoga practitioners are familiar with Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga that, if practiced sincerely, disciplined, and with the right support, will lead us to the liberation of our conditioned mind and thus the realization of who we really are: ‘love, freedom and bliss’ (Prasad Rangnekar 2011)

One of the so-called ‘eight limbs of Yoga is pratyahara or control of the senses.

Withdrawing the senses, the mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer is pratyahara.” Yoga Sutras of Patanjali book II, sutra 54.

The goal is to get in touch with that part of ourselves that is beyond our body and mind and the means to achieve this goal is to calm down the mind. Therefore, an important part of our practice towards controlling the mind is the control of the senses.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that we have five senses of perception or jñānendriya: the ears, nose, tongue, eyes and skin; and five organs of action or karmendriya: legs, arms, mouth (for speech), genitalia and anus. It is through the senses and the mind that we experience and take part in the world. We are however warned that what the senses bring to our mind is impermanent and we, therefore, have to learn to seek stability within ourselves.

“[…]the contact between the senses and the sense objects gives rise to fleeting perceptions of happiness and distress. These are non-permanent and come and go like winter and summer seasons […] one must learn to tolerate (endure) them without being disturbed.” Bhagavad Gitra Ch. 2 v.14

If we seek happiness in the outer world, we tend to get attached to the pleasures that the senses bring because these pleasures are short lasting. This kind of attachment is easy to see in our actions and in our mind. I can observe myself thinking about getting home, opening the cookie box and eating a cookie. I can observe myself daydreaming about the cookie. Maybe, the thought of eating that cookie is what helps me get through the day, and what is wrong with that? Nothing is wrong with enjoying a treat after a long day at work. The problem is when my welbeing depends on that treat or any other treat. Here are three main reasons I see why it can be a problem:

  1. The pleasure of eating a cookie lasts for just a short moment which can lead to either overindulging because I want to extend the moment or me seeking the next sensory stimulation to continue feeling ‘good’/’happy’.
  2. My happiness is dependent on something exterior to me but what if I get home and the cookie box is empty? I will then find myself with an unmet expectation. What will my reaction be? How will that make me feel?
  3. All the time and mental energy spent in thinking about the cookie distracts my mind and does not allow me to be present in the moment. It becomes nothing more than a distraction.

“While contemplating on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them. Attachment leads to desire and from desire arises anger.” Bhagavad Gita, Ch2 v.62

Pratyahara in the context of meditation is when we sit down with ourselves in our daily practice and start by “turning off” our senses to bring the attention inwards. We aim to let go of the need to register and identify sounds, let go of getting caught up in specific smells and for most of us it is easier to close our eyes to avoid getting distracted by our sight. But the senses don’t necessarily stop when we avoid using them. Thoughts continue to fly in our head, and if we haven’t been practicing non-attachment in our daily life, it is when we sit in silence that all these sensory attachments can become stronger. They way we live our daily life affects our practice and in return, our practice affects our daily life.

Throughout the years I have been studying Yoga, I have come to observe other ways I overindulge my senses that I wasn’t aware of like for example when I sometimes want to know certain things that are unnecessary for me to know. I have sometimes catched myself wondering if so and so has said this or done that just to stop and ask myself, why do I need to know this? Gossip is maybe the right word here. How would my life improve if I know more details about other people’s lives that do not have any direct effect in my own life? It’s just a way to ocupy my mind really. Or how about reading and listening to the news? I think that as a mum and a teacher, I should stay updated about what is happening in the world, but to what degree? How much is too much? How much is necessary and how much is just overinduging?

What I like about Yoga is that it is never dogmatic. We are encouraged to take part in life and enjoy it, but we are warned of getting attached to the external world because as mentionned above it only feeds into the limited idea we have of who we are and most importantly, everything in the exterior world is transcient so we doom ourselves to a life of Sisyphus.

“That person who gives up all material desires and lives free from a sense of greed, proprietorship (I and mine) and egoism, attains peace.” Bhagavad Gita ch2 v71

By controling our senses, we filter what we allow into our mind and by doing this we gradually regulate our reactios to the external world. It is all cyclic. Less sensory innput helps create more inner silence in the long run which allows us to access our inner peace, this in turn results in less seeking of sensory stimuli which leads to a quietter mind. It is not simple, it requires courage, perseverance and a lot of practie. The inner void before the inner peace can be quite scary.

On purpose

It’s Spring break, and we have now time to do things we usually don’t prioritize like renting a car to go plant shopping and on the way back home visit a dairy farm to buy some fresh milk for my very first attempt to make milk kefir.

I was especially excited about the dairy farm. It has a small self-service shop where they have a fridge with milk and other dairy products and they trust people to grab and pay for their products without the need of an expeditor. In the same little shop, there is a big window where one can take a peek into the cows’ stall barn. I don’t know what I expected to see, but what I saw made me sad. Don’t misunderstand me, this farm is known for being clean and taking “good care” of their animals, and I guess that compared to many other farms, this one holds a very good standard for the cows, but still. The place is gray, with little sunlight and not much space for every single cow. I read on their website that they have robotized machines that milk the cows, and we did see some cows standing in line, so I guess they go to the machine when they feel the need. From what I know, some farms have the opportunity to let their cows be outdoors during the summer, but the rest of the year, especially when it is very cold outside, they stay in the stall barn. One would then argue that this is good for the cows since they would otherwise freeze to death, but this also means that these animals do not belong to this climate in the first place.

What made me most sad is to think that these cows spend all their time in this gray space without going out for a long part of the year. That their life’s purpose is to produce milk for us human beings. Imagine, being born to be used pretty much as an object! And I know very well how the cows keep producing milk, what it means for them and their calves.

Two things have been flying in my mind since then:

  1. What gives us the right to decide over the lives of other living beings just because we can?
  2. Is it wrong to make another living being’s life purpose into what we want?

I keep thinking about the concept of ‘swadharma’ or one’s purpose in life. Can we say that the purpose of a dairy cow is to produce milk and be content with that idea? Or can we challenge it because it is something we have created for our own benefit?

We humans like to believe that we get to choose what kind of life we want to live, but do we really? I sometimes believe we are equally slaves to the systems we have created as the poor dairy cows. No matter how freely we try to live, society dictates many aspects of our way of living. Many people are stuck in gray structures without seeing much sunlight either. Is that their “purpose” also?

Maybe there is no purpose to any living being per se and it is us who create this idea of purpose, but at any rate, I would argue that applying the principle of no-harm or ahimsa can never fail, and I see how the food industry has pushed us into often unknowingly be part of a system that does not respect life.

My husband took the huge step of becoming vegan this year, I try to follow most of the time, but I think it is ‘too complicated’ not to eat dairy products or eggs… I might have to rethink this statement in the near future.

Through our window

The four seasons unfold
and through the years
We've become fond
of people and animals
passing by
There's the elder man
we like to call
the sporty one
Spring to Winter
rushig by
Skiis in hand
or just a full backpack
Always smiling
Oblivious of our eyes
The big black dog and his cat
Some weeks
we see them daily
With the friendly lady
The dog leads the way
The cat follows with his happy tail up
Moustache the cat
Pops by from time to time
all the way up
Kvesla's ladder
There is Melis the cat
who we all find spooky
Not to forget the elder smoking lady
with ther fluffy pooch
And on very lucky nights
we hear the deer 
munchig over our garden plants
Carefully we lift the courtain
and get a glimpse before they
run away

Simple y sin embargo så vanskelig

Tidlig på morgen
Fra radioen kommer
forferdelige skildringer
Sur mon vélo
vers le travail
les mêmes mots sont dis:
"on est choqué mais pas surpris"
Y yo me pregunto
¿cómo es posible?
Easy to believe that I am different
I wouldn't be capable of doing such atrocities 
Dessverre har historien visst oss
at jeg tar feil
On dit qu'on a le cadeau
de pouvoir penser et réflechir
mais á quoi ça nous mène?
Más rápido, más fuerte, más eficaz
Persiguiendo espejismos
I too am in stand to act
in fear, in anger, in ignorance
Kanskje er det på tide 
å ta meg sammen
Et laisser la graine
de la paix pousser en moi
Y prometerme a mi misma
de no dejar mis miedos, la cólera ni el estrés
guide my actions.
Wake up, merde!

No body like you

It hasn’t always been easy
Between you and I
At times, I have loathed you
Dissatisfied with your looks
Too short
Too small breasts
Too fat thighs
Curls when what I wanted
was straight hair
As I grow older however
I have learned to take better care of you
To know what makes you stronger
What helps you thrive
So I make better choices for you
Because you have carried me all my life
And I am over and over amazed
By what you are capable of
Your resilience
Your ability to adapt
To heal
I am sorry for all the times
I stood in front of the mirror
With a critical eye