Kleshas and the Yoga Sutras

Chapter Two of the Yoga Sutras, the Sadhana Pada are instructions to our practice. They give us the road map to liberation. The mental practices of the Sadhana Pada are used to remove kleshas (the mental obstacles) that hold us back.

The explanations of the kleshas begins in Book Two, or Chapter Two, the Sadhana Pada. In this part of the Yoga Sutras the actual practice of yoga is spelled out clearly. Section 2.1 tells us the practice of yoga includes plans to purify, study spiritual books, and surrender to God. In Section 2.2 we learn why yoga should be practiced: to remove obstacles and attain Samadhi.

“The goal of yoga is not to obtain something that is lacking: it is a realization of an already present reality.”

The practice of asana and pranayama (yoga postures and yogic breathing) are the physical practices that we use to teach the body self awareness and control. Asana like backbends can be used in overcoming kleshas.

Understanding mental practices, such as removing kleshas is the cornerstone to yogic philosophy. Removing kleshas, or obstacles to liberation, peace and freedom is the start of the practice outlined in Book Two of the Yoga Sutras.

In 2.3 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out the five Kleshas:

    1. Ignorance
    2. Egotism
    3. Attachment
    4. Hatred or Aversion
    5. Clinging to Life

The kleshas are described as obstacles at the root of human suffering. Following 2.3 in the Yoga Sutras are a description of each of the five kleshas in detail.  Sri Swami Satchidananda in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explains the significance of the order. He points out that each klesha tends to build on the next. With ignorance of the self comes egotism. Because of egotism there is attachment to things enjoyed by the ego. When the things we are attached to are taken away, or if they do not get something we become angry and experience hatred or aversion for those who get in our way.

The following are three different translations of the 2.3 Sutra:

Avidyasmita raga dvesabhinivesah klesah

  • Ignorance, egotism, attachment, hatred and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles. -translation Satchidananda in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
  • The causes of suffering are not seeing things as they are, the sense of “I,” attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. -translation Chip Hartranft in The Wisdom of Yoga, Stephen Cope, Appendix B The Yoga-Sutra in English
  • These are ignorance (avidya), ego or pride, which acts as an imposter of the seer (ahamkara-asmita), attachment (rarga), aversion (dvesa), and anxiety or fear of death (abhinivesa), as if life were eternal. -translation B.K.S. Iyengar in Core of the Yoga Sutras

B.K.S. Iyengar’s statement that ego or pride acts as “an imposter of the seer” speaks to the idea that the ego is a mirror to the seer. It is a copy of the real thing. The ego and the seer and separate. The ego is related to an identity that we choose for ourselves. The seer looks on with dispassion and detachment, being unidentified with the self or ego. We are not who we think we are. Our true nature is not the same as the identity we have taken on as a representation of ourselves. The difference here between seer or true self and the ego is an important distinction.

Chip Hartranft makes the point that ignorance is “not seeing things as they are.” This suggests the true self might know the difference! How do we discern how things truly are? How does ignorance development a faulty sense of “I”? How does egotism promote our ignorance? How does egotism blind us to what is true and real?

Sri Swami Satchadananda breaks down the Sanskrit for us:

Avidya = ignorance; asmita = ego sense, egoism, I-ness;

raga = attachment; dvesa = hatred

abhinivesah = clinging to bodily life; klesah = obstacles, afflictions

Kleshas are referred to as obstacles. They are also considered “afflictions” or what we might call character flaws. The Yoga Sutras explain that kleshas keep us from experiencing peace and enlightenment, Samadhi. Without yoga we cannot overcome the kleshas.

Yoga Sutra I.23 – Getting out of your own way

I’ve always been really curious how one can learn to discern the point where “right” becomes “wrong,” where white starts to bleed grey before becoming black. It is not always so clear cut! I want to know – when does mind-centered determination need to give way to surrender?

How do we know when the contentment of santosha is wrong thinking in disguise? Is there a way to discern the right choice and the right direction in life? Who just asked all those questions anyway? Was it my small mind or my big mind? Early Homo sapiens probably pondered their own variation of these thoughts 200,000 years ago and before. Now, here I am with that same old monkey mind!

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras follows a most interesting format by dividing the sutras or threads into four padas (translated as footprint or step from Sanskrit), providing the backstory to enlightenment, steps to practice, the progression of the yogani, and how liberation is achieved.

In the first pada of the Yoga Sutras Patanjali is describing Samadhi and the theories of yoga. At I.22 Patajali states that the speed with which one arrives is based on whether one employs mild, moderate or intense practice. But then he cuts right to the chase with I.23.

Īśvara-pranidhānād va || I.23 ||

Īśvara – pure awareness, the ideal awareness, God, the Supreme Lord, the Almighty
praṇidhānād – surrender all actions, devotion
vā – OR, ALSO

I believe the meaning and the importance of this sutra is more pronounced because of the Sanskrit word OR (va). A true listener will sit up in their seat when an orator says “you can go this way, that way… OR if you want to just arrive at your destination, do this.” Patanjali is saying Isvara can be attained immediately by surrendering the self, the ego, i.e., getting out of your own way.

Chip Hartranft, in his extensive commentary and translation of the Yoga Sutras, discusses I.23 this way:

Realization may ALSO come if one is oriented toward the idea of pure awareness. Ishvara.

B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Life (p. 261) describes the importance of Īśvara-praṇidhānda va and tells us what it is not, :

“[Īśvara-praṇidhāna va] is the most theistic of all aspects of yoga. Īśvara is Divinity in a general and nondenominational sense. What it definitely does not mean is using the ego to second-guess the will of God. It is, on the contrary, the surrender, through meditation (dhyāna) and devotion (bhakti), of the ego itself.”

Iyengar references I.23 in the closing lines of his book, Core of the Yoga Sutras this way:

“From cita-sakti, the yogi has to move from the four established aims towards the realization of the atman, to surrender totally to God. His journey moves him from citta-prasadana to atma-prasadana and from atma-prasadana to Isvara-pranidhana. Here culminates yoga-marga.”

These ideas combined as a line of reasoning and give me several take homes or points of view to ponder in relation to my original inquiry. We cannot second-guess the will of God. That should mean I can now afford to get out of my own way by eliminating doubt, uncertainty or operating from a lack of saucha (purity of thought).

Chip Hartranft’s translation of the Sutras closes with “… the power of pure seeing. That is all.” For me, yoking the concept of the power of pure seeing and “getting out of our own way” resonated as a potential answer to the opening questions and also addresses the inquiry I bring to my own yoga practice.

What remains for me is another question: what tools or concepts do we really have to help us see the moment when “right” starts to turn “wrong” and we begin to see the “white” turning to the proverbial  “black?” I understand the concepts of not second-guessing God, meditating and surrendering the ego – and the difficulty inherent in that path. The problem is made real everyday when we have to confront situations of loss, betrayal, selfishness, thoughtlessness, and dealing with the suffering we cause our selves and others.

The final answer most certainly is found along the yoga path. I still feel that the dividing line between right and wrong may move ahead of me like the mirage of wavy lines on a hot asphalt highway. As I trudge down the long road to freedom and enlightenment, I am expecting (hoping?) that what feels like giving in to someone else’s “wrong feeling” position today will look more like acceptance tomorrow. What feels like my righteous demands will give way to acquiescence. My own mind will still need to try to determine what is right and wrong. And my hand will still need to bravely draw an emotional boundary as a form of personal ahimsa. The load will become lighter, the path more defined. The monkey mind will become still and free from the need to know today what will be tomorrow’s present moment.

A discussion of Tapas – the third Niyama

What it means to me, where I practice Tapas in life and yoga practice, ways I do not practice tapas and how I bring this practice into my daily living.

Any discussion on the meaning and importance of the term “Tapas” in the modern western world wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that many of us think of Tapas as small meals eaten in overpriced restaurants. It actually fits in this discussion because the definition of the Spanish word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, “to cover.” According to The Joy of Cooking by way of Wikipedia, “the original tapas were the slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses between sips. This was a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the sweet sherry.” Wikipedia further describes Tapas as being either hot or cold, can be combined to make a full meal and are designed to encourage conversation. Consider this topic covered and still relevant in a yoga discussion!

Hold that half Buddha smile as you consider that the Sanskrit term “Tapas” is not too far afield from these small plates of Spanish food. Laugh out loud with a shaking Buddha belly as you envision an enlightened master tell the story of keeping the annoying “fruit flies of life” out of the sweet sherry of your contented mind by covering your glass with Tapas! Is your western mind having trouble following the thread? Here’s the analogy: fruit flies are to impurities as glass of sherry is to body-mind. The two will seem as one in a few more paragraphs.

In traditional yoga teachings Tapas comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap,” or “to burn.” Scholars writing about Tapas describe it as the fiery discipline needed for purification. It is the burning off of impurities and impediments (and fruit flies!) through a consistent, dedicated practice. Tapas is the first component in yoga in action (Kriya yoga).

Several sources of yoga literature describe Tapas in very strict terms using words like asceticism, abstinence, penance and austerity. I believe these terms cloud the concept in severity and harshness that seems unwarranted. It is true that bringing discipline and consistency to our lives and our relationships can be harsh and very difficult. But let us consider that as human beings on the difficult path to union and bliss (Samadhi) there is nothing wrong with having a hard time mastering Tapas. It may be an unfair starting point, for mere mortals working to gain discipline along the path to think of Tapas as atonement, repentance or a penalty for some wrongdoing.

Instead, I relate to teachers like B.K.S. Iyengar who describe Tapas as having a zeal or passion for “yoga in action” (Kriya yoga) that is a determined effort on the path. Tapas is the burning dedication and aliveness we feel when we are on a quest, a pursuit, or involved in a spiritual endeavor. This approach to Tapas feels positive and helps to inspire and motivate. At the very least it speaks to the concept of restraint as a personal choice one makes in exchange for a better life.

Another school of thought on Tapas that I personally am trying to bring into my life of relationships and yoga practice is the idea of abiding and of enduring opposites. I am trying to approach this form of Tapas with a passion and patience using continual awareness of the thoughts in my mind. Watching for opposites as they arise helps me see them and understand where they come from. I can do this by noticing what happens in my mind when I experience wildly opposite emotions (love/hate, joy/anger, calm/anxious), when I practice breathing (Pranayama) slow or fast, or when I stay in a yoga posture (Asana) for longer versus a shorter amount of time.

Many times in the course of a day I notice I am not practicing Tapas. One of the most obvious ways is when I finally realize that I have not noticed Tapas for several days! This is a clear sign that I am not practicing with any of the adjectives in this discussion: zeal, passion, dedication, abiding and consistency. Specific examples would be when I choose to eat breakfast or dinner before practicing yoga making it unlikely that I will go to my mat or when I meditate for a few minutes and then have this urge to jump up and look up something on the internet that ostensibly relates to my practice. The list goes on with things like becoming impatient or irritated at running into an acquaintance who is very different than I am and who talks at length on subjects for which I strongly disagree. Road rage. Anger or jealousy toward loved ones. These would all be considered impediments to purification, or on the simplest level roadblocks to being of clear mind to practice yoga, Pranayama and meditation with clarity and focus.

I continue to work at bringing more Tapas into my life is by choosing the intention and discipline to practice yoga and Pranayama everyday, along with the other 8 limbs of yoga. I work to actually use the words “yoga in action” when I speak and when I make decisions through incorporating the 3 components of Krya yoga: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana. I find that Tapas slips from my daily practice when I become too rigid on the length of my yoga practice or in the intensity of my Asana series. Back to the glass of sherry analogy . . . I don’t need a full glass of sherry everyday and a few fruit flies in the glass won’t kill me! In other words, I need to remember the Yama’s of Aparigraha and Brahmacharya so that I am not too greedy, clinging too tightly to how things must be or expelling energy in wasteful ways.

To borrow the definition of Tapas from the Spanish term “tapar” I would like to reiterate the idea that keeping a cover or a lid on your glass is in fact yoga in action – where you remain pure and free of fruit flies and where the sherry in your glass is always rarefied and clarified! Both kinds of Tapas are less like small meals and more like morsels that increase the appetite for the larger feast of life.

Notes

Translations and Yoga Sutra

Sanskrit verb “tap” means “to burn.” Tapas is a “fiery discipline” for purification.

Tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidanah kriya yogah  (Yoga Sutra – Chapter II, v. I)

Self-discipline, self-study and devotion are yoga in the form of action, as a means of orienting toward the ideal of pure awareness.

Tapas in Niyama and as Kriya yoga

Tapas is the third of five principles of Niyama and the first of the three components of Kriya yoga (yoga in action: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana).

Explanation

Tapas is the ability to endure opposites like heat and cold, pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow. It is often referred to as penance and austerity. Tapas is not simply enduring difficulties but abiding in the midst of difficulty. Tapas is having a zeal or passion for yoga in action and is a determined effort on the path (the Sadhana, or quest, practice, discipline, pursuit, spiritual endeavor). It is the discipline of consistency that is focused on the quality of life and relationships. Consistency is difficult because it requires a dedication to practice (postures, meditation, breathing) regardless of external circumstances. Tapas is having a willingness to begin practice again and again, over and over to bring awareness to the present moment.

Purpose of Tapas

The purpose of Tapas is to bring strength to the body and mind through the elimination of impurities. This happens by burning off impediments that keep us from being in the state of yoga. The body prepares to hold the infinite consciousness and the body-mind can come to see the divine that is in everyone.

Sources

Judith Lasater: http://www.judithlasater.com/writings/livingtheniyamas2.html

Chip Hartranft – The Yoga-Sutra in English, Appendix B, The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sutras