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.





Karma Yoga Sutra Study Online

So, success of the real kind this time…

October’s Sutra Study Session on Karma is now up on the Workshop page (via podbean).  Scroll to the bottom for the link and instructions.

(Tech-savy people are welcome to offer any improvement suggestions on the system:)  )

The last Fall Yoga Sutra Study session will be next Saturday, the 20th of November at Mala Yoga.  We will be going over the idea of the Householder Yogi, the practices, the sutra references, and, as always, how Yoga remains a relevant vibrant practice for our daily life.

Let me know if you have any questions. Sign up at Mala Yoga to reserve a space.

Hope to see you there!

New Workshop Series!

Why Should I Care? Fall Sutra Study Series at Mala Yoga

Fall is a turning point in the year. The air cools, the days shorten, and we instinctively turn inward to prepare for the coming cold. It is a time of returning to or starting projects, often more introspective ones.  In America, this is the time for heading back to school.

Saraswati, one of the trinity of goddesses in the Indian mythological pantheon, is associated with the season autumn.  She represents the pursuit of learning in all its forms, especially in music, arts, and philosophy.

Combined, this is the perfect time to begin study of the Yoga Sutras.

This series will be presented once a month for three months. Students have the choice of taking all three sessions for a discounted price, or taking them individually as time and interest allow.  Please visit Mala’s website for pricing and times.

September 18th

Why Yoga?

We begin our study with an exploration of how yoga is in some ways much younger, and in others, much older than we might have imagined. This session will cover the historical context and reasons for the advent of yoga. Examining the traditions out of which yoga emerged sets the stage to analyze key yoga sutras, and study the ways in which Patanjali challenged traditions of his time. We finish with discussion of how those key concepts remain relevant today, and find ways of working with those practices in day-to-day life.

Altogether, this session informs our own reasons for practicing, and clarifies your answers to the question “What is your yoga practice?”  It also provides a background for next month’s study of karma, a concept originating in a similar historical context as yoga, and, also much like yoga, undergoing refinement and transformation as it passed through schools of Indian philosophy into the present day.

October 23rd

Karma in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

This term reaches back to the Vedic period, predating Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and evolving significantly over time.  Today, the concept of karma is prevalent in our culture. It is the name of a line of yoga clothing, it explains the ability (or lack thereof) to acquire a parking space, it is the term given to yoga studio work-study, it even furthers plot points on TV and movies.  It’s given as the reason why you find a dollar on the floor an instant after giving up your subway seat, or why a person always seems to be unlucky. From the mundane, to the commercial, to the transcendental, karma is there.  It has become deeply woven into American and Western culture.  It can leave many yogis wondering, “How are all of these disparate uses related to the actual word?” “Which, if all, if any, are true to the meaning, and therefore the practice, of karma?”

This sutra study session delves into karma as it is understood specifically in the yoga tradition of Patanjali.  We will explore such questions as how karma relates to reincarnation and death, what role it plays in ideas such as free will and destiny, how it is relevant to personal, daily choice, and more.  If time allows we will briefly compare Patanjali’s explication of karma with those of other yoga-related texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

November 20th

The Householder Yogi

For many, November is marked by celebrations that encourage us to reflect on our relationship to others: family, friends, and community.

While the Classical yogi was an ascetic who would withdraw to the forest or a cave in the Himalayas to meditate and study his self, modern-day yogis often have responsibilities in forms of partners, children, and jobs.  This is the age of the “Householder” yogi, one who must navigate the cities and towns. Together, we will look at how the yoga sutras not only remain applicable, but provide tools for the practitioner to examine and redefine paradigms of self and other.

Sutras which speak to the role of others in the life of a yogi, the role the yogi plays in the lives of others, and those that are tools for dealing with the complications of having householder responsibilities in addition to a yoga practice will be covered.

These sessions are designed to be relevant to students at various levels of study and practice.  They will augment Teacher Training Philosophy Sections, address questions of those familiar with Patanjali’s work, as well as introduce concepts to the yogi starting out on the Yoga Sutra path.  An emphasis on conversation and participation is always part of Jen’s Sutra Study Workshops.  Wearing the traditional white for satsang is optional.

Moments in Time – A Yoga Practice

Starting with Shakespeare in “As You Like It”, and possibly before then, our culture has toyed with the metaphor performance provides for life.  The modern yogi’s version of “All the world’s a stage…” is to perceive ourselves as if watching a movie of our lives.  This cultivates, among many things, a connection to the witness (saksi)/Self/Seer, the ability to be present, and a loosening of our particular viewpoint which in turn opens us to compassion and intimacy with all beings (yoga).

When considering ksana – the smallest indivisible unit of time in yoga philosophy, based on the movement of the smallest indivisible particle (anu – smaller than even an atom, as an atom can still be divided into protons, electrons, quarks, etc.) to the adjacent spot – the cinematic montage becomes perhaps an even greater tool for the yogi.

I encourage you to attempt this, now sitting at the computer, later while walking to the kitchen, stepping out of your home, and moving in your daily life. To witness the difference in experiencing yourself as a continuous entity moving through past present and future, and as an entity of this moment of creation, and then the next, and next. In sequence, but not continuous in nature. Noticing the past as a vehicle to and memory in the present, but not a part of the present itself.

This creates an opening to experience what is termed in the movie Waking Life as the Holy Moment.  In the movie they discuss how we normally think of some moments as Holy, as special, and then we have all the rest.  But when we step into the montage of our lives, we step into each moment as unique, special, Holy.

This is particularly pertinent to yoga asana practice.  Often, especially as we mature in our practice over years, we allow ourselves little moments of laziness. A shorter chaturanga here, an inattention to the exact placement of the hand there, allowing flexibility or strength to substitute for the other in a pose, or other manifestation.  We know, as consistent practioners, that we will practice this pose again, often in that very same class.

Like any skill, practice is the key ingredient. What and how you practice, is how you will perform. In yoga asana, there never is the performance, the big game to highlight this.  The practice then, says the montage, must be the performance.  From this vantage point each pose becomes a “Holy Pose”, a unique, special, experience.  Every placement of the hand, every full aware exhale, every adho mukha svanasana is entered into with full intention to be the very best – in all the ways that is meant in a yoga practice – which includes the ability to let it go when we “succeed” or “fail”.

Every moment is a moment of practice – and not just seeing every struggle as an opportunity to practice compassion, or every change as a transition, or every street as an opportunity to be present of the trees, the smells, the people, etc.  But each and every single second, we are practicing, we are setting patterns.

Or, simply put, don’t practice our mistakes. Each moment is setting our pattern of practice. Set the body pattern, set the mind pattern to the groove you WANT to move in – be intentional.

Grooves set us up to be able to move, respect others, and come into relationship with ourselves, other beings and the world in ways that will be beneficial for all more easily. It also cultivates the ability to more easily change grooves when we outgrow old ones.

When I lived in Hawaii, I rode a moped. Which I adored.  Like any vehicle, slouching was a form my body easily fell into while driving. The problem with a moped, however, is that everyone can see you.  I would be driving, slouched as can be, and have a sudden thought that my beloved yoga teacher might be driving by, and see me.  I would immediately straighten up, and assume a more tadasana-like position – hearing her exact words and instructions in my mind.

Whether or not you can recall your teacher’s words, I highly recommend this mental play as a means to recall this work of stepping into ksana.  While you are practicing asana, imagine your most beloved teacher is beside you, and you want to practice as best you can for her/him.  While you are meditating, imagine they are sitting with you, and will see if you end early, or check you phone during the session.  The possibilities are endless.  But beware of creating an opportunity for guilt or blame to arise.  “Guilt” does not exist as a word in Sanskrit. This practice is not meant to give you a prison guard, but an inspiration, an opportunity to perceive each practice, each moment as “the big game”, a reminder that each moment is Holy, and there is nothing we should be waiting for to make it so.

*Ksana appears three times in the Yoga Sutras, the following two are inspiration for this post:

ksana tat kramayoh samyamad vivekajam jnanam YS III.53
By samyama on single moments in sequence comes discriminative knowledge.

ksana-pratiyogi parinamaparanta-nirgrahyah kramah YS IV.33
Each sequence of events is composed of distinct moments that are only perceivable when the yogi transcends those moments and is at the other end.

Leave Wanting at the Door

Asana can either reinforce our convictions, habits, thought patterns, or be an opportunity to evolve.  The next time you practice, read the following excerpt from a conversation between Michael Stone and Chip Hartranft:

“Let’s say I’ve come to a yoga studio and class is starting. Have I checked all my wanting and not wanting at the door? No, I’m still the same old self, fearing pain and hoping for gratification. Now when I get the euphoric endorphin rushes that come with practice, I’m going to mistake them for the goal, and each time I do yoga I’m going to unconsciously strive to recreate that pleasure. So Patanjali is saying that the relationship to the body must be very carefully cultivated. The body is the biggest part of the world that we know. And the world of the body is immense. The body is an enormous universe in and of itself.” – C.H.

In the moments you are sitting on your mat, before class begins, mentally re-enter and check wanting at the door. Spend a class getting to know your body within the space this creates.  Allow the typical asana checklist you employ to stay at the door as well, and consider, instead, the question “What does it feel like inside Virabhadrasana II? What does is feel like inside paschimottanasana?”

Repetition is the format that our brains and body respond to, and is the way that new neural, emotion, and physical pathways are formed. Evolve, by continually re-entering and checking your wants. Continually asking what it feels like inside the pose.  Ask, also, what is inside the pose with you right now that you could check at the door.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.21-22 “For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near. How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate, or intense.”