At some point during your yoga journey (maybe when you’re trying for the umpteenth time to just get…into…headstand…!), odds are good that you’ll run into some discomfort and challenges. These might be physical (arm balances, anyone?), mental (I thought I was better at this), or appear to be external (this teacher’s voice drives me CRAZY). Sometimes these challenges make your practice (or your desire and ability to practice) more difficult than you expected, leaving you with the feeling of, “I didn’t sign up for this!” However, people have been practicing Yoga for several thousand years, and I have it on good authority that some obstacles appear over and over again, for all types of people. It’s a classic good news/bad news – the obstacles are coming, and they might suck…but hey, you’re in good company.
Patanjali writes about nine obstacles commonly found on the yogic path in The Yoga Sutras (see sutra 1.30). Unsurprisingly, they are mostly internal circumstances that need to be overcome, with only one external component. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Yoga is a mental and spiritual practice, first and foremost; the physical poses are there to enhance the practice. Even if physical poses are/were your starting point, they are not the goal, no matter how pretty your scorpion pose looks.) We know these obstacles are affecting us because we experience mental or emotional distress, a sense of despair, physical difficulties, and trouble breathing easily.
We study the obstacles (sometimes translated as “interruptions”) so that we can recognize when we’ve stumbled over them. Believe it or not, I’ve found that most of my internal struggles can be fit into one of the nine categories; furthermore, any external challenges, or things outside of my control, trigger a response which (surprise surprise) again fits into one of the nine obstacles Patanjali describes. These are, I believe, captured in the sutras for several reasons – as a warning, so we know to watch out for them; as a reminder, so we know what to do when we encounter them; and as a reassurance, so we know that these obstacles are part of the human condition. We’re not alone.
With that being said, I don’t know that Patanjali could necessarily have conceived of our current world. How does one make the intellectual leap from wearing a loincloth, sitting in lotus on a rock, eating from a wooden bowl, and teaching in a monastery (which is how I picture all old yogi sages; excuse me if it’s not accurate or flattering, it’s just the picture in my brain) – how does one imagine our technological, phone-attached-to-your-hand, information-available-across-the-world-in-seconds, instant gratification hashtag-first-world-problems culture when one lives in huts and meditates on nearby trees!? Quite simply, he didn’t. He taught the truths he’d observed, and his teachers had observed, about what you might encounter when trying to improve your life – and miracle of miracles, it’s still relevant today.
Before I detail some of these obstacles and how I see them playing out in the here and now, I’ll let you in on the big secret. The counter practice to make these obstacles – poof! – disappear (well, okay, they’ll probably be back, it’s not really magic). The sweeping remedy to apply when you find yourself stumbling! Are you taking notes? Do you have a guess? Be warned, it’s not exactly sexy or chic, but it is tried and true. Patanjali recommends (drumroll, please): meditation.
Not exactly a big reveal, is it? Patanjali’s entire yoga sutras are summed up in its first line: calming the fluctuations of the mind. But the devil’s in the details, after all – how do you calm the mind? What do you meditate on to help overcome the obstacles? He offers seven suggestions (which I won’t detail in this post), but the gist of it is this: pick one method, and stick with it. You can’t take three paths up the same mountain simultaneously.
For October, I’m diving into the last three obstacles listed by Patanjali. (I will be adding the other six to the website very soon!)
Delusion, or False Perception
The obstacle of delusion sometimes masquerades as cockiness or arrogance. It occurs when we think we’ve ‘made it’ and have reached the top of the mountain. Picture it – the feeling of accomplishment, wind whipping your hair, a beautiful view you’ve never seen before! Everything is clear and crisp and couldn’t possibly be better than this!
Therein lies the trap. You’ll be tempted to stop, rest, kick off those hiking boots and set up a towel to sunbathe naked (or is that just me?). However…you’ve gotten cocky. You think you know all you need to, and it’s time to settle into the reward and enjoy it…but if you were to turn around, you’d realize that you’ve only reached a plateau. The mountain continues behind and beyond you, with heights unimagined.
Nonmetaphorically, this might look like having the mind in a state of peace and calm you’ve never experienced before. It could be that perfect scorpion pose. Perhaps it’s the relationship of your dreams, where your person really gets you and your goofy-hatted, naked-sunbathing, yoga-mat-toting, having-all-the-feels self. Or you could get the promotion you worked for, created the business or art project, made the money you need to retire early. Maybe you’ve finally created the connection and relationship with your child that you never thought you’d have. Whatever you achieve, it finally feels like you’ve made it! You’ve won! These days, you might say, “On to the next challenge!”
This penultimate achievement is just another illusion. Relationships still take investment, and people change over time; you’ll never know all the secrets, personality quirks, or inner dreams of another human. Your body shifts daily, changing in strength and flexibility. Jobs and businesses have to respond to new circumstances, competition, and that pesky innovation from can’t-quit-early Jamie from around the corner. Arrogance can lead to complacency, which can lead to our final obstacle.
False perception might show up in reverse, too – you might find yourself bored with a situation or person, certain that you’ve learned all there is to learn here, and ready to cut ties and move on. “There’s nothing left for me here” can be just as much a trap as “I’ve done it all,” causing its own version of arrogance and early dismissal.
Remember that obstacles are there to teach us a lesson, and that very little is cut and dry ‘truth.’ There are absolutely circumstances where you’ve mastered a skill, or outgrown a relationship. Letting go of activities and people creates a different set of things to learn, and you ultimately have choice in your life. I want to remind you not to start popping the bubbly at high altitude – or start leading a chorus of “Another One Bites the Dust” – before you’ve really examined where your growth opportunity is. I guarantee there’s a direction to climb, to challenge yourself, if you’re willing to take it on.
Lack of Progress
At first, this seems like the polar opposite of the previous interruption – when we notice how far we still have to go. Perhaps it shows up as you come down from the arrogance, and realize that you’re not the all-time expert on Friends trivia, or that your ‘zen’ state of mind is easily derailed by that no good son-of-a-mother giant FREAKING truck that cuts you off on your way home. Maybe it’s the first obstacle you run into, when you show up to a new job and see the seven MILLION things you still have to learn to be capable, or when that flexy person on the mat beside you gets their hands to the ground in forward fold while you desperately envision your hands passing your knees someday.
We can run into this halfway, too. Maybe you’ve been making fantastic progress hiking the mountain – or learning the job, or saving the money, or meditating every day – and you suddenly realize what a long path still lies ahead. We get discouraged, frustrated, disappointed. Our feet drag like a beaten dog’s tail, and we ask ourselves how stupid do we have to be to have gotten into this situation in the first place? It could be that anger shows up, and we curse the trail and everyone along it, because since we’ll never achieve anything we may as well make everyone miserable while we fail.
Hyperbolic reaction or not, the feeling of inadequacy is very real. For example, one of the biggest complaints new meditators have is that they’d never noticed how noisy their mind was – how on earth can they be expected to quiet it!? The temptation is to walk away, give up, and admit that we were never qualified for it (whatever your “it” is) anyway.
As the old saying goes: a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. Remember that all the feelings, the self-criticism, the discouragement – it’s only a state of mind, an obstacle in the path, and it’s not necessarily real. Don’t discredit how far you’ve come already, or give too much fuel to that critical voice (what does it know? That voice isn’t the one getting its butt kicked while trying to hike a mountain, it’s got a cozy spot in your head for the ride-along!). You always have progress to make, but who’s to say it has to be at a certain speed? Take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other, and see if you can make just a little more progress today over yesterday.
Regression or Inconstancy
The final obstacle that Patanjali lays out for us is that of ‘losing the ground you have gained.’ It’s slipping down the mountain – discovering you can’t hold onto the job position, or don’t bend as deeply today – that heart-wrenching feeling of moving in the wrong direction. Sometimes this shows up because we haven’t been as consistent with our efforts; often, it shows up despite our perseverance. It leads to the real heart of this obstacle: loss of confidence.
Don’t you wish there were a pill for that?? Pop a little something in your mouth, swish with water, and BAM! You’re back on top of the world, veritably strutting up that mountain path, sure you can conquer anything (just try and cross me, mountain lion!). Of course, it’s not that easy – if it were, there would be no game to it. Encountering obstacles and being unable to predict how the path unfolds is what keeps it interesting. It enables us to discover anew our inner strength when we overcome whatever adversity stares us down.
Regardless, loss of confidence is a doozy. It can be so easy to quit, leave, give up, or just resign yourself to feeling small and stupid. The act of trying again can be daunting or even offensive, because “who am I to succeed?” worms its way into our psyche like your least-favorite but incredibly catchy tune.
This is where we exert our mental strength. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and tighten those hiking boots. There may be scrapes to heal from, or tears to shed, but we know – because the sutras documented it! – that this, too, is part of the journey. No person, situation, or circumstance can keep you down permanently.
In his commentary on The Yoga Sutras, Swami Satchidananda says it beautifully:
“Remember, Yoga practice is like an obstacle race; many obstructions are purposely put on the way for us to pass through. They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities. We all have that strength, but we don’t seem to know it. We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities.”
So whether your loss of progress comes from a life-altering angle (losing a job, death of a loved one, health crisis) or from a should-be-trivial-but-really-matters-to-you angle (seriously, can’t I just touch my toes yet?)…you can breathe easy. It’s normal to be challenged, it’s part of the path, and you can get through it. I promise, it will be worthwhile.
Because you have a mountain to climb. And the view absolutely gets better higher up.
I’m really enjoying learning about the 8 limbs / sutras and appreciate your easy-to-understand metaphors. Thank you so much for sharing your learning – it’s exactly what I needed to hear and be reminded of!