When thoughts obstructive to yoga arise, they can be eliminated if the mind is brought back to a single focus..
According to Patanjali, obstacles on the yogic path are predictable and even expected. Patanjali suggests we not let these obstacles distract us and gives us some practical guidance in Sutras 1.30 through 1.32.
He identifies nine obstacles that can become yogic roadblocks:
- Physical illness
- Indiscipline of the senses
- Living in illusion
- Lack of perseverance
- Inability to maintain achieved progress
Commenting on some of these obstacles, Swami Vivekānanda writes:
- “…Disease. This body is the boat which will carry us to the other shore of the ocean of life. It must be taken care of. Unhealthy persons cannot be Yogis.
- Mental laziness makes us lose all lively interest in the subject, without which there will neither be the will nor the energy to practice.
- Doubts will arise in the mind about the truth of the science, however strong one’s intellectual conviction may be, until certain peculiar psychic experiences come, as hearing or seeing at a distance. These glimpses strengthen the mind and make the student persevere.
- Falling away…when obtained. Some days or weeks when you are practicing the mind will be calm and easily concentrated, and you will find yourself progressing fast. All of a sudden the progress will stop one day, and you will find yourself, as it were, stranded. Persevere. All progress proceeds by such rise and fall.”
Further, Swami Krishānanda of Rishikesh notes: “... obstacles are not necessarily the outcome of conscious action... the obstacles are the reactions set up by our deeper personality... it is not only...waking consciousness that [is] the cause of our experience, but the unintelligible hidden latencies... our moods and actions are not always on the conscious level, and as long as they are there, even unconsciously, they shall be the determining factors of our future...”
Patanjali suggests that to avoid creating further obstacles, like adopting beliefs such as , “something is wrong with me,” we accept and embrace our human frailties and flaws as we become aware of them. Awareness and acceptance help dissolve distractions, negative feelings, and the dross of the mind, putting these thoughts in a light where we can choose to see them as simply optional.
Patanjali mentions four consequences of distractions that have grown into obstacles:
- Restlessness or anxiety
- Irregularity in the breath
These symptoms most likely mean we’ve momentarily lost our focus. Once we spot them we can look to their source and seek to re-find our focus.
As Swami Vivekānanada says:
“Concentration will bring perfect repose to mind and body every time it is practiced. When the practice has been misdirected, or not controlled enough, these disturbances come. Repetition of Om and self-surrender to the Lord will strengthen the mind and bring fresh energy. The nervous shakings will come to almost everyone. Do not mind them at all, but keep on practicing. Practice will cure them, and make the seat firm.”
Patanjali then gives us further advice on where to place our focus. He suggests that obstacles are overcome when we keep our focus on the truth. By truth he means a wise choice in the larger context of goodness, like reflecting on one of the yamas, such as non-attachment, or saying a prayer, or repeating an affirmation, enjoying beauty, connecting with a loved one, or finding anything that cultivates a world view of an expanding consciousness.
Swami Vivekānanda interprets further:
“Making the mind take the form of one object for some time will destroy these obstacles. This is general advice. [In later] aphorisms it will be expanded and particularized. As one practice cannot suit everyone, various methods will be advanced, and everyone, by actual experience, will find out which helps him the most…we must have friendship for all; we much be merciful towards those that are in misery; when people are happy, we ought to be happy; and to the wicked we must be indifferent. So with all subjects that come before us…these attitudes of the mind towards the indifferent subjects that come before it will make the mind peaceful. Most of our difficulties in our daily lives come from being unable to hold our minds in this way. For instance, if a man does evil to us, instantly we want to react evil, and every reaction of evil shows that we are not able to hold the Chitta (mind and ego) down; it comes out in waves toward the object and we lose our power…”
Additionally, there are other common obstacles on the rāja yoga path. These are:
- Fascination by yogic powers
- Practicing meditation by rote, mechanically
- Focusing on certain limbs of yoga and forgetting the others, in haste
- Not proceeding on the path systematically, as outlined by Patanjali
- Practicing erratically
- Aimless wandering of the mind, argumentation, intellectual jargon
- Egotism (taking pride in one’s own abilities and ignoring the meditation rules, without the maturity to seek guidance.)
Swami Vivekānanda speaks of overcoming these obstacles by remaining on the path:
“Practice hard…you have to plunge in and work without thinking of the result…those who take up just a bit of it and a little of everything else make no progress. It is of no use simply to take a course of lessons. To those who are ignorant and dull, those whose minds never get fixed on any idea, who only crave something to amuse them, religion and philosophy are simply objects of entertainment. These are the unpersevering…to succeed you must have a tremendous perseverance, tremendous will. ‘I will drink the ocean,’ says the persevering will, ‘ and at my will mountains will crumble.’ Have that sort of energy, that sort of will, work hard, and you will reach the goal.”
Swami Vivekānada, Rāja Yoga: Conquering the Internal Nature (Kolkata, India: Advaita Ashrama, 2002)
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (San Francisco, CA: Thorsons, 1993)
Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2003)
Swami Adiswarananda, The Four Yogas, (Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2006)
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