YS II.3 avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dvesa-abiniveśāh pañca kleśāh
Mis-knowing, egoism, attachment to pleasure, hatred, fear of death. These are the five hindrances to yoga.
YS II.10 te pratiprasava-heyāh sūksmāh
The five hindrances are overcome by resolving them back to their source.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is like an instruction manual with tips that we can apply to our lives if we want to reach the state of yoga or liberation. Chapter two is the chapter on practice. Patanjali enumerated the five hindrances to yoga. Mis-knowing is a specific kind of ignorance. If we merely say ignorance, it could mean we do not know something. But mis-knowing is to think we know though the reality is that we misunderstood. We mistakenly think we know but we truly do not. We may even arrogantly cling on to what we believe to be true. This mis-knowing applies to our true nature, that we may have mistaken it for a pettier and more worldly version that is easier to accept. Egoism is how we tend to identify ourselves as separate from others, thinking that we are superior or inferior to others, thereby building this wall that prevents us from seeing that there are no "others". Attachment to pleasure is a hindrance because if we develop dependencies on things that give us pleasure, we start to crave and want more of it. Hatred stems from instances where we feel aversion on a very minute level, even in little temporary discomforts that we feel in the body. We do not hate external situations as much as we cannot stand how these situations make us feel. Fear of death is perhaps the biggest fear that the ego has, and all other fears are directly or indirectly associated with it.
As yogis, we need to understand that it takes scrutiny and honesty to be able to identify these hindrances. Many actions can appear good on the outside, but still tainted with mis-knowing or egoism or attachment or hatred or fear on the inside. For example, a person may be a successful social entrepreneur. His business is vegan and eco-friendly and fair-trade and local. He even donates 90% of the profits to charity. On the outside, it looks good and his choices help many. However, if he starts to think that he is a hero, and that those he help owe him something, and that his employees would be completely lost without him, then his actions, though helpful to others, are not helpful towards his own liberation. What to do then?
Patanjali not only listed the hindrances, he also offered a solution. He said that we can overcome these hindrances by resolving them back to their source. In other words, to give them up. To whom do we give them up though? We surrender them to God or our Higher Power in whatever name or shape or form we can relate to. We incorporate Bhakti into our practice. It is to start to believe that we do not have to do everything alone. It is to seek support and love and be open to support and love.
Since the two sutras come from the chapter on practice, then the best way to understand what Patanjali was saying is to put these into practice. If we are not ready to give up or surrender, then at the very least, we can observe these hindrances as they arise, observe how holding on makes our bodies feel. Our bodies are storehouses for the karma or actions that we take. Therefore, how the body feels is consequently a result of the karma or actions that we put in. When we come to our favorite yoga pose, a pose that we think we do really well, do we get attached? Do we crave more of this pose so we can look good and show others what a great asana practitioner we are? When we have to do our least favorite pose, do we begin to feel aversion and project our hatred to the pose or the teacher or the yoga practice itself? Our asana practice is a very safe place to explore when these tendencies come up. And when they do, as they often will, we can experiment with how we feel in holding on versus giving it up. When we hold a pose we do not like and cling on to the feelings of hatred, do we notice how uncomfortable the body feels and how tense we are in the mind? If we do the same pose but change our approach, we think of ourselves as light as a feather because we do not have to be burdened, does the pose in many ways become more bearable?
The yoga practice is precisely that: a practice. We will come into many situations in our lives that we have no control of. And that too is a practice. Our asana is just a rehearsal for the tougher arena. Being able to surrender to a God or Higher Power takes both courage and humility at the same time. And though we experiment with these practices with the vessel that is our body, what will fuel this practice is our openness to view the world in a different way. Instead of seeing our lives as a series of struggles, maybe we can see our lives as an opportunity to surrender to love. Our options are kept simple. We can hold on to the five hindrances to our own detriment, or we can just give them up.