Watch out for these nine obstacles to your Yoga saadhana
By Sri Arun Prakash
Many advanced skills involving the body as one of the an instruments, depend on saadhana – the rigorous, extended practice and training sessions that create a solid base for progression and innovation, and excellence in ability and consistent delivery.
Yoga recognises that saadhana is not easy. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has identified nine obstacles that arise on the sadhaka’s journey, and the consequences of letting one or more of them hold sway over your practice (Sutras 1.30 to 1.32).
The shastras talk about three kinds of people in this context. The Adhama, Madhyama, and the Uthama. The adhamas get intimidated by the obstacles and don’t even make the attempt — they don’t even get start. The madhyama are like a lot of us — they give up in the face of obstacles, sometimes at the very first hurdle. Not so the uthama sadhakas. They persist. They overcome.
But the first step is to identify the obstacles. The first one that Patanjali lists is Vyadhi, disease, illness of the body. It is worth repeating Kalidasa’s maxim — Sharira Madhyam Kaludarma Sadhanam – the body is the means by which we do all dharma, indeed all action, in this world. To prevent or cure vyaadhi, a person has to adopt a good healthy lifestyle, moderate diet, moderate sleep, and practice asana, kritya, pranayama and Ayurveda.
The second is Styana, which is related to the mind. Styana is mental laziness, inefficiency and dullness. Here one cannot understate the importance of food. You are what you eat after all, and this applies to mind and body. Saatvic food is to be preferred for a sadhaka. Styana can be more dangerous than physical illness.
Just as the right food intake is important, the right company, or satsanga, is critical. Always choose and be in the right company, for the wrong people can become a very negative influence. This is so especially in the early stages, before you know the difference between sat and asat.
Then comes Samshaya, which refers to doubt and uncertainty. We have to be careful here. Our tradition of enquiry and exposition is built on questioning, not just accepting whatever is told to us. So you have to explore, question, analyse. But after that, if you feel the truth of it, don’t keep doubting. Some answers come to you only with experience.
Next comes Pramada, which is carelessness or negligence. A sadhaka should take his saadhana very seriously, every minute you must apply your mind, and give it the proper, one-pointed, attention.
Alasya is laziness, sloth or languor. This is like Styana, but physical as well as mental. The solution is again the same. Moderate diet, sleep and lifestyle, along with yoga.
Avirati is the failure to regulate worldly desires. The key here is not abstention, but regulation. Enjoy, but do not indulge. As you progress on your journey of a sadhaka, many energies are created. Some of these can divert you from your saadhana and your goals, and there are instances where people have spoiled promising careers because of this. Practice pratyahara, withdrawal from the senses which are becoming a hurdle.
Branthi darshana, false perception and analysis or confusion of philosophy, is the sixth obstacle that Patanjali lists in the Yoga Sutras (1.30 to 1.32). Questioning is good, so is experimentation and exploration with, say, alternate forms, multiple methods of practice, different views and analyses, different models and so on. But you should not lose your core. To ensure against this, you should develop knowledge, gyana yoga. Where there is light, darkness cannot exist. Along with your practice, crave for knowledge. Don’t be half-baked. Be strong in your own school.
Then Patanjali mentions Alabdha Bhumikatva, failing to attain firm ground. This obstacle and the next one are closely related. As you practice, you should make progress, reach different stages. Some people learn easily, others don’t progress. Some blame the guru, blame the instrument, etc. So look for inspiration. Take firm ground, keep trying, don’t give up easily.
Anavasthitha, means no stability, slipping down, and lack of focus. Excuses are not appreciated in saadhana, so keep going. Learn to consolidate what you have learnt, before progressing to the next stage. Learn, get the basics right, and establish firm ground at each stage.
Chitta Vikshepa is distractions and diversions of the mind. Chitta, consciousness or the “mind field”, is traditionally defined as mano-buddhi-ahamkara. Manas is the thought-filled mind, while buddhi is the Intelligence within all of us. Ahamkara is I-ness, the sense of being an individual, the ego. Loosely, ahamkara is used for arrogance, but what it refers to is the sense of the ‘I.’ Aham means ‘I’ in Sanskrit. The main property of the mind is delusion. But buddhi is intelligence. Cultivate and operate through the buddhi.
From these nine obstacles, says Patanjali, consequences arise, of mental or physical affliction. There is dukha or grief, daurmanasya or depression, anga ejasyatva or shakiness of the limbs, and irregular breath. Breath is the foundation. Lose the breath, and lose everything.
Real yoga is to operate in the present. Dwelling in the past creates depression. Dwelling in the future creates anxiety. Don’t turn the potential-filled present into the “unpotential” past.
Be stronger than your problems. Manage expectations carefully. Keep at your saadhana, but don’t chase the illusion of mastery. True mastery is a divine gift, it comes from surrender, and is something that is reached at an advanced stage. Mastery can become an illusion and is not permanent. What is “permanent” is you, your knowledge, and your saadhana.
So every time one of the obstacles affects your practice, introspect, go back, and repair yourself. Come back stronger
In yogic practice, extraordinary powers and energies can sometimes be created. We consider even these to be obstacles and distractions, derailing us from the real goal, which is self-realisation.
In the same way, even fame and money can become an obstacle. The higher you go, the greater is your responsibility, and the farther you can fall. We have to see fame and money as incidental benefits at best, and obstacles at worst. Today we are seeing instances where people chase the obstacles instead of the ultimate goal!
(Sri Arun Prakash is a Yogaacharya, Vedic scholar. This article first appeared in the classical music magazine Saamagaana the First Melody)