By Christopher Chapple, Ph.D.

In this article, Dr. Chapple gives our readers a concise and clear overview of the obstacles to the goal of Yoga that Sri Patanjali delineates in the Yoga Sutras. This overview includes the cause of the impurities and obstacles, the role of the yamas and niyamas in their removal and how a consistent sadhana is the key to Self-realization.

Five Impurities (Klesas)

Sri Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, proclaims that our thought forms (vrittis) come afflicted with five forms of impurity (klesa). The practice of Yoga entails the systematic cleansing of these impurities from our thought structures, bringing the yogi ever closer to states of illumination (sattva) and freedom (kaivalyam). By understanding the negative tendencies (samskaras, vasana) that color one’s experience of reality, one can gain new perspectives, make changes and overcome innumerable obstacles.

The first and foundational impurity, ignorance or lack of wisdom (avidya), defines and permeates all that follows. This ignorance does not speak to a lack of information, but to a flawed pattern of viewing the world in relationship to oneself. Due to ignorance, we see things as eternal, whereas our wisdom voice tells us that nothing lasts forever. We think that the beautiful things of the world—from cars to attractively toned bodies—are pure, whereas everything made of parts eventually decays. We mistakenly think that things give us pleasure, when in fact, ultimately, attachment to things eventually results in suffering. And we think we really know who we are, mistaking our attributes and accomplishments and possessions for our true Self. The true Self can never be spoken: It does nothing, owns nothing and can never find words which can speak its deepest truth.

Due to this ignorance, we mistake our thinking, clinging thought patterns to be our true Self, creating a platform of ego (asmita) from which we launch all our endeavors, for good or ill. These experiences, created from our lower sense of ego, deliver us into two additional impurities: seeking continually after pleasure (raga) or fiercely resisting and complaining about the results (dvesa).  Nonetheless, whether happy or sad, we return again and again, engaging the world, taking up a new action with each fresh breath, driven by the fifth impurity (abhinivesa).

Patanjali describes the operations of the impurities as follows:

II:3.  Ignorance, I-am-ness, attraction, aversion and desire to continue are the impurities.

II:4.  Ignorance is the cause of the others, whether dormant, diminished, interrupted or fully active.

II:5. Ignorance is seeing the transient as intransigent, a sullied thing as pure,
a painful experience as pleasurable and the ego as one’s true Self.

II:6. Ego arises when the two powers of Seer (pure subjectivity, purusa) and Seen (the ego-based objective world, prakriti) appear as a single self.

II:7. Attraction causes us to cling to pleasure.

II:8. Aversion results in clinging to suffering.

II:9. Desire for it all to continue (abhinivesa) arises even among the wise
and is sustained by its own momentum.

By reflecting on this list and keeping an inventory of one’s tendencies and propensities, a roadmap may be developed to foster self-understanding, an important first step toward honest re-evaluation.

Nine Obstacles (Antaraya)

Due to impure ego structures, determined and maintained by human action (karma) and common to all human beings, obstacles arise again and again.  Patanjali lists nine primary obstacles, easily recognizable within each person’s experience. The first three evoke the heaviness and difficulty inherent in the qualities of tamas, variously translated as the heaviness mode through which the material world (including our personalities) finds expression. Sickness, the first, in addition to making a person feel bad, frequently impedes a person’s ability to perform the most elemental practices of Yoga, including asana and pranayama.  Dullness, the second obstacle, similarly inhibits the mental alacrity required to apply discernment and insight within daily action. This can lead to the third obstacle, doubt, which puts the very notion of the possibility of self-improvement into question. Without believing in one’s capacity to move toward greater states of purity, all incentive fails.

The second group of obstacles entails activities that stand in relationship with the second quality, rajas, often thought of as passionate action associated with a fiery will. The first in this group results in carelessness, a barging forward without considering consequences. The second indicates a deflation of rajas, a burning out that leads to laziness. And the third, sense addiction, is easily recognizable in persons who identify with and cling to experiences, sometimes facilitated by substances such as food  liquor or drugs that trap one within repeated negative behaviors, harmful to oneself and others. These first six obstacles are often the easiest to recognize, though not necessarily easy to overcome. . .

Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.