Saturday, October 3, 2009


"Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained - these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles. Accompaniments to the mental distractions include distress, despair, trembling of the body and disturbed breathing."

-- Patanjali, Yoga Sutras I:30-31
Even once you have begun to practice yoga and have experienced the amazing effects it can have on your life, there is still the tendency to backslide. Patanjali was well aware of this problem and acknowledged it in the Yoga Sutras. In the past month or so, I have come up against most, if not all, of the mental distractions he described... and their negative effects. When the backsliding happens, I tend to fall off the wagon hard: eating badly, skipping asana practice and other physical exercise, indulging stress and anxiety, and lashing out. I guess if it happened to Patanjali, it can happen to anyone!

To the degree to which practicing yoga regularly can transform your experience of daily life, not doing yoga is like a slow poison, eating away at your happiness. Suddenly you feel dull and lifeless: mentally, emotionally and physically. Luckily, there are signs which wake us up and remind us to practice: pain, despair, distress in the body and breathing. Even more luckily, the ancient yogis determined a number of techniques that can help us get back on track. Through meditation, pranayama, and asana practice, we can return our mind to a calm state. Patanjali suggests that wee can also "cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion toward the unhappy, delight toward the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked."

Patricia Walden and Jarvis Chen suggest that one can use "tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and Isvara-pranidhana (surrender) to overcome the obstacles." They also quote the Bhagavad Gita, which says that "No effort on the path is ever lost." This is one of the most comforting aspects of yoga for me. You can fall off the wagon a few times - everyone does - but you always have a choice to practice in the present moment, and it is your choice right now that matters. Sometimes the real world is not that forgiving. You can make mistakes in the real world that can alienate others or close doors forever. But the practice of yoga is forgiving because what counts is your willingness to continue to practice right now.

Sometimes when you can't see the road clearly it is easy to lose your way, or to take a turn too quickly and end up in a ditch. But maybe, just maybe, the next time you see the "blind drive" sign, you might remember and slow down a little, or stop the car and get out and walk. You can't undo the last slide, but you can hope that your previous effort was not lost. It will be easier to get back on track again, and to avoid pitfalls in the future, because you practiced.