1.31 duhkha daurmanasya angam-ejayatva shvasa prashvasah vikshepa sahabhuva
Bouanchaud: Suffering, depression, physical restlessness and disturbed breathing accompany mental dispersion.
Desikachar: All these interruptions produce one or more of the following symptoms: mental discomfort, negative thinking, the inability to be at ease in different body postures, and difficulty in controlling one’s breath.
Swami J: From these obstacles, there are four other consequences that also arise, and these are: 1) mental or physical pain, 2) sadness or dejection, 3) restlessness, shakiness, or anxiety, and 4) irregularities in the exhalation and inhalation of breath.
Last week’s sutra gave quite the laundry list of obstacles to impede the would-be yogini from attaining the state of yoga – union with Supreme Consciousness. Physical illness, mental sluggishness, laziness, confusion lack of faith all conspire against my aspirations. One of the things that can be hardest to discern is whether I’m on the right path or just temporarily blocked by an obstacle. There’s an old expression that the path of true love never runs smooth. Neither does the spiritual path. I know I started off with a great deal of enthusiasm and along the way, I’ve had times when I was unsure of what I was doing, or if I was studying in the right tradition or if this whole topic was just a very large vat of woo-woo.
In other words, how will I know of my current difficulties are just a temporary obstacle that I need to work through or something much deeper? Patanjali sends clues. The nine obstacles that I looked at last week have four consequences attached to them. They are suffering, depression, generalized anxiety or shakiness in limbs, posture or breath. These are warning signs; they serve as cautions to me that something is amiss and I need to re-evaluate what or how I am approaching practice. One of the features of the ‘obstacles’ is that they build on the previous ones.
In other words, my first hint that something is wrong is physical illness. This can be just a general malaise – energetically, I feed depleted. But I’m stubborn and I muscle on – perhaps convincing myself that this is ‘persevering practice’ in action. I push on without correcting anything in my practice and it leads to mental fatigue. I push on and it’s just tiring and boring. I’m now having doubts about this yoga stuff…
It turns out that we can use the concept of “persevering practice” in a skilful manner or for self-flagellation. We can use our practice to heal or to harm ourselves. Last summer, when I was diagnosed with my heart condition, it made a mess out of my physical practice. I was tired, but most telling from a yogic perspective, my breath was a mess. My breath was as tremulous as my postural work. In a former incarnation (also known as Kate 1.0), I would have responded to this ‘weakness” by flogging my inner GI Jane and pushing through – forcing myself to attain the goals set by my ego. And for the record, my ego has lots of yoga goals. During last year’s summer training, we were ‘warned’ that this summer’s training will challenged upper body strength – arms and shoulders. In some fictional universe, I “should” have spent the fall and winter working on my core strength and my shoulder strength to I’d be better equipped to meet the demands of this summer’s training.
Guess what? I didn’t.
Because my breath was total shambles. That shaking unsteadiness in my breath, both on the inhale and exhale, was my body telling me it was time to chill on the physical practice. My energy levels were depleted, both from the disease and from the medicines I’ve been taking to treat it. My body was fully consumed with the task of healing as much damage as it could and that required a lot of energetic resources. What it didn’t need was the added burden of dealing with damaged muscle tissue and trying to rebuild more muscle tissue. The body’s “job jar” was full and my priority is to leave it alone to heal as best it can. Part of this comes from faith. If I’m patient, and observant, my body will tell me when it’s time to move forward in the practice that is more satisfying to my ego’s list of objectives.
That’s why this winter, my practice was a lot of sitting: Just sitting in the here and now. I spend a lot of time developing my meditation practices. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking. I spent some time journaling my thoughts and ideas. It was a very introspective season and now, as spring returns, I’m noticing that my breath is much smoother. I feel more positive – the mild depression of the winter has lifted. And sure enough, when I finally unrolled the mat to re-commit to the postural practice, it came from a place of joy. I wasn’t pushing myself through the postures. In fact, I feel more buoyant and energized in them than I ever have before.
The point is to pay attention. There’s a reason why yoga teachers constantly remind us to pay attention to our inner experience. If my sense of suffering increases, or my limbs shake when I’m try8ing to hold a posture or when my breath flutters in my lungs or I feel de-energized and burdened by my practice, these are all subtle signs that my practice needs to be re-evaluated.
And here’s the truth of the matter: we change over time. I am not the same person I was 10 years ago. I’m not the same person I was a year ago. Was it in any way sensible to think my yoga practice was never going to change? My yoga practice is a living entity. It changes in response to my ever-changing needs. My job is to cultivate my awareness of those needs and most importantly, to turn off the never-ending chatter from my ego about what my practice “should” be.
Changing a practice is NOT giving up. It’s the skilful use of my inner wisdom. Being stubborn about the nature of my practice is ego-based foolishness. That’s why I consider these four consequences to be the friend of the yogi. Pains, dejection, restlessness, disturbances in breath are all signs for me to stop, look and listen. It gives me an opportunity to observe what is happening on subtler levels than where my ego operates. I can take corrective action to deal with the problem while it’s still a little ‘glitch’ as opposed to a full blown catastrophe.
Until next week, thanks for reading and Namaste,