This post is the first of a 9-part series on the 9 obstacles to spiritual practice, from verse 1:30 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
vyādhistyānasanśaya pramādālasyāvirati bhrāntidarśanālabdha bhūmikatvānavasthitatvāni cittavikṣēpāstē̕ntarāyāḥ |
Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, worldliness, delusion, non-achievement of a yogic state, and instability are the distractions of the mind, and they are obstacles [in yoga].
Anyone who has been on the path of spiritual growth knows that obstacles are part of the journey. We all have things that get in the way of practicing meditation, yoga, prayer, or any other form of connecting with the Divine. For that matter, obstacles are part of life, and if we don’t want them to hinder our endeavors, it’s helpful to recognize what they are and what we can do to overcome them.
According to the sage Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras and preeminent yoga philosopher, there are 9 of these obstacles to our spiritual awakening. The first one is the most obvious: Vyadhi, or physical illness.
It’s so obvious that any kind of physical disease or injury can be an obstacle to practice that we may take a cursory look at this and move on to the next obstacle. But it’s worth a closer look.
The Importance of Asana
Certainly, whether we have a short-term cold, a longer injury like a sprained ankle, or a more debilitating illness, the physical body is difficult to tolerate when it’s uncomfortable. That’s why practice of asana, or physical poses, has been an important part of the yogic path for centuries, if not thousands of years.
The postures are intended to keep the organs healthy, circulation optimal, and maintain strength and flexibility of the muscles and connective tissues. This reduces physical suffering, increases health, and sets the stage for meditating with more ease.
No One is Perfectly Healthy All the Time
Try as we can, however, we won’t be perfectly healthy and out of pain all the time. Sometimes we’ll hit our funny bone, get a cold or flu, or wake up with a stiff and tight neck. And occasionally, we may contract a more serious illness or long-term condition that causes us discomfort and pain.
As a result, we may experience suffering which distracts us from steady, consistent, focused practice. Our mind gets agitated and full of thoughts about our distress. Our attention goes to our body, to the places that hurt, rather than our focus on meditation or prayer. Emotions are triggered, and it’s easy to become despondent, fearful, frustrated, and worried.
This is natural – no one likes to be in pain and discomfort. Physical distress is one of the biggest triggers for our emotional issues. So it’s helpful to be prepared when vyadhi, physical illness, arises.
Self-Care and Flexibility
First of all, have a regular self-care practice. Know what helps you to feel more physical ease. Regular exercise, relaxation, taking time to simply be without anything on the agenda, spending time in nature, and talking to a friend when you’re struggling – all of these things can increase your resilience when you’re physically challenged. What works for you?
Also, be flexible. Let’s take meditation, for example. If you aren’t feeling well, do you need to adjust your sitting position, or perhaps lie down to meditate instead? Let go of rigidity about it. Yes, it’s important to be consistent with your spiritual practice and in many spiritual traditions, following a protocol is essential. But we also need to learn to be flexible. Discover how you can practice when you’re in pain, rather than just “I can’t do this”. What can you adjust to make it more accessible, so you don’t give up on it?
Then, practice Presence and self-compassion. The focus of your meditation, for instance, can turn towards the place in you that is hurting (whether physical, emotional, or mental). If your low back is throbbing, pause and be present with it; fully aware of it and attentive to it, but with a quiet mind. Let go of any stories you have about that condition, while you open your heart to your back, just as you would for a dear friend.
Breathe gently into the place of suffering, and turn caring attention towards it. You can even talk to it compassionately: “I can see that you’re suffering, back. I’m here with you. I care and I’m listening to you.” Indeed, you can listen to the part of you that is hurting. It may have a lot to say.
That communication from your back can be in words, like “I need you to pay better attention”, or it may communicate in images, emotions, memories, or other sensations. “Listen” with your heart and simply witness and acknowledge what it says. Write it down. Then, thank your back or whatever is uncomfortable, and become present again with your breath.
You may discover that the sensations have shifted, perhaps even eased up a bit. Thank that part of you for its message and for bringing it to your attention. Then, return to your meditation practice or whatever spiritual practice you are doing.
Often, when we take the time to acknowledge our pain with compassion, care, and understanding, something in us relaxes. It also increases our resilience: we learn that we can be with that tension or ache, at least for some time. It doesn’t have to stop us from the heart of our spiritual practices.
When you’re ready to return to your meditation, allow the discomfort to sit in the background of your awareness – just as you probably would with your thoughts, too. Turn your attention to your desired focus, which might be your breath, a mantra, or simply witness consciousness. Whenever you find yourself distracted by the sensations, give them a kind acknowledgment and then return, again and again, to what you’re practicing.
Physical pain and disease – vyadhi – is one of the most challenging obstacles to spiritual practice, and that’s probably why it’s mentioned first in the Yoga Sutras. Tend to your body and keep up your self-care (especially your yoga asana!), and learn to be flexible. Remember to remain in the present moment with your sensations, respond to them with compassion, and listen to their wisdom. Then, you’ll be able to turn your attention back to your practice with a bit more ease and confidence that you can persist, whatever obstacles arise.
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