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Dark Night of the Soul: Obstacles Along the Path of Yoga

Written By:
Ma Ananda
© EarthStar Publishing, Inc.

The Sanskrit word for obstacle is antaraya, which means “to come between.” Obstacles in our practice generally create impediments to ‘living our yoga” off the mat, as well as on the mat. Fortunately ancient yoga sages have written wisely and knowledgeably on this topic, and thankfully, we are reassured that obstacles are indeed natural.

There are nine (9) listed in the first chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra (1.30). The first, sickness, is a physical obstacle; however, the other eight (8) can be considered of the mental sheath. The 9 obstacles are:

1. Sickness (illness, viruses, disease, infection, generally poor diet and health)
2. Languor (laziness, sleepiness, dreaminess, fatigue, low energy)
3. Doubt (hesitation, uncertainty, distrust, disbelief, skepticism, qualms)
4. Heedlessness (lack of care, negligence, rashness, recklessness, inattention, overcautiousness)
5. Sloth (indifference, boredom, world-weariness, tedium, idleness, disrespectfulness)
6. Dissipation (indulgence in excuses, in the senses, decadence, dishonesty, corruption, immorality)
7. False Vision (overactive imagination, unreality, flights of fancy, predicting outcomes, thinking oneself elevated, “knowing it all”)
8. Non-attainment of yogic stages (the striving and desire to attain power, awaken kundalini, become more intuitive or enlightened, achieve advanced yoga postures, receive spiritual gifts (siddhis), become a yoga teacher)
9. Instability in these stages (after achievements and attainments, slipping into inconsistency, dropping out of practice, and backsliding into old stages and patterns (samskaras)

Additionally, Patanjali adds that obstacles are attended by four (4) distractions:

1. Suffering or Pain (stemming from unfulfilled desires, loss of meaning, physical pain due to rajasic tendencies (striving)
2. Depression or melancholy (feelings that become submerged, accompanied by guilt and self deprecation, self pity, and regret, deep sadness and disappointments)
3. Physical restlessness (borne of the inability to carry the additional, potent spiritual energy because of cutting back, being inconsistent, or discontinuing one’s deeper yoga practices)
4. Disturbed breathing (non-consistent or discontinued pranayama practice combined with lack of harmony in thoughts and feelings which creates imbalance with the breath)

Anytime these four (4) signs appear, this is proof that something is off-kilter in our lives, and with our yoga practice, What can we do to move through obstacles and stop suffering, depression, restlessness and disturbed breathing?

… well for most everyone, there comes a dark night of the soul. We get tired; feel lonely, cutoff, stressed, and hungry for touch, love, companionship. We feel invisible, weird, unappreciated, bored, or stuck. We even feel tired of trying to be good, do good, act righteous. We feel trapped in not only the daily grind of job, family, child rearing, pet-care, we also start to feel trapped in our yoga practice, diet, and general self-care. We feel as if doing a class, sitting for pranayama, meditating, and practicing pratyahara just becomes tedious “chore number 898” on our life list. Like a fallen angel, we want to tuck-wing and land on a sugary, sandy beach at twilight. We want to curse vehemently, down a bottle of Clos du Bois, pour it all over our body and ask a friend to come over and join the party.

Shocked? Well don’t be caught in piety and judgment. These types of feelings come upon the most disciplined of purists and spiritualists, sages, yogis, and pretty much ANYONE who is alive, kicking and aware.  As a matter of fact, it is important to get unstuck and find a better balance between sacredness and playfulness.

Some might maintain that the best way to overcome such a dark night of the soul is to “press on.”

Well maybe what we really need to do is ‘Rock OFF.’

Nature holds many secrets … for instance, did you know that an ice cap that stays frozen builds a resistance to sunlight? However, when sustained high heat begins to melt the ice cap, the actual weave in the texture of the ice begins to change. Once the temperature gets colder once again and ‘refreezes,’ the ice cap then becomes 4 times more susceptible to the sun! When the heat comes again, the melting begins to work all the more faster on subsequent thaws. Just think of this in terms of the practice of Yoga …

When we begin to burn through obstacles in our practice, it is okay to ‘cool off’ and leave for a little while. When we come back, the heat actually penetrates deeper and faster, and burns through yet more obstacles. We travel further along the path. Alternatively, those who adhere too stringently to a deeply disciplined practice can become ‘frozen’ and resistant to the sunlight (heat). Without even realizing it, one then becomes stuck in “Obstacle #8,” striving to ‘achieve’ more, thinking that pressing on rajasically will ‘earn’ the grace of yogic gifts. Grace is a given. It is more the merits of the heart that burn through the deeper, more subtle obstacles. A humbled heart gains merit in the never ending cycle of Birth-Preservation- Destruction. A true guru, (and a good parent) will will be a catalyst in helping to break down the will (ego), not the spirit of the aspirant (or child). Even the seemingly perfect yogi, master teacher, teacher, student would benefit from an occasional fall, as tearing down allows us to build back up, stronger and wiser than before. Our empathy deepens and what becomes dissipated is later recreated stronger in another space, another time …

Isn’t it funny that once we have a chance to miss something, or someone, we tend to appreciate all the more deeply? This is just one of those mysterious and shimmering facets of human nature. As long as we do come back, refreshed and renewed, we’ll not be hindered by a dark night of the soul. We can then look forward to coming home gently to our practice(s) (and to our lives) because our hearts truly long to be there, not because we feel we should, or because we are trying to ‘earn’ something. In the wise words from the old Desiderata:

“… do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be GENTLE with yourself. You are a child of the universe…”



  DAUGHTER wrote @

AMAZING. The Clos du Bois reference: genius. Of course you knew I’d love that! Ah, it feels great to have you as my mommy.

  Victor and Judy wrote @

Hello Felicia,
We are sending you a great big thank you for the wonderful pot luck last night. It was really good getting together and sharing with everyone from the yoga group.

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