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yoga for life, the yoga sutras of patanjali | Part 5

yoga for life, the yoga sutras of patanjali | Part 5

by Robert Birnberg robert birnberg
Be Spiritual | Philosophy - Wisdom

klesas, the source of suffering

A student of yoga is a student to the core. Which must be why I find myself, in the middle of my life, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of June, writing the fifth of ten articles on the Yoga Sutras in the middle of Chennai in South India in a rented room which, I’m quite sure, the equator runs through the middle of. It’s hot here.

Yet, once again, I have returned to the source, to study yoga with my teacher, Kausthub Desikachar, grandson of the legendary yogi T. Krishnamacharya. Outside, the air is heavy with jasmine, mango, and masala. Inside, I hear Kausthub’s voice reminding me that all lasting growth requires continuous repetition, digestion, and assimilation. So, I will spend much of my time here reviewing past lessons, linking the unfamiliar with the firmly established, until, like magic, the new and the known are one. This learning process, or ksema, is the key to moving forward with steadiness and comfort.


In parts one through four of this series we saw that ‘yoga’, a common Sanskrit word, is distinct from Yoga, one of the six formal philosophies, or darsanas extracted from the ancient Indian Vedas. Yoga darsana, fully articulated in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is a complete, cohesive healing art whose aim is nothing less than the radical reduction of human suffering through transforming the mind.

Samkhya, a dualistic philosophy, also derived from the Vedas, is the foundation for Yoga’s view of life. Samkhya describes reality as having two elemental components. First is purusa, the formless seer. Always watching and ever un-changing, purusa is pure spirit, characterized by truth, clarity and joy. The second element is matter, or prakriti, which includes the material world, nature and the human mind. Prakriti is always in the process of continual change. Whether the rate is uncomfortably slow (tamasic), painfully fast (rajasic), or blissfully just right (sattvic), in the physical world, everything is in constant transition. In simple terms, Yoga and its foundation text, the Yoga Sutras, is a guide for creating this ‘just right’ quality of movement through life.

Purusa is the source of boundless wisdom and basis of our core values. According to Yoga, problems arise because our unerring consciousness interacts with the world through the deeply conditioned mind. When the mind imposes past mental patterns (samskaras) on present time events, the result is distorted perception and inappropriate behavior. Not surprisingly, suffering ensues.

We’ve also seen that Yoga offers a solution. Through consistent, individualized practice (abhyasa) with a teacher adept at recognizing and refining patterns (of body, breath and mind), we can improve our habits, replacing outdated samakaras with clearer perception and more effective behaviors. Though asana is the most popular tool for creating positive change at the gross physical level, historically, adult students were exposed to Yoga’s vast range of transformational techniques.

Furthermore, as our deepest patterns are acquired not through instruction but by modeling, Yoga’s primary tool for change was the student/teacher relationship itself. Studying with the right teacher, therefore, was as a kind of psycho/chiro/respiratory re-parenting process, the success of which was measured less by improved postures (as was appropriate for children)and more by improved relationships.


According to Yoga, both the root of life’s problems and their salvation lies in the mind. Sadhanda Pada, the Sutra’s second chapter, outlines in detail the nature of the problem, as well as the solution.

In Sutra 2:2, Patanjali names the ‘klesas’ as the source of suffering. Klesas are tendencies woven deep in the mind like a virus in a computer’s operating system. As they exist at a basic level, and affect us both mentally and emotionally, klesas have awesome power to distort perception and shape behavior.


There are five klesas. The first, avidya, is described as the root klesa. Avidya is misperception, looking directly at something, but seeing something else. As avidya is universal, our lives are filled with examples. Some are harder to look at, some are easier to see. Clearly, a liver-damaged alcoholic believing another drink is the answer to his problems is avidya. However, avidya might also be a practitioner of Yoga holding his breath to perform a difficult asana, or mechanically repeating the same practice for years. In any case, much like death and taxes, klesas are inevitable.

The next four klesas are connected to this primary misperception. They are asmita (misidentification), raga (excessive desire, craving), dvesa (aversion, avoidance), and abhinivesa (insecurity, fear of loss).

Asmita, which literally translates as a (not), smita (smiling) or ‘inability to smile,’ is over-identifying with objects peripheral to our core self. A gross example is basing my self-esteem on the car I drive, the clothes I wear, or the size of my bank account. More subtly, I might define myself by the books I’ve read, the yoga postures I do, the foods I do or don’t eat, or the people I count as friends.

Next is raga, or craving. Rooted in pleasure, raga is the desire to repeat something that once provided a good feeling or pleasant sensation. This includes everything from recurring desire to full blown addiction, from mild crushes to outright obsession.

Its opposite is dvesa, or aversion: negative feeling toward someone or something that once caused me discomfort. Again, this includes everything from moderate distastes to debilitating phobias.

The fifth klesa, abhinivesa, is insecurity, fear of ending, of death. According to Sutra 2:9, this fear creates its own momentum, and no one, not even the wise, is exempt from its influence.


At first glance, klesas may seem like extensions of normal human functioning. For isn’t it natural to identify with the objects in our life? Don’t all healthy humans seek pleasure and avoid pain? What sane person doesn’t want to prolong the good, the important things as long as possible? Perhaps, but a fundamental fact of life is that everything material ends, all form changes. Machines stop running or become obsolete; friends (and hairlines) come and go. Everything living dies. Because this change is inevitable, actions based explicitly or implicitly on the expectation that things will stay the same are, according to Yoga, the path to endless sorrow. Building castles in the sand is fun. Constructing them with the expectation that they will survive the pounding surf is a pointless, frustrating endeavor. The core confusion over what changes and what stays the same is avidya.

Avidya is also mistaking the gross for the subtle, confusing that which cannot be controlled and that which can. Although I am powerless over your actions and feelings, I can control my own actions and, to some extent, my feelings as well. This confusion over what is and is not controllable, particularly in intimate relationships, is another source of discomfort and despair.


Sutra 1:17 says that these fundamental misperceptions are ‘samyoga,’ i.e. confusing two things which are very close together: purusa/prakriti, consciousness/mind, me/you, the controllable/the uncontrollable, failure/opportunity, actions/results, form/spirit, etc. The list is exhaustive and exhausting.
As with every other obstacle presented in the Sutras, there is hope.

First, Patanjali offers some practical advice. The klesas, we are told, may be dormant, somewhat evident, or fully manifested. Because it is easier to remove a tiny sprout than a giant weed, we should learn to recognize the subtle signals and signs to reverse the klesas while they’re small. Furthermore, Sutra 2:16 encourages ‘heyam duhkham anagatam’, taking appropriate action while klesas are still dormant to prevent them from ever manifesting at all. 
Cutting back at the first signs of habitual drinking is much easier than treating full-blown alcoholism. Admitting we have a pre-disposition to addiction and avoiding alcohol altogether is better still.


In Sutra 2:26, Patanjali introduces ‘viveka’, or discernment. The opposite of avidya, viveka is the ability to discriminate between two similar objects. A discerning mind distinguishes between black, white and all shades in between. In such a mind, avidya is more easily recognized and the klesas are less likely to take root. This is a mind not motivated by prestige and power, not running towards or away from anything, and not driven by fear. It is stable and free. Incorruptible. All behavior based on viveka is more appropriate to the task at hand. With discernment, we find ourselves moving through life with increased confidence, ease and grace. So, how does one cultivate viveka?


In Sutra 2:28, Patanjali reveals that to cultivate a discerning mind (the context for all classical Yoga) and reduce the effects of the klesas, one must practice, devotedly, the eight limbs of Yoga. In addition to creating ‘abundant viveka’, the dedicated practice of Yoga will, according to this sutra, ‘refine the individual, and allow the inner light of knowledge and wisdom to shine.’ Mmmm…a cool breeze just blew through my room.

Read: Part one, part two, part three, part four, part six