Nirodhaḥ Yoga Blog
When the mind, one-pointed and fully focused, knows the supreme silence in the Heart, this is true learning.
- Ramana Maharshi
This blog post is part of our Yoga Sutras series.
Want to start at the beginning?
Yoga Sutra 1.32 - तत्प्रतिषेधार्थमेकतत्त्वाभ्यासः -
The Practice of Concentration on a Single Subject (or the Use of One Technique) Is the Best Way to Prevent the Obstacles and Their Accompaniments.
This month, we discuss only three Yoga Sutras (1.30-1.32) but boy, do they pack a punch! Last month, Patanjali hinted in Sutra 1.29 that by reverentially repeating Om, we can overcome all the obstacles on our spiritual pathway.
But it would be helpful to know just what obstacles to expect and how to spot them in order to prepare ourselves.
It might seem high-falutin that a humble yoga practice would have precipitous obstacles. After all, what do we do in yoga? Breathe, move, nap. It’s not like we’re building a rocketship or doing neurosurgery, right?
However, there are sadly countless examples of people using the vitality, mental fortitude and clear-headedness developed through an intensive yoga practice to manipulate and hurt others because they have not done the internal ethical work needed to guide others on this pathway to well-being. Even ostensible masters and Gurus can get caught up in ego. I’ll name no names but I’m confident if you Google “Yoga Scandals” you’ll find plenty of examples to confirm this.
All that to say, overcoming these obstacles is not only a way to improve ourselves, it is a commitment to creating a more just and kind world. There is nothing small about that endeavor, though it still must be done in humility.
Okay, so what are these obstacles along the yogic path? Patanjali lists them in Yoga Sutra 1.30.
Swami Satchidananda calls these obstacles, “more or less like a chain.” (76) It’s very true.
What’s the first obstacle we face when we begin practicing yoga? “My back is out…” “The arthritis in my knees hurts when I move...” “I feel uncomfortable just starting out…” Whatever it is, getting started is hard. Most of us have aches and pains we need to work through.
I think it’s important to define disease here because often, we think of being sick when we think of disease. However, disease also encompasses any condition in which the function and sometimes structure is disturbed or impaired. (Oxford English Dictionary Online)
Indeed, disease is often the result of long-term, consistent physical dysfunction. (Next time you see me, ask me how I got osteo-arthritis by the time I was 22.)
So it’s safe to say that Patanjali is referring to “dis-ease” as much as he’s referring to “disease.”
I also think this is a concept we can all understand. It’s easy for our mind to convince us that the very thing that would help us get past the obstacle is the thing that’s hurting us and not the lifestyle that’s created dis-ease for us in the first place.
Once we’ve finally exhausted the bodily aches, pains and preconditions as excuses, it might still be hard to motivate ourselves to take that first step. Even when we do take the first step, it can be hard to build a new habit, leading us to inertia in actually completing our practice.
We may fall into the habit of repeatedly telling ourselves “tomorrow…” and thus act sluggishly on the intentions we set for ourselves. This “lack of interest” (Iyengar, 83) and inattentiveness can keep us from practicing in the first place or continuing with consistency just as we’re getting started on the yoga habit.
Now let’s imagine we’ve finally accomplished the (not so small) goal of actually attending a few classes. The first few classes, we are in the honeymoon phase and revel in how empowering it is to make our own self feel so good. Soon though, the benefits we noticed at first aren’t quite as remarkable as when we first started and we begin to doubt.
“Do I reeeeally need to attend my Thursday night class? I’ve been the last four weeks, surely one week off is okay.” “I’m not sure if I can prioritize yoga in my schedule right now.” “I’m really into this workout on YouTube this week, do yoga classes really add anything?”
This kind of doubt will lead us to become negligent in our practice. Because we are not certain, we don’t attend to our practice as frequently as needed, give up easily or practice carelessly. The culmination of this negligence is laziness and resistance.
Resistance to our practice will clearly hold us back from making progress on the path. It can also be a way we convince ourselves that being lazy is the noble thing. Resistance and laziness are two sides to the same coin - resistance is active and laziness is passive.
Laziness leads us to think shortcuts are okay and again, we begin to look for enduring happiness in external objects or accomplishments instead of where it really exists, which is in our spiritual accomplishments. Looking for contentment in external things is the definition of sensuality. Look - by all means, enjoy your senses but don’t be ruled by them.
Because when we are overly preoccupied by external things, we tend to perceive things erroneously and misunderstand the purpose of life. We become attached to the external things we already have, fear losing them, desire things we don’t yet have and feel our identity is connected to status, objects, places or people.
All of this leads to us being unable to “gain ground” (Satchidananda, 76) and “hold on to what has been undertaken.” (Iyengar, 84) It is easy to neglect spiritual pursuits when confronted with material wealth, whether we “have it” or not.
Similarly, the instant we gain some benefit from our spiritual practice, we feel attached to it. When we aren’t able to attain it, we despair.
This attitude lacks perseverance (Shoshoni, 12 & Iyengar, 84) and we know from every spiritual journey undertaken (actually, maybe from ANY important journey EVER taken) that perseverance is a prerequisite to reach the goal.
After a consistent yoga practice (or any major goal) has been established, backsliding is the final obstacle to attend to. This state of “instability” (Stiles, 9) leads to an “inability to maintain the progress attained due to pride or stagnation in practices.” (Iyengar, 84)
Regressing in our practice feels horrible but once we remember that “it is a common occurrence on the spiritual path, we don’t get disheartened.” (Satchidananda, 77) It can be very disheartening to regress, but rest assured it is a part of the process.
I can personally attest to the fact that even after experiencing years of accumulated benefits in my practice, there have been (and will probably continue to be) periods where I have a hard time attending to my daily yoga practice (sadhana).
Ram Bhakt gives a viscerally honest description of this.
All of us experience distractions and laziness at times that make steady progress difficult. I remember times when, after gaining deep insights and inner strength from practice, I stopped practicing. I started staying out late with friends and doing some things I shouldn’t have. The next day, I would feel drained of energy, more easily distressed, and in a bad mood. I can get lazy if I do not have a set routine in my day or some goal that I am working toward. When I make practice a habit, I am always in a better mood and feel energized and enthusiastic about life. It is not easy to practice constantly or to change habits overnight. For that reason, becoming established in a healthy yogic lifestyle and renewing your resolve daily are necessary. (39)
BKS Iyengar very helpfully classifies these nine obstacles for us energetically. Disease and inertia are physical obstacles. Doubt, negligence, resistance and sensuality are all mental obstacles. Misunderstanding is an intellectual obstacle. Lack of perseverance and backsliding are spiritual obstacles along our path. (83-84)
Additionally, Patanjali outlines accompanying symptoms that arise when encountering these obstacles in Yoga Sutra 1.31. We may experience suffering, frustration (Stiles, 10), trembling and/or have disturbed breathing (Satchidananda, 77). If that doesn’t sound like someone struggling through a challenge, I don’t know what does!
BKS Iyengar also clarifies that distress - despair - trembling - disturbed breathing exist in a continuum both ways. Distress causes disturbed breathing as much as disturbed breathing causes distress. (84) My beloved teacher, Sonia Sumar, reminds us continually that the breath, body, mind and emotions all go together. Develop control over your breath and you will develop control over your body, mind and emotions.
This is critical to spiritual development. As Swami Satchidananada explains on page 78 of his translation and commentary of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
A sickly body can never be fit to sit; it will not allow the mind to meditate quietly. Weak nerves will always create tremors. When some people meditate, they tremble and perspire.
- Swami Satchidananda
Luckily, Yoga Sutra 1.32 gives us the solution to overcoming the obstacles and their accompaniments. It is to practice one-pointed concentration. I remember the first time I heard the word “one-pointed” in relation to my meditation practice. It was like a light-bulb going off. It doesn’t matter what we focus on - if we are one-pointed, we will achieve it. It is simple cause and effect.
As Swami Satchidananda was fond of saying, “what you think, so you become.” What we apply our attention and energy to is what blossoms in the subtle recesses of our minds. This is what samskaras (the latent mental impressions we discussed in July’s blog post) are made of: the residue of thoughts we’ve focused on previously.
I’ve had experiences in which I’ve focused on the bad, the hurtful, the downright disrespectful. And I have to tell you, focusing on the bad has never helped me overcome those things. It has only seemed to produce more of it.
Thank goodness I met my own teacher when I did. She saved me from a lifetime of fighting and frustration. How did she (and all the other great saints, sages, gurus, masters and teachers) do it? By teaching me how to focus on one positive thing. That’s it.
That’s it and yet, it is surprisingly difficult to accomplish the supreme goal of one-pointedness, which is “to habituate yourself to meditation upon a single principle” (Stiles, 10) and prevent these imbalances. (Shoshoni, 12)
BKS Iyengar even frankly tells us that “total surrender to God is beyond the abilities of most ordinary men and women, who are still caught up in pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, success and failure.” (85) This state of contentment is beyond the capacity of most people, as they are right now.
However, creating stability by “concentrating on one thing creates a habit in your system that helps it find stability…Focused study and practice are the only way to become an expert in any subject.” (Bhakt, 43) The effort to maintain one’s concentration on one point is both the method and goal of a yoga practice.
The point, as Swami Satchidananda says, is “that we should not keep changing our object of concentration.” (79) but to keep ourselves singularly focused on one method or object on which we concentrate and eventually, meditate upon. (More to come on the difference between concentration and meditation.)
There are multiple points on which to meditate upon, all of which build “unity of the Self,” (Shoshoni, 12) and overcome the previously described obstacles. Patanjali broadly describes eight techniques in the following Yoga Sutras, eventually concluding that any elevating meditation technique will be effective.
Next month, we’ll discuss the eight techniques that Patanjali specifically describes to help us achieve this one-pointed focus.
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What healthy resources stabilize you during challenging times?
Next time you are stressed or upset, notice how your breath moves. If you slow down and stabilize your breathing, can you gain more control over your emotional experience?
When you research those you admire most, what sacrifices did they make to become successful on their own path? (Bhakt, 41)
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...
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