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Judith Hanson Lasater on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: The 5 Obstacles to Yoga Practice
In this interview with YogaUOnline, renowned yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater speaks about a subject very dear to her heart: creating and deepening a home yoga practice. Judith has taught yoga since 1971 and has published 10 books, including her most recent work, Yoga Myths. In addition to being an Iyengar-trained yoga teacher, Judith is a physical therapist and holds a doctorate in East-West Psychology.
YogaUOnline: Judith, you have been a leading presence in the yoga community for more than 40 years, and we’re so honored and humbled to have you with us. What role has a home yoga practice played in your teaching, and how can other teachers enrich and deepen their home practice?
Judith Hanson Lasater: In many ways, home practice is the only yoga practice. Because when we go to a class, we are actually doing the teacher’s practice. You know if you’re a teacher that what you teach comes directly from your own practice. So really, the only yoga practice there is, is that which we do by ourselves on our own mat.
I took my first yoga class many years ago and, as many of us have, fell in love. And for some reason, I was very lucky. I got up the next morning, and I just did what I remembered. Especially beginners will ask if they should practice every day. And I’ll say, “No. Only practice on the days you want to feel good.” “Well, what do I practice?” They say. And I say, “Practice what you remember.”
The problem is we’re looking in the wrong places. We’re looking for specific guidance. There are a million books written and countless videos, so it’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s a bigger issue – resistance.
I think we need to look at our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves. In order to do the work of practice and certainly the work of teaching, we have to create space for ourselves. We have to create a refuge on the mat so that we cultivate the understanding that the mat is our refuge. It is our monastery. It is our church. It is our temple. And in this way, it is our home, and it is not a place of demand. This is yoga.
YogaUOnline: So many students struggle with thoughts that distract us or tell us we’re not good enough when we’re practicing. What advice do you have for clearing the mind and keeping our breath steady during challenging poses?
Judith Hanson Lasater: The most important thing in practice is consistency, and the monkey mind will take care of itself. You cannot fight the monkey mind because the monkey always wins.
The crux of the problem, to me, about resisting practice is that we have an understanding with our mind, but we do not embody this particular understanding. And the particular understanding is that we are deeply loved. And the universe loves us. Divinity loves us. Whatever metaphor, whatever image, whatever word doesn’t trigger you. There is an unbounded reservoir of love for us. And we are busy not accepting it.
We love other people. We give to other people. But we are busy not embodying the deepest and most profound understanding of how profoundly we are loved. Because if we knew that and embodied that in ourselves, practice would be an act of expressing that love.
YogaUOnline: In addition to teaching, you also hold a doctorate in East-West Psychology and have studied the Yoga Sutras at length. What do the Sutras say about obstacles to a consistent yoga practice?
Judith Hanson Lasater: The Yoga Sutras talk a little bit about obstacles to the state of yoga. And it starts out with avidya (Chapter 2, Pada 2, Verses 2-9). And this is really translated as actively not seeing the true nature of reality. We’re actively not allowing ourselves to experience how deeply we are loved. Because if we are loved that deeply, then we act out of it. And that’s why we practice, actually – to remove that which is covering the true nature of reality.
The second obstacle is asmita. And that’s egoism, but it’s also believing and identifying with your limitation. Being on the mat, we feel somehow that we’re alone. And that’s a process of identifying with a part of ourselves that is limited and believing that that’s who we are.
To get on the mat is to sing in a choir that is vast and huge. One of the things that I tell myself when I get on my mat, whatever time of day is that I know that there’s someone in the world on their mat – and maybe a lot of people. The community is there regardless of my ability to perceive it.
The third obstacle that Patanjali gives us is raga, which is attachment. The mind, as I’ve experienced mine, is very sticky. And it sticks to a lot of things. We get attached to other things, and that comes from a belief that we are valued for what we do. That belief stimulates thoughts like, “Oh, I’m going to practice but let me just check my email.” Or “Let me just do this little project.” Or “Let me make those three phone calls.” And 3 or 4 hours go by and then there’s no time to practice.
We need to look at that belief and understand that we are intrinsically valuable and that the first thing we need to do when we wake up is to connect with our inner radiance and inherent goodness. When we’re connected with our inner radiance and inherent goodness, from that space, we want to practice.
The fourth obstacle is dvesha, which is aversion. Practice, in the deepest sense, reminds us both of our divinity and our mortality. Human beings are constantly in a state of denying our mortality. It’s very natural. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to feel the limitation in our hamstring because it reminds us of our own limitation: how little we actually understand and know in the world and how little we actually are in control of events. If we truly become porous in our practice, it scares us. So, we say, “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” Yes, you do.
The last obstacle is abhinivesha, which is the actual fear of our mortality. We know we have this because we give our attention in this life to external experiences because they’re wonderfully distracting and entertaining. We pay lots of money to go watch a movie or an opera about other people’s dramas.
And what do we project on to those external experiences? Happiness. We begin to see our practice as an external event of something we’re doing rather than practice as entering a state of being. We don’t understand, on some level, how it’s going to make us happy.
But one of the fundamental truths of the universe that I believe is true is that happiness is never caused by external things. There is only one way to be happy, and that’s to allow ourselves to be happy. We have to be happy, and then we want to practice. Practice becomes a celebration.
YogaUOnline: How does your home practice shape your teaching? And how can a steady home practice support other teachers in their ability to create sequences and themes for class?
Judith Hanson Lasater: My teaching flows directly by pipeline from my mat. My mat is where I integrate not just the physical experience, but also thoughts, images, and ideas. I get insight into connecting the philosophy of yoga with the asana. It’s like we’re a plant that needs to have its roots on the mat – a metaphoric mat. We need to have the roots in our own being.
And the sign, to me, of mature teaching, is a teacher who teaches from their own experience. It’s my experience that when you teach from what you’ve experienced and what you embody, there’s a level of integrity in your words that changes people’s lives.
YogaUOnline: How would you advise students who would like to cultivate a home practice but are suffering from pain or another physical condition? In other words, if there are issues in the body going on, what is the best way to deal with them while still maintaining your practice?
Judith Hanson Lasater: It’s really simple: Pain is not good. And if there is pain, you need to find out what is causing it. Then, you will be guided.
The thing about practice is it’s phenomenally mutable. And part of the problem is with enhancing and strengthening our own practice is that we often have a very rigid view. I know this of myself. We have a very rigid view of what practice is, and we don’t let our practice evolve.
Just like our body is constantly in a change of flux from childhood and adulthood and then, as we grow older, our body is in a constant state of flux. And we create a lot of misery for ourselves because we believe that our practice has to be the same decade after decade. We don’t listen, observe, and allow our practice to change.
It’s a very practical thing. When you wake up in the morning, what is your day? Do you need rest? Do you need to do a quiet practice? Do you need energy? Do you need courage? Do you need just a well-rounded practice? Have you been on an airplane? Is your lower back sore? Listening and observing to what’s alive in you at the moment can then create a practice, instead of clinging to one rigid way of doing it.
So, if it were me and I was experiencing pain or some other specific problem, the first thing I would do is go to all the various kinds of people who might help me figure out what’s going on. Then, I could choose a path and let my practice adapt.
YogaUOnline: Many students and teachers who are new to home practice wonder how to divide their time between asana, pranayama, and meditation. Do you recommend incorporating each of these elements into practice each day or doing one type of practice a day?
Judith Hanson Lasater: If you’re teaching, you need to do all three because they’re like three legs of a stool. But they don’t necessarily have to be done all at the same time. You might get up and do 15, 20, or 30 minutes of asana. Then you might have a quiet time later in the day waiting for someone in a car when you could meditate and do some breathing. Or maybe you could do your breathing in your meditation before bed.
It’s not the length of time, it’s the degree of presence that we bring to the practice. Because I really think if I could sit on my cushion for one minute absolutely and purely present, not at the mercy of my mind, for one minute, two minutes – that would not only change my life, but it would change the people around me.
YogaUOnline: What’s the best way to find a balance between home practice and learning from a teacher?
Judith Hanson Lasater: The only Iyengar teacher I’ve ever had is B.K.S. Iyengar himself and Geeta of course. In those days, there were no other Iyengar teachers for us to go to. After leaving India, we had to figure out who to practice with and climb the mountain by ourselves. We’d say, “Well now you’re teaching it differently than you did in your book. What should we do? Now we’re confused.” And he would just say, “I’m a living teacher. And even a bad book is better than no teacher.”
I think that there are times in our life when we absolutely need a teacher. We might see that teacher once a year or once every other year. But we take from that inspiration and direction. And then there are times in our life when we don’t have a teacher. Because if you just go to teachers, you never have a chance to open your own wisdom. But if you never go to teachers, you get stuck in your own wisdom. So, it’s a paradox.
So, I would say to you: Keep your home practice – it’s the key to this work. But read everything you can get your hands on and find a teacher you can see one to three times a year. Study with someone, and really be supremely particular about who you study with.
Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.d., and physical therapist, has taught yoga and trained yoga teachers since 1971 on six continents and in almost every state of the US. She is one of the founders of Yoga Journal magazine and the President Emeritus of the California Yoga Teachers Association. Ms. Lasater was selected by Natural Health magazine, on the occasion of their 40th anniversary, as one of the five people in the USA who has had the most influence on natural health in America during those 40 years. She is the author of 11 books, the most recent of which is Teaching Yoga with Intention, due October 2021, from Shambhala Books.