In the yoga sutras, Patanjali identifies five “kleshas” or obstacles to achieving enlightenment. These kleshas are ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, and fear of death. Each of us has these five obstacles rooted in our minds, but by following the teachings in the yoga sutras, we can learn how to push the kleshas down so they have less power over us.
Ignorance is the first and most important of the kleshas. By “ignorance” Patanjali doesn’t mean simply not knowing something; if I held up a banana but you’d never seen one before, you won’t know what it is or that it’s good to eat. Patanjali isn’t talking about that sort of normal ignorance, he’s talking about ignorance on the spiritual level. Our world, our posessions, even our bodies are changing all the time, but we keep on trying to view these things as permanent, trying to make them be permanent. We blind ourselves to the fact that things change. The only thing that doesn’t change is our true Self, the innermost Self that doesn’t age or get sick. We say, “I’m tired” or “I’m sad”, even though it is the body that gets tired and the mind that feels sad, not really “I”, our true unchanging Self. When we remain ignorant about our true nature, this prevents us from making progress on our spiritual path. Ignorance is the most important of the kleshas because once you remove it, all the other kleshas fall away too.
Egoism is the second klesha. We fall victim to egoism when we confuse our true Divine Self with the individual self. We all have a tendency to get caught up in our egos. We insist on looking at the world from our own limited perspective, not thinking about how others feel or what we can do to help. To remove egoism, we practice humility.
The third and fourth kleshas, attachment and hatred, go hand in hand. We tend to focus on our likes and dislikes, disregarding what’s truly healthy for the body and for the spirit in order to pursue pleasure or avoid discomfort, but pleasure and discomfort are both momentary. Of course we want to enjoy pleasant experiences to the fullest, but it’s important to keep an awareness that they only last a short time. When unpleasant situations come up, we should face them head-on, knowing that the challenge will make us stronger.
The final klesha is fear of death or clinging to life. Because of our egos and our attachments, we’re afraid to leave this world. It’s hard to get around this one – I for one really like my life and don’t want to give it up any time soon. But what I think Patanjali is getting at here is that everyone someday must die and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so why suffer needlessly with worry? Patanjali thinks we should practice acceptance: love our lives while we’re here, but go forth unafraid when the time comes.
These five kleshas hold us back, keeping us focused on the material world and preventing us from achieving enlightenment. So how do we combat them? Practicing the yamas and niyamas seems like a good plan. Patanjali specifically recommends three of the niyamas: tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (spiritual study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender, faith, devotion). This makes sense: spiritual study is an obvious way to combat ignorance, and practicing surrender would certainly help the fear-of-death thing. (And tapas, of course, is good for everything.) There’s also a lot in the yamas that can help. Practicing satya, or truthfulness, can be a reminder that everything changes except our true Self. Asteya, or non-stealing, and aparigraha, non-greed, remind us not to cling so tightly to material possessions, and ahimsa, of course, reminds us to put others first and be kind to all. When I first read the yoga sutras about the kleshas, I felt down – here’s yet another thing to worry about – but putting it in the context of the yamas and niyamas, which I already understand, helped to make this complex spiritual concept feel more manageable. I’m already working on this!
For more on the kleshas, and how you can use backbending yoga poses to work with the kleshas in your life, check out the great article “Fear No Backbend” by Hillari Dowdle in the June 2011 issue of Yoga Journal (84-91, 114).