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Nine Obstacles to Wellness

With the New Year approaching, you are likely to exchange a large number of greeting messages with friends, relatives and well-wishers. Majority of the messages have phrases like "wishing you another year of health, peace, happiness and prosperity", or something similar. Health, peace and happiness etc. are all required for us to function in our daily life at our most optimum level. Without these, our work efficiency and productivity will drop, and we can fall prey to mental ailments like stress and depression. Another term that includes many of these attributes and is gaining acceptance is "wellness". If you search the Internet you will find multiple definitions of the term wellness. Two of these definitions are given below:

The World Health Organization defines wellness as:

"a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

The National Wellness Institute defines wellness as:

"a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential."

Wellness can be thought of both as a process and a state of being. When you follow the guidelines for the process of wellness, you will achieve a state of wellness.

From a yogi’s perspective, total wellness is needed to achieve the final objective of the practice of yoga – "chitta vritti nirodha" (stillness of the mind) (Patanjali’s yoga sutra 1.2).

However, when we are in pursuit of any objective in life, whether it is the final goal of yoga stated above, or any other objective in life, we always run into obstacles on the way. In the yoga sutras, Patanjali lists nine obstacles that can impede the progress of a yogi (sutra 1.30):

व्याधिस्त्यानसंशयप्रमादालस्याविरतिभ्रान्तिदर्शनालब्धभूमिकत्वानवस्थितत्वानि चित्तविक्षेपास्तेऽन्तरायाः॥३०॥

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vyaadhi-styaana-saMshaya-pramaada-alasya-avirati-bhraantidarshana-aalabdhabhUmikatva-anavasthitatvaani chittavikShepAH te’ntaraayaaH (Sutra 1.30)

"Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from ground gained—these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles." (translation by Swami Satchidananda)

vyAdhi (disease): Disease is an obvious obstacle in the pursuit of any objective in life. Practice of yoga, especially asana and pranayama, can be helpful in maintaining healthy body and mind. Moreover, proper, healthy and controlled diet is needed to stay healthy.

styAna (dullness): Despite being in good physical health, and often having the best of intentions, many people just don’t have the mental drive to pursue any worthwhile activity. They just want to be a "couch potato" and sit and watch TV. This is a big obstacle as it undermines the desire to engage in fruitful activity.

samshaya (doubt): When we are in doubt about the efficacy of our approach or about the outcome of our effort, we are unlikely to put our best foot forward and get on with the task at hand. Doubts can be removed by developing a better understanding of the situation at hand through study and also through "satsang" or being in the company of learned and equal-minded people. This will help us remove our doubt and develop a sense of "shraddha" or faith in our approach and the objectives.

pramAda (carelessness): Carelessness is one of the most dangerous and damaging mental attributes. Carelessness by a doctor can lead to loss of a patient’s life; by a builder can result in collapse of a building causing death and destruction; by a woman in the kitchen can lead to fire; by a driver running the red light resulting in accident, etc. are just a few samples. We come across these situations in life on a daily basis. The practice of yoga, especially meditation can help sharpen the memory and thus diminish the possibility of careless behavior.

Alasya (laziness): Laziness is a mental attitude wherein the ego takes over and doesn’t allow the intellect to act upon the task at hand. We give in to the love for ease and comfort and avoid any action that needs some exertion. Laziness can be caused by overeating, lack of proper sleep or simply through a love for comfort and ease. To overcome laziness one needs to practice "tapas", one of the five niyamas. StyAna (dullness), listed earlier, and Alasya (laziness) may seem similar in nature. However, in dullness, the body feels listless lacking energy and vitality. This could be a result of lack of pranic energy (vital life energy). On the other hand, laziness is a mental attitude which wants to avoid activity despite there being no lack of physical energy.

avirati (sense gratification): Constantly running after gratification of the five senses is avirati. For the most part, all our actions are driven by a desire for sensual pleasure. This becomes a great obstacle to wellness as a lack of discriminatory behavior can result in sickness at the physical and mental levels.

bhranti-darshana (false perception): Essentially, delusion or false perception is to have a belief that is clearly false. Some examples – a person may falsely believe:

  • that some external force is controlling his/her thoughts
  • that his/her spouse is having an affair
  • that he/she has committed a crime and deserves punishment
  • that someone is after them to hurt/kill them
  • that they have supernatural powers and can achieve anything in life
  • etc…

Some yogis who have been meditating for a while may see some lights or colors in their meditation. They may falsely believe that they have attained enlightenment.

alabdha-bhumikatva (failure to reach firm ground): Many a time, despite our best efforts, we are unable to make much progress in our endeavors. This could be the result of lack of proper knowledge or training, wrong approach or simply unrealistic goals and expectations.

anavasthitatva (instability): It may also happen that having gained a certain ground in our efforts, we may not be able to sustain that level and fall back to a lower state of achievement. This could be caused by inherent fickleness of the mind which may lead us to take one wrong step or by letting go of the constant effort required to complete the task.

From a yogi’s perspective, these are the nine obstacles listed by Patanjali which obstruct the progress toward achieving the goal of yoga, that of calming and stilling the mind. In previous sutras it was stated that through the practice of Ishwara Pranidhana (surrendering to a higher entity named Ishwara) and by constantly reciting the sound of OM, one can diminish the influence of these obstacles. Of course, in chapter 2 of the yoga sutras, Patanjali lists the eight limbs of yoga which should be practiced to attain the goals of yoga. Therein also, Ishwara Pranidhana is listed under the category of the five Niyamas.

As mentioned earlier, these are the same obstacles that are faced by all of us while pursuing any endeavor in life. Through a diligent and regular practice of the eight limbs of yoga we can hope to lead a life which can be relatively free of these obstacles.

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