In some form or another, obstacles seem to be what’s up for most of us. As we find out early on from practicing, it’s when obstacles arise--when things don’t go quite according to plan or according to our desires--that it actually becomes very interesting. It turns out that this kind of difficulty is often actually where the enlightenment or the awakening is. The mind of course has other plans. The imagination would like to have smooth practices, always have great health and ever increasing pleasure, happiness, security, power, fame, glory, money; forever and ever into eternity. Yet somehow, that never quite works out.
Classical obstacles to yoga (and liberation) taught in the Yoga Sutra come in two forms. The first are the practical obstacles like laziness, illness, lust, etc. In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, the Sadhana Pada, we find what might be considered the psychology of all obstacles, called the klesas. Klesa means torment, misery or suffering and though that’s what they appear to be when we first encounter them, we find out later that not only is there a path out of the suffering, but that, for many of, us without the klesas we’d not have the incentive to begin waking up.
You probably are familiar with the five klesas, but to review, the klesas or roots of suffering begin with avidya, or ignorance; the proverbial trap we slip into of seeing ourselves as separate from everything else; the inability to experience interconnectedness. Avidya leads to asmita or I am-ness, what we might call ego. When asmita arises raga (wanting, grasping, attachment) and dvesa (rejecting, pushing away, denying) automatically arise. Abhinivesa, the final klesa, is classically thought of as fear of death, and is said to be a klesa that even the wise encounter. You might also think of abhinivesa as fear of yoga—an aversion to seeing the union of things and the principle of interpenetration. For beginning students, reading the Yoga Sutra can be disarming; we find out how many obstacles to freedom and enlightenment there are and if we stop there it's really depressing. But then if we read on we are shown that there is a path out of suffering called kriya yoga.
Kriya yoga is the yoga of action. It is defined partly as tapas, which means to burn or to shine. That’s what you do in any practice; you create a closed container for the mind in which you stop projecting out onto the world so that more or less you eat your own projections. This causes heat, or tapas. If you practice well you start to shine although at first it may feel like you’re starting to burn!
Tapas, then, is the first form of kriya yoga and that burning or shining—experiencing the fire and heat of direct experience—leads naturally to svadhyaya. In the traditional sense, svadhyaya means to chant the Vedas—which of course would be bad news for most of us since unless you grew up chanting the Vedas, it’s unlikely you’ll get to it in this lifetime. Chanting the Vedas is a tremendously powerful practice that takes years to perfect, though if you’re inclined to try it, don’t let the impracticality of starting later in life stop you. Fortunately for the rest of us, we can look to the literal meaning of svadhyaya, which is self-contemplation or self-study. Since through our human nature we have the propensity to be self-absorbed, we might be able to trick ourselves into self-inquiry; what better subject to think about after all? Soon enough, however, we realize that svadhyaya isn’t exactly sitting around congratulating ourselves for being talented, unique and good looking, but instead it means to no longer project our shadows onto the world and onto the things of the world. Practicing svadhyaya means we must face the emotions, sensations and thoughts or theories that arise from our projections. It means peeling away the blinding layers of preconception, ego, self-deceit and avoidance in order to deeply reflect on ourselves in context of others and the world. It is then that glimmers of insight arise. “Sva” means self and so “svadhyaya” actually means meditation on oneself, on “Who am I really if I’m not this body, if I’m not this mind, not this intellect, if I’m not these five elements?”
Studying and thinking deeply about these teachings and applying them to one’s own circumstances will initiate the process of svadhyaya enough to get us rolling in an effort for obstacles to dissolve. Svadhyaya, like most aspects of a yoga practice, is something we continue to work on indefinitely because it is a constant reminder to see the silliness of our concept of “me” as the center of the universe, as something separate from everything else. When we practice svadhyaya well, even though we are ostensibly studying our “self,” we begin to perceive ourselves in context. We’re pulled out of our shell of isolation and self-absorption and become able to reframe inaccurate conclusions and perceptions that support this kind of separateness. So svadhyaya naturally leads on to Isvara pranidhana, which is the third aspect of kriya yoga.
Isvara pranidhana means, surrender to Isvara. Which presents a two pronged problem--and equally a two pronged solution--to finding freedom from suffering. The first potentially problematic prong is our definition of Isvara, which is usually translated as God although it could be translated as any being that is completely free. The danger with this interpretation of Isvara as God or another person—a guru, for example—is that we run the immediate risk of confusing pure intelligence with beliefs. For example, the embodied teacher, even if they are a wonderful teacher, will still have beliefs and formulas that must be questioned in order to be understood (and must be allowed to be questioned both by the teacher and the students). If as a yoga teacher we become so enthralled with our own insights or succumb to the attention or adoration of students, if we cease to remember that what we are doing as teachers is pointing outside of ourselves in service of our students, then we fail. A trusted teacher disappears, steers others away from themselves toward the mysteries of the embodied experience, to the vast, interconnecting web of pure consciousness that inexplicably supports yet supersedes the individual. If our teachings or our actions are harmful to our students, then, no matter how relevant or important we believe our teachings to be, we must take a step back and reconsider—find a different way to pass along the teachings. Sometimes we see our mistakes, sometimes we must allow input from others to provide insight for change.
The second prong of Isvara pranidhana that can be either helpful or limiting is our definition of surrender and, though it does apply to the teacher in terms of unquestioning surrender to scriptures or the teachings, it is highly relevant to those of us who are students (which, of course is all of us). Surrender does not mean to blindly accept doctrine or dogma or a superficial formulation about reality, but instead to place on the alter of pure awareness the background assumptions that those formulas, beliefs or doctrines are made out of. The surrender isn’t blind unquestioning faith and following of the teacher or teachings, rather it is exposing the wonder of a deep understanding of the open structure of all experience. It’s the awakening of intelligence.
In practicing Isvara pranidhana if we do not listen closely to our perception of our own experience, to others and to circumstances, but instead place unquestioning power in ourselves (as teachers), or another (as students), then our ego function causes us to grasp at superficial dogma and schemes for self preservation and profit and we can never be free. If we do not keep an open mind and question, then we are no longer at the subtle level of watching the mind as it creates thoughts and formulas and we are thereby entrapped by our beliefs and illusions, having relinquished the ability to surrender thoughts and formulas as an offering to pure consciousness—which is what Isvara actually is.
Perhaps a path around the two-pronged dilemma we may fall into when defining Isvara pranidhana is to understand Isvara as “the nature of things.” And to remember that surrender is not submission, checking out, turning our power of observation, reason and integrity over to another, but rather an active process of interacting intelligently within context to another. With this in mind, we see that Isvara pranidhana or surrender to the nature of things transforms our surrender to the particular (guru or other) into insight into the reality of things. As such, Isvara pranidhana is the end stage of kriya yoga, the beginning of the path to freedom from suffering, and ultimately can lead into samadhi and to realization.