Sutra 1.24: Obstacles to Happiness

Happiness. According to the dictionary happy is defined as, “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment,” and “fortunate and convenient.” We all want that. In fact, every single person who comes in for yoga therapy is, when we boil it all down, searching for happiness.

As we continue our exploration of the Yoga Sutras (go here for previous entries) we come to Sutra 1.24 (klesakarmavipakasayairaparamrstah purusavisesaisvarah). According to Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, “Isvara is a unique being untouched by afflictions, karmas, the results of karmas, and the repository of karmas.” Last month we focused on Isvara. We could spend a lot of time on this one sutra, but for this month we will focus on the “afflictions.”

These afflictions are sometimes referred to as “obstacles to happiness.” Lucky for us, there are only 5. If we can get through these 5 we will be eternally happy.

I have gone through a 10 month intensive on these afflictions. Last year someone (not a client or anyone who has worked directly with me, but most likely another professional) lodged a complaint against me to the Department of Health. The complaint was that Thai Yoga (the type of assisted yoga that I do) was outside the scope of my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. The end of the story is a happy one (the Department of Health agreed with me that Thai Yoga is within my scope of practice), but the process was painful and full of “obstacles to happiness.”

The first obstacle to happiness: ignorance (avidya) is the root of all the others. According to the Sutras, this ignorance is thinking that we are only this body and mind that we live in. It is true that we do live in this body and mind, but we are more than that. In some translations of the Sutras, there is a focus on the idea that we are not our bodies, and our goal is to leave the body in order to be who we really our: our Spirit or soul or divinity (there are a lot of words we can use to describe this). I personally like seeing both of these parts of ourselves as real and the work is about integrating them. It is not about picking one over the other because we are both human and divine. The hard part is we can touch, feel and manipulate the body (Prakriti in the Sutras) and our soul, spirit, divinity (Purusha in the Sutras) is way more subtle, difficult to feel and sometimes we forget it is even there. When we forget about our divinity, this is a form of ignorance. When we forget that there is something larger involved in our lives this is a form of ignorance. When I received the letter from the Dept. of Health I contracted into ignorance. I have many wonderful friends, colleagues and mentors who continued to remind me that this was a part of my spiritual path for some reason. There were moments I could hold that idea, but for the most part I felt attacked, angry, scared, lonely and that this a permanent place of stuck-ness. I tried to hold the body and mind experiences while also holding the idea that this was not a permanent state. Now that I am through the other side of this experience I am able to see some of the sacred-ness of it, and I am confident more will be revealed. Through this experience I have more fully integrated the different parts of what I call “me” and through that integration I feel more connected to my divinity.

Remembering our sacredness can be a doorway to less suffering. An experiment: the next time you are out and about (walking, driving or taking the bus) contemplate each person, animal, insect and plant as a divine being living in a changing, impermanent body. Let me know what you find.

The second and third afflictions are 2 sides of the same coin: attachment (raga) and aversion (dvesha). I do not believe that we ever stop having attachment and aversion, but I do think that becoming aware of them helps loosen their grip. I experienced a lot of these throughout the process. Fear that I would lose my livelihood (aversion). Anger at the person who lodged the complaint (aversion). Gripping to my livelihood and the way I do it (attachment). Isolation and shame (aversion). Connection from reaching out for support in my community (attachment). Relief when the Department of Health said I could continue my practice (attachment). We virtually go through our lives driven by attachment and aversion. We can experience very small (aversion to the pain of a hangnail) and also quite large attachments and aversions (attachment to our children). At some point through this process I realized I was using my lovingkindness meditation practice to get rid of these attachments and aversions. I have stopped practicing this type of meditation to practice mindfulness meditation for the time being. This helped me get in touch with these so they were not running through me unconsciously. If our goal is not necessarily to eliminate them how do we work with these?

An experiment: Bring to mind a craving or repulsion and notice where you feel it in your body. Label the experience as attachment or aversion (labeling can give our experience space to move) and watch the sensations move through you like a wave. The sensations will most likely pass eventually, and when we can watch them from a bit of a distance we can also step out of the suffering that can come with attachment and aversion.

The fourth affliction is asmita or “I am-ness.” This is commonly talked about as our ego. We all have identities of who we are (i.e. I am a yoga therapist. I am a rule follower. I am a good person. I am a person who uses touch in her practice.). How do these identities cause us suffering? I am extremely attached to all of these identities, and they were being threatened. For two months my lawyer advised me to not practice touch at all while we were in negotiations with the Department of Health (in yoga classes, with clients, on retreat, etc.). I found this out the day before I opened Rainier Beach Yoga. All of a sudden some of the identities that I held so strongly I could not utilize. I also remember thinking of myself as a “bad person” for getting a complaint in the first place. In previous years at ethics trainings I remember hearing about therapists who did “bad things” and were involved with complaints. Now I was in that category of people who did something “wrong” and “broke the rules.” This put me in opposition of the identities I held to be true about myself, which was also painful. Throughout this process I realized that the identity of Thai Yoga practitioner was one that I was not as attached to as I once was. After not practicing Thai Yoga for 2 months I realized that this was something that I once adored, and now was more on the periphery of my excitement. This was a wonderful learning to become more conscious of.

Next experiment: Write down 5 identities you have. Now imagine if you did not have them anymore. What do you notice? Again, I do not believe we should not have identities. I sometimes make the joke that if we didn’t have an ego going to a cocktail party would be virtually impossible.
“Hi, who are you?”
“I am………nothing? everything? unidentified?”
We probably would not make too many friends! Like with the other afflictions, how can we be aware of the identities we have in our lives and at the same time be aware of how they may change throughout our lifetime? How can we hold our identities knowing that we will die and lose them all?

This bring us to our final obstacle: fear of death (abinivesha), which I also think of more globally as fear of change. In essence, every change that happens can be seen as a death. The death of summer will come in the Fall. The death of your favorite pants comes with a large stain you cannot remove. And yes, eventually each one of us will die too. For two months I experienced a drastic change in my practice and teaching. I was completely hands off. When this complaint first came to light last year my lawyer asked me what my biggest fear was. I said that I would have to close my practice and start waitressing again. In essence, some of me would die. There was so much grief in thinking about this as a possibility. He assured me that this would not be the case, but that was hard to believe in the midst of it. In the end, my practice did not have to die (for which I am eternally grateful), and I have also realized that that I can grow and change. With that in mind I have decided to let the Thai Yoga part of my practice shift. I am still committed to working with current clients indefinitely, but I will not be taking on new clients. If you have outstanding gift certificates I am more than happy to honor them. Thai Yoga will still be a part of my teaching as well as some of my yoga therapy sessions. At this point I want to integrate Thai Yoga even more into the yoga that I am doing rather than have it be a separate offering. This “death” also comes with grief and change and an uncertainty of what the future will look like.

An experiment: The next time you meet a “death” (which can be the end of anything: a meal, a relationship, a TV show) notice how you meet that death. I believe it is normal and healthy to be afraid of death. In fact, our fear of death can be a motivator for going to the doctor, flossing our teeth or eating healthy. But can we live while also acknowledging that we are going to die? According to Patanjali this is the hardest obstacle to overcome, but in my opinion if we break it down into smaller chunks we can accept the inevitable changes that come into our life with more ease. Did you know that accepting the end of Lost could prepare you for death?

I would love to hear if you tried any of the experiments, and I look forward to seeing you on the mat.