- vyadhi styana samshaya pramada alasya avirati bhranti-darshana alabdha-bhumikatva anavasthitatva chitta vikshepa te antarayah
Bouanchaud: the inner obstacles that disperse the mind are sickness, mental inertia, doubt, haste, apathy, intemperance, errors in judgement of oneself, lack of perseverance and the inability to stay at a level once reached.
Desikachar: there are nine types of interruptions to developing mental clarity: illness, mental stagnation, doubts, lack of foresight, fatigue, overindulgence, illusions about one’s true state of mind, lack of perseverance and regression. They are obstacles because they create mental disturbances and encourage distraction.
Swami J: Nine kinds of distractions come that are obstacles naturally encountered on the path, and are physical illness, tendency of the mind to not work efficiently, doubt or indecision, lack of attention to pursuing the means of samadhi, laziness in mind and body, failure to regulate the desire for worldly objects, incorrect assumptions or thinking, failing to attain stages of the practice, and instability in maintaining a level of practice once attained.
Ahhhh, at last, I have come to familiar territory for me – obstacles to practice (and their remedies). I think this is always a timely topic. I can’t remember any yoga class I’ve attended where someone on the first day, when stating her intention for the class, was to re-start or re-vitalize her practice. As I’ve explored elsewhere, abiding practice is the “secret” to yoga. I do it and I do it and I do it and finally, I get it. The fruit of the practice comes from doing the practice.
Last week, Deborah over at Bloomer Yoga left a comment that she also suffered from a terminal case of “monkey mind”, often getting lost in thoughts of how many people she could help with a lotto win. Thanks Deborah, up until now, that one had escaped me – now I have a new distraction to add to my repertoire!!
In all seriousness, the obstacles to practice – the things that keep us from reaching the state of yoga/meditation, have plagued would-be yogis/yoginis for centuries. In fact, one of the ways I look at it is that the problem was big enough and common enough that Patanjali devoted nearly 20% of the first chapter to the issue. There are 51 aphorisms in Chapter 1 – 10 of them refer to obstacles. The first 3 of the 10 aphorisms refer to the problem itself; the following 7 to techniques to deal with them. In other words, we didn’t invent this problem in the 21st century, nor is it the exclusive preserve of Westerners.
So why is it so danged difficult? Well, for those of you who have been waiting at the edge of your seats for the official list of the 9 obstacles to practice, here it is:
- physical illness,
- mental inertia,
- doubt or indecision,
- lack of persistence,
- incorrect assumptions about oneself,
- inability to reach a state of meditation, and
- instability in maintaining a level of practice once attained.
1. Physical illness – this one just makes sense. Practice is impaired when one is heaving one’s guts out… Broken leg makes tree pose difficult. The delineation between mind and body is pretty specious. When my blood sugars are really low, that has a decided effect on my mental states. And I agree with the idea as far as the physical asana practice goes. Physical illness can slow things up a bit. And then I think about a talk I attended by Lone Erickson-Parker, a local teacher here. She was hit by a car and had a fractured pelvis and a few busted up limbs and joints and she continued to practice because practice is more than postures. My cardiac condition wiped me out for months. I was very limited in what I could do. At one point last summer, it took me over 40 minutes to walk about 400 m on a level surface. My yoga practice looked an awful lot like a woman sitting in a chair, breathing, and meditating or reading. It’s all yoga, man!!
2. Mental inertia – I have no energy to practice so I don’t practice which makes me want to skip tomorrow’s practice. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar….
3. Doubt or indecision – Lordie, Lordie, I OWN this obstacle. I could rent this obstacle out on a time share. In the six or seven years I’ve been working with my teacher, I’ve accumulated hundreds of practices. The cool thing about Viniyoga, teachers supply written copies of the practice which means I have a shelf full of laminated yoga practices. It’s a plethora of riches I tell you and on more than one occasion, I’ve been paralysed in front of the shelf. Do I do this one? Hmmmmm, full locust, held 8 breaths… do I feel like that today? I don’t? Maybe that’s resistance and that means this is the practice I should be doing…then again… there’s always the Ashtanga sequence…
4. Lack of persistence – kissing cousin of doubt and indecision. I’m not sure what I should be doing, so my default setting is to do nothing…. maybe. Maybe I’ll sort it out tomorrow. Next week? When I lose 20 lbs? Kilos? Maybe after I have a snack… Should I find a really cool guru?
5. Sloth – love this word. Sloth. It says it all. I can’t be bothered because I’m just plain old lazy today. It’s too much effort to make up my mind as to what I want to do in the first place, let alone do it. I’m still stuck on the held locust … I think I’ll go hang upside down in a tree and have a nap…after my snack, which nicely segues into …
6. Overindulgence – we haven’t hit it yet because it’s outlined mostly in Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras but there’s a lot about practicing some degree of austerity. That alone is enough to completely freak out my inner brat. Austerity in any format is just about the biggest taboo going to my Western mind. Discipline myself? You have got to be kidding? And give up my double vanilla whipped cream extra li-yang li-yang triple walnut crunch soy latte? The section I like to skip over most frequently is the one where I’m informed that my stomach holds about as much as my two fists put together and my dinner should only fill about three-quarters of my stomach. That section I really don’t like to pay attention to. In fact, there’s lot in yoga that contravenes my self-proclaimed ‘comfort’ zone. Let’s face it, done properly, yoga should rub around the edges just a little bit.
7. Incorrect assumptions about myself. Oh, the ego! What would I do without it? I’m on the guaranteed inside track to Enlightenment because a) I’m a vegetarian; b) I’m a Liberal; c) my guru can beat your guru up; … I get so stuck on the “Me, it’s all about me, me, me, I, I, I” refrain that I can’t see straight. It’s easy to misunderstand the role of yoga because so often we’re encouraged to think it’s about the state of our hamstrings instead of the state of our soul. I can lose sight of the purpose of yoga because I haven’t the strength, flexibility or capacity to achieve what I “think” is important.
8. Inability to reach a state of meditation or practice: We’ve been warned in the sutras – put in the work; let go of the results. LET GO OF THE RESULTS. I’ve been practicing pretty steadily for the last 6 or 7 years and I’m not enlightened. Worse yet, my percentage of body fat still exceeds 7%. And I still lose my temper. What’s wrong with me when I’m such a dedicated yoga student? When I get caught up in ideas of where I “should” be, I let go of where I am.
9. Instability in maintaining the state of practice once achieved: In other traditions, it’s often called ‘backsliding’. I can see glimpses of what could be but the foundation is shaky and I can’t sustain myself.
These obstacles feed into each other. My physical body does impact my mental and emotional states. My mental fog can make it difficult to be persevering in my practice. It can make me lazy and prone to overindulgences. These overindulgences can reinforce incorrect attitudes about my self which either prevents me from advancing in my practice or causes me to slide backwards.
The obstacles can seem pretty daunting and the history of yoga is full of stories about great yogis who stumbled on Obstacle through attachment or pride. But be of good heart. Patanjali doesn’t throw us to the wolves. The next weeks will be addressing some of these obstacles
Until next week, thanks for reading and Namaste,