“There are many ways of understanding simple things, but generally the opposite is true for difficult ideas.”
Miyamoto Musashi translated by Stephen F. Kaufman

The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings

Religiousness in Yoga Part 15: Antarāya, Iśvara-praṇidhāna


Excerpts from “Religiousness in Yoga” by TKV Desikachar

Part 1: Antarāya

… The term antarāya describes a situation where a person moving towards betterment is blocked, either because of the experiences had in that progression or because of negative factors that might have been present for many years. Let us consider some of these obstacles, nine in number, how they arise and how to get rid of them.

1. … when we are ill, or have a disease … we must regain our health … It disturbs the mind to such an extent that we have to do something about it before we can proceed.

2. … the nature of mind itself … we get moods … sometimes we feel heavy .. dull … we don’t feel like proceeding. This mental heaviness could be due to food … cold weather … [or] just the nature of the mind … When heaviness takes over the mind … we feel so dull that we just don’t move.

3. … doubt … doubts always arise. There is no doubt about that!

4. … sometimes we act with little deliberation, we want to progress very quickly … instead of progress we regress … This action is without clear reflection and deliberation.

5. … Because we think our achievement graph is not going up as much as we want or as much as that of another, or as much as we expected, we suddenly get a little dull … This represents lack of enthusiasm. In these cases something must be done to regain our enthusiasm and motivate us towards our goal.

6. … when our senses seem to take over. They reassert themselves as masters, sometimes without our knowing it … because of their [senses] habitual action of always looking for things … our direction slowly shifts in the wrong way …

7. The worst obstacle of all occurs when, somewhere in the back of our minds, we think we have understood something and we haven’t … This feeling of having reached the top of a ladder is only an illusion. Such illusion is quite common …

8. … we presume we have progressed a lot, but in reality, when we deal with society we find that we have much more to do … instead of reaching the goal in Yoga, to understand more and more and more, somewhere in the process we say, “no more for me. I thought I got it but I think now I am like a fool …” We just stop.

… When we work on this basis, when we become aware of illusion and come face to face with reality, we feel, unfortunately we are really a little less than what we are. This can create the last obstacle,

9. a situation in which we reach a point that we have never reached before, but we are unable to stay there, we allow ourselves to slide back. So, at every stage, we must never think that we have become masters. There is always a sense of being a little better than yesterday and always, too, a sense that we can be a little better tomorrow. This movement remains present until we reach a point where there remains neither a better nor a worse.

So these are the obstacles in the progress of Yoga. They do not necessarily follow one after the other.

Part 2: Iśvara-praṇidhāna, OM

“… The most important method given to surmount obstacles is the concept of Iśvarapraṇidhāna … it springs from great devotion and belief that there is some spirit higher than ourselves …

The qualities of Iśvara are many: in brief, he sees things as they are, he acts perfectly, he is all knowing, the first guru, a source of help … unlike us [he] is not influenced by avidyā … he never acts wrongly, he has never acted wrongly, he will not act wrongly … Therefore, he should be a means of guidance for us. Like puruṣa, he is also able to see … he is … a viśeṣa puruṣa … “extraordinary” … because Iśvara is beyond avidyā and duḥkha, he has a potency within himself that enables hime always to know everything. In Yoga, a word for this … is sarvajña. Sarva means “all”, jña means “to know” … this quality is restricted to him, it is a quality that we as human beings don’t have …

… our respect for him is because he knows and so we pray to him, “You know, share with us your knowing.”

… To have a relationship with him, Yoga uses a special symbol to represent him. This symbol is called praṇava. Praṇava is OM … the more we continue to recite this symbolic sound, while delving into the meaning, the more we gain an idea of Iśvara.

OM is a sound that is very much respected in India and in cultures heavily influenced by India … With the sounding of OM, we are saying everything … [it] has four aspects:

1. The first is “A” (pronounced) “ah”), which comes from the abdomen and is formed in the open throat, with the mouth opened.
2. The second part is “U”, formed in the middle of the mouth.
3. Then with “M”, the lips meet and the mouth is closed.
4. The sound then moves into the nasal cavity, so something else is there

… “A” in Sanskrit, as well as some other languages, is the first letter of the alphabet. “U” represents a continuation and “M” is the last of the alphabet. So “A” to “M” through “U” represents the entire alphabet and whatever can be represented by letters … Further, the extended sound after the “M” has no particular designation … So whatever the alphabet can represent, and whatever the alphabet cannot represent, that too is Iśvara.

… “A” we open the mouth and this opening stands for creation. “U” stands for the continuation of creation. “M” means I have to stop and close my lips, but then there is more … all that is created, all that can be created, all that is sustained, the power behind creation, subsistence, dissolution and beyond is also Iśvara.

… “A” represents a waking state (as if yawning upon awaking). “U” is a dream state, and “M” is a state of deep sleep. The fourth state is called samādhi … there is one who is always present in all these forms because he never sleeps, he never dreams, he is always awake, and he knows and is beyond …

… this way of devotion … complete faith, and delving into his meaning is also one of the ways we can remove the obstacles that come as progress in life.

I want to remind you that this is only one of the alternatives for removal of obstacles; Yoga does not insist that you accept Iśvara. If you find this concept meaningful, continue with it. Otherwise consider other alternatives.

… Each time we recite this sound, we must allow some time so the mind starts thinking about what the sound represents. So, both repetition, japa, and its meaning, called artha, must be present. Otherwise our chant will just be mechanical, parrot-like and this will not help … the more we go into the meaning, the more new meanings we will find.

Part 3: Other Means

There are other alternatives that might help us to overcome obstacles, to keep the mind steady … One alternative is to find a means that will enable us to sustain a particular direction of discipline. Suppose we have one particular teacher … Sometimes with him we hit upon something new only to find that it leads to nothing. Our immediate urge is to to to some other teacher, and then to still another, and so forth. The Yoga Sūtra says we are not to do this. We are to try to keep the same relationship, one that will lead to deeper communication and trust … By following one principle, one teacher, one discipline, we find a means to avoid or surmount obstacles.

Prāṇāyāma is often mentioned as an alternate way to help surmount obstacles … particularly with emphasis on exhalation … This is called recaka prāṇāyāma

Investigation into the functioning of the senses can also help … how the tongue functions, how it tastes things at the tip, in the middle, and in the back. Such investigation quiets our minds though it greatly depends on the individual. It is not the discovery of the way the senses function that is so important. Rather, in that moment when we are stuck, the mind is given a little space.

It is always important that when we are stuck, we must stop struggling to move. We should never try to force progress … When there is confusion, we must find some space in the mind.

Another alternative is suggested for those people who accept a concept that deep in the body, somewhere in the heart region there is something called the puruṣa. The Upaniṣads state that there is a small muscle in the region of the heart, and that deep within it is a small opening like a lotus bulb Inside that is a small space and in this space is the puruṣa. It is always glowing there. Inquiry into this concept often brings the mind to quietness.

One of the best ways to remove obstacles is to study people who have overcome a lot of problems (duḥkha) in their lifetimes. We will discover, as we read their writings and find how they have solved their problems, that which might also help us. In India … When we go to a temple, we ask about the sculpture, the symbols, who did what, and often we are told moving stories. We come to see the way the symbol relates to us … This also helps us to progress.

… it is often helpful to investigate something that constantly happens in us, but about which we know very little. We could investigate … dreams … what is sleep, what sleeps, and how one awakens …

… we can reflect on something we find meaningful … for example … the use of an image of a deity … We delve into the concept of the particular deity … We have to use such objects … that bring a quality of peace to the mind. We cannot use objects that stimulate mental distraction.

… Perhaps, now you can appreciate how open Yoga is to alternative procedures.

… we have to give a person what he is prepared to take, not necessarily what is finally best for him. So, no matter how good it is that people accept Iśvara, some just don’t care about this notion.

But later, automatically it seems, a respect comes … something happens. I don’t know why; we seem to respect some force or higher presence … we would never have accepted before. This always happens … but we can’t lay it all out in the beginning. No, we can’t put a block in communication by insisting on something … So when a person is ready, we’ll talk about Iśvara.

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