Yoga Sutra Conversations I.35: "By regular inquiry into the role of the senses we can reduce mental distortions."

What is the relationship between our senses and our minds? Whether this is a bottom up or top down system differentiates millenia of philosophers. One thing is for sure, though, the more we take in, the more we must digest, and the excess becomes mental fat. The “vrttis” – vacillations – aren’t of themselves mental fat, but any unprocessed intake gets stored – whether its Twinkies (do they still make those any more?) or Desperate Housewives, cross words or imaginary what-ifs we call “worry.”

Sensation – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – the information we bring in from our embodied existence, makes up our being & life as much as the greens in our salad or the tofu on our forks. By using time on the mat to simplify and observe our sensations, we get to know ourselves better. We can recognize patterns in how we relate to this information, and even the systems we use to buffer it.

One key when observing the role of the senses in my life is to note the double edged sword that is recursive consciousness. Recursive consciousness is this ability we have to have “second order mental events.” Mental events can be thoughts, ideas, concepts, feelings, emotions, whole stories even, or just attitudes towards first order senses, thoughts, emotions. Our ability to be aware of the fact that we are aware of something is precisely what gives us the option to be present. It’s also what gives us the option to “space out” or worry or plan or… do whatever we do that is not being present.

We can event have eleventh order thoughts! Thoughts about thoughts about feelings about what-ifs about imaginations about …. you get the idea. The point where the thought or feeling has grabbed you by the intestines and you’re off to the story-telling races with the what-ifs and not-that!’s, that’s the stickiness that I’ve learned from listening to Pema Chodron is called shenpa. My husband & I love this word: it’s so economical. Rather than getting caught up in the stories when one asks the other “what’s up?” or “where you at?”, we just say, “oh! I was having some shenpa!” It’s fantastic to break up the story and bring us back to the present.

What does this have to do with the role of the senses? One of the ways you can break shenpa – or unconsciously having thoughts about thoughts about… also called “living in your head” – is to come to the nitty gritty of our senses. What am I feeling right now? Seeing? Smelling? Hearing? Tasting? Feeling?

You may have heard the word “Pratyahara” in yoga class at some point. Pratyahara – or sense-withdrawal – is one of the eight limbs, or components, of yoga . Sometimes the best way to investigate is to simplify. Short of a sensory deprivation tank – which is way cool if you ever have the chance – intentional withdrawal from sensation can be a great way to investigate how we relate to sensations. There are many ways to go about this, from simply turning off the TV or radio, to going to a quiet place like the woods or a chapel or a yoga room, to more specific withdrawals. Brahmari Pranayam is one way of experiencing pratyhara: you fill your consciousness with the vibration of your own breathing even as you close off your years, eyes, mouth and to some extent your nose. Meditation after Brahmari, or Bumble Bee Breath, can increase your sense of clarity.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Sri Swami Sachidananda’s Commentary, because I think it’s sweet and true:

“One example is to concentrate on the tip of the nose. Do not strain or you will cause a headache. Do not actually stare at the nose; it’s as if you are looking at it. Keep the mind on that. If the mind is really one-pointed, after some time you will experience an extraordinary smell. You may even look around to see if there is any flower or perfume nearby. If that experience comes, it is a proof that you have made the mind one-pointed. It will give you confidence. But in itself, it will not help you to reach the goal. It’s just a test, that’s all. Don’t make concentrating on the nose and getting nice smells your goal.”  ~SriSwami Satchidananda, Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Restorative Practice

Restorative Yoga is Bramacharya at work: preservation of life force. Bramacharya is one of the yogic values expressed in the eight limbed path.

The difference between restorative & any other style of yoga is both intensity of effort and duration in poses. Rather than working with muscular opposition, hugging in, radiating out, spirals, loops, etc you create a space for your body to melt into the pose. The time spent in both preparation and melting can more greatly emphasize the already meditative possibilities in asana practice. It’s useful to warm the body up to the practice with chandra namaskar – moon salutaions. There’s a jpeg of Chandra Namaskar from a year or so ago below.  http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/7026/3210/1600/Moon%20Salutations.jpg

Even more than usual, its helpful to work near your minimum edge  when entering intentionally restorative asana. Rather than finding the maximum opening of the hip or shoulder joint and supporting it there, find the very first place you feel what might be tension. Let it resolve before moving deeper with breath and intent. Do this until you find a spot with a little more edge than that first, and support the body at that edge, allowing the opening to happen gradually and enjoying the support you’ve created for yourself.

As always, your breath is crucial – smoothness is key here. Notice all parts of your torso, as their expansion in every direction (not just forward) is part of drawing the breath fully into your lungs as well as emptying. Notice the pauses between breathing in & breathing out, rest in the fullness and release respectively.

Some poses I’m looking forward to after a bit of reflective reading, sutra chanting  and warming movement are side lying over bolsters, twists over bolsters, wide legged forward bend, supported balasana (child’s pose), janu sirsasana, supported reclining virasana, shoulderstand, supta baddha konasana (reclining cobblers pose w/ feet together, torso draped back over nice, plump bolster) and vitparita karani – legs up the wall.  Ahhhhhhh…

Do you ever indulge in the gift of restorative asana?  My ideal is to  have at least one practice a week like this. What are your experiences with staying in supported poses for extended periods of time?

Pratyahara

Tonight’s class we worked on movement with breath and turning the senses inward to how our body feels inside out… the only way that matters.

Bumble Bee Breath (Brahmari) is a meditative breathing practice to help us focus on sense withdrawal. Once our senses aren’t connected to outside stimulation we have a much better chance of witnessing truthfully our inner world and treating it with kindness (satya & ahimsa).

We focused on spinal mobility, opening and closing with front-opening spinal stretches. These are heart openers and help to elevate our moods as well as ease breathing.

I am honored by your presence and would also welcome your comments on what worked, what didn’t and how you felt after tonight’s class.

May your week bring you experimentation, observation and joy at whatever your findings may bring. Here’s to living “like a lion, completely free of all fear.” Namaste. cb