Can our sense organs be used as a tool for removing suffering, controlling the mind and attaining inner peace? The ancient yogis say yes. They perceived the indriyas, the ten senses, like ten windows in a house. If the windows of your home randomly opened and closed you would be subject to constant fluctuations of temperature, insects, air quality, noise, light, etc. This would be annoying, distracting, uncomfortable and certainly not conducive to mental or physical health—let alone inner peace and happiness. Likewise yogis realize that having open and uncontrolled sense organs in the body drains our prana (life force energy), colors our thoughts, alters our state of mind and binds us to an illusionary world.
Indriya literally means “belonging to Indra” in Sanskrit. Indra is the thousand-eyed god who commands the heavens and wields the vajra—a thunderbolt of lightning. This symbology seems apt since our senses command our mind and travel through the electrical impulses of our neurons. While yogis feel information traveling through the pathways of the senses to the mind they also experience the awareness of the mind traveling out of the senses into the world. When too much of our awareness and energy travels out through uncontrolled indriyas we can feel tired, depleted, ungrounded and unbalanced.
The ten Indriyas are divided into two functions. There are five “entrance senses” (jnanendriyas) that feed our mind with information of the exterior world: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. There are five “exit senses” or sense actions (karmendriyas) that function as our means of outward expression: mouth/speaking, hands/grasping, feet/walking, genitals/procreating, and rectum/excreting.
In yoga there are several techniques for controlling and restraining the indriyas. By restraining the senses we can move the body, mind and spirit towards harmony and balance. By bringing awareness to an usually unconscious process we can discover hidden truths, uncover unconscious patterns and experience a fuller sense of reality.
Pratyahara translates directly as “sense withdrawal” and is a concentrated practice of withdrawing our attention from the external environment like a turtle pulling its limbs into its shell. By actively turning our awareness and attention away from the indriyas we conserve prana and cultivate a focused mind. Usually pratyahara is practiced during mediation or hatha yoga, but it can be practiced by itself throughout the day. When you notice any strong stimulation from your sense organs, take a few deep breaths and consciously reign in that energy into the core of your being.
Meditation is focusing the mind on a single object with the goal of creating the cessation of thought. A general meditation practice will help the mind resist the distractions of the indriyas, but you can also meditate on the sense organs themselves. Choose one of the indriyas (see below) and focus your attention steadfastly on the individual energy stream of that sensation. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the awareness of your selected indriya.
Atma-vichara (self-inquiry) is the yoga practice recommended by Ramana Maharshi to create a distinction between Self, conscious awareness and body sensations. This in turn helps to separate the misidentification of the atman (soul) to our sense organs and ego. To practice atma-vichara simply place your attention firmly on the inner awareness of “I” or “I am.” Whenever your attention on the inner feeling of “I” wanders, gently bring it back to the feeling of I-ness. You can ask yourself “Who am I?” or “Where does this I come from?” to help lead you back or deeper into the awareness of your true Self.
Vairagya (non-attachment) is the conscious control of our attraction to the external world of sense objects. This detachment allows us to choose what we allow our mind to be drawn towards with the ideal goal of experiencing both sweet and bitter fruits of life with equanimity. Essentially vairagya is a deeper and more subtle practice of “letting go.”
While many of these yogic practices may seem odd or esoteric, they are some of the most powerful techniques in the yoga tradition, so practice them slowly and with caution. Mastering control of the indriyas is a challenging yet rewarding task for any level of yoga practitioner. Minimizing and reducing the powerful influence the senses have on the mind will cultivate inner peace, mental focus, clarity of mind, happiness and skillful action.