Harnessing the Yoga Sutras – The Kleshas

Written by: Melanie Morgan

Sutra 2.3 “Ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred (avoidance) and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles”

In this Sutra, Patanjali explains that the five Kleshas are obstacles to self-realization and non-suffering.

I interpret the Klesha’s as follows: Ignorance is not knowing how much we don’t know. Egoism is the association of the True Self (our most pure consciousness) with any human experience or thinking pattern. Attachment is the pulling in of what we identify as pleasurable. Avoidance is the pushing away of what we see as not pleasurable or potentially threatening. And clinging to bodily life is pretty self-explanatory, but can also be interpreted as fear in general.

Patanjali is known for putting things in order of importance and it is no surprise here that Ignorance is first. Ignorance is said to be the obstacle that paves the way for all the other obstacles. This is sometimes referred to as the “veil of ignorance” and it is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine a bride with a veil covering her face. The world looks much different behind the veil than it does with the veil lifted. Ignorance is part of our human imperfection, and the best way to begin lifting that veil is to use perspective to help open our eyes to new ways of looking at things. This takes a lot of self-study and willingness to put our preconditioned beliefs to the side.

The next Klesha, ego, is a funny thing. I always thought of ego as a sort of confidence, but its more of a self- centeredness. All day and night our minds are leading us down thought paths about who we are and what our existence is, but that’s all just our ego telling us we are an individual. The truth is – we are all one. All of our human experiences are interconnected with other humans, nature, animals, etc! Our ego is anything that tries to tell us we are not part of the collective being and are instead a lone soul. ​

In my own life, I absolutely see all five as relevant but the three I think are most prevalent in my life are: attachment, aversion (or avoidance). I experience regular anxiety which is usually directly related to fear and worry of all sorts of things! Because of this anxiety I practice meditation daily and yoga regularly. In meditation, you constantly try to maintain a balance between attachment and avoidance. I am attached to the moments in life when I am anxiety free, and I avoid moments of intense anxiety. If you envision the swinging of a pendulum – with the stillness at the bottom center as your opportunity for self-realization, and the swinging from side to side as the push and pull of attachment and aversion, its easy to see how one creates the other. The higher the pendulum swings toward attachment, the higher it will swing in the opposite direction toward aversion, and the harder it will be for the pendulum to find stillness in the center position. If we can practice equanimity and an even touch on both pleasurable and non-pleasurable experiences, there isn’t so much swing side to side.

The last obstacle is fear or clinging to bodily life and is a product of all the other obstacles before it. Ignorance, egoism, attachment and aversion all cause us to lose connection with our true experience, each in their own way. With a belief in reincarnation, it is said that we cling to our bodies and fear death so strongly because we have experienced separation and death so many times before – it is a learned experience. In letting go of our clinging to life, we open up the opportunity to feel the greater connectedness of the world and potentially experience self-realization.

When studying these Kleshas in your own life – you will start to see how they are all connected to one another. Ignorance causing egoism, egoism causing attachment to pleasure, attachment to pleasure causing aversion to discomfort, and everything together causing a fear of death.