Not Reaching High Ground

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali discuss nine antarayas or obstacles to practice, to progress and, ultimately, enlightenment.  In this item I wish to discuss two of them: not achieving high ground and slipping from ground gained.

Not reaching high ground:

A failure to reach high ground is really a failure of application.  Any learning process involves challenge, set-back, disappointment, the feeling of having reached a plateau and the temptation to do something else.  If you are unwilling to accept the challenge, if you are deterred by set-backs and disappointments, if you give up under the perception that you are less than others or not good enough, then you will fail to reach high ground.

It is only through steady, committed application that one reaches the high ground.  If you look back there may be many unfinished projects and abandoned schemes.  Years ago Margo and I were going to be travelling to Italy.  We got a book and audio guide to help us learn Italian.  We learned a little.  And that is it.  We learned a little and no more.  Notwithstanding another visit to Italy some years later and notwithstanding me occasionally opening the book, I have left learning Italian as unfinished business.  I never attained high ground to be able to engage in a conversation in the language.  I could order something in a restaurant, buy train tickets, ask directions and that sort of thing but I could not converse and still cannot.  The reason – a lack of application in seeing through the learning process.

I have reached higher ground with respect to yoga.  It is not through occasional dips or forays into practice.  Rather, the high ground I have reached in yoga comes from commitment and regularity.  By getting on my mat when I have to practice by myself, by getting on my mat when I am reluctant and procrastinating, by getting on my mat when the resistance is high, I create a practice that works for me at all times.

To attain high ground, make a commitment, be regular in the way you apply yourself, be willing to keep going even when you experience disinclination, and, ultimately, you will observe the progress you have made and the value, the importance to you, of the work to which you have applied yourself.  King Lear said to Cordelia, “Nothing gets nothing”.  He wanted her to flatter and fawn upon him in order to get a share of his realm.  He may have been wrong in his motivation but he was right that nothing gets nothing.  Absent application and purpose, you will not gain high ground.

Slipping from ground gained:

Slipping from ground gained is the consequence of a lack of consistency in practice or a distraction from practice to something else.  Sometimes it said that you can return to an activity that you had developed some degree of accomplishment in, even after a long period out of that activity, and it is “just like riding a bike” – you never forget how.

It may be true that you do not lose a fundamental muscle memory or essential competence but it is not true that you will pick up where you left off if you neglect something for an extended period.  Quite simply, if you have achieved a certain level of skill at something you must continue to practice and reach into that skill to sustain it.

I practice yoga daily but for some time I have omitted from my practice the transition of floating forward from downward facing dog into crow.  I mention this transition in another item in this magazine (Training Baby Elephants).  It is a challenging transition but a fun one and one with a high level of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.  Recently, I have put it back on my menu of poses and I have done it a few times in the last week.

I chose to speak to this transition in a class I taught on Wednesday night at Ferrymead.  A good group come to that 75 minute class.  They are yoga students with physical ability and, where they lack physical ability, they have the wisdom to not be dismayed but what eludes them physically.  We have fun in that class and try on some challenging variations.  I resolved to give a demonstration of the transition to the students.  I showed the class some preparatory movements I take as a warm up and then I set myself for the leap from down dog into crow.  As I primed myself it was in my mind that I had neglected this aspect of my practice.  It was in my mind that if I intended to demonstrate I ought to be better prepared.  It was in my mind that my demonstration could be an abject failure.

As it turned out, all was well.  I did not achieve the degree of grace and lightness that I would have liked but I pulled off the transition and gave the students something to apply themselves to, should they be so inclined.

I would not have been confident to give the demonstration two weeks ago before I started reintroducing the transition into my own practice.  I may have done the transition any number of times in the past but knowing how to do the transition and having the experience of having done the transition does not mean that I can do the transition anytime I like regardless of what my recent practice has been like.  It is all too easy to slip from ground already gained.

Many students practice yoga to clear and centre their minds and enjoy the practice for its ability to relax them and relieve them from stress factors in their lives.  I have concern for such people when they decrease the frequency of their practice or even desist practicing.  Some have unlimited passes where they practice on annual memberships or month by month and practice four or more times a week.  Such people really notice the positive influence that yoga is having in their lives.  They then reach a point where they perceive they can get the same effect from less.

They move from unlimited passes to a 10- or 30-class pass and from practicing four or more times per week to once every now and then.  It is when their consistency and application slackens that they slip from ground won earlier.  They become complacent in the ground they have won and careless about sustaining that high ground.  Irregularity in practice allows space for old habits, old ways of thinking and negative influences to intrude.  The same degree of peace is not achieved from a less regular practice.  Like my transition from down dog to crow, when I practice it regularly, it is there when I ask for it.  When I am out of practice, I am uncertain, doubtful and distrust myself.  When you deviate from your path and slacken your own dedication and direction in practice you will lose the quality of experience that you have previously worked hard to attain.

The consequences:

The Yoga Sutras assert there are four types of experience that accompany the antarayas, including failing to reach high ground and slipping from ground won.  Those accompanying experiences are:

  1. Pain or sorrow that leads to despair resulting in the individual giving up and never attaining the state of being they desire – never free themselves from the unhappiness that seems to surround them.
  2. Frustration, irritation and depression that comes from unfulfilled dreams and desires.
  3. Instability, shaking or trembling may appear when you try to do something without having applied yourself and achieved and sustained high ground. This reflects a disconnect or imbalance in mind or body or between mind and body.
  4. Irregularity in breath. In a regular, committed practice, awareness of and mastery of your breath is possible.  When you are out of such consistent and effective practice you are more prone to losing breath awareness and for your breath to simply become a reaction – a reflection of any turmoil you may presently be experiencing.


The simple answer:

The Yoga Sutras prescribe a simple answer – to prevent or overcome these obstacles have single-pointed focus.

When I demonstrated floating from downward facing dog to crow to the class recently I was very committed to doing as good a job as I could.  The fact of being under the scrutiny of the students in the class sharpened my focus.  That concentration and sharpness of focus helped the transition be successful.  Concentrated, single-pointed focus helps.

If I want to have the benefits of meditation, I need to meditate.  To meditate is to focus one’s mind on a single point and hold that focus in an unbroken way.  If the focus is disrupted, re-focus and begin again.  There is no substitute for this.  Some like listening to podcasts.  These are educational or entertaining, illuminating and engrossing at times.  They may even provide you with some relaxation of mind like being read a bedtime story when you were young.  But listening to podcasts is not meditation.  If you seek the calmness and clarity of meditation, you must meditate.

The single-pointed focus is critical.  A yoga scholar, Dr Jayadeva Yogendra (formerly president of The Yoga Institute) said:

We are talking of concentrating the mind, because then understanding can occur. So this object has to be one single object not keep on changing, and the attention has to be continuous. See, these are the conditions and if one can manage that, then some understanding can occur, otherwise a mind that is wavering never gathers any knowledge. We all fall in that category. We have so many ideas so many plans and what not.

For the yoga sages from ancient times the single focus was upon god.  I use the lower case “g” intentionally.  For the ancient sages, god was present in all things – in a rock, in a leaf, in the wind, in your breath.  It is less a case of there being a God in human form who created all things and more a case of there being a divinity that manifests as all things.  To focus upon one thing was to focus upon god in a single manifestation.  The focus upon the essence of a thing, its fundamental truth, the divine within a thing, was the means to overcome the obstacles to practice and progress that the antarayas, including failure and slipping from high ground, represent.

You can spread yourself in a shallow way across many different things, flitting and sipping like an insect moving from flower to flower, or you can apply yourself and create a profound, meaningful depth in what you do.  Apply yourself with purpose and focus, gain high ground and sustain the ground that you have won through determined effort.