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Continuing in the Sutra Series, senior Iyengar teacher Carrie Owerko tackles the nine obstacles that obstruct us. Get ready for deep self-study.
Patanjali’s nine obstacles or impediments to practice
by Carrie Owerko, Senior Iyengar Teacher
Patanjali writes of nine obstacles or impediments to practice: “The obstacles are distractions caused by disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, craving, delusion, non-attainment of desired objective and unsteadiness.” (Sutra 1.30, Rohit Mehta, ‘Yoga: The Art of Integration‘). BKS Iyengar translates Sutra 1.30 thusly: “these obstacles are disease, inertia, doubt, heedlessness, laziness, indiscipline of the senses, erroneous views, lack of perseverance, and backsliding.”
Some of the commentaries suggest that these obstacles all emerge from the first one on the list, “dis-ease” or vyadhi. In the second chapter of Patanjali’s yoga sutras, we learn that Patanjali sees avidya or ignorance as the root or even the soil from which the other afflictions of egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear, or clinging to life, emerge (Sutras 2.3 through 2.5).
In some ways, misunderstanding, or avidya, is somewhat like the “dis-ease” of vyadhi in Sutra 1.30. When we are uneasy, upset, ill at ease or not well in some way, physically or emotionally, the subsequent afflictions can easily become manifest and further distract and disturb our consciousness and sense of well being.
Look at your mental, physical or emotional landscape from this perspective. For instance, when you wake up and if, for some reason, you are not feeling well or have an underlying, perhaps vague, uneasy feeling (as opposed to a “peaceful, easy feeling” as in The Eagles song), watch and see what happens next. From this “dis-ease” are you then mentally sluggish or have feelings of inertia? Is it difficult to actually do what might make you feel better? Are you agitated and doubtful that you can or will feel better?
Do you become careless and inattentive of your actions? Are you then unmotivated, physically sluggish and heavy in body, heart and mind? And do you now begin to crave that which might temporarily—but not ultimately–make you feel better?
Are you now seeing yourself as if in a carnival mirror, believing the distorted reflection to be an accurate reflection, completely unmotivated to change your perspective or vantage point and end up falling back, or backsliding into the valley of dull, deluded self-perception?
(ed note: PAUSE. reflect. deep inquisition requires a deep breath. inhale. exhale.)
But how to wake up and embrace a peaceful, wakeful state of presence that will allow you to begin to listen, see, breath, be with, and perhaps delight in, whatever presents itself, no matter how undesirable it maybe?
I have watched the aforementioned process in myself, sometimes in the order mentioned, sometimes not. But I have found that when I embrace, rather than deny, or fret, over the perceptions, sensations and feelings that I am actually experiencing, that there is a wonderful waking up to what is. And something unfolds within me.
In Sutra 1.33 Patanjali mentions the friendliness, compassion, joy, and the ability to remain undisturbed whilst in the presence of pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, respectively.
I have found that when I am friendly and compassionate toward myself when presented with the above obstacles, I can begin to embrace them, to befriend them, and feel genuine compassion toward the one who is experiencing them. This embrace allows — gives permission even — for feelings of joy and sorrow to flow freely through my veins when these feelings present themselves. And it is sometimes even possible to experience some joy and amusement when I see and feel these “obstacles” emerging within me. They may be obstacles, but they need not be distractions. In fact, they are my friends as the obstacle becomes the remover of the obstacle when embraced fully.
Then there is other side, a positive side of what may seem to be an obstacle. Take doubt (samsaya) for instance. For me, embracing the doubts in my heart, when they arise, is a way of staying open and unknowing. I give myself permission to keep a little unknowing going, and to open the doors and windows of my being to something new and unexpected.
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Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. I know with myself if I miss just one day because I didn’t feel like it or had some dis-ease then it is SO much harder to get up the next day and do it.