Obstacles to Practice: Apathy

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.

Apathy (styana)

Have you ever had a limited time to live somewhere? A month, a year?  Have you been a new parent, or gone back to graduate school? Have you had limited time with someone?

Limited time naturally preempts apathy. If we have just two hours in a day to study, we study with all we’ve got for those two hours. If we have just one week in a place, we don’t sit at home and watch TV.  We’ve all experienced time at work in our lives in this way.


Working with the obstacle of apathy asks us to look at how we experience time in our daily lives and practice.  We can all be anxious about time and feel as though there’s never enough. And we can all slip into the apathy-inducing illusion of seemingly limitless time.  Different tonics need to be applied at different times.  I had a period of meditation where I would sit with a lot of self-induced stress to really focus this time, and eventually I needed to remind myself that I have (hopefully) years of practice ahead of me.  This provided much needed relaxing around my sitting practice.  I have also had periods where the everydayness of meditation and asana made it seem as if I had so much time that apathy crept in.

Usually in my classes, I encourage students to be expansive with how we consider practice; that it expands way beyond this one person, this one mat, this one row, this one room, community, family, borough, and onwards.

Consider the next time you sit or step onto your mat, especially if you’ve noticed overtones of apathy coming in, to imagine that this was it. That you had to go through a whole week of constant story-telling, of the mind continually on and leading you around, of living habits of action crafted over decades. What if this was the one 10 or 20 or 30 or 90 minute period you had to drop all of that, let the mind relax into quiet with the breath, and let the heart expand with its loving kindness for all the body’s cells, and blood, and those of all beings? To be really intimate with this experience moment to moment to moment? What happens?

Our time

When we don’t experience our time as fully as we know or sense to be possible, it often causes discomfort during time with others. Those feelings of wishing we were in some different place, or with some different people, or had a chance to be alone again can easily creep in.  I knew there was a chance of this when I recently went upstate to the cabin I take many solo retreats in.  This time, my family was going to be there.  I knew that I was going to have about an hour in the woods to myself.  That would be all the time I had to really drop into the nourishing and inspiring retreat feeling of the cabin experience. Since I had prepared, I found that not only could I be fully with the joy of my family without regretting the lack of solo time, but that hour in the woods was more continuous and more quickly accessible than when I go by myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a beautiful story at the start of his book, Miracle of Mindfulness , from his friend Allen. It takes this work a whole step deeper in how we work with “our time”.  Thich Nhat Hanh has just asked Allen about his experience as a family man;

  “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work.  The time left over I considered my own.  I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

But now I try not to divide my time into parts anymore.  I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey  with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time.  I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now i Have unlimited time for myself!”

Nothing left out. Nothing squandered.


life and death are of supreme importance.
time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
let us awaken. awaken!
do not squander your life.

may all beings be happy.
may all beings be healthy.
may all beings be safe and free from danger.
may all beings be free from their ancient and twisted karma.
may all beings be free from every form of suffering.





Chanting in yoga class

Perhaps you love chanting in asana class, perhaps you find it silly, perhaps you boycott and wait silently for the “real” class to begin.  Maybe you’ve only been to one class with it, or you’ve been to tons, but either way, you still don’t really know why you’re being asked to “sing” before a class. Especially if you don’t sing in front of other beings normally.  For students and teachers alike, the debate over whether or not to chant, when, where, how and what to chant is ongoing and often tied into personal feelings and experiences.  Sometimes chanting itself creates yet another samskara (habitual response) or chitta vritti (mind fluctuations) to deal with, in a practice that is largely designed to help us move beyond those very things.  No matter where you fall on the spectrum, becoming familiar with the reasons why a yogi chants will inform your practice, either infusing what you already love to do with a depth beyond the form of the chant, reinvigorating what has become rote, or keep you from missing out on some great classes.

Seven Reasons Why We Chant in Yoga Class

1) The language of yoga is sanskrit.  The poses are in Sanskrit, Patanjali’s yoga sutras are in Sanskrit, and much of the philosophical canon of yoga is in Sanskrit.  It is a language developed with intention, with purpose. It did not arise, like most languages, out of a need to communicate and organize.  Each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet was designed to create a certain vibration. The stringing together of the letters, Sanskrit words, were also designed to create certain vibrations.  Similar to musical notes strung together to create a song.  It is in this form, vibration, that the Yoga Sutras and yoga philisophy are best understood.  English explanations are always offered because they satisfy our mind’s intake of knowledge and understanding. But in order for yogic writings to be fully incorporated into our being, they must be chanted in Sanskrit.

2) According to yogic philosophy, and now quantum mechanics (Super String Theory), the essential nature of the world is vibration. By that I mean that everything, from your pen to your blood to the book your reading to the mousepad under your fingers, at it’s most simplified, smallest level is a collection of vibrations.

Chanting is like striking the tuning fork of your body.  It aligns your vibrations with other beings, within your body itself (muscles, bones, skin, organs begin to harmonize), and with the essence of the entire universe.  It is one of the simplest and most direct ways to move into intimacy with others; to unite your mindy, body & soul; and to connect with the infinite and basic nature of reality.

3) Michael Stone, in his dharma talks (see the Resources Page), talks about the use of form and ritual in the study of yoga.  In his sangha (community of practioners), he utilizes a bell to signal the beginning and end of a session.  He makes the point that the ritual of the bell provides just enough form to hold the space sacred for practice.  Chanting is often used in much the same way.

4) Chanting is an essential part of Bhakti Yoga.  There are four main schools of yoga: Bhakti (devotion/love), Raja (kingly/Hatha), Jnana (intellect/study), and Karma (action/service).  As asana practioners, we are all Raja Yogis.  Each individual tends to gravitate towards one school over another.  Ideally, as we deepen our practice, we begin to integrate all four schools of yoga, even though one generally remains the main practice.  By combinging chanting and asana, we begin to unify ourselves through the integration of Bhakti Yoga.

5) “Sound rides on the back of the breath” – Manorama.  Chanting necessarily influences the breath.  When practiced correctly, chanting is a subtle form of pranayama, and prepares one for asana or other breathwork.

6) Chanting can set the tone for the class.  The sutra, prayer, blessing, evocation or calling out focuses the class around a theme or intention.  The vibrational quality unites the entire class under this theme/intention.  It is the breath and intention that separates an asana class from a “stretching” class.

7) Singing is good for you. This, and other articles, describe the physical and psychological benefts of singing.  Additionally, the experience of singing is theraputic, almost everyone has self-medicated with it.  Or, on the other side, has rejoiced with it. If you think about times you’ve been in either emotional state, chances are you don’t need to read a website to know the value of singing.  While chanting is not singing, as it’s focused on the vibrational quality of sound, rather than vocalization, they produce similar results.

Chanting, as with any aspect of your yoga practice, should not be something you do simply because the teacher has told you to.  Try it, investigate it within yourself, share with other students about their experiences, and always feel free to talk to your teacher.