Creating any healthy new habit is not easy. It’s heartening to me that Patanjali acknowledges this in the Yoga Sutras. As he’s espousing the many benefits you’ll gain from your new yoga practice, he stops to mention the barriers you will encounter.
As with other truths discussed in the Yoga Sutras, these obstacles are as relevant for people today as they were for yogis committing to the practice thousands of years ago.
All nine obstacles are disruptions to the heart-mind field of consciousness (citta) and can be debilitating to a practice, because distracting thoughts and emotions (vrtti-s) arise when antarāya-s are present. These nine obstacles are:
~Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras
It’s great to know that these obstacles are out there, because, with planning, you can anticipate them and stop them from disrupting your practice.
1. Disease (Vyadhi)
It’s a rare person who never gets sick, so it’s good to have a contingency plan for when you do.
A regular yoga practice will activate and strengthen your lymphatic system, which is the body’s self-defense against illness. Your lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, which means that the fluid needs some help moving around. Gentle stretching and asanas with your hips higher than your heart (like Downward Dog) will help your lymph move, and a vigorous sweaty practice will really get it flowing, which then activates your body’s natural healing ability.
Yoga also teaches us to listen to our bodies, and when we are paying close attention, we’re able to notice when something is a little off, and practice the necessary self-care to get ourselves back on track before something little grows into a more serious illness.
But sometimes, we do get sick enough that we’re not able to jump into our usual practice. Here is where it’s helpful to remember that the word YOGA encompasses a lot. The physical postures (asanas) that we practice are only one of the eight limbs of yoga. All eight limbs of yoga are:
1. Yama (Personal Integrity)
2. Niyama (Self Discipline)
3. Asana (Physical yoga postures)
4. Pranayama (Breath control)
5. Pratyahara (Withdrawing the senses from the external world)
6. Dharana (Concentrating on a Single Object)
7. Dhyana (Complete connection and immersion in awareness)
8. Samadhi (A state of ego-lessness and ecstasy)
There’s a lot of grist in that mill to chew on, and a lot of places you can go with your practice. You can even stick with different types of asana practice depending on your level of physical comfort – a yin practice will allow long holds in postures that will open up the fascia in your body, a restorative practice gives the opportunity to feel the benefits of yoga poses without the work by using props to bring your body passively into poses for longer periods of time, and a yoga nidra practice will guide your mind towards a meditative state.
You can also explore the Jnana (wisdom) Yoga by reading yogic texts, or Bhakti (devotional) Yoga and devote yourself in service to others, or find yourself a comfortable seat and practice Pranayama.
2. Apathy (Styana)
Styana, or apathy, comes when we lose the reason for our practice. It’s hard to carve time out of your day to practice when you don’t feel excited about the practice.
A great way to combat apathy around your practice is to find a new yoga experience. Perhaps this means taking a public class with a new teacher (or three). I find that if I’m left to my own devices for too long, I’ll get into a yoga rut, practicing the same asanas and taking the same transitions. When I come to my mat in a public class, I get a led practice from somebody else’s perspective, and there’s always at least one yoga pose I’ve “forgotten” about, or an instruction to focus on something differently than I do in my own practice, or a transition from one posture to another that is interesting and feels different in my body.
You could also find a renewed sense of excitement surrounding your practice by taking the time to consciously work an intention into your practice. You might start with a physical intention, for example, working out the kinks in your sore back, and that could guide you to choose different asanas to work with and to bring your focus to your back body in poses where you would normally focus on another area of your body. You might then jump from an intention of focusing on your sore back to exploring what emotions are held in the area of your back that is hurting you. This might lead to an exploration of the chakras, or a meditation practice with an eye towards healing your emotional body.
If you’re blessed with the time and money, you might choose to go on a yoga retreat and immerse yourself in yoga for a weekend, a week, or even longer. Maybe your local teacher hosts a weekly retreat, or a friend told you about a great yoga community in a neighboring state or in another country. Choose your level of adventure and plug in. This is an inspiring way to strengthen your practice and create more community, as you connect with other yogis and yoginis who are deepening their practices.
3. Self Doubt (Sanshya)
It’s hard to know that you’re on the right path, and self-doubt can easily sneak into your yoga practice. If you are unsure if you are performing the poses correctly, have a quick chat with your yoga teacher before or after class. I’m always happy to give students pointers on how to improve a pose they might be working on.
If you have more time available, then schedule a private session where your teacher can work with you to perfect your asana. Yoga is adaptable, and each posture will look different on each body. Sometimes all it takes is one private yoga lesson to reassure self-doubt and help get you back on the yoga mat.
4. Carelessness (Pramada)
Carelessness in your yoga practice might mean that you’re not making sufficient time to practice, and before you know it, a month has gone with no practice time.
As a new mom, this happened to me a lot, and it wasn’t until I got very conscious about when I would practice that I was able to meet myself on the mat. Sometimes, that means setting my alarm an hour early than the rest of the house will wake. At other times, it means that I schedule a yoga class into my calendar, and take that appointment just as seriously as all my other appointments.
Carelessness can also lead back to Dissease, the first barrier to practice, because we might miss alignment cues and sloppily practice our asana, which could lead to injury. I like to take my practice back to the basics regularly, which might mean practicing with an Iyengar teacher or another teacher who strongly focuses on alignment, and then take that knowledge into the fun, sweaty vinyasa classes.
Disease also could sneak up on us if we’re not listening to our bodies. When we start and end each yoga session, we spend time listening closely to our bodies and our breath. This allows us to know quickly when we are feeling less than optimally, and to treat ourselves with kid gloves if that’s what is needed. Without these moments of attention, it’s easy to put our own needs last and not stop until a more serious illness like the flu takes us down.
5. Fatigue (Alasya)
This has lately been my biggest challenge to practice! As a mom of a rambunctious toddler, I’ll often prioritize an extra hour of sleep over waking at 5 am to practice. Honestly, I feel great when I’m able to make the commitment to myself,wake up, and unite my breath and body in movement.
Part of ensuring that I have the energy to keep this commitment is making sure that I’m fueling my body with the right food and vitamins and getting to bed at a reasonable hour.
Insomnia is an issue I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember, and it wreaks havoc on my practice if I allow it. One method I’ve found that allows me to stay disciplined and embrace moments of insomnia is to use those quiet nighttime hours for practice.
Whether I’m moving myself on the yoga mat at 3 or 4 in the morning or listening to a Yoga Nidra or guided meditation, I value the middle of the night hours as much as I do the time I get on the mornings I’m able to practice while the rest of the house sleeps.
One of my favorite ways to combat fatigue is the Breath of Joy:
- Come to standing with your feet wider than hips with distance apart
- Take an inhale through your nostrils 1/3 of your full ability, and raise your arms over your head
- Take the 2/3 of your inhale, and reach your fingertips away from each other as your arms come to shoulder-height
- Take the final sip of air as you fully inflate your lungs, and again raise your arms above your head
- As you take a long, sigh of an exhale out of your mouth bend at the hips and swing your arms down between your legs coming to an easy forward bend.
- As you inhale 1/3 of your ability, rise to standing with your arms over your head and begin the cycle again
- Take 5 to 15 rounds of this breath and then pause a moment in tadasana with your eyes closed feeling the fresh energy cycling throughout your entire body.
6. Overindulgence (Avirati)
Nicolai Bachman translated Avirati as sexual preoccupation, but I prefer the translation of overindulgence in pleasurable experiences, which certainly encompasses sexual preoccupation, but is not limited to only that.
Yoga is constantly seeking balance. I don’t believe that living a yogic life means that you can’t also enjoy all the pleasures that life has to offer, but we do need to be aware of where we are placing our energy and how that serves us.
When we overindulge in sweets, for example, our bodies might feel less energetic, or perhaps get sick. When we stay up late every night enjoying the company of friends or strangers, we might find ourselves lacking in time or energy to commit to our practice.
Creating a schedule that allows time for work, spirituality, physical movement, friends, and family is ideal, and leaving space for life’s pleasures is important. If you don’t allow yourself little luxuries from time to time, you’re creating a pressure that might overflow into unhealthy indulgences.
7. Erroneous Views (Bhrantidarshan)
Self-reflection and humbleness are integral to yoga. As we move to contort our bodies and free stuck energy, as we learn to unite our breath and our movement, our samskaras, or habitual patterns come to light. We’re able to clearly see the part that we play in the drama of our lives.
This light of awareness returns our power and gives us the ability to step away from harmful samskaras and replace them with positive habits.
Erroneous views arise when our minds turn rigid and we think we know all the answers. The universe is constantly unfolding it’s mysteries that exist in the world around us and the world within us. When we’re able to maintain a humble, beginner’s mindset, we allow the space to hear and see these lessons and adapt our practice accordingly.
8. Ungroundedness (Alabdha–bhumikatva)
We live in a society that is always on, and gives little time for consciously connecting. From TVs in our homes, waiting rooms, and gyms to a soundtrack underlying every moment, it’s easy to lose connection with your self. This is often a stepping stone on the path down the road of illness.
To re-ground, a gentle, Hatha, or Yin Yoga practice might be helpful. You can also ground your body by physically getting it to the ground: walk barefoot on the beach, get down in the grass and play or stretch, or just get yourself out into the forest and take a walk. Turn off artificial noises and allow your brain to decompress by just listening to the natural sounds around you.
9. Regression (Anawasthitatwa)
Regression is a form of complacency and happens when we don’t press forward in our practice. It could happen as you forget to make time for your practice and lose the ability to forward bend, or it could be that you just stop pushing yourself to try something different.
The best way to combat this challenge to your practice is to keep your practice fun. Find ways to practice with others that inspire you to challenge yourself towards variations of the asanas you’re used to practicing. Or take up another physical hobby that uses new muscles. Learn to dance, start swimming laps, go on looooong walks, ride your bike, or plug in at your local climbing gym. All of these activities complement your yoga practice because you’ll feel different muscles when you return to your yoga mat.
I want to come back to the fact that these barriers to practice were noted in the Yoga Sutras thousands of years ago. To me, that’s helpful knowledge to have because I know it’s not just me that confronts them! Knowing that other people throughout time and in different locations around the world have overcome these challenges and still grown their practices reminds me that I can do the same and gives me the tools to prepare for the time I am challenged again.