Swami Swaroopananda on Obstacles to Yoga Practice
Question: What are the main challenges in leading a yoga lifestyle and how should we cope with them when they arise on our path?
Answer: The main challenge is karma. That is the main challenge but it is also the main opportunity. In yogic practices we need a teacher. So the first thing that we need is a teacher who will guide us and oversee our practice. Since time immemorial the masters of yoga have said again and again that you must have a teacher. Nowadays it is easier because communications are very good. We can reach out rapidly to very many points around the globe but we still must have a teacher.
The second challenge is to find a group of practitioners that will support us. Although there may be difficulties in living in an ashram or a yoga center, there are also great benefits because we have a group surrounding us to support us.
A third challenge is discipline. Two key principles on the yogic path are abhyasa, which is regular practice that needs to be done for a long continuous period with enthusiasm, and vairagya which means that we are not to be attached to the fruits of the practice. You don’t do the practice in order to get this or that result. You do the practice for moksha, for spiritual realization and liberation and in order to be able to help others.
The most important thing in yogic practice is the discipline to practice daily.
Why did I say that karma is the main challenge? That is because we will see that there will be constant obstacles to our daily practice. They will come from the physical body in the form of physical pain, disease and discomfort. We may try to practice lotus and our knees may get damaged. We may try to sit and we cannot sit. So the physical body will be the first to manifest obstacles. Fatigue may be there. We may not have the energy to wake up and go to morning satsang.
Obstacles will come from our own minds on the form of mental anguish, depression, anger, fear, or jealousy. So many mental emotions can be present and they are all disturbances. Primarily they disturb the abhyasa, the regular practice. The mind will also play games saying that if I only could skip this morning practice I will feel better. This is a well-known mental game among yogis. The fact that it is well-known doesn’t make it easier. When the mind starts to talk to us like this, this is the time to stand up and take the opposite path. If the mind tells us not to practice, then we must practice harder.
Swami Sivananda would say do exactly the opposite of what your mind tells you to do because a mind that is not controlled is an enemy, while the mind that you can control is a friend. As long as you do not have mastery over your own mind, it is an enemy and not a friend.
So this will be a challenge because there are so many reasons to break abhyasa, to break this regular practice, often to do with karma. For example, you come to take a course at the ashram and suddenly you receive a call that you must go back as there is an emergency in your business, or you must go back as the cat or the dog is sick. So many times I have seen this happen. People have to break their retreat in the middle.
So these obstacles are there and they are obstacles to regular practice.
The instrument that Swami Sivananda gave us to overcome this difficulty was the spiritual diary, where you write down and record your practice and you give it to your teacher once a week or once a month for advice and feedback.
Swami Vishnudevananda is a good example of someone who mastered abhyasa, regular practice. Even when he had a stroke and a car accident he never stopped his practice. And when he was on a stretcher he would have mobile satsang. He always knew how to adapt and accommodate his practice. He would tell us how, when he was in the Sivananda ashram and he was in charge of so many projects, including all the ashram construction as well as being Swami Sivananda’s personal assistant, he would repeat 200 malas of his mantra every day as a minimum. As you know each mala is 108 beads. Every day he would wake up at 4:00 am, first he would do his own hatha yoga practice and then he would give the early morning yoga class to the ashram’s guests.
I was with him for many, many years and I saw at this at close quarters. Although he was already a yoga master he was regular in his practice. He became a master because he followed the teachings of his guru, Swami Sivananda.
I tell you this because the greatest difficulty is lack of self-discipline.
A further obstacle is a lack of inspiration. Suddenly we feel dryness, boredom, and a lack of motivation to practice. When we have a lack of inspiration, our faith in the practice, teachings, and the teacher diminishes. The faith may diminish to the point where we will stop practicing and looking for guidance. So when this lack of inspiration comes we need a positive antidote. Sometimes we become bored — and boredom is a great obstacle in the spiritual path as it is based on regular practice. You practice every day again and again. It is like eating the same food every day, morning and evening and you yearn for some variation and variety. We need to overcome this boredom and the secret is to strengthen our practice.
A person may appear in our lives and that person may put us back on the path. This is karmic. Alternatively another person may come and pull us away from the path. Swami Sivananda warns us to be careful of this type of friend. When such a friend comes and tries to pull you away from the path go in the opposite direction and shun the company of this friend.
Also, our own family may discourage us from doing our practice. They tell us that we can do it later when we retire. But sometimes when we retire we find that we don’t have enough energy to do the practice. Swami Sivananda always teaches us to do it now, try it now, do not delay. Tomorrow may not come. So procrastination is another obstacle.
Another is the obstacle of spiritual pride. You become very proud of your spiritual achievements and this pride can bring about a spiritual downfall. We can actually fall from the path. So we must practice humility. And that is why it is good to be in an ashram because there our own guru and friends from the path will help us to stay humble.
So I have covered just a few obstacles and how we deal with them but always the key is to have a good teacher to work with us in times of difficulty.