In yogic philosophy, the Kleshas are the 5 obstacles that keep us from true contentment. Learn what they are and how to release yourself from their grip.
But first, a short story.
There once was an artist who worked with stone. She chiseled away at the block of granite, and as every extraneous layer of rock chipped away, she uncovered the magnificent piece of art within it. For her, a masterpiece was not what was added to the stone; it’s the beauty we find once all unnecessary layers are shed.
The same is said to be true of us.
There’s an idea that we create our own obstacles; we add layers and layers of unnecessary things and identities until it’s too much to carry and we forget the perfect beauty we were before all the layering began.
Patanjali, known as the "Father of Yoga", wrote about such layers in his book about yogic theory and practice, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In Sutra 2.2, Patanjali declares the true goal of yoga:
“The goal of Yoga is not to obtain something that is lacking: it is the realization of an already present reality. Yoga practice removes the obstacles that obstruct the experience of Samadhi, or the state of complete absorption.”
Patanjali believed yoga was our means of liberation from these obstacles, also called veils or Kleshas. We become trapped in the Kleshas through ignorance and remain in our suffering, and we liberate ourselves through practice and awareness.
Sutras 2.2-2.9 describe all 5 Kleshas that Patanjali believed to exist and Sutra 2.3 lists these 5.
Let’s translate and break down this verse:
1. Avidyā = ignorance; confusion; lack of insight.
2. Asmitā = self-centeredness; identification with the human body and that which is mutable in human beings; the belief or feeling that ‘I-am-this’ (in relation to objects or phenomena).
3. Rāga = desire; attraction; wish; belief that outer circumstances are responsible for happiness; mental excitement and passionate, emotional agitation due to desires for certain things.
4. Dveṣa = revulsion; aversion; belief that outer circumstances are responsible for unhappiness; mental excitement and passionate, emotional agitation due to aversions to certain things.
5. Abhiniveśaḥ = deep seated anxiety; fear of death; lowered will to live; tenacious determination to achieve the purpose of obtaining certain things/circumstances and avoiding others.
6. Kleśaḥ = the burdens on the spiritual path; the cause of psychological suffering; the name for the 5 burdens, or veils, as listed above.
Each klesha, also called a hindrance, exists in a cause-and-effect sequence that builds off of the previous one listed (see the list above).
Avidyā creates the basis of our suffering - ignorance. Patanjali isn’t talking about being ignorant of racial bias or sexism or any other manmade distraction. He’s saying that we are oblivious to the origin and composition of our universe. Whoa. He goes on. This also includes being oblivious to the inner presence of the eternal, blissful, and conscious true self. This hefty ignorance drags us right into Asmitā.
Asmitā is when we tell ourselves, “I am my body, emotions, mind and intellect.” It’s a forgetting of our divinity and a focus only on our easily tangible layers. This results in Rāga.
Rāga holds us in a constant state of mental, emotional, and physical agitation from the desire to obtain pleasure and happiness. But - this pleasure and happiness is sought through external objects that stimulate the senses and bring physical and emotional pleasure. Cue Dveṣa.
Dveṣa creates even more mental, emotional and physical agitation because we fear that the objects and events we yearn for will not actually fulfill us, and we feel an aversion to anything other than those idealized objects and events. So, we become unhappy. And we throw ourselves into Abhiniveśaḥ.
Abhiniveśaḥ lights a tenacious fire in us to obtain more, more, and more objects or trivial moments of satiated happiness, until we finally obtain that mythical thing that gives us a happiness that is unbroken and everlasting. We don’t hit the brakes and consider that maybe happiness is not found in lavishing the senses. We’re stuck on the hamster wheel of ignorance and suffering.
Sounds rough, doesn’t it? If you’d rather not be trapped in these Kleshas, the wonderful news is you don’t have to be.
You can get off the hamster wheel.
How? Through awareness. Turn your attention towards something deeper in your body, in your heart, in your spirit.
Practice seeing this in the world around you, too. You’ll begin to see the incredible interconnectedness of everything. You’ll marvel at the serendipitous encounters at the grocery store, and you’ll laugh at all those trivial objects and events you used to so desperately chase after.
Become deeply and expansively aware, and you’ll begin to feel a completely different kind of fulfillment and happiness; one that is not reliant on anything bought with money or at the cost of your internal peace.
And gratitude will become your most present companion.
So, look up.
Take a deep breath.
Your breath is an amazing tool to bridge your eyes, mindand heart with all the divinity permeating through everything around - and within - you, so use it consciously.
Smiling helps, too. :)
Meditation and Asana are excellent ways to practice cultivating this Klesha-removing awareness.
Do you see any of the Kleshas manifested in your life right now? Can you track what struggles they may be causing you? We’re in this thing called life together, and learning from each other is one of the greatest ways to remember that. Share with the community below!