This month in class – as we practice asana, we are holding space for the understanding of yoga as presented in the first pada or book of the timeless text Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In this pada Patanjali lays out the arc of yoga – he spells out the origin and result of the practice as well as some fundamentals of practice itself. He also spells out the inner and outer obstacles. This is important. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people in the world find well-being in yoga. We all want that well-being, but, well, maybe we just don’t feel like we can do yoga. My teacher once taught me that the hardest part of yoga was just getting to class. Do you have obstacles? What are they? As a yogi, I confront those obstacles daily. As a yoga teacher, my life is filled with persons telling me why they can’t practice — at job interviews, at the bank, at the dinner table and in the grocery store. Hey, maybe you just don’t want to! Nothing wrong with that! But if you do want to, acknowledging the obstacles and being willing to engage them can be a powerful move forward towards actually becoming stable in your practice. It’s really important to note that Patanjali spells out both inner obstacles (our thoughtforms) and outer obstacles (i.e.not feeling well). Adopting a two pronged approach to address these two apparently separate dimensions of our being can be a powerful catapult into a strong practice.
For many of us, the outer obstacles seem to be the easiest to focus on in the beginning. It seems that if there was just a little less traffic we could get there. But, from the perspective of yoga, the outer obstacles always have an inner corollary. The outer obstacles Patanjali identifies are: illness, laziness, negligence, the attraction of pleasures, confusion about the practice, attachment to the way things are and a tendency to fall back on old habits. The inner barriers to the experience of yoga are the various thoughtforms that we have been conditioned to believe are true and unchangeable (“I’m not athletic – never have been since I was a kid”). The solution to the equation is yoga. In the samadhi pada Patanjali describes the experience of yoga arising as we shift away from identification with our conditioned thoughtforms and engage with and identify with the ground of consciousness which is fresh and clear and unfettered.
Arm balances – historically – have always been a big struggle for me. It took seven years for me to do a handstand. When I finally stood on my hands, it was a surprise. My physical effort had been minimal; linking to some measure of illumined consciousness had been maximal. It’s a story I lived many times in my years of practice. Today, faith in myself and a willingness to let go and link up with a more illumined perspective is still essential to my practice. If that linkage wobbles, so does my posture. But what I saw in that moment of my first handstand was that I had held myself down with the belief that I could not support myself with my own two hands. To be honest, that epitomizes much of my life journey and my journey through yoga. It’s been a journey from dependence to independence.
The first step is a little bit of willingness to see what our inner thought forms are. We don’t have to worry about changing them. A willingness to consider that they are there can go a long way towards dissolving them. Patanjali identifies them as:
- What we’ve learned intellectually from valid sources
- What we’ve learned intellectually from invalid sources
- Hearsay – what we’ve heard about, but have never experienced.
- The arising of states of non-wakefulness (sleepiness)
- Recall – drawing forth of past experiences (memory)
Because the obstacles can be so deeply embedded in our programming it does take a bit of faith to get on the mat at all. But if we desire the sovereignty to deeply transform ourselves and our world that desire can propel us along in our practice until faith in the practice emerges. It’s all in what you focus on.