Recently I’ve seen a few indignant posts in the yoga blogosphere claiming that the Yoga Sutra is not relevant to modern practitioners. I know this sounds crazy but these claims are out there (elephant journal? no doubt). These post-modern yogis are arrogant enough to the believe that since the Yoga Sutra is thousands of years old, it’s knowledge does not pertain to them, in their very special, unique modern lives! Hate to break it to you “yogis”, but you are NOT a special and unique snowflake!!! The Sutra describe the human condition and how to help yourself evolve and progress on a spiritual path. And believe it or not, your suffering is really not that different from the suffering of the human seeker 5.000 years ago.
So over the weekend, Tim Miller kept it real by dishing out sutras left and right. It was impressive for sure, and very educational for us little yogis. We went over the yamas/niyamas, the 3 sutra regarding asana, quite a few regarding pranayama and the kleshas too. But what we spent the most time working with were the obstacles to yoga, laid out in the first padah. I was really struck by the applicable nature of learning about these obstacles in regards to deepening and improving my practice. Tim spoke about the Sutra with such eloquence but also stayed totally true to their nature by keeping it short, simple and directly focused. Listening to his descriptions of the Sutra made me just totally gawk at how yoga practitioners could possibly deny the applicability and importance of the Sutra!
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was known to have said that “Anyone can do this yoga, except lazy people”. I believe that this is true. Our “laziness” comes in many forms though. It’s not just that we would rather sleep in and lounge around sometimes, but that we have laziness regarding our own self-work, because it is just that – work! And work is hard. Practice is hard. But it is rewarding, and that’s why most of us keep at it. But not all. But If we really want to accelerate our evolutionary process, to break our samsaras – those ingrained, suffering-producing patterns – we have to PRACTICE! There is no side-skipping sadhana.
There are 9 specific obstacles that prevent us from a dedicated sadhana:
vyadhi-styana-sansaya-pramadalasyavirati-bhranti-darshanalabdha-bhumikatvasthitatvani citta-viksepas te’ntarayah I.30
First – vyadhi – Illness and disease – can be an obstacle to practice. But illness also gives one the opportunity to stop, examine and address the issue plaguing the body (the vehicle you have and need on this path!).
Next – styana – Mental laziness, Procrastination, Stagnation – sound familiar? The mind is dull, not working efficiently, you feel stuck and so you just stay there – stuck! That stagnation causes illness. The only way to break the stagnation is to invite rajas into your life to get things moving! Vinyasa, the linking of breath to movement, is specifically designed to clear stagnant energy and bring alertness and clarity to the mind and body.
Our third obstacle – sansaya - Doubt – You are questioning the wrong things, you suffer from indecision, you lack faith (sraddha) in the practice, so you give up! If you get stuck in your doubt, you can’t practice sincerely with integrity. Of course, it’s normal for doubt to arise at times. I definitely suffer with it when I’m in the midst of a tough 40 day meditation…my mind wanders and gets fearful and can’t help but go off on a spiral wondering, “Is this crazy stuff even working?? What’s the point?? How can I know I’m not wasting my time here?!?” But I’m always pulled back to center by remembering the many times in my life when my yoga practice has kept me sane and helped me through tough spots. Yoga is a science…an ancient sacred science with millenia backing it up…so who am I to doubt it? If you are practicing yoga rooted in the Shastra, you can set your doubt to the side.
Next up – pramada - Negligence/ Carelessness – the mind is impatient and thus becomes careless. When you are careless and the mind is too rajasic, accidents happen, injuries happen – big obstacle! To combat this, you must practice mindful awareness, calming pranayama and eat sattvic pure cooling foods.
The fifth obstacle is - alasya – Laziness, sloth, lethargy - the energy of tamas, the dark negative inertia pulls you down and makes you feel stuck! Again, this calls for movement, vinyasa, energizing pranayam – rajas! Rest is important in proper proportions, but long bouts of laziness only breeds more lethargy so it becomes harder and harder to pick yourself up and get going again.
Next – a-virati – Intemperance, Immoderation, Sexual Preoccupation – Clinging to the sense-pleasures, deluding yourself into identifying with these attachments – these behaviors distract you and sap you of your vitality, making it very challenging to direct your attention to your spiritual practice. So how does one develop moderation? Consistency! You must prioritize your practice. With consistency, this becomes easier. For example, when I started practicing yoga seriously, my partying pretty much stopped without me even trying. I knew I was going be waking up before sunrise to engage in demanding asana, pranayam and meditation, so it became clear that I couldn’t stay out late drinking, getting high and smoking cigarettes the night before – it just can’t work like that! As those behaviors fell away and I began engaging in serious self-study, I became more and more clear that I didn’t want to have false, insincere or superficial relationships with people. My practice taught me to honor and respect myself, so those became the qualities I looked for and valued in a partner – and that’s exactly what I got – a partner, not just a fling.
The seventh obstacle – bhranti-darsana - False perception/Delusion/Confusion of Philosophies – You see the world as if you are looking through a dirty window. Nothing is clear – “bhranti” is like clinging to the fundamental beliefs of tunnel vision. So how does one wash the windows of perception? TAPAS bitches! You gotta work at it with integrity and devotion! Tend the Sacred Fire and burn through your delusions! Also, you have to remember not to always believe everything you think.
The last two obstacles are connected. First there is the issue of – a-labdha-bhumikatva – Ungrounded Practice – this means that you are failing to gain a higher ground. You can’t stick with the practice or be present in it. On the physical level, there is a tendency to not inhabit the body well. Perhaps you are still engaging in activities that sap you of vitality and make it harder for you to progress in your asana practice. Or a different way of seeing this is that you fail to observe the yama/niyama so your practice remains very one-dimensional.
This leads us to the final obstacle – an-avasthitatvani - Instability - Unsteadiness in character, in commitment, in the mind and in the body. Mental instability is truly the root of all the obstacles. It is essential to have a grounded stable foundation in order to grow and elevate (just think of a building – a strong foundation is imperative). In yoga, the three stabilizing forces – tristana – are the breath, drishti and asana. The Primary Series is a profound tool for overcoming instability and ungrounded energy. It connects you in with apana – the downward, eliminative energy. Consistent practice of Primary Series teaches you how to be in your own body. It is very grounding because it helps you establish that most fundamental intimacy – relationship with the self and the energies present in the body and in the earth.
Sutra I:31 follows stating that as a result of these obstacles, “Pain, nervousness, sulkiness, irregular breathing, follow.”
So what’s the answer? You gotta love the Sutra – it’s so straight forward here -
“They can be removed by the practice of concentration upon a single truth” – Sutra I:32
There you go, you want to eliminate suffering? You must PRACTICE. It all comes down to abhyasa - practice of a single truth.
At different times on our individual journeys we might encounter one obstacle more than others. Do not despair. This serves a purpose. To heal, to progress, we must first recognize the problem in order to remedy it. The Sutra identify the obstacles for you, so all you have to do is bring your awareness to the struggles at hand and ……PRACTICE!
BLESSINGS to you on your journey toward one-pointed focus!