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.





Obstacles to Practice: Sickness

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.

How we practice

When we commit to practice, we soon understand that we’ve undertaken a lifelong pursuit.  What can sometimes take longer to perceive is that it’s a twenty-four hour one as well, including weekends.  We don’t take time off.

The first obstacle, disease or illness (vyadhi), is perhaps the most universal. We can all recall when it’s been nearly impossible to get off of the couch/floor/toilet/bed, let alone onto a mat or cushion.  So the question arises: “What is practice? What does it look like, what does it feel like, when we’re sick?”

I recently experienced a stomach bug while travelling, and have front line recommendations for the question.  Ethan Nichtern of the ID Project shared his own list with his sangha which is worth checking out as well.

savasana-corpse-pose1) Savasana – truly use the time to be quiet, still, resting and inwards.  Avoid the habit embedded in us since childhood of turning to TV or movies.  If you can’t get up, truly be down. Since I was travelling, I did not have my Netflix queue nor my stash of comfort reading.  I had no choice but to savasana, and it was delightful.

2) Notice – just as you would in practice, pay attention to the thoughts and stories that come up while you’re sick.  How did this happen? How much longer will this last? When I get better I’ll take X action.  Let go of ruminations. Notice tendencies towards judgement or blame. Cultivate the positive, calm, healing thoughts.

3) Movement – therapeutic stretching for parts of the body that get strained, constrained, or achy with illness can be a sweet relief. Simple, slow, and easy –a few neck rolls or hips movements can suffice.

 At the first signs of illness I know many people go to a yoga class in the hopes it will move the illness through.  Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If you have this thought, practice at home so as not to potentially spread what’s brewing. In many illnesses, it’s the beginning period when you’re most contagious.

4) Breath – sometimes it’s the only thing you can pay attention to that isn’t painful.  It can be an important anchor. And sometimes you can barely make a full round of breath. Paying particular attention to the end of the exhale during pain can give you a small moment of oasis.

5) Experiment – the next time you’re not feeling well, bring in this question and see for yourself how practice shifts with you.

How we’re calledmoney-and-illness

We never know how we will be called to take care of others. We never know when we are going to need others to care for us.  What we know is that both will happen. People we love will get sick, they will need care.  We will get sick, we will need care.

Our practice can prepare us to be receptive and open to meet another when they are in the hospital or the bathroom floor or the couch. Our practice can help us cultivate deeper and deeper relationships, and the ability to ask for help.  It can teach us to rest and be still.  There are so many ways in which our practice can serve us when we’re called.  We can use that as motivation to truly give our hearts to our paths.

How joy enters

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his essay ‘The Peace of the Divine Reality’, writes: “When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. That is peace. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My nontoothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be very happy. Therefor to look deeply at the present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”

Take a moment to reflect on one or two recent physical ailments or illnesses in the body or mind which are no longer present.  Perhaps any of the afflictions of allergies, a persistent cough, a toothache, food poisoning, or joint or muscle pain. Remember how it felt, how difficult and challenging certain aspects of asana practice, or sitting practice, or sleeping, or getting dressed, or general life were. Notice how easy it is now.  You’re not just fine or ok, you are nontoothache! Allow joy and gratitude for your healthy eye, tooth, elbow, hamstring, toe to well up and infuse you. Sense, perhaps, an appreciation for your life.

What would it be like to infuse a week with this type of reflection?



Wise use of sexual energy.

Not really something we speak about much in daily life, and especially not in yoga, and yet compared to how much it’s passing through us, or we’re thinking about it, it’s a bit disproportionate.  Which is perhaps why it’s included in the yoga sutras as one of the 5 yamas.

For monks, it’s a fairly no-brainer yama – celibacy. For the householder, however, the ancient and modern experts agree, it’s a bit more complex.  Recently I’ve looked at the two parts of this particular definition for some clarity in real practice.

1)    Sexual Energy

Vita raga visayam va chittam PYS I.37

Or (the yogi can still the fluctuations of the mind) by focusing on things that do not inspire attachment (likes or dislikes)

Or by contemplating on enlightened sages who are free* from desires and attachments.
(*not free as is don’t have, free as in not ruled by)

Raga – attachment, I like, I want more, awesome, bring it on
Dvesa – aversion, I don’t like, I never want that again, I wish it didn’t happen, yuck

Often compared to ends of a pendulum swing, raga and dvesa are the two reactions we’re constantly running through.  Sometimes they’re “big” swings, and we’re really aware of them, and sometimes they’re smaller, almost subconscious, but going on all the time nonetheless.

We’re like goalies, in one hand we hold a tennis racket, in the other one of those circular Velcro mitts.  We stand in front of a large soccer net, and use our dvesa tennis racket to hit away all those tennis balls we don’t like, and use the raga Velcro mitt to snag and throw into the net to keep all those tennis balls we do.  Basically doing what we’ve been taught by various forces all our lives – to be happy get more of what you like, and get rid of what you don’t.

The problem is the analogy is wrong, and therefore so is the teaching we’ve been given.  There is no net in the soccer goal, and we’re not really standing in front of it as gatekeeper, we’re more like sitting on top of the post.  The way to true happiness is to see this, and allow all the tennis balls, the ones we like, and don’t, to pass through us.  Without attaching to which ones we like and don’t, without trying to define ourselves as goalies that are great at velcroing in delicious soy lattes, live jazz music and yoga books or racketing away manipulative people, bad soy lattes, and housework.  The more we’re able to allow energies, all kinds, to be things we fully experience, but ultimately allow to pass right through – like breath – the more at peace with ourselves and this life we’ll be.

As Rumi says:
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Or Michael Stone:
“Welcome anger, my old friend! It hasn’t been awhile…”

So, too, with sexual energy. Instead of getting caught up in our sexual likes and dislikes, our likes of our dislikes, or dislikes of our likes, our too much or not enough or not right sexual tennis balls – can we let that energy flow through us as well? Can we embrace being sexual beings without it causing us to suit up in our goalie uniform?  Can we swing from the top of the goal post, delighting in it all and not regretting its passing?

“allowing sexual energy to unfold without repression(dvesa) or entanglement (raga) is the task of the yogi” Michael Stone

2)    Wise use

This is the aspect most covered, if it’s covered.  Generally wise use is translated, or considered to mean conserving energy.  This is linked to the idea above – that everything moving through us is different energies. When we choose to connect to one of those energies with our own thinking, the creation of the stories and ideas takes energy.

It’s like suddenly emerging into Times Square. Your eyes go everywhere, you have to process a ton of information mentally, it’s like one of the tennis ball shooting machines went haywire, and has shot all its balls at you within 5 seconds. And you’ve got to racket away or Velcro all those balls in that time.  It’s tiring. Try leaving Times Square and not feel more exhausted then when you entered, even without “doing” anything.

Imagine if you didn’t try to racket away or Velcro in all those balls.  Imagine that from your perch you used that energy, instead to focus on your breath, or practice asana, or prepare a meal for a loved one, or create, or play with your child, or choose just one ball to notice passing by in its elegant journey.  Imagine how much focus, clarity, and energy you would have.  This is the idea behind brahmacarya as conserving energy.  Think about all the times during the day you think about your cravings or lack of cravings or respond to others’ cravings or talk about cravings or try not to talk about them.  It’s exhausting!

“Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose…., the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow.  But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands.  Just so the human mind…, as logn as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power tha is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good…”  –Gregory of Nyssa (via “Yoga for a World Out of Balance” by Michael Stone)

So how do we work with this in yoga?

The amazing Iyengar shares how asana is the perfect ground to practice this:

“The citta is like a vehicle propelled by two powerful forces, prana & vasana (Desire). It moves in the direction of the more powerful force. As a ball rebounds when struck to the ground, so is the sadhaka tossed according to the movement of prana & citta. If breath (prana) prevails, then the desires are controlled, the senses are held in check and the mind is stilled. If the force of desire prevails, the breathing becomes uneven and the mind gets agitated”

Thich Nhat Hanh has provided many helpful guidelines on how to wisely use sexual energy, such as not having a sexual relationship with someone that “if we needed to, we would be willing to spend the rest of our life with, let’s say if the person got pregnant, and so on. And we would be happy to do so and not just do so out of a sense of duty. It doesn’t mean that we do have to spend the rest of our life with this person.” – website.  As well as “I’m determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment.”, and many others.  It would be a worthwhile practice to compile your own list.

And a last shout-out to another website considering different angles of brahmacarya.