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We should all remember that a main aim of Yoga practice is self-mastery. When we follow the Yoga precepts and practices this leads to more self-mastery—the body and mind become more relaxed and sattvic so we can more easily recognize and abide in our True Nature. Think of this like a lake: if we look into the lake when it is calm and clear, we see a calm and clear reflection. Drop stones into the lake, disturb the mud at the bottom of the lake, and all we will see is a wavy, muddy reflection.

The Yoga practices enable us to recognize and access the deep inner peace that is our essential nature. One of these practices is that of pratyahara, regulation of the five senses. By themselves, the senses are neither good nor bad. They are merely gateways for the mind to get in touch with the outside world. Without the senses, the mind cannot easily function, because the mind functions through the senses. So instead of trying to balance the mind directly, which is very difficult, we divide the mind up in different ways, according to the various sense organs: the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, and so on. Little by little, we try to reduce those things that disturb our sense of inner peace and contentment by controlling the senses.

How do the senses go from neutral to helpful or distracting? Take the example of seeing through the eyes. Imagine walking down the street and you see a beautiful watch in a store window. You notice the price tag and think, “Oh dear, I can’t afford that. But, I really have to have it! I’ve got to figure out how I can get it.” You were walking along perfectly content but the minute the eyes saw something, a desire arose, along with an urgent desire to possess the watch.

For one who is interested in inner peace, not being able to regulate the senses can result in a sense of dissatisfaction, lack of fulfillment and contentment. Suddenly, instead of keeping the focus on one’s inner peace and joy, the desire for an external object becomes the focus and leads to a disturbance in the mind. Another example is when you pass by a restaurant, and get a very nice smell. Immediately your legs may pull you into that restaurant, even though you may not even be hungry.

It’s easy to see how the senses can have control over us, instead of us having control over our senses. But, little by little, we can train them. We can bring them under our mastery by adding some sensory discipline in our lives. For instance, we all love to eat so many delicious things. Imagine you are used to having two scoops of ice cream as your dessert after a nice dinner. You can decide to have one scoop for the next few weeks. If the tongue obeys you, you have gained more mastery. These extras the tongue may want are not a necessity but a habit. So use your will to break the habit or, at least, to set it aside for awhile. It doesn’t even matter so much if the habits are bad—we are just seeing whether we have willpower or not, whether we are controlled by our senses or not.

You will really feel proud of your achievements if you can stop some of your habits for even one whole week. During that week, you might feel that it is difficult. But after achieving it, you’ll say, “Oh, I really won over it.” Then you’ll be happier and that is the reward. So go little by little.

Even a hundred years ago, people seem to have been much stronger. They used to walk ten, fifteen miles in one day. I’ve heard of village people who used to walk from one village to another to conduct their business and return in the evening—a distance of fifty miles. Walking was nothing to them. Now, even to go a few blocks we wait for a taxi. That means our capacities are somehow, consciously or unconsciously, decreasing. And, the attractions are more nowadays. That’s why we become restless very quickly. We increase our wants. We are living in a world that pulls our minds outward in every possible way. If we are able to gain even a small measure of discipline over our wants, we are doing very well.

In the name of pratyahara, even a little control of the taste, a little control of the eyes, is enough. If you love watching television, all right, turn the TV off for one whole day. You may say, “I’ll miss the news.” It doesn’t matter. Miss one day just to know whether your eyes can be controlled or not.

Sense control ultimately regulates the mind. It gives you real willpower and we really want willpower. There is no particular time for doing this; work on it throughout your life. Take, for example, those who sleep on nice fluffy beds with two or three pillows. For an experiment, just lie on the floor, stretch out on a sheet, without even a pillow. Just lie down on it and see whether you can sleep or not. If you sleep well, you have controlled the body. You will really feel that you have achieved something. Try a cold shower. Anything that you like the most, stop that for a day. That is pratyahara.

Of all the senses, there is one sense that is double-acting. The eyes can only see. The nose can only smell. The ears can only hear. The skin can only feel. But the tongue has double work. It tastes and it talks. So it’s very difficult to discipline this double sense, but if you can do it, you become the master. Because that is the most subtle organ of the system.

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That’s why, whenever a holy day comes, you are asked to fast and to observe silence, to repeat only prayers and nothing else. Unless you control the tongue—the tasting and talking—you can’t observe the holy days properly. In almost all the religions this is true. Every faith has it because the tongue has so much to do with the spiritual path.

Mahatma Gandhi used to repeat a maxim very often. He asked, “Are you eating to live or are you living to eat?” Many people live to eat and some people eat to live. Ask yourself in which category you belong. If you eat for the taste, then you are eating for the sake of eating. You are living to eat. But if you eat for the sake of hunger, thinking of the stomach, then you are really eating to live.

So whenever you eat, ask yourself. “Am I eating to satisfy my hunger or for the taste?” Don’t ask your nose as it will say, “Ah, it smells wonderful!” That means you are going to eat for your nose, not your stomach. Don’t ask your eyes. They will say, “How good it looks!” That doesn’t mean you should eat things that smell bad or look ugly, but smell and sight come second. First ask your stomach if it really wants something, then smell the food, and check to see whether it is good for the stomach or not.

The senses are watchers, checking inspectors. When the stomach wants something, the first inspector is the eyes. The eyes say, Let me see whether it is good, whether the food is decayed or not. I think it’s all right. Okay, pass. Then the next inspector, the nose, comes in. I think it smells all right. Yes, it can go in. And then the third inspector, the tongue. Yes, I think it is all right. Pass.

All three inspectors judge the food, and only then do you swallow it. All the inspectors are working for the good of the whole. It is something like the customs people. When they see something coming in, they stop it just to see whether it is safe to allow into the country or not. Their job is not to see whether it is good for themselves or not. If they find it is good for the country, they allow the article in. Otherwise, it is banned. So, your senses are the customs officers. Let them be inspectors to check if what is coming in is good for the body-mind or not.

Nothing great can be achieved if the tongue is not controlled. Eat to live; do not live to eat. And talk limitedly, kindly. Measure your words. Think twice before you talk because a word is a bird—once it’s let out, you can’t call it back. So before you let it out of your cage, the teeth, think twice. Often we don’t think. Instead, we just say something and then say, “I’m sorry. Forgive me.” But we can’t simply withdraw something just by saying, “I’m sorry.” So we should have that control.

And when I use the word “control,” I don’t mean you should starve or not enjoy your senses. I am talking about having moderation and bringing balance into one’s life. It is easy to fast, to completely stop eating. It is easy not to talk at all. But that is not Yoga. Know your limitation. Just eat what you need and leave the rest. Yoga is neither for the person who eats too much nor for the person who starves. Yoga is neither for the person who sleeps too much nor for the person who doesn’t sleep. Yoga is neither for the person who talks too much nor for the person who stops talking completely.

The middle path is Yoga. That is also the Buddha’s teaching. You should go neither to one extreme nor the other. So don’t just block out your senses. Allow the senses to enjoy the world, without overindulgence. If we know how to have moderation in everything, then everything is good to us. We can enjoy everything in life. So always be discriminating and enjoy moderation and a balanced lifestyle. That is pratyahara.

Let us learn to satisfy our senses in the proper way, for a good cause, in the name of the Divine, and with limitations. Once that is achieved, then your path is quite easy. Then the inner practices of Yoga, such as concentration and meditation, become easy. You will be able to gain self-mastery. May you all achieve that goal, and realize that bliss.

By Swami Satchidananda