Last month I wrote about two of the antarayas/obstacles to progress identified in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This month I wish to discuss another: laziness as an impediment to progress. The Sanskrit word alasya means sloth or inertia of mind or body. Yoga is a discipline. Not every yoga student wants to hear that yoga is a discipline. Many coming to yoga have an expectation that it will be easy and that they will not have to work at the practices of yoga but will magically receive all that yoga has to offer. These people want to bring the same inertia they have in the rest of their lives to their yoga practice. What they have yet to comprehend is that laziness will prevent them from achieving their potential.
We have a question on our new student form that asks what people seek from yoga practice. I have had new students fill in that question by saying they seek strength, weight-loss and fitness. They then ask me what the easiest classes for them are. They have a yearning to be a certain way but their patterns of thought and behaviour condemn them to being another way. The way they are in yoga class is the way they are everywhere – affected by alasya.
The disciplines of yoga, however, are a means to train themselves in new, constructive habits and patterns of thought and action to create a constructive and fulfilling life. Some manage to do that and rewire patterns of thought and action and make something powerful from their yoga practice. Others do not get past their two week starter pass – some do not even get past their first class – before the slothful habit of being that has coloured their life sends them back to old ways.
A student who has been out of practice for some time has recently returned to classes. This student shared with me that they consider themselves to be very committed and motivated to pursue a course of action but they find the first steps hard. This student said that if they could apply themselves to get the first steps done then they would create a habit, a practice, that they would adhere to. I can believe that of this person based on what I understand of other accomplishments they have in their life.
I can believe that they have the capacity for strong commitment. I also believe they can waver somewhat in commitment in the early days – that a reluctance to act and get moving impedes their progress.
What my laziness looks like:
I can be the same. I perceive that I show up as lazy in some areas of my life – typically by pursuing entertainment before doing the work. When my class was tasked with a programming exercise at high school we had to book time on the school computers and arrange to take one home to spend time doing the exercise. I went to pick up the computer I had booked and there were some boys hanging around playing a game. I expressed an interest. They loaded the game on the disk I had. I went home and played the game. Around 1 am I got down to the programming exercise.
That sort of laziness is my most common default. It applied to exam preparation at school. It applied to work commitments once I was employed. It applied to training for sports. Until the pressure of a tight deadline was present then I tended to let things slip in favour of easier things, more entertaining, diverting things.
I got better. My exam preparation as a final year university student was substantially better than that when I was in the fifth form (year 11). I prepared earlier. I set higher standards and I committed more time to the task, both in weeks of preparation and hours of work each day. I had enough self-knowledge to recognise and to despise laziness as it had showed up for me and I had a determination to be better.
The first marathon I ran loomed as a big challenge for me. I made the decision to participate 15 weeks out from the event. At that point I was unfit. I did not like running over the warmer months of summer and would desist from running for that period. I began my 15 week build up from a low base of running fitness in about March. The first few weeks were pretty awful and I did not enjoy the process of getting fit. The thing about applying myself, and the same will be the case for you, was that the more I ran, the fitter I got and the easier running became.
By the time of the marathon, I was fit, well enough prepared and I had a pretty good run in which I achieved certain standards that I had hoped to achieve. The experience I had at the end of week 15 was contingent upon me doing the work and crossing the hurdle from poor running fitness to adequate running fitness in the first few weeks. Just like our returning student, it is necessary to have the resolve and purpose to get past the initial steps that are so difficult.
Hardwired not to change:
One of the issues at play here is that, whatever state a person is in will be treated by that person’s body as normal and any change away from that state will be resisted. The amygdala is a part of your brain that processes stimuli received by the brain. Unusual or unfamiliar stimuli are perceived as a threat. What is not normal, what is different from the state that we have inured ourselves to, is treated as a threat and we create a stress response to the new situation – no matter how beneficial the new situation.
For example, you may have accustomed yourself to exercising by running in an upright position, with no load upon your arms, shoulders and upper body, and with a disengaged core. If you are then introduced to yoga and you are asked to take downward facing dog, to support your body weight with your hands, to bow your upper body below the height of your hips, to engage your abdomen and to breathe through your nose, it is likely that your deluded brain will interpret this new activity as an existential threat – run away, or fight, or die!
That resistance to whatever may be new, even if beneficial, can create a reluctance to act, a state of torpor or sloth, that stands between you and a new, vital way. Absent the new, you simply get to hold on to what you already have but you are denied access to growth and progress. That is what an antaraya is – an impediment to progress.
What causes your inertia?:
When you feel sluggish or idle, ask yourself what is at play. Is it fatigue? Maybe, but often (not always and there are medical conditions that render vigour impossible) the answer to low energy is to get active and stimulate energy. The way out of a hole is to climb up the sides and that takes effort. People recovering from COVID have had the experience of feeling weakened in energy and therefore reluctant to get onto their yoga mats. For many, moving and stimulating energy (with a degree of moderation in the recovery stage) has been a positive means of rebuilding vitality. The longer some have stayed out of action because they perceive themselves to lack the energy, the longer they have felt low on energy. Inactivity and inertia have reinforced rather than cured inactivity and inertia.
Is it that you are incapable of applying yourself constructively? That seems unlikely. Look at all you have done and the storms you have weathered. It might be having a baby. It might be acquiring a qualification. It might be getting through some hard financial times. It might be coping with grief and loss. There is so much that you are capable of that a feeling of being incapable when confronted by a new challenge ought not to generate sloth and laziness towards that new thing. The empirical evidence of your life history tells you that you are capable. Your mind deludes you and suggests you should not try a new thing or a new method.
The Gunas – Tamas:
Alasya/sloth/laziness is a characteristic of tamas. Tamas is one of the three states of nature according to ancient Hindu theory and which is still part of principles of health applied today using ancient wisdom like Ayurveda. The three states of nature (gunas) are tamas, rajas and sattva.
Tamas is characterised by inertia, dullness, lack of purpose and direction, lack of high ideals and motivation. Tamasic behaviours lead towards depression and a disconnection from community through apathy and indifference. Rajas is characterised by over-activity, over-stimulation, pushing, forcing, and losing the connection between what one is doing and why one is doing it. The over-activity of the rajasic nature is not just physical but applies to a state of mind denying the individual harmony and union within themselves. Rajasic tendencies lead towards stress, egotism and a disconnection from community in acting just for one’s own benefit not for the whole.
Sattva is a word founded on the root “sat” which means truth. Sattva is characterised by purity, balance and calmness. Sattva manifests as health and vitality as well as calmness and equilibrium. The sattvic person is in harmony with themselves and with their community.
In Ayurveda, the diet of someone affected by tamasic tendencies is dominated by foods that produce feelings of heaviness and lethargy. An excess of meat, fish, eggs, drugs and alcohol are features of a tamasic diet. Fermented foods and drinks, and burned, fried, barbequed or repeatedly reheated foods are also tamasic. Stale foods, overly processed or packaged foods and those containing preservatives are tamasic.
If you contemplate heading to yoga class but decide against it in favour of a glass of wine and a plate of cheese, prosciutto and crackers, watch out! The tamasic tendencies in you are to the fore. Make a better, healthier decision to go to yoga class instead. Afterwards, slake your thirst with water and eat a balanced diet of fresh fruit and vegetables with moderate amounts of meat and fish if you need for protein, iron and other elements hard to find in other dietary sources in the concentrations that you may need.
There is good news. The states of nature are not fixed. The rajasic person may move to a more sattvic balance. So too, the tamasic person may move to a sattvic balance. The rajasic person is a doer and can propel themselves towards a goal. Their issue is to temper drive with moderation and wisdom and a willingness to be vital but still in their inner being. The tamasic person lacks drive. Their life is characterised by sloth, indifference and a gravitation towards the easy and comfortable. Be assured that it does not take long to redirect ones energy profitably.
Commit to a change for health and wellbeing:
If you experience sluggishness, a lack of direction and a tendency to neglect your well-being in favour of pursuits that do not contribute to your health and wellbeing, make the change. Set a plan for yourself. Act on your plan (e.g. by putting yoga class in your diary/calendar and treating it as an essential appointment; prepare for class one day by packing your bag with your yoga gear the day before; arrange to meet someone at class so that you each support one another’s accountability). Watch as the initial resistance reveals itself. Be enlightened, understand your resistance and hold fast to the commitment you have made to your health and wellbeing.
What you will experience if you hold to your plan is progress. You will feel more energised. You will feel stronger. Aches, pains and physical tension will decrease or disappear. You will be clearer and calmer in your head. Your sleep may improve. You will experience enhanced relationships with others because you will be less stressed, more present and more content in yourself. So many students have shared with us that they get positive comments from family, friends and colleagues about the way they present when yoga is a regular part of their lives.
All of this is progress. Alasya/sloth/laziness is an antaraya – an impediment to progress. Overcome alasya with a clear commitment and determination to get past the initial resistance of embracing healthy practices. You will clear the path to progress in your physical, energetic, mental and spiritual health. Now, book a class of yoga with us today.