Doors of Perception
“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it,” says Shug in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. God wants to “share a good thing.” Scientists who study human vision say we have been given a great capacity to share in God’s good thing – our eyes are capable of distinguishing about ten million different colors. If that is true, then our eyes can perceive hundreds of thousands of different hues just of the color purple. We can walk through fields and see subtly different colors every day for a lifetime. To me, this is a great miracle and mystery – that we can perceive the beauty of the world through our senses.
In Sanskrit, one of the words for the senses is Indriya, and it means, “agreeable to Indra, King of the gods; companion to Indra; bodily power, power of the senses.” The word implies that the senses are intrinsically divine, the companions of God. Each sense is a way of giving praise to the Creator. Each sense is a door onto the universe around us – and within us.
In the practice of Yoga, we use our senses to perceive the world within the skin. When we take a breath, the air touches the tissue around the nostrils and inside the nose – we feel the touch of the air. As the air travels up the nose, it flows over sensory cells that tell us what is in the air – the sense of smell. Our lungs expand and a “lung inflation” sense lets us perceive the delights of inhalation. Sensory nerves in our blood vessels keep us informed of our blood oxygen content, and we develop a deep “air hunger” if the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide is not just right. When we breathe out, the air is often about ten degrees warmer, because it has been inside our bodies. We can sense this temperature difference. Our ears can hear the sounds the air makes as it flows through our anatomy, and this spontaneous sound is sometimes called soham, a usually unconscious mantra and prayer. Just in a breath, there is touch, smell, lung expansion, oxygen sensing, temperature sensing, and hearing. A sigh is just a sigh, but a breath is a miracle, and we have the senses to appreciate it.
When we engage in asana, several additional sensory pathways are activated: joint position, muscle stretch, and balance. The joint position sense lets us know, even with our eyes closed, the position of our limbs. The muscle stretch sense tells us about the condition and extension of our deep tissues. Balance informs us of our relationship to gravity. This “gravitational sense” tells us continually of our relationship to the center of gravity, in other words, the center of the Earth.
Each of our senses operates as a puja, a ceremony of worship, in which one element is transmuted into another. When we see color, electromagnetic waves that fluctuate hundreds of trillions of times a second touch the back of our eyes, and are transformed into electrochemical nerve impulses; the vision area of the brain turns these impulses into our visual world. When we hear sounds, waves in the air vibrate bones in our ears, and these are turned into nerve impulses. When we smell, our sensory system detects the shape and electrical charge of molecules as they pass through our nose. The sense of balance is a whole wonder unto itself: no matter what posture you are in, whether you are moving or still, your sense of balance is always informing you of your relationship with the Earth’s field of gravity. Your inner ear has semi-circular canals filled with a special fluid of calcium crystals, and your senses detect the motion of this fluid and turn it into the sense of balance.
The ten senses I mention above are just some of the ones known to sensory physiology. There are more known to science and to yoga. For example, I find that we have the ability to sense the energy fields of life – most yogis, even complete beginners, can directly sense prana, the life-force. Prana appears as an ever-changing flow of something magnetic, an energy that is not quite physical but nourishes and inspires our physical cells. Prana can feel like tingling on the skin or inside the body, and it also varies in quality between being energizing, soothing, nourishing, and purifying.
No matter what activity we are involved in, the more senses we engage, the more engaged we will be. When we are practicing yoga, one specific sense, for example muscle stretch, may come to the foreground and we focus on it specifically for awhile. At other times, all the senses combine into an overall symphony of perception: we are immersed in a world of sensation coming from every part of the body simultaneously. It’s like when you are listening to a band or orchestra – you can pick out one specific instrument, or hear the composite sound, and you can go back and forth.
Each yoga teacher has her own mix of senses that she alerts us to as we follow along in a class. We each have to find what works for us, for our unique inner nature – what sensory style gives us access to rejuvenation? What types of practice activate your indriyashakti, a strength and power of the senses so that you can perceive both your inner world and the outer world, and keep them in balance?
Yoga is a set of techniques for cleansing the doors of perception so that we are more capable of seeing the world as it is, divine (to paraphrase William Blake). When I practice yoga, I often feel that I am on my hands and knees with a brush and a bucket of water, scrubbing the doors of perception. This gives me the gift of clear and intense perceiving and the serenity to handle it.