The Yoga Sutras compiled by Patanjali, are aphorisms that represent the essence of yoga knowledge and experience. The statements are succinct (averaging six words) and provide guidance on the benefits, philosophy and practice of yoga. For more about the Sutras, click here.
What are the nine obstacles in yoga?
Nine obstacles or distractions are outlined: illness, fatigue, doubt, carelessness, laziness, attachment, delusion, the failure to achieve samadhi and the failure to achieve samadhi. (Chapter 1:30) . Even 2500 years after Patanjali first assembled the Yoga Sutras, these obstacles can still veer yogis off their path.
Note that Samadhi means “settled mind,” which is said to bring very deep rest to the entire body. In this issue of nilambu notes, I examine the first two – illness (vyadhi) and fatigue (styana).
What does yoga say about illness?
Illness or sickness that disturbs the physical balance is the first distraction, because in yoga, the body is the key mechanism. If the car breaks down, the trip stops. The root of the Sanskrit word, vyadhi, means to “stand apart” or “be scattered” (Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, p.157).
So illness is said to break apart and alienate a person, a life. The primacy of the physical health indicates how, in yoga, the body is integral to and important for the mind. Mental development and that settled state of mind will be harder to achieve, though not impossible, when the body is ill.
What does yoga say about fatigue and apathy?
Styana is variously translated as fatigue, apathy, languor or lethargy. The root means “to grow dense.” (Ibid, p. 158). A yogi who is fatigued or apathetic enjoys no enthusiasm and forms no aspirations.
BKS Iyengar notes that in this state,
mind and intellect become dull due to inactivity…water in a ditch stagnates and nothing good can flourish in it. (Light on Yoga, p. 25)
My current yoga teacher speaks of the “walking dead” – people who are listless and unaware and unable to concentrate.
So what are we to do about these obstacles?
They impede obviously – but the Sanskrit term for these “obstacles” actually means “interval.” That is, illness and apathy create a break or a gap and thereby distract from the goal. The gap can be bridged. The Sutras continue,
Such distractions make the body restless, the breathing coarse, the mind agitated. They result in suffering. But they can be eliminated if the mind is repeatedly brought to a single focus. (Chapter 1:31-32).
Notably, the sutras do not deny or belittle these challenges. They exist. The sutras acknowledge the pain they can cause and note yoga requires an even more diligent focus when these obstacles are encountered.
So the answer to distractions?
Focus. Not a stunning aphorism, but one worth remembering. Important to me is that yoga recognizes these difficulties. And the etymologies of the words resonate and illuminate fresh perspectives on difficulties that can arise to hinder us.
These obstacles are not huge boulders, too weighty to move, that stop us dead in our track. Nor are they locked gates on our route that we ignore by going around another way. These obstacles are potholes in our path. And so we continue on our chosen way with heightened care and concentration – watching out for the potholes and gaps to bridge.
That’s the message of the Yoga Sutras.