The Sacred Text You Keep Writing Off is Here to Save Your Yoga.

Via Frances Harjeet
on May 16, 2011
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Photo: Mixtribe Photo

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has everything to do with you—So, what’s keeping you from practicing?

Recently, I’ve seen a few indignant posts in the yoga blogosphere claiming that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is not relevant to modern practitioners. I know this sounds crazy, but these claims are out there (elephant journal? No doubt). In my opinion (call me harsh, I don’t mind), it is their arrogance that causes these post-modern yogis to believe that since the Yoga Sutras is thousands of years old, it’s knowledge and prescriptions do not pertain to them in their very special and unique modern lives.

Hate to break it to you “yogis,” but you are not a special and unique snowflake. The Yoga Sutras describes the human condition and how to help oneself 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.

Over this past weekend workshop, Tim Miller kept it real by dishing out sutra left and right. It was impressive for sure and very educational for us little yogis. We went over the yama and niyama (the constraints and observances), the three sutras regarding asana (the postures), quite a few regarding pranayama (breath-control practices) and the klesha (afflictions, or root-causes of suffering) too.

But what we spent the most time working with were the obstacles to yoga laid out in the first chapter, Samadhi-Padah. I was really struck by the applicable nature of learning about these obstacles in regards to deepening and improving my own practice.

Simply put, when I know what’s causing me to struggle, I have a better chance at overcoming it.

Tim spoke about the Yoga Sutras with such eloquence, but also stayed totally true to the nature of the text by keeping his discourse short, simple and directly focused. Listening to his descriptions of the Sutras made me just totally gawk at how yoga practitioners could possibly deny the applicability and importance of the Sutras today.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was known to have said, “Anyone can do this yoga, except lazy people.”
I believe that this is true.

But our “laziness” comes in many forms.  It’s not just that we would rather sleep in and lounge around instead of waking up early to sweat it out on the mat, but that we struggle with laziness regarding our own inner-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. If, indeed, we truly want to accelerate our evolutionary process and break our samskaras—those ingrained, suffering-producing patterns—we have to practice! There is no side-skipping sadhana (daily spiritual practice).

The Yoga Sutras describes nine specific obstacles that prevent one from a dedicated sadhana:

vyadhi-styana-sansaya-pramadalasyavirati-bhranti-darshanalabdha-bhumikatvasthitatvani citta-viksepas te’ntarayah   I.30

First—vyadhi—Illness and disease.

This can definitely 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 yogic 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 will cause illness. The only way to break the stagnation is to invite rajas (dynamic energy) 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—sansayaDoubt.

You are questioning the wrong things, you suffer from indecision, you lack faith (sraddha) in the practice, so you feeling like giving 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, 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 millennia backing it up, so who am I to doubt it?  If you are practicing yoga rooted in the shastra (the ancient Vedic scriptures) you can set your doubt to the side.

Next up—pramada—Negligence or carelessness.

The mind is impatient, and thus, becomes careless. When you are careless and the mind is too rajasic, accidents happen, injuries happen—big obstacles. To combat this, you must practice mindful action and thought—practice with awareness! It is also helpful to practice calming pranayama techniques and eating sattvic (pure and cooling) foods.

Photo: Stephen Nakatani

The fifth obstacle—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 and energizing pranayama—bring in the rajas!

Rest is essential in proper proportions, but overly long bouts of laziness only breeds more lethargy, thus making it harder and harder for you to pick yourself up and get going again.

Next—a-virati—Intemperance, immoderation, and sexual preoccupation.

By clinging to the sense-pleasures and deluding yourself into identifying with these attachments, you become distracted from your true purpose. These behaviors 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 my really trying to quit those behaviors consciously. I knew I was going be waking up before sunrise to engage in demanding asana, pranayama and meditation, so it became clear to me that I just 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 yoga practice taught me to honor and respect myself, and accordingly, 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, and that is not going to open your mind or your heart! So, how does one wash the windows of perception?

Tapas! You have got to work at it with such intense devotion, with integrity, sweat and tears. Tend the Sacred Fire and burn through your delusions. Also, it’s helpful to remember that you don’t always have to believe everything you think.

The last two obstacles are connected.

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 or meditation practice.

Or a different way of seeing this is that you fail to observe the yama/niyama, so your practice remains very one-dimensional, and thus doesn’t have the power to be a sustainable transformational force in your life.

This leads us to the final obstacle—an-avasthitatvani – Instability or unsteadiness in character, in commitment, in the mind and in the body.

Mental instability is truly the root of all the other obstacles. It is absolutely 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 (eye focus) and asana.

The Primary Series of Ashtanga 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—your relationship with yourself 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.”

Photo: Nicholas T

So what’s the answer?  (You gotta love the Sutras—so straightforward here!):

“They can be removed by the practice of concentration upon a single truth” – Sutra I:32

Voila! You want to eliminate suffering? You must practice.

It all comes down to abhyasa—practice of a single truth. Find your truth and practice with diligence and clear, one-pointed focus.

At different times on our individual journeys, we might encounter one obstacle more than another. Do not despair. This serves a purpose. To heal, to progress, we must first recognize the problem in order to remedy it.

The Sutras identifies the possible obstacles for us, so all we have to do is bring our awareness to the struggles at hand and ……practice!


About Frances Harjeet

Frances Harjeet was raised by a yoga mother and Republican father in a yuppie-hippie home and has spent most of her recent growing-up years adventuring around this beautiful world, engaging in various yoga, meditation and spiritual practices. Firmly rooted now in both Ashtanga and Kundalini Yoga, she values every day as an opportunity to delve deeper into these awe-inspiring traditions. A massage therapist, yoga instructor, musician and general admirer of all things beautiful, she loves sharing her passion for yoga, health and creative living with others through her blog Lila. here.


17 Responses to “The Sacred Text You Keep Writing Off is Here to Save Your Yoga.”

  1. Maheshvara says:

    Beautiful post. True in so many ways… I do believe that the yoga philosophy as expounded in the Patañjali Yogasutras is relevant to yogis today. On the other hand, it is my conviction that it is not the only, nor necessarily the most important "yoga" text. There are countless scriptures with countless techniques that aim at achieving the highest state of "union" (yoga).
    Among many "yogis" I have noticed a rather dialectical mambojambo trying to justify more "life-affirming" philosophies that are compatible with modern western society. Nonetheless, "life-affirming" is often misused to justify any kind of behavior, particularly behavior of excess that leads us nowhere near the goal of yoga, but makes us feel good (temporarily). To misuse the scriptures, yogic, tantrik or any other for our own egoistic ways of life is not going to be beneficial for us in the long run.
    My take on this is, that no matter what text you follow you need to practice its teachings thoroughly if possible under the guidance of a true teacher who actually imbibes them completely. It is very easy to get lost in this diversity and also to misunderstand these texts which are amazingly profound, yet often mysterious.

  2. athayoganusasanam says:

    Thank you for your comment – very insightful. I definitely understand where you are coming from regarding the loose interpretations often made by people in order to justify their behavior. It is a travesty….and all too common in our post-modern yoga world.
    You are certainly correct that the Yoga Sutra is not the only important yoga text. But I do believe it is foundational and not to be ignored in our practices. I would also note that all the yoga texts, whether the Bhagavad-Gita, Yoga Sutra, Vedanta Sutra etc., etc., share core truths. The manifestation of the practice might differ (Bhakti Yoga versus Karma Yoga versus Jnana Yoga etc.,) but the central truth and goal is very much the same – to merge with God.

  3. matthew says:

    Hi Frances — thanks for the link to our March 3rd article on reading strategies for Patanjali. In 8 subsequent pieces, we have worked hard to investigate contemporary complications to the dualist and ascetic ideals of this fascinating and foundational text. In our last post especially, we spend considerable space on our sympathetic reading of the ascetic context and the problems of early civilization that it is trying to solve. Nowhere to we "write off" Patanjali. The text is obviously relevant, because we use it. The question is: how authentically to our own experience do we use it? And nowhere do we denigrate practice or experience. In fact, our position of positive cynicism is a call for continual self-evaluation, i.e., exploratory practice of the principles. We also don't claim that contemporary suffering is somehow more special than axial age suffering, which Patanjali is addressing 2200 to 2500 years ago. It's simply different. And for those who yearn to live open-eyed with regard to their present condition, recognizing these differences can be very helpful.

  4. thad says:

    I think that you both have made very valuable points in the discussion and appreciate both of your contributions. If I may be so bold as to interject, it appears that perhaps there is a bit of talking past one another occurring here, or at the very least a conversation on two levels.

    It doesn't appear to me that Frances is denying that there are a multitude of events which we label "sufferings" occurring in the world which the Axial philosophers would have known nothing about. But, that point is mute really in light of the fact that it is our labeling of such events as "suffering" which manifests them to us as such, and it is this construction which then requires us to turn to the Yoga Sutra. Why is "human-generated ecological catastrophe" a suffering? Arguably because we are attached to our enjoyments here (raga), we desire to avoid the physical and mental pain of seeing our environment laid to waste (dvesa), and we will cling to our lives at all cost (abhinivesah). Also, one could argue the source of the reckless behavior which is leading to the destruction is premised on a faulty understanding of the self (asmita, and or avidya, take your pick). And, by your own admission Matthew, these are safe from postmodernity.

    So, what makes Frances' claim that there really is nothing new under the sun such a point of contention? It seems that she is merely making a plea for us to return to and recognize the root causes of our suffering as opposed to the particular manifestations and that perhaps failing to do so could keep us trapped in our dilemmas for much longer than need be. Many religious, spiritual and environmental leaders have pointed out that we will never solve the environmental problem until we solve our relationship with the world at large, which is, of course, predicated on our relationship with ourselves. And this is exactly what the Yoga Sutra deal with.

  5. athayoganusasanam says:

    The point of my piece is rather simple – our suffering (in whatever manifestation it takes) is rooted in the same ignorance and misunderstanding of the true nature of the self as it has always been. I stick to that truth. I am not looking to engage in a debate or try to "win". I merely wrote this piece to show how a great yoga teacher encouraged me to turn my attention to the Yoga Sutra in order to understand what stands in my way on my spiritual path and by doing so, I can work to progress and continue to grow and deepen in my practice. So, let's agree to disagree. I am not necessarily a philosopher. I will leave that to others.
    Thank you.

  6. matthew says:

    Great notes, thad. My view of the ascetic context and thrust of Sutra philosophy is that while it does indeed seek to heal internal imbalances, it expressly and emphatically turns away from the world to do so. This was the strategy of the time period: escape the corruption of nature. This may no longer be appropriate, and serves to show that what is "essential" or "root causal" to the suffering of one age may itself have shifted in another. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. matthew says:

    I respect that general human confusion and stress is a constant, so we don't have to disagree there! I just think that the flavours and causes of it shift through time in response to change, and that yoga must reflect that change. In fact, it always has: hence its many threads. Sounds like you had a great time with Mr. Miller. Blessings.

  8. thad says:

    I want to express my appreciation for you open and thoughtful communication, Matthew. Just out of curiosity, and perhaps you have covered this in your other pieces, (and if so, I would be happy with the links), what do believe are the current "root" causes of suffering and how do these differ from those raised by Patanjali? And if you find the turning "away from the world" inherent in yoga unsuitable, then why not pursue some other approach? Or is it your position that you will somehow be able to "re-work" the system to eliminate this, could we say, flaw?

  9. thad says:

    Pot meet Kettle.

  10. NotSoSure says:

    My question is how does the a modern thinker deal with the messy bits of the Y.S.?

    The Y.S. state that through intense practice a yogi can become invisible, levitate and have the strength of an elephant. While I am invisible as I write this I find the other two to be silly.

    If one takes a literal approach to the Y.S., then that person should also believe that they can become just as invisible as I am at this moment.

    If one believes the Y.S. contain methods to overcome the nine obstacles while rejecting the accompanying belief in personal invisibility then that person is picking and choosing the bits an pieces of the Y.S. that she/he feels are most relevant. Isn't the process of picking and choosing a hallmark of the "modern" perspective?

    And on a side note, I cannot tell you how much I love the you are not a little yogi snowflake line in your post.

  11. luke says:

    The extraordinary powers are to me roundabout way of discussing the relationship between consciousness and energy, their potential and limits. But if you have doubts, just do samyama on those things and find out if the claimed cause-effect really is there, just like anything in the ys.

  12. matthew says:

    Hi thad. I looked through my responses to you to see where I had condescended. I found it in "Better to participate than to wish it wasn't happening." In my haste, I failed to fill out that sentence. I should have written: "I used to wish that such change wasn't happening, but when I realized it was, I saw it as my role to participate in the evolution." I apologize for not communicating that clearly enough through making it personal to me.

  13. Thaddeus1 says:

    Nice point Luke. This lies at the heart of why yoga is a science…you sit down and you do it and then observe if the results are what others have said they are. From my experience, these sages are right on, which is why i am always perplexed by those who are constantly looking to tweak the system. But, we all got our paths to walk and as Krsna points out in Bhagavad-gita, "If you cannot take to this practice, then engage yourself in the cultivation of knowledge. Better than knowledge, however, is meditation, and better than mediation is renunciation of the fruits of action, for by such renunciation one can attain peace of mind."

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