Obstacle Race – Understanding the Klesas and Fear

image2This month, I challenged you to face your fears. So far we’ve looked at what scares us, the effects that fear elicits, and the benefits of facing it head on. But we have yet to ask what causes fear. For this question, we defer to Patanjali and his guidebook for attaining peace and liberation: the Yoga Sutras.

According to the Sutras, the root of all suffering is avidya, ignorance. Avidya is the first klesa, or obstacle to attaining peace. While there are five in total, avidya is considered the mother and each feeds into the next.

Let us explore how they affect our everyday lives and contribute to fear.

  1. Avidya- Ignorance.  We are ignorant of many things, like impermanence. We expect things to remain status quo and fear change, not realizing that the one guarantee in life is change! We are ignorant in thinking immediate pleasure will bring satisfaction, when lasting joy is much deeper. But most importantly, we are ignorant of who we truly are, which is eternal and perfect.

  1. Asmita- Ego. Often referred to as “I am”, this is the tendency to misidentify the roles we play as our true self. For example, I am a yoga teacher. I am a daughter. Part of avidya is mistaking things as permanent, but these labels can be removed in the blink of an eye and defining ourselves by them is limiting. If I lost all my clients and classes, would I no longer be a yoga teacher? My mother passed away four years ago, am I no longer a daughter? We fear we will be incomplete if such central aspects are removed. What we need to remember is that we are already whole.

  1. Raga- Attachment. Sometimes called the “I want.” Expecting life to be unchanging and identifying with the jobs we do, leads us to attach and cling to that which brings pleasure (careers, people, experiences). Oftentimes we hang on so tightly, grasping like a balled up fist, that we don’t leave space to actually receive and end up causing more suffering than if we were to let go and trust, as scary as that sounds.

  1. Dvesa- Aversion. “I don’t want”. The other side of the raga coin. This klesa plays a huge role in fear. Humans are on seek-pleasure-avoid-pain-autopilot. Understandably so. Who wants to feel pain? We are afraid of upsetting the apple cart or taking risks all in an effort to avoid suffering. As a result though, our lives become limited and ironically painful.

  1. Abhinivesha- Fear of death. This klesa is more instinctual; there is a survival element. We attach to our physical body. When frightened in a daring pose, abhinivesa arises. Some scholars further interpret this to mean a fear of the death of one’s identity. That beyond hanging on to life, we also attach to particular life-styles. We are afraid to quit a job that is detrimental to our health due to financial fears. We are afraid to leave our partner, because our lives are intertwined. We are afraid of aging and injuries. All the while forgetting that regardless of what we do, who we are with, and how we outwardly appear, our true internal self is unchanging and perfect.

Be aware of the klesas and when they arise in your life. They are not easy to overcome! Patanjali did not call them speed bumps, but nor did he call them boulders. Like a banana peel set out on your path, obstacles can be avoided if one practices remaining awake and mindful.


Headshot Closer upSarah Ezrin, E-RYT-500, is an energetic and humorous yoga teacher, writer, and YogaWorks teacher trainer based in Los Angeles. With a profound love of travel, Sarah runs around the globe leading trainings, workshops and retreats. For Sarah, yoga is not about the tricks or the postures; it is about finding one’s center amidst the challenges and chaos of the world. She believes that life is short and that it should be spent laughing, with the people and animals we love, and doing the things we most enjoy, like yoga! For more information on Sarah, visit her website or connect with her on Facebook.

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