May 16, 2011

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

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!

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