Raja Yoga - Chapter 1.30 of the Yoga Sutras of Master Patanjali, circa 250 AD.
Raja Yoga means Royal Yoga - highly revered because it can lead to enlightenment from direct control and mastery of the mind. This approach makes Raja Yoga an extremely challenging and difficult practice and obstacles - antarayah - can abound. Master Patanjali lists the most common contenders in his “Sutras”:
• vyadhi = physical or mental sickness
• styana = mental flabbiness or dullness
• samshaya = doubt
• pramada = carelessness
• alasya = laziness
• avirati = not stopping sensual pleasure
• bhranti-darshana = holding to false views
• alabdha-bhumikatva = failing to attain or progress in stages of practice
• anavasthitatva = instability, inability to maintain achieved stages of practice
• chitta-vikshepa = distractions of the mind
Raja Yoga’s benefits to the physical body can accrue from its powerful use of the mind. Raja methods allow for the possibility of harnessing the power of thought and logic to overcome antarayah and arrive at adamantine, intuitive realizations which can manifest as siddhis - miraculous powers to overcome the body’s apparent limitations, like the limiting perception that we require food to sustain life or that we are limited to this physical form in this space and time.
Raja Yoga engages and anchors the mind strongly through analytical, discursive and logical processes such as the deep contemplation of an antidote to obstacles. Master Patanjali says his suggested one - the Four Infinites or Four Immeasurables - Chatur Apramana - is the one and only crucial practice for overcoming all spiritual obstacles, and can eventually bring the mind to the crystalline clarity which must come in order to experience highest samadhi - the realization of highest love.
Subtle Body Benefits
Any spiritual endeavour, whether a physically biased path like Hatha Yoga or a meditation intensive path like Raja Yoga can purify the subtle body by clearing the nadis (subtle energy channels) and the mind of its cobwebs, and allowing a more rarified pranic atmosphere so that winds can converge into sushumna, the central channel, and induce states of meditation eventually leading to samadhi.
Karmically, spiritual obstacles can be caused by inhibiting others in some way, or perhaps, not contributing to the spiritual progress of others when the opportunity arises to do so. Practicing an antidote to spiritual obstacles like Chatur Apramana can karmically ensure that we are always supported in our spiritual endeavours - in every way.
First we could consider each of the antarayah - obstacles - that Master Patanjali lists as being the most common:
Vyadhi = physical or mental sickness
Often, we are unable to practice. But we could cultivate humility and a sense of gratitude for wellness and good health. We could also take the opportunity while “stuck” in bed to consider all those we know who suffer chronic and debilitating illness and disease, and wish we could annihilate their suffering.
Styana = mental flabbiness or dullness
One of the most dangerous obstacles of meditation practice is to be “stuck” in a zombie-like state where our minds completely zone out and we have no clarity or tightness on our object. Often mistaken for “meditation” - this state of dullness is dangerous because it feels good and has allure. Carry-over of this spaced out state into off-the-cushion time is a good indication that our meditation practice is “stuck in styana.”
Samshaya = doubt
There are two kinds. The unhealthy form is being “stuck” in not making a decision about a course of action which we know in our hearts is right - perhaps such as making every attempt to gradually becoming a happy vegetarian. This doubt stems from not really wanting to make a commitment. The healthier form of doubt is to delay a definitive decision about a particular method or path because we are still unsure whether and how it is right for us, for example, refraining from making hasty decisions to become vegetarian or celibate because everyone else is doing it.
Pramada = carelessness
Succumbing to mind states where we are prone to a total lack of awareness. Allowing ourselves to become inebriated or to take drugs constitutes carelessness, as does losing touch with the urgency of always maintaining a high state of awareness in our practice, because death is not an “if” eventuality, but rather, a “when” eventuality.
Alasya = laziness
Being “stuck” in physical and mental laziness - simply not feeing like doing our practice, and not doing whatever it takes to get “unstuck,” like considering its many superb benefits and its positive effects on us and others.
Avirati = not stopping sensual pleasure
Literally, avirati means being “stuck” in obsessive sense desires - an inertia of mind that fails to stop harmful desire. It could also mean failing to examine and give up our harmful wrong views - such as an “eye for an eye”- when paired with the next obstacle.
Bhranti-darshana = false views or perception
Linked to the last obstacle, avirati, bhranti darshana refers to holding to incorrect and destructive worldviews and making no attempt to change them. To be “stuck” in ideologies that clearly don’t serve us: believing our suffering is caused by some external source, such as our job, place of residence, or partner, and that changing these external sources of pain will somehow guarantee our happiness.
Alabdha-bhumikatva = failing to attain or progress in stages of practice
It is easy to get “stuck” in complacency. This obstacle is insidious, because it generally manifests itself as thinking we have reached a certain level of practice which can induce a “comfort zone” inertia - this inhibits further spiritual progress.
Anavasthitatva = instability, inability to maintain achieved stages of practice
The former obstacle can give rise to this one. Having gotten “stuck” in thinking we are now somehow high practitioners, we fail to sustain our practice and so, we slip and fall back to lower levels. Without constant effort and practice, we cannot stabilize our spiritual realizations.
Chitta-vikshepa = distractions of the mind
The mind and body can get completely “stuck” in one or any or all of these obstacles, and then becomes distracted from spiritual practice, and worse, from spiritual goals. The physical manifestations of sustained distractions of the mind are general malaise, dysfunctional breathing patterns, anxiety and nervous tremors.
According to Master Patanjali, the antidote to all spiritual obstacles is the practice of Chatur Apramana - the Four Infinites or Four Immeasurables:
Maitri - infinite love - the wish and decision that all beings achieve perfect happiness.
Karuna - infinite compassion - the wish and decision that all beings are free from pain and suffering.
Mudita - infinite joy - the wish and decision that all beings may experience the perpetual joy that comes with complete freedom from mental afflictions.
Upeksha - infinite equanimity - the wish and decision that we and all beings may love, equally and unconditionally, all beings in all worlds. The understanding that all our pain and sorrow, all our bliss and joy - come simply from how we have treated others, whether or not we have been kind - which would lead us to a state of equanimity regarding how we are feeling at any particular point in time.
Tips from Deep Retreat
1. It became really easy to go into denial about the fact that we had obstacles at all! This is being stuck in the mire of alabdha bhumikatva and then anavasthitatva. Thinking we know ensures that we can never learn anything! The worst obstacles, of course, are the ones that you don’t even know you have . . .
2. For this, the Teacher becomes critical, and in an extended isolated retreat where you don’t get to see your Teacher in the flesh, you can only hope that your practice includes daily supplications for their help. Because not requesting the help of our Teachers guarantees one thing - that none will be forthcoming! And this would pose an almost insurmountable obstacle.
3. Many symptoms, both physical and mental, manifested which we could classify as “sickness.” Some that we experienced which were obstacles to practice include dull headache, constipation or diarrhoea, tightness, tension or pain in the chest area or temples/head, insomnia, frothy urine, shortness of breath, a feeling of being ungrounded, wired or disconnected, shaking, tremors, indigestion, irritability, anxiety, extreme sensitivity to bright light and sunlight, delusions of grandeur. Not only are these symptoms obstacles to practice, they are in fact signals to stop practice immediately, because they are signs of incorrect practice.
4. Entering into or trying to continue an extended, solitary, silent retreat requires a very strong reason! Motivation basically has to go super nova in order to carry you through. We noticed that our reasons shape-shifted over time - an indication perhaps that our initial reasons weren’t going to cut it.
5. It takes a phenomenal amount of extraordinary karma to get into and then to stay in a deep retreat, and these seeds need to be planted up front. It may not do any good to suddenly realize this half way through and start trying to plant the right seeds, because effective seed planting has to happen in the gardens of others, rather than your own, and there ain’t many others around in isolated retreat!
6. We noticed that samshaya (doubt) about ourselves, our practice or our Teachers was most prevalent when alasya (laziness) or pramada (carelessness) kicked in. In other words, when we maintained a steady and strong practice and a high awareness of our mind state from moment to moment, the positive results spoke for themselves and allowed little or no doubt.
7. We used Chatur Apramana (the Four Infinites) as an antidote to spiritual obstacles on a daily basis - mostly as a contemplation/meditation during Savasana, after our asana practice.
One of our Teachers often says that the greatest accomplishment of the Devil is that he has managed to convince the people of the world that he doesn’t even exist. He says the same goes for gluttony - we have become a nation of gluttons and then got rid of the word! And so, we often consider that a mind-state where we think we are experiencing no spiritual obstacles at all might be a very dangerous place to be. Then again, maybe not!