Kleshas: Exploring the root of all suffering
The root of all pain and the obstacles to living in harmony, acceptance, deeper happiness and satisfaction are called Kleshas and can be read about in the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as well as in some Buddhist texts. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras these obstacles are the root of all suffering.
The 5 Kleshas
Avidya is the Mother of all Suffering, the root of all the other obstacles, and within all human beings. Avidya can be translated as living in ignorance – not knowing who you are, being ignorant of the world beyond yourself. But I would like to emphasise the importance of having none or very limited awareness of yourself – not knowing who you are, living in the dark and making choices on the grounds that you do not know who you are, as well as not understanding the situation you are in. The consequences of the choices you have made can be difficult to understand or accept, especially if they do not work as you think or if the consequences are painful or unpleasant.
Asmita is the power of ego, that part of the ego which always wants things, people, situations to be a certain way. The part that only cares for your own needs. Other people’s needs or wishes do not matter. Everything is based on you and your needs at the moment. Manipulation is common with Asmita, amongst other behaviours.
Raga is the desire of and dependence on something or someone to make you feel a particular way. Without this something or someone, you don’t feel good about yourself or your life. In modern therapeautic terms this is known as codependence. It could take the form of people, relationships and or subtances. It could also be the identification with who you are, who you think you are or should be.
Dvesha is the other side of the coin of Raga. It is the aversion to the desire or the addiction you developed from Raga. All of a sudden your desires have moved into an unhealthy addiction or relationship amongst many other Ragas.
Abinivesha is the biggest obstacle of them all and can be interpreted as the fear of dying. There are many other levels of it too, like losing control and fear of the unknown. Without vidya-selfknowledge we might not even know that we are living in fear of dying.
Stepping into awareness
These Kleshas are like seeds in every human being and never disappear – they can fade and lose their power over us, but they will always be with us. The more aware we become of ourselves and our choices, the more we can see them. The first obstacle Avidya will be reduced and replaced by Vidya – to become conscious, to see yourself, to know yourself – everything that a yoga practice is about. This will give us a continued awareness of the other four obstacles that will fade automatically. Becoming aware of these obstacles and how we feed them, and give them nutrition, is extremely important in our path to self-knowledge and harmony.
The best way to see ourselves and become more aware of these obstacles within yoga is to practise with a focus on the breath. A constant perception of thoughts and feelings and how we in various ways reduce or enlarge ourselves. Seeing how we identify ourselves with our physical body and asana practice is an excellent example. If we have a so-called ‘good’ practice, the value of ourselves can differ – feeling soft, strong, and coping with certain movements, can give us a feeling of wellbeing and that’s okay. The obstacle, however, is if we identify with the body and think we are the one who did something ‘good’. This may be apparent most clearly when we stand on the mat and get a negative experience of the body and our inner self and identify with the negative. We become the one who can not, we do something ‘bad’ and carry that feeling within us.
Understanding that we are beyond the body is a challenge and something most of us work with through our whole lifetime. Our yoga practice should be pursued to be a vehicle of increased awareness and dare to see us as we really are. Doing handstands or practising acrobatic exercises is something that many acrobats and gymnasts can perform. However, being aware of the breath, thoughts, feelings and motivations behind these, is something that a yoga practice can give you. Then this becomes another kind of intention and experience.
Overcoming the Kleshas
To not practice asanas because your body or mind needs something else, or to refrain from the practice because another person is needing you that day or time, can be a way to meet Asmita. To listen to your teacher who advises you of something you may not have thought of or planned for, could also be a way to face the same obstacle.
To meet Raga on the mat may be to watch your need to practice in a certain way, or do certain postures to feel a certain way about yourself. To be able to let go of postures if you don’t have the power or for other reasons can’t do them. To watch the ‘judge’ if you have a so-called good or bad practice. Even though there is no such a thing as a good or bad practice – it’s a practice!
Dvesha – to strongly disapprove of something or someone – can be practised by meeting this disagreement on the mat. You may have a strong aversion to some movements. This is absolutely okay but do not avoid them. Meet them, practice and maybe the aversion can change to acceptance. Avoidance is not the answer!
Abinivesha, the fear of dying, is the biggest obstacle of them all. To face fears on the mat deeply anchored in body and mind gives you an opportunity to see them, be aware, face them and overcome obstacles. Many people are afraid of standing on their heads. With all rights and respect for the position, this is difficult and challenging for many people. With the help of a knowledgeable teacher who also understands the psychological and spiritual part, you can over time face the fear, create security and conquer the position called the ‘King of the Asanas’.
Practising yoga with an intention to see yourself and meet these obstacles will provide a deeper insight into you and your life. It is not always easy and often associated with pain to see yourself as you really are, not as you wish or want to be.
Life off the mat will change. You will change. Your values of what’s important will change and your choices will change. The experience of life will change. This is something that takes time and the practice of yoga is ongoing for 24 hours a day, not just when you’re on the mat.
In praise of Ganesha, remover of obstacles
In India, my second home country, people praise God Ganesha – the Lord of Wisdom – for help and support everyday. He is the one who removes the obstacles and gives support and strength. The children love this kind, gentle elephant God, who is always there for every single person. Many homes in India have a small altar just for Ganesha, which is said to give luck and happiness for those who live there. In the cars you will often see a Ganesha for luck and support in the hectic traffic of India.
Maybe we can adapt something of that humility and pray for the strength and good things within us and within others to make our lives and others’ more loving and clear. Remember it’s all there – Clarity, Truthfulness, Love and Compassion. We just need to see it and be aware and it all starts within each one of us.
Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents - Patti Smith