The Nine Obstacles to a yoga practice | Lethargy and How to Beat It!


Patanjali, who is said to be the father of Yoga and may be two different scholars, wrote on the teachings of yoga, ethics, and medicine in the ancient text “The Yoga Sutras”.  It consists of 196 verses and four sections outlining a moral code for human beings to follow.  Every Yoga Teacher is exposed to the Sutras to find their relevance to the human condition.  Patanjali’s  Sutras were written some two centuries after the life of Jesus Christ.  Many of our Christian teachings are reflected in the approach of the yoga sutras.  Patanjali writes of nine obstacles that we face in yoga and in life. They are very relevant to our modern world!

We all experience resistance in our lives. We hit all kinds of walls.  In the Sutras, they are called obstacles to a yoga practice that Patanjali refers to as “rocks” lying in the path of someone who has set off on a journey.  They cause us to get stuck, hitting us with detours and stumbling blocks that can pull us away from our goals.  I will be writing nine separate blogs discussing each one of these obstacles.

The first of these is styāna, or lethargy.  Sometimes we feel like we can conquer the world.  Other times we get trapped under feelings of being overwhelmed, taking several steps back from pursuing our goals, being unable to move forward.  I have been in the fitness and health industry for over 25 years.  I have worked in fitness centers, private studios, hospitals, schools, churches, and now I have my own business.  In this industry, there are two times during the year we look forward to.  September is when all the kids go back to school and January is when the holidays are over and everyone wants to get rid of excess weight.  It is a time of energy and excitement as new students want to participate in their health, old students come back, and new goals are set with long and short term plans to get healthy.  Classes are packed and everyone is on the same page.  In all the fitness and health facilities I have worked in, it is built into the system that summer, holidays, and after March, people exercise less.  Joseph Pilates himself would close his studio in August.

Why do we get blocked by feelings of lethargy?  Everyone has had that goal or new project that they are so psyched about starting a new project?  We are flooded with ideas and excited about starting.  We plan out our activities for days and weeks ahead and have every intention to progress, participate, and stay focused.  We say things like “I will read a chapter a night”, “I will give up sugar and eat smaller meals”. “I will join a club or studio and go to classes 4 days a week” , “I will start taking classes one semester at a time until I finish my degree”, “I will get up every day at 6:00 meditate for 10 minutes’, “I will hire a trainer and work out three days a week”

We do this a while and all seems great.  Then we have that day when we feel less excited, tired, lazy, and unmotivated.  We say “I am going to skip my yoga practice today” or “I can read two chapters tomorrow”, or “I can just eat this one dessert and get back on it tomorrow” or “I am going to cancel my appointment tonight because I just have no energy”.  This seems so easy at first.  We think the feeling of excitement will return and we will once again feel that energy.  But then it becomes easier and easier just to go back to old patterns, sleep in more, skip going to yoga and go home instead, and put off the daily tasks we wanted to accomplish.  Many people that begin to practice Yoga, for example, find out quickly that it takes work!  Days come where it takes a real effort to even step onto your mat (a metaphor that can be used to describe any activity that requires discipline to start)

What makes people lazy?  Put off doing things? Break our own promises to ourselves? Funny how kids never get tired of playing, but they are lazy when asked to pick up their room.  Many people love to shop, go out to dinner, watch TV, or cook.  But what makes other activities cause us to be lazy?  How can we make our activities fun and exciting so that we do not feel lethargy?  How can we stay inspired and not be thrown off by our inevitable highs and lows in performance?  The teachings of the Sutras tell us to be unattached to outcome, to show up and practice, to not be motivated by the ego, and to live our lives in service.  As a studio owner, mentor, teacher, and educator, this is something I think about a lot.  HOW do I keep myself and my clients interested enough to come back?  Here are some tips that have worked for me and for my clients/students

1.       Look for the Joy: Many students talk about how great they feel after a great yoga class.  They feel alive, at peace, and relaxed.  The next time we want to skip our practice, we need to remember that feeling of accomplishment.  There is much documented research about the benefits of exercise, not the least of which is clearer thinking and improved concentration.  We must learn to make time for things that make us feel happier and healthier.

2.       Get support from friends:  One great thing about coming to a group class is that we get the support from the students in the class.  Since we opened our studio in November of 2012, we have met so many great people and formed so many friendships.  It is so amazing to see students get to know each other.  Classes are filled with laughter, encouragement, support, and great conversation.  Sometimes the very thing that gets us to class is being able to spend times with our friends!

3.       Set small goals that you can accomplish with relative ease: All we have to do is be better than we were yesterday!  Maybe that means trying just a little harder in class, adding an extra practice each week, making one small dietary change in our day that makes a difference in our health, taking the stairs more often, or just practicing five minutes more a week.  Start by making a list of things you want to do each day.  When one task is accomplished, no matter how small, check it off!  That way the feeling of accomplishment takes over faster than the feeling of being overwhelmed.

4.       Acknowledge your successes: It is so easy to beat ourselves up for not fulfilling our expectations, but so hard to acknowledge our small successes.   We all do it!  In order to avoid feeling unmotivated to keep moving forward, we HAVE to give ourselves credit for every little success.  Then we have to tell ourselves that we CAN keep going and NOT GIVE UP!

5.       Switch it up: Our feelings of laziness may be that we need to make some small changes.  Take a class at a different time with a different teacher.  Try moving to a new area in the room or at a different time of day.  If we always take hard classes, maybe it’s time to try a gentle class or even take up Tai Chi.  See what happens when adding a 5 minute morning meditation before the day starts.  By the same token maybe it’s time to add more resistance to our practice or step up our efforts.  Either way, the end result will be renewed energy!

6.       Character doesn’t develop by making excuses: There will always be something else to fill our time that enables us to skip working on our goal.  When we do not set our priorities and give into our lethargic feelings, it makes the guilt set in.  Then it gets easier and easier to skip.  Next time we feel that excuse coming on, it is then that we need to ignore it and keep moving forward.  If the plan is to start exercising, we will be so proud of ourselves when we go to class and finish.  How do we feel when someone does not follow through with commitments to us?  Now we must realize we need to keep our word to OURSELVES.  No wiggle room…we cannot start letting ourselves down. 

7.       Get up and get moving! Next time we feel like skipping out and not doing our yoga practice, it is that time we need to take a step forward.  Just putting on our exercise clothes causes the body to start responding to physiological changes when we exercise such as a slightly increased heart rate or respiration to name a few. If you just get in your car and drive over to the studio, we will take care of the rest!  Sometimes it is just like what my teacher, David Swenson, has taught me.  “Some days I just stand on my mat.  I decide to do a sun salutation.  Then maybe two.  Pretty soon I am practicing and feeling great” 

8.       Stay in gratitude: It is so easy to beat ourselves up.  We sometimes feel lazy because we are not happy with the results we may get.  Instead, we need to shift to a feeling of gratitude.  We should be thankful for whatever our body will do on any given day.  Be thankful for the ability to have goals that make our life full of purpose.  Even if we don’t get as far as we want each day, we need to be grateful we accomplished what we did.  When we focus on this, we will only attract more of it!  It is the way intention works. 

9.       Laugh at yourself: Try not to take life so seriously.  There will be bumps in the road.  There will be times when we feel like our practice is going nowhere.  The great teacher BKS Iyengar, who is largely responsible for bringing Hatha Yoga to the West, spoke publically about his struggles with his practice.  When we laugh at it and keep moving forward, lethargy will not get the best of us!

10.   Create a habit: In our 200 hour training, the students get an assignment called “40 Days of Meditation”.  They are given a word and an intention.  They are given 40 days to find when they can best spend time meditating, figure out where they need to meditate, and watch how their mind reacts to this ancient practice.  This is based on the idea that it takes several weeks to make a habit automatic.  There is an initial conditioning phase but once this has taken place it becomes much easier to commit. Remember that activities we do a few times a week are much harder than ones we do daily.  Start small and add more time later.  Students come back years later and tell us that they are still doing their meditation practice!  It works.  So….stay consistent and set reminders for yourself!  You will love the new YOU!

Lauren Eirk, MS, MATm, E-RYT 500
Developer of Yoga I.S.® Teacher Training