Inside the Yoga Sutras: Obstacles to Practice

JaganathWithGurudevWith Rev. Jaganath Carrera

In this column, Rev. Jaganath Carrera, the author of the book Inside the Yoga Sutras, shares his reflections on specific sutras and help us to delve deeper into the timeless wisdom contained in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the textbook on Raja Yoga.

Let’s begin with a fundamental truth: everyone wants to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled.

If you are completely at peace, if there is no lack in your life, if nothing has the power to make you sad, anxious or unsure, then, perhaps for you, the study and practice of the Yoga Sutras is not necessary, you are already living the goal. If, on the other hand, you feel there is something missing in fleeting occasions of joy; if you yearn to experience an abiding peace, are searching for meaning and a vision of life that will help you make sense out of the unexpected twists ands turns you face; or if you would like to bring your mind to a clear and focused stillness, then consider reading on.

The Yoga Sutras of Sri Patanjali is the science of joy and a blueprint for living a deeply satisfying life. It is a timeless spiritual classic whose appeal is founded on a profound and unerring understanding of the human condition. Not simply a philosophy, it presents a holistic system of practices that provide clear progressive steps towards the elimination of suffering and attainment of spiritual liberation. These teachings reach beyond age, occupation, gender and faith tradition. They touch the heart of the struggle to find peace amidst a world of uncertainties and challenge. They boldly proclaim that the joy we seek is within us as none other than our True Identity.

Inside Pada One
Samadhi Pada: Contemplation

We are about to begin a journey. There are two essential factors required to make any journey: we need to know where we are and where we’re going. Sri Patanjali wastes little time in giving us a destination-the goal of Yoga-in sutra two of this section. Where we are now-stuck in a misperception of our True Identity-is addressed by sutra three and in several sutras scattered throughout the text.

Sri Patanjali describes the various mental modifications that color the mind and offers several meditation techniques and hints for gaining and maintaining undisturbed calmness of mind. We’ll begin our study with the very first sutra in which Patanjali sets us firmly on the path of Yoga.

Pada One:
Samadhi Pada

1. 1. Now, the exposition of Yoga.

Not later, not soon: now. If we wish to understand the principles of Yoga, our minds can’t be bogged down in the past or fretting about the future. With all other concerns at least temporarily put aside, our minds are free to be completely in the moment. The ability to focus attention is an important requisite in all areas of learning, but especially in spiritual matters, which contain subtle philosophical observations.

We can expand our understanding of this sutra by examining the words “now” and “exposition.”

Atha, translated as “now,” was traditionally used to indicate the beginning of a course of study intended to remove doubts. In regard to Raja Yoga, the doubt to be addressed may refer to uncertainties regarding the validity of the science of Yoga.

Atha also implies Sri Patanjali’s fitness or authority to teach. He is calling the class to order, so to speak. Only a qualified teacher would do that.

The word anusasanam, “exposition,” was typically used to signal the beginning of the study of a subject that was either composed of commonly held concepts, or that was previously taught on a more elementary level. Considering this, it is apparent that Sri Patanjali was not claiming that his was a new teaching, but rather an explanation of what has been taught before. It is also reasonable to assume that there were certain givens that Sri Patanjali didn’t refer to when speaking to his students. It’s like a preacher who might not believe it necessary to define the Golden Rule or list the Ten Commandments when speaking to a class of seminary students.

We can now re-examine this sutra and imagine that Sri Patanjali’s students might have understood it as, “Be alert, stay focused, for any doubts you have concerning the timeless teaching of Yoga will now be erased.”

Excerpted from Inside the Yoga Sutras by Rev. Jaganath Carrera, Integral Yoga Publications. Available from: and most retailers.

Rev. Jagaath Carrera’s text on the Yoga Sutras helps Yoga teachers and students understand the distractions they may encounter on the spiritual path. In this key sutra, Rev. Jaganath zeroes in on a specific obstacle discussed briefly in our special section: slipping from ground gained.

Sutra 1.30. Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and slipping from the ground gained-these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.

This list of obstacles will be familiar to those who have been practicing Yoga for any length of time. Every seeker faces them at various points on their spiritual journey. Vikshepa, translated as “distraction,” means false projection, scattering, dispersing, and shaking (of the mind-stuff). Vikshepa suggests that the obstacles are symptoms of a lack or loss of focus. It is interesting to note that misperception is also born of lack of steady mental focus (see sutra 1.8). Again and again, we see why nirodha-the ability to attain a clear focused mind-is the cornerstone of spiritual life. The obstacles form a kind of chain reaction, one leading to the next.

This stands for dis-ease, any physical discomfort or disorder that prevents us from fully engaging in Yoga practices. Whatever the reason, the student’s practice becomes irregular due to the challenge of physical distress.

What is the result of irregular practice? Not much progress is made. It’s hard to be keen and intent if you don’t experience anything nice in your practices. The mind begins to have a hard time focusing. When the mind can’t focus, it can’t penetrate into the deeper meaning of things. This being so, the next stage naturally follows. . .

“I don’t know. These teachings are awfully intense. And they seem too idealistic. I’m also starting to wonder if maybe my teacher doesn’t know what’s really best for me.” We doubt the veracity or practicality of the teachings or, even more troublesome, we doubt ourselves. We have not made the progress we thought we would. We feel a bit let down. Our hearts are not in our practice like before.
Even though the first three obstacles are working their spell, being a good student, you persevere. But there’s not much enthusiasm. Your practices become mechanical and lack conviction and intensity. The energy of the mind is torn by doubt and dissipated by disease and dullness. It is natural that such a practice be marked by carelessness. You barely pay attention to your practices.

Yoga practice now becomes nothing more than a chore. Do you feel like practicing anymore? Not likely. You become lazy with regard to your practices.

The mind is bored, and a bored mind always looks for a distraction-a new amusement or something to do. It gets mischievous. If it cannot find anything satisfying within the practices, it will look to gratify the senses.

False Perception
“Yes, I used to practice Raja Yoga. Don’t get me wrong, some aspects of Yoga are good, but these Eastern philosophies miss the point. After all, shouldn’t I live life with gusto, wringing out every drop of fun I can? And those yogis lived so long ago! Patanjali could not have anticipated today’s world. Or maybe he just didn’t face life as it is. It seems that Yoga is really about the suppression of natural impulses and emotions. I wonder how different these sutras would be if Patanjali were alive today.” What seemed so clearly true in the beginning now seems out of touch. We may begin to believe that our assessment of Yoga as meaningful for our lives was a mistake. Most practices are abandoned, with the exception of perhaps a few stress-relieving techniques.

Failure to Reach Firm Ground
It is difficult to make progress when the practices and attainments have not become firmly grounded, an integral part of how we experience life. Another way to understand this obstacle is that it is the inability to attain or maintain focused attention.

Slipping from the Ground Gained
Slipping from the ground gained can happen because we fall back into harmful habits, or due to extended periods of physical or emotional stress, or even because after making a little progress, we get a little complacent and “rest on our laurels.” Whatever the reason, it is a common experience to lose, at least temporarily, some of the spiritual progress we have made. It is very discouraging to work hard, make some progress, and then slip back. It can feel like Dante’s vision of hell, where poor souls expend tremendous energy to crawl out of an immense burning pit, only to fall back into the flames at the brink of escape.

If these obstacles are left unchecked, we will lose much of what we have gained. The guarantee of never falling back arrives only with the highest samadhi. Yet for those of us who have done our share of slipping, it is reassuring that Sri Patanjali understands our plight. He knows that this happens and has given us two powerful remedies (see sutra 1.29, regarding the way to overcome obstacles, and sutra 1.32, which explains the best method to prevent obstacles). It is easy to become discouraged when we experience these obstacles. We should remind ourselves that encountering obstacles is natural. Instead of becoming discouraged or worried, we can take the opportunity to look within and see what lessons the obstacles can teach us.

There is a story from Sri Ramakrishna that Sri Gurudev often related that demonstrates the sneaky way obstacles can slip into our lives and distract us from our intentions. Not all the obstacles are represented in this tale, but you will recognize a few of the key ones and the slippery slope they present. There once was a young yogi who had lived at his Guru’s ashram for a number of years. He was a dedicated disciple who practiced with great fervor. One day, he noticed his master looking at him in a curious way.

“Master, is there something wrong? You are looking at me in the most peculiar way.”
“No, nothing is wrong. But as I was watching you, it occurred to me that it would be good for you to experience a period of seclusion to focus on deepening your meditation.”
“Fine, master. I’m happy to do as you say.”
“Good. A few miles from here there is a nice forest with a small village nearby where you can go and beg for your daily food. Stay there until I come for you.”
“It sounds perfect. I’ll go at once.”

Following his master’s instructions, he took only a begging bowl and two loincloths. Arriving at the bank of a stream, he found an elevated spot where he built his hut. He then began a routine that was repeated faithfully for many weeks: after morning meditation, he would take one loincloth, wash it, drape it on the roof of his hut to dry, and then walk to the village to beg for food. Then one day, when he came back to the hut, he noticed that a rat had eaten a hole in his loincloth. What to do? The next day, he begged for food and another loincloth. The villagers were only too happy to help him. Unfortunately, the rat would not go away and continued ruining one loincloth after another. One villager took pity on him.

“Son, look how much trouble that rat is causing you. Everyday you have to beg for food and also for a new loincloth. What you need is a cat to keep away the rat.”

The young man was stunned at the simple logic of the answer. That very day he begged for food, a loincloth, and a cat. He obtained a nice kitten. But things did not go as he anticipated. Although the cat did keep away the rat, it, too, needed food. Now he had to beg for a bowl of milk for his cat as well as food for himself. This went on for several weeks, until. . .

“Young man, I noticed you begging for food for yourself and milk for your cat. Why don’t you get a cow? Not only can you feed the cat, you’ll even have milk left over for yourself!”

He thought this was brilliant. It took a little time, but he was able to find a villager to give him a cow. By now, you may have guessed what happens next. While the milk from the cow fed his cat and provided some milk for him, it too needed to eat. Now, when he begged for food, he also had to ask for hay for the cow. After some time. . .

“Dear boy, what a burden it is to beg for food and hay for your cow, too! Just do one simple thing and all your problems will be over. You are living on very fertile soil. Beg for hayseed and plant hay to feed the cow. You will certainly have enough hay left over to sell in town. With the extra money you could buy whatever you need.”

The young disciple wondered how he could have missed such a simple solution. He found hayseed to sow and soon harvested a rich crop of hay. But, one day a villager spotted him looking haggard.

“Son, you are working too hard. You have a growing business to look after. What you need is a wife to share responsibilities with you. Later on, your children will also be able to help.

Of course, he thought. So simple. He did find a nice woman to marry. His business and family grew by leaps and bounds. In fact, his hut was soon replaced by a mansion staffed with servants. One day there was a knock at the door. The young man walked to the door and looked into the eyes of his master. A sudden rush of recognition brought back memories of long forgotten and neglected commitments. Looking heavenward, he raised his arms high and shouted. . .

“All for the want of a loincloth!”

The moral is not: don’t have pets, a business, or a spouse; it’s: always keep your eye on your goal. It is too easy to slip from the ground gained.

Excerpted from Inside the Yoga Sutras by Rev. Jaganath Carrera, Integral Yoga Publications. Available from: and most retailers.

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