Some aspects of yoga philosophy are talked about a lot in yoga classes. Yama and niyama, for example, are principles that most yoga students become pretty familiar with, even if they’re not actively studying yoga philosophy.
Other concepts, though, remain mysterious unknowns to many. Including the kleshas; common afflictions of the mind, which can help us to understand the roots and purpose of our yoga practice.
So what are the five kleshas? And how can you weave this new knowledge of them into your practice and your life?
There’s a Purpose to Understanding Poisons
In Sanskrit, ‘klesha’ means ‘poison’, and the five kleshas are essentially poisons on the path to liberation, or enlightenment. They’re obstacles; blocks placed in your way by your mind.
It’s not all negative though. Understanding what they are and how they relate to your practice allows you to focus on overcoming these blocks; which is said to lead you away from suffering, and towards true freedom.
Like yama and niyama, the kleshas are described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. They show up in our lives in various ways, some of them subtle and some of them more powerful, or painful. All of them are thought to make it harder for us to experience the present moment; and all of them are worth acknowledging when they make themselves felt.
What are the five kleshas?
From the Sanskrit root "vidya," meaning "true knowledge," and "a," which means ‘not’.
Avidya is false knowledge, misunderstanding, or a lack of knowledge. It’s the opposite of, or a block in the way of, vidya; that profound inner knowing, a kind of knowledge that rises from deep within us. Actually, avidya is a part of all of the other four kleshas. Because with true knowledge, all poisons could be avoided.
In day-to-day life, we experience avidya in the way we see the world. It clouds the lens; places a filter of misconception over our reality. And its power is in how very real it appears to us, because we believe the misconceptions and trust our own perception even when it’s false. Every experience we’ve ever had can contribute to avidya, and through yoga, our job is to break down all of those impressions and uncover our truth.
From the root "smita," which means "smiling" or "expanding," and "a" meaning ‘not’.
Asmita, then, means "not smiling," not expanding; not blossoming. According to yogic texts, it’s caused by the ego overpowering the self. When the sense of "I" is the central experience of your life, you experience immense suffering and can’t be comfortable in your own being.
Self-absorption has the opposite effect of expansion. It narrows awareness and creates selfishness, fear, and insecurity.
Yoga practice and meditation allows us to shift focus away from "I" and onto the experience of being whole, being one, and being connected with everything around us.
This klesha is about attachment. It’s closely related to the following klesha, dvesa. Raga is our attachment to anything: to our bodies, to a certain kind of experience, to substances, to people…anything.
Attachments are a normal and healthy part of human social life. But in yoga, all attachments are thought to create suffering, because we feel pain when the thing we’re attached to has finished, or is gone.
It’s an interesting one to balance as a yoga practitioner in modern life. Our attachments can form the basis for everything we are and do, and yet it’s true that they cause suffering too, and that nothing is certain to stick around forever.
Yoga practice doesn’t have to eliminate all attachments. You don’t have to walk away from your family and friends and retreat to a remote meditation spot for the rest of your life. Instead, you can use your practice to become aware of the attachments that create the most stress in your life (whether because you’re attached to things that have a negative impact on you, or because you’re afraid of losing your positive attachments) and give you the space to acknowledge and accept them.
In contrast to raga, dvesa refers to our aversions. What do you try to avoid? What don’t you like?
Becoming aware of this klesha is really useful, because it drives you to question why you experience those aversions.
Why do you avoid conflict? Why does that particular person make your skin crawl? Why do you always leave backbends out of your physical yoga practice?
Both raga and dvesa come down to the same thing: judgment. By acknowledging what you feel attached to, or averse to, you begin to notice when you’re judging something or someone thoughtlessly. And by noticing that, you move closer to non-judgment; to experiencing the moment as it is. To vidya.
This fifth klesha is the ultimate fear: the fear of death. It’s a mental affliction that causes a huge amount of suffering because every single one of knows that we will die.
Acknowledging this fear is a step towards accepting it. And that acceptance is an important part of the freedom we seek through yoga. Freedom from the intense focus on "I" and freedom from the fear of no longer being "I."
From Affliction to Expansion
If any of these kleshas feels especially relevant to you right now, use yoga. Instead of avoiding that klesha, meditate on it. Move through your physical practice with it at the forefront of your mind, and use your awareness to dull its power.
The kleshas aren’t bad. They’re written about and studied because everyone experiences them. Practice looking at them without judgment, and use them as tools for learning more about your practice, your Self, and your experience of this life.
During These Times of Stress and Uncertainty Your Doshas May Be Unbalanced.
To help you bring attention to your doshas and to identify what your predominant dosha is, we created the following quiz.
Try not to stress over every question, but simply answer based off your intuition. After all, you know yourself better than anyone else.