Exploring the Mind through the 5 Klesha-s
Yoga Therapy’s focus is on salutogenesis (focus on health) rather than pathogenesis (focus on disease). In the past years as well as today, our health care system (western) has practiced medicine mostly using a pathogenesis focus which has influenced our ways of perceiving the world around us. In yogic philosophy, being in balance within our systems is attained from going from Dukha (suffering) to Sukha (happiness).
According to an article in Yoga Journal, 90% of our happiness is determined by how our brain processes the world, while only 10% is impacted by environmental or external factors.
How do we as individuals perceive the Universe and the world in which we live? Which factors prevent us from becoming happier in our lives? Why do we behave the way we do? How do these factors relate to our bodies, minds and emotions? How can we live a life free from suffering and actually experience true happiness?
In the Yoga Sutra-s (II.12) of Patanjali, which date back 2000-2500 years ago, Patanjali gives us the concept of the 5 Klesha-s that prevent us from perceiving the Universe as it is. The Klesha-s are inborn psychological afflictions that are part of our system. Most people are not aware of them and therefore cannot change them. That is where yoga comes in: to bring awareness to those aspects of ourselves that we are unaware of.
They are described as colorings. For example, if you look at the world through a blue lens, then you will see the world as blue. Similarly, the Klesha-s color our perspective of the world around us. We end up reacting rather than responding to certain situations.
The 5 Klesha-s according to Patanjali
The 5 Klesha-s are:
- Avidya: Absence of knowledge which is the root cause of our suffering.
- Within this first psychological affliction, we are faced with four false beliefs:
- The first is Anitya, that which is impermanent is perceived as permanent. For example, we may think that our bodies, relations, life, or work, are going to be here forever.
- The second is Asuchi, the impure perceived to be pure. For example, there is the idea of skin as impure and inner beauty as pure.
- The third is Dukha, that which is perceived to be painful suffering is perceived to be pleasure. For example, eating ice cream every night could bring one pleasure but after a month one could experience weight gain which would affect one’s mood and behavior.
- Finally, the fourth is Anatmasu, that which is not the Self is perceived to be the Self. For example, when someone visits the doctor and says: ‘’I am a diabetic/a cardiac patient’’ or talk about the disease as ‘’my cancer/my depression’’. There is a deep identification with the disease/symptom as if it is their property, yet when they try some yoga postures (asana), breath work or meditation, nothing will happen until the misidentification syndrome is dealt with. That is when the cause needs to be addressed. The answers cannot be found outside ourselves but rather by going within.
- The other four Klesha-s can manifest themselves at different levels. They can be totally absent (prasupta), attenuated (tanu), they can come out once in a while (vicchinna), or they manifest in an overpowering way which results in mistakes that can cost us a lot (udharanam).
- Within this first psychological affliction, we are faced with four false beliefs:
- Asmita: a false sense of separation. This is thinking we are different than the universe in which we exist. Thinking we are all different. The moment we think ‘’I am me’’, we start to have likes and dislikes.
- Raga: likes/attachment—that which pulls us towards it because we think it is pleasurable. Think ice cream (if you like it), like the example given above.
- Dwesha: dislikes—we are pushed away/run away from that which we think is suffering. For example, not going out to avoid rain (for some people).
- Raga and Dwesha can be associated with the limbic system (behavior and emotions) because the likes and dislikes can turn us into an emotional roller coaster causing instability in our minds.
- Abhinivesha: The survival instinct which is on auto-pilot can be present even in the most conscious people. It is thinking we have to survive at any cost. For example, if the lights turn off in an elevator or if we are locked in, we will go into panic mode instead of remaining calm. The brain stem is at the seat of this Klesha. The brain stem and spinal cord regulate circulation, respiration, and digestion. If we have these three involuntary functions of the body, we will survive. We will be alive but not have a good quality of life. It is important to note that the brain stem is the seat of the subconscious/unconscious habitual patterns which we call samskara in yoga.
These five Klesha-s influence how we perceive the world around. As a result, we start to react to the world, to situations, and to people instead of responding. The reactions we inhibit are linked to our subconscious and unconscious behaviors which can lead us to live a reactionary existence. It is only when we have a clear perspective that we can start responding.
Fortunately, Patanjali gives us Kriya Yoga as a vaccine to take before the Klesha-s manifest and an antidote once they have manifested in order for the mind to be fit for the experience of life. This can be achieved in three ways:
- Tapa: self-effort/intense self-discipline
- Asking ourselves: Am I actually perceiving things properly? Am I thinking, seeing, and doing what I should be doing?
- This is in the psychomotor domain which is linked to action (Karma yoga).
- Swadhyaya: introspection and self-analysis
- Asking ourselves: Am I doing the right thing (for myself)?
- This is in the cognitive domain which is linked to knowing and thinking (Jñana Yoga).
- Ishvara Pranidhana: the ability let go, to surrender to the Universe and to have a bigger perspective. The larger the perspective we take, the less stressed we are.
- That is doing our best and leaving the rest (ref.Bhagavad Gita)
- This is in the affective domain which is linked to the ability to feel and our will (Bhakti Yoga).
It is important that these 3 ways work together because our behavior influences the nervous, endocrine and immune system which, in medical terms, are psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) /psychoendoneuroimmunology (PENI).
The Klesha-s are one of the greatest causes of stress which, in turn, is a major cause of diseases. In Yoga Therapy, we talk about psycho-somatic disassociations leading to physical diseases. Unless one deals with the Klesha-s, one cannot regain a balanced perspective; health and happiness will continue to elude them.
It is when we bring consciousness to our pre-frontal regions through the HPA Axis (see article When Yoga Therapy Meets Physiology), at the physiological and anatomical plane, that we can overcome inaccurate knowledge (avidya) and a false sense of separation (asmita).
At this point, we start to balance and subdue these subhuman survival tendencies. Then, the mind attains clarity, which Pantanjali calls Chitta PrasaDanam. It is our responsibility (dharma), to make a choice and overcome the Klesha-s in order to become our best selves and choose to be happier. The choice is between salutogenesis and pathogenesis and the best tool at our disposal is gratitude. When we have gratitude towards our families, our work, our teachers, or life itself, our stress level decreases, we become happier, and we train our brain to get off autopilot. “Gratitude is the highest attitude” – Dr. Ananda Bhavanani.
Here is a happiness calendar to help you get started!
By Mélanie Ruffié RYT-500, 1000-hour Certified Yoga Therapist Trainee and a Certified Pastry Chef
- Bhavanani, A. (2018, August). Extract on Kleshas from Dr. Ananda’s Exploration of Yoga Sutras.International Center for Yoga Education and Research (ICYER).https://www.slideshare.net/anandabhavanani/extract-on-kleshas-from-dr-anandas-exploration-of-yoga-sutras
- Brennan, K. (2019, August 13). How to train your Brain for Happiness?.
- Yoga Journal. https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/train-your-brain-happy/?fbclid=IwAR08-OSIypHbBnuoRDY-q8o750HCqgqMJpJj65h2BRfwzMsjo0uSQDZRhFI
- Maharishi Patañjali. Yoga Sutra.
- Sharma BR. Role of Kriya yoga in Patanjali Yoga Sutra (PYS). Yoga Hahimsa, 1991 (2&3): 84-92.
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