Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.
The work of meditation is not to limit things that distract us, but for us to become aware of the things that distract us. Awareness gifts us with decision: the decision to let the distractions in and pull us away from our purpose or to give no attention to our distraction, and march down our respected path more powerfully.
Our mission: to live our lives.
Here is my recap of all the sutras I have covered thus far:
- Atha: Readiness and Commitment
- Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
- Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
- Drsya: Ever-Changing Mother Nature
- Viveka: Keen Discernment
- Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
- Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
- Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
- Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
- Karma and Samskara: Action and it’s Imprint
- Parinama: Transformation
- Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
- Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
- Vrtti-s: Activity in the Heart-Mind
- Pramana: Correct Evaluation
- Viparyaya: Misperception
- Vikalpa: Imagination
- Nidra: Sleep
- Smrti: Memory
According to the yoga sutras, there are 9 antarayas. They all act to take our attention away from our point of focus. When “…our breath flows freely…our heart-mind is alert,” writes Nicolai Bachman, the author of The Path of the Yoga Sutras, from which this series of blog posts is based on.
Here are the nine separate antarayas (distractions) according to Bachman:
- Sexual Preoccupation
- Erroneous views
Understand that none of these things are evil or indicate a “bad” or “wrong” way of living. Consider the antarayas and all the yoga sutras to be guidelines, something that can help swing our pendulums back to neutral when it has swung too far to the right or left. Our bodies aim for homeostasis at all levels, and this encompasses the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. All three are part of the same singular package. By bringing awareness to these nine obstacles, they may bring to light one or more that could be affecting you and inhibiting your growth right now. Awareness is your greatest teacher. Awareness gifts you with choice. When you are acting from awareness, you are consciously giving up reacting to your environment and situation(s)/circumstance(s) and choosing instead to respond in a conscious way. For example, in the moment I know I would like wine with dinner, but tomorrow I may suffer from headaches and grogginess and not be as effective at my work. My choice is to either give in to the temptation of drinking wine tonight because I crave it and find it more socially acceptable, or I can give in to the temptation of having a great and productive day of work tomorrow. Which would be more empowering? Which would help move my cause forward? When we are aware we have that choice, and we make a decision from that awareness, we are living an aware life, whether or not we choose the wine or the work. And, it can be argued it is possible you can have both, depending on the type of wine at dinner and how I choose to take care of myself after drinking the wine. Either way, we know we will either suffer or delight in the consequences.
Here are the nine antarayas.
- This can be a major distraction. It is also the only one listed that you may not have control over. Bachman writes that this is the only one that may not originate from a klesa, or a mental-emotional affliction. However, with today’s knowledge of psychosomatic disorders, know that this can be the result of a mental-emotional affliction. Of all the distractions, this one is the most external, meaning it is most easily rid of and could totally originate from somewhere outside of you. Meditation and, most especially, breathing exercises are affected by this antaraya the most because it is difficult to focus and concentrate on what must be focused on when sneezing and sniffling, or feeling nauseous or unwell in other ways. However, a consistent yoga and meditation practice can help stave off symptoms of sickness and ill health. In many studies, yxygenated blood has been shown to ward off many types of disease including multiple forms of cancers. Oxygenating your blood comes from more modes than just exercise: it is also achieved through meditation and meditative breathing exercises, and incorporating a lot of greens and other fruits and vegetables in your diet. Breathing exercises are also the best way for us to connect with spirit in this plane.
- Disease can easily lead to apathy, or the absence of passion, emotion, or excitement. Apathy can also be defined as a lack of interest or concern for things that others find moving or exciting. What Bachman does beautifully throughout this entire chapter is he is able to tie in all nine of these obstacles to one another, and is able to illustrate how one can lead into the other. This does not necessarily mean these are listed in order; they can occur in any order, and any obstacle can lead to the other (with the exception of the first) and they can occur in any order and at any varying intensities throughout an individual’s day or life. We tend to experience apathy when we get sick in any way because our bodies are intent on healing instead of experiencing life on the inside or outside. It is an effective way for our bodies to take us out of life experiences, and, oftentimes, it is smart for us to take the time to allow our bodies to heal fully before proceeding. There have been many times when I have succumbed to taking a break to allow any kind of sickness or disease, and even injury, to run it’s course just so I may reach the other side more quickly. Fighting injury and illness only allows it to persist, which keeps us stuck in ill-health and apathy even longer. This isn’t fair to ourselves or to those around us. Bachman writes, “A more serious disease or injury can extend our apathetic state for much longer. Whatever the cause, this dullness prevents us from converting thoughts into action.” This speaks to the magical ability of the disciplined stillness of meditation and pranayama to propel us into action.
- Self-Doubt. Apathy can lead into self-doubt. Self-doubt is one of the greatest crimes of our species. Birds never doubt their ability to fly, and ants never doubt their abilities to build and harvest. That is what they do, so why do we continually doubt ourselves and others? We are just as natural and part of this earth as birds and ants. Self-doubt is a habit that, like any other habit, once realized we have the opportunity to choose to let it go. Lack of confidence is one of the most challenging aspects of the human condition that arrests forward momentum. Bachman writes that with self-doubt comes indecision: the inability to decided between two or more things. We can get caught in the trap of wondering if one thing is better for us than the other, and thus gets us stuck in a hamster wheel of questioning. Harvard scientists studied human thought. We humans think an average of 50,000-60,000 thoughts per day. 90% of those thoughts are the same things over and over again. We have the power to see what it is we choose to fill our thoughts with. Are we wasting energy on things that just bother and annoy us, things that we cannot change, or are we empowering and energizing our lives with thoughts that can and will move us and others forward? Be creative in your thought processes. Give up destructive thoughts, especially thoughts of self-doubt. One really effective practice I have is once I detect a thought or especially a feeling of self-doubt, I immediately intentionally think the words clearly in my mind or say them out loud, “I BELIEVE I CAN DO THIS.” Pay attention to your emotions during times of idleness, they tell you a lot about yourself. Your emotions are linked to your thoughts. Your emotions tell you what you are thinking, so pay attention to them and get curious to WHY you are feeling what you are feeling in relation to the environment you are in at that particular moment.
- Self-doubt and apathy lead to carelessness. This just means an inability to focus our attention, and doing things in an unintentional way. Acting carelessly causes ourselves and others unnecessary pain and suffering. Bachman writes that it causes unknown future consequences, which I agree with. “This obstacle is similar to being in a drunken stupor.” We have all experienced moments where we have been careless and ungrounded (coming up in number eight) and have unintentionally caused ourselves and others needless suffering and pain. I think the modern version of this would be texting and driving, the 21st century version of drunk driving. Be alert and aware and intentional in all things you do, otherwise you are headed on a crash-course.
- With all of this energy leakage going in every which direction, no sense of focus and direction at all leads to exhaustion. It is true that tuning in to your senses creates more energy as awareness increases. I was listening to an interview on Hay House Radio yesterday and, I apologize for forgetting the interviewer and interviewee’s names, but a woman was interviewing a medical doctor and the doctor was speaking about awareness, consciousness, and energy levels. This medical doctor is world renown for combining both eastern and western practices and techniques, and he said that if we have the ability to increase our tangible senses, the five main ones of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, by 25% that we will allow 25% more input from our surroundings and reality in. That means we experience more of our surroundings, which means we can take in more of our reality. By taking more in, we have more to experience, and therefore we will have more energy because we are AWARE of more. Taking in more experience in any way gets you excited to seize your day every day, because it is something you GET to do. Think back to when you have been physically fatigued. Fatigue could even be present for you right now. All fatigue is trying to communicate to you is that you need to change something in what you are doing for yourself. More sleep? Better food? More water? Less alcohol? Less coffee? Fewer chemicals in your diet and sanitary practices? Doing more fun things that stimulate your imagination? Notice when you are fatigued, you miss a lot of important things that are trying to come in to educate you and connect with you, and give you an opportunity for fun. It’s akin to falling asleep at the wheel or falling asleep in class. Alertness connects you and grounds you to reality. Have a lifestyle that supports alertness. Drink plenty of water, get in shape, handle your finances, paint pictures, build sand sculptures, read a book, write a book, do whatever it is your soul desires and you will be rewarded with boundless energy. This probably means turning off the tv in most cases, unless there is something you can watch with intention that brings you a lot of joy, like a specific show or movie you have been wanting to see, or one of your favorite programs. When it comes to watching television, it’s a good idea to keep the container tight around it, and just watch what you intended to watch, because mindless television viewing has been shown to make brain functionality levels drop to their lowest points possible. So, get your brain active and do fun things with it! And, remember that honoring tiredness is part of a healthy lifestyle, so when you need sleep, give it to yourself.
- Sensory and sexual preoccupation. If you’re like me at all, this probably immediately makes you recall a period in your life when this was definitely present, and it was mostly likely college! In the human experience, this is okay and even good to experience because it is part of growing up and becoming aware of your sexual side. We are all sexual creatures because it is how we connect with other human beings and it is also how we procreate. The yoga sutras do not say to abstain from having sex or to be celibate in any way (there is nothing wrong with that, and for many people that could be a great course of action for either a short amount of time or the rest of their lives) but they do encourage to practice viveka around sexuality and sensuality. Viveka is the practice of keen discernment. Just like our thoughts, it is important to be discerning about who we allow into our lives, because not everyone has our best interests in mind. Letting someone in to our lives in the closest way possible, sexually, can be damaging to our auras, psyches, and bodies. Be aware, however, that this does not mean to completely eliminate risk-taking at all levels from your life. A certain level of risk-taking is important to living a fulfilling and spontaneous life, just be aware of how often you engage in it and how often it is pursued. Eventually, taking too many risks, especially high risks, can be damaging over time. Our sexuality is one of our most potent powers we have as humans, and it is important to know and understand this, because it can really take us out of having varied experiences on this planet. I know when I was young all I cared about was the next cute girl or guy I was interested in, and now that I am in a healthy relationship I have more opportunities to experience other things. One of my dear friends is single, and we always laugh at each other when we go out to work together in a coffee shop: she always gets dolled up, and I am the opposite because I don’t care about who I may be attracted to or whom may be attracted to me. My love and partner is at home, I have no need to impress while I am out and about. This scenario also makes me laugh because this friend of mine is very attractive and quite often she gets distracted from her work when she gets the attention she is looking for! So, like anything else, be intentional with your sexual and sensual experiences. Let in spontaneity when and where you can, and always pursue this antaraya with someone or a couple people whom you know and trust explicitly. In this day and age, this affects your physical health in a big way.
- Erroneous or distorted views of the world. This is similar to the chapter on misperception (viparyaya). Delusion is not seeing the world for as it really is. Information that is coming in is clouded and distorted, and is stored in your memory inaccurately. Just like the pendulum example from earlier, swinging your pendulum too far in one direction (too righteous, literal, fundamentalist, etc) causes biased thoughts and actions. Consistent yoga and meditation practices help us let go of our opinions and consider other viewpoints as valid. When this happens, connection to others around us increases and we then have the ability to let more people in to our lives. It also means we have greater impact on a larger and larger scale as we give up more and more hard opinions and biases daily. In my experience, I have met many people over the years who have deemed others unworthy of their friendship or acquaintance because of differing viewpoints and opinions. I have seen people give up these behaviors once they adopt mindfulness practices, and sometimes this resurges if a vegan or vegetarian diet is adopted. Adhering to special diets of any kind is a perfect example because it can grow social connections in one direction, and diminish them in the other direction, if this antaraya is not made aware and brought to the forefront.
- Ungroundedness. Being grounded is another word for being present and existing all-in in the moment. Groundedness means more than just presence, however, because it also speaks to a sense of logicalness about a situation or moment. Groundedness also encompasses a sense of compassion for self and others, and to make decisions and respond to questions and situations moment by moment in a powerful and empowering way. To me, this is one of the most important antarayas there is. I have no desire to have conversations with people who seem too “out there”. Being grounded could be the opposite of antaraya number seven, erroneous or distorted views. Bachman also writes about groundedness as being part of progressive development. For most of us, all growth occurs in stages. This includes yoga, meditation, our careers, relationships, and a multitude of other life experiences we have had and will have. Trying to force growth at any stage does not help us grow; forcing only holds us back and can leave us off-balance. It can keep us in limbo without the ability to move forward or backward, and, especially in the case of exercise, can make us move backward if injury occurs (notice the antaraya here-they are all connected). Bachman’s example here is great:
“For example, you try to meditate without having your breath (prana) under control. Since your breath directly affects your nervous system and mind, there is no way to become internally quiet, which is necessary for you to move through the stages of turning inward (samyama).”
- Regression. Regression is a natural part of life and learning. Sometimes it seems as though we take five steps forward and twenty steps back, but consider that in order to shoot an arrow from a bow you must first draw the string backwards. When you experience regression, especially when focus has been great and you have experienced a lot of parinama (transformation) as a result, know that no matter what knocks you off course and causes you to lose your focus and momentum, you can always gain it back. It is natural to experience moments of upward growth and a lot of progress, as well as plateaus. As a personal trainer, I keep plateauing in perspective when it comes to training my clients. So often a plateau phase, especially in the journey of giving up excess body weight, is great because it means they are not adding on extra weight. In other words, maintaining weight can be just as good as losing weight. This principle applies to a lot of things in life. As long as you are putting in the actions you must, even if forward momentum is not perceptible at the moment, it means forward action is occurring because that is what the intention is. Being in a plateau, especially when it comes to self-work of all kinds, is a good place to be because it can mean a rest from the work you have put in, thus preventing you from experiencing the antaraya of fatigue. The final stage of our work as spiritual beings, Samadhi, which is turning our sense inward is difficult to maintain at all times, but with diligent practice (abhyasa) “…the duration will gradually lengthen.”
Bachman concludes this chapter with: “These obstacles have symptoms or effects associated with them: pain (physical or mental), negativity/dejection, trembling, and disturbed breathing.”
One of these distractions may lead to the other. Bachman writes that it occurs in the order mentioned, but I argue that it can happen in just about any order. Every single one of these antarayas affects breathing patterns, which in turn cause each antaraya to get a little more severe.
Antarayas are distractions that pull us away from our inward-focused attention. According to the sutras, abhyasa is the key to preventing these obstacles from distracting us from our attention. The vibrations emanating from the Sanskrit chants as they are spoken out loud are meant to dissolve all of these things, and, specifically, when we chant “om”, the original sound of the universe, all distractions fade. In my experience, when I teach yoga classes and do 1 or 3 om’s at the beginning, I teach a much more focused class than if I didn’t.
Remember that as human beings we are ultimately MEANT to experience all of these things. Experiencing these antarayas at any intensity level and for any length of time is a fact of living on this plane. We all have obstacles we must overcome, and these are nine that the yoga sutras specifically dictate. Know that no matter what it is you are experiencing in your life, you can overcome absolutely any obstacle, and that you are worth it to overcome whichever antarayas stand out the most for you. There are ways for you to get help with each of these as well, so practice self-honesty, and know when you need to get help with any kind of illness or addiction. It not only helps you when you admit you need help, it helps others around you, as well. It does not serve you or this planet to remain stuck in a cycle of poor choices, and the worst choice we can make for ourselves is to choose to do nothing about our circumstances when we know we can make them better.
The inspiration that you have to share with this world lies in overcoming your obstacles, so bring on the challenge, and bring on the pain, because the best way out is only through.
It is through the cracks in your foundation that lets your inner light shine through to illuminate the world.
My ability to remain relaxed and focused is hindered when my body is uncomfortable or my heart-mind is not alert.
Through self-observation (svadhyaya), I can identify hindrances to my practice, then take steps to reduce and eliminate them.
I will develop a healthy body and calm heart-mind by practicing regularly and chanting Om.