Verse 1:30 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Obstacles dam up energy Photo: Lode Lagrainge

This articles enumerates the nine obstacles in spiritual practice and seeks to find remedies for these.

If it weren't for the obstacles in spiritual practice, we would return to the natural state of spiritual union very easily. Removal of obstacles is one of the most important parts of practice. It is like a river which has been dammed. When the dam breaks or the gates are opened, the water flows. So, if you remove the obstacles, the energy starts flowing naturally to higher levels of consciousness.

There will be obstacles in spiritual practice but the solution always remains the same: Continue systematic practice and the obstacles will be resolved over time. Systematic practice includes asanas or practices at a physical level, but also practices at pranic and mental level. The systematic practice has a structure and it goes from gross to subtle. 

Verse 1:30 of the Yoga Sutras mentions nine major obstacles in spiritual practice that disturb and distract the mind. These are:  

  1. Sickness because the body is not in its natural, healthy state 
  2. Dullness of the mind; due to lack of self-awareness, poor food, negative environment, stressful living, emotional disturbances
  3. Doubt; lack of faith in the Tradition, lineage or teacher, and lack of direct experience 
  4. Carelessness and disinterest; due to lack of self-awareness
  5. Sloth or Heaviness of the body and mind; due to poor diet, stressful living, emotional disturbances
  6. Outward focus due to strong attraction to worldly pleasures 
  7. Inability to distinguish between right and wrong; incorrect cognition, lack of self-awareness
  8. Inability to attain glimpses of a higher state of consciousness due to lack of determination
  9. Inability to establish oneself in a higher state of consciousness due to lack of focus and determination

Disease

Dis-ease is a lack of ease, when the body is not in its natural state, there is an imbalance. In pranic terms we say the pranic vehicles are disturbed or that Ida and Pingala (the dualities) are not in balance. The ancient Greeks called a state of balance homeostasis. When you have a state of balance, the body and mind are healthy. A lot of disease are a result of poor lifestyle. Wrong food habits really are one of the major issues: Too much sugar, overeating, wrong kind of food. All these factors, mental, physical and lifestyle, create a state of imbalance in the body, which is called disease. It is the first obstacle, because it is also the most common one. A lot of people are suffering from disease, which prevents them really from doing any kind of practice. When the body and mind is diseased, it is not really possible to do deeper meditation, because the body will always pull you out. If the reasons are food habits, we need to change them. If the reasons are mental such as anxiety or stress, you need to organize your life to remove those obstacles. Most of us have some kind of disease. Sometimes the disease is chronic and sometimes the body is a weak and susceptible. When you have issues with disease, then you need to check: Are my food habits unhealthy? Am my eating habits irregular? Is my lifestyle poor? Am I being forced into some stressful situations, because of my surroundings? If yes, then look for a solution. If the reasons are mental, then you need to understand the cause of those behavioral issues and work with that.

Dullness of the mind 

Mudha is a mind that  is very dull. A dull mind has difficulties in concentration. For instance, the dull mind keeps falling asleep during practices. Sometimes the remedy is simple: stop eating tamasic foods, that is, foods that are very heavy. The wrong foods can cause dullness of the mind and heaviness of the body. If the cause of dullness is deeper, such as an emotional issue, then it is more difficult to solve this problem. 

Doubt

When we start practice, there may be a lack of clarity in the practitioner. So there may be doubts or lack of belief "Is this of any use at all?" Some may be practicing meditation, because somebody told them “It's good for you!” But there is a little voice saying “Why am I wasting my time doing all this? Shouldn't I rather go out and enjoy myself?” Some may have read a little bit from scriptures, and want to explore the mind, get to know themselves and get some glimpses into higher states of consciousness. But, they have only read of these higher states of consciousness or have heard about them from a teacher. They have no direct experience of this and as long as you have no direct experience of this, there will be doubts. Merely following instructions from another teacher and having faith in scriptures is very useful, but as long as you have not had that insight yourself and as long as you don't have a direct experience, there will be always some lingering doubts.

Carelessness

If a practitioner is very careless about what he does then the approach is not systematic. A carelessly done practice does not lead to really higher states of consciousness. It is not very productive. So, a careless approach or carelessness in attitude is also an obstacle. 

Sloth

This is similar to carelessness, because the nature of the mind is also tamasic. If you are lazy and do not do some sort of practice, if you're not willing to work on yourself and change yourself, then you cannot expect much result. 

Attraction to worldly pleasures

This is a very rajasic attitude. Such a person is very external-oriented and finds it very difficult to turn his awareness inward. Our consciousness is generally in the external world. (yogic anatomy pravritti marg) This attraction to the worldly objects means that the consciousness is moving outward. That is natural but we want to turn it around and lead it inward. 

When you do some physical practice, then consciousness turns to the body.(yogic anatomy nivritti marg) With a little bit of breathing awareness, you are little bit subtler – you've turned your consciousness a little bit further inward. Very few have ever managed to turn their awareness to their minds. That is already a challenge. This goes against the flow and that is a bit of a struggle initially. This also requires practice – reversing the flow of attention. Without a systematic approach and practice that's very difficult. 

Inability to distinguish between right and wrong

This is poor cognition or wrong cognition. You are not able to see things clearly. This means buddhi, that part in you which is sattvic, the inner wisdom, is not able to see through the confusion in the mind. Sharpening buddhi is the single most important thing we need to learn in Yoga. It is because we are unable to distinguish between right and wrong. We become indecisive, we make mistakes and take wrong decisions. Criminals who do really terrible things are not clearly able to tell whether what they're doing, is right or wrong. The buddhi is not sharp enough to cut through everything and say: “No, stop! This is not right, don't do it!”

Inability to attain glimpses of higher state of consciousness

If your spiritual practice is unsystematic or irregular, you do not attain a glimpse of that higher state of consciousness. You need to have a clear glimpse of that beautiful and joyous consciousness, that attracts you and pulls you toward it, so that you long for it all the time. If that does not happen, you do not have the motivation to go through the systematic process of meditation. 

Inability to remain established in higher state of consciousness

This can be very frustrating. This is the final obstacle. During the course of the journey, we have to deal with most of these other obstacles. Sometimes you feel lazy, sometimes you just carelessly do your practice. Most of us have issues at the physical level which become a big obstacle and of course there are doubts. Every now and then you begin to think: “Why sit here on my seat on such a lovely day, when everybody else seems to be having a good time? So we have one or the other of these obstacles at some point of time in our journey.

The remedy remains the same

Out of these obstacles emerge mental and physical pain, dejection or frustration, restless body and mind and irregular breath, incorrect diet, irregular routine or extreme stress. Other obstacles are lack of social support, noisy neighborhood, etc. 

What are the obstacles that prevent you from deepening your spiritual practice? It could be one of above mentioned obstacles or something else. Contemplate and think of realistic solutions that can you can integrate in your life.

Use the pdf Obstacles in Spiritual Practice to note down your obstacles and remedies for the same.

Those on the path of wisdom and enlightenment will meet with many obstacles, may be a few of the above mentioned or perhaps all. It is important to remember that sincere practitioners must continue to practice in spite of the obstacles, since daily practice over a long period of time is the best remedy against all obstacles. 

Comments:

Shibu from Dubai:
Beautiful article. Mosy of this issues some times or other coming to me

Aleksandra from Greece:
Beautiful article Radhikaji. Even though there are countless number of obstacles, my opinion is that if somebody decided to meet God, no obstacle is big enough to stop one from the path.

Linda from Oslo, Norway:
Obstacles will be there, but with great determination and devotion I believe one can break through. To sharpen the Buddhi, to continue Sadhana and to practice acceptance and gentleness with oneself is for me the main focus on the path to freedom.
Thankyou for this article Radhikaji. I have read about the 9 major obstacles before but it was nice to review them again.
Nice to see that I have actually eliminated some of these obstacles!
Namaste.

Krishna from Darmstadt:
Thanks Radhikama, Beautiful article. Reading through it, I could clearly discriminate which of they obstacles haunted me before, which ones are prevalent now. This makes it easier to organize my practices and focus on the issues plaguing me currently.

Meeta from Bengaluru:
Thank you so much Radhika Ji, for clearly explaining the obstacles, it has helped me to understand my obstacles and also helped me to understand from where they are coming, which really means a lot. This has also helped me further that how can i work with them.

Manisha from USA:
This is surely a comprehensive list! From what I have observed, a desire for anything other than spiritual growth can become an obstacle. The categories above can help me determine what type of obstacle is created by any given desire. In this way, I may get to know myself better. That, in turn, can help me to organize my life in a way that continually supports regular practice. If one's awareness is expanding, then the obstacles may become fewer. However, even a single obstacle is one too many . . . and you can't let it stop you from reaching your goal! So what will get you over the hump? Practice, practice, practice!

Antoine Howard from Atlanta:
Great article. From this it is clear that my greatest obstacle as a student is always me. There no one or nothing to blame outside of myself. My greatest hurdle is always me and the choices I make. GOD has made provisions for every obstacle to be removed for the student with a ready made up mind. This article shows me that I must constantly observe my internal and external world and strive to remove all obstacles that keeps me from my goal.

Vishal from UK:
It took me a long time to realise the importance of abhyāsa ie repeated practice to cultivate sattva and govern rajas and tamas within the mind. Only then can one develop vairagya. The mind can be very resistant to changes and create it’s own obstacles. We then project these as external obstacles when really they are formed within. Do we want to continue suffering with these obstacles or breakthrough them and relieve ourselves of distress?

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