Re-Examining the True Message of Yoga in North America

Image from Bihar Yoga Publications, Yoga Publications Trust,

Image from Bihar Yoga Publications, Yoga Publications Trust,

I encountered a tough situation recently that challenged my grace and ability to choose not to submit to egoism – one of the five afflictions described in yogic philosophy.

My training in holistic disciplines has always come from the most traditional and classical sources I could find; I believe very strongly in honouring the original truths of these teachings. So my training in yoga comes from a very traditional Indian perspective. My classmates and I were blessed to have been taught by a legitimate Indian yogi, who actually began his interest in yoga decades ago while training for – and ultimately winning – a prestigious body building competition while attending university. It was his coach who cautioned him to take care of his joints and flexibility through yoga, adding that it would be a great compliment to his current weight training regime. My teacher began rising early to attend a 5 a.m. yoga class every morning. After he won the competition and graduated from university, he says he never lifted another weight again; but he has been doing yoga ever since.

Our teacher taught us about the importance of the Sanskrit language in relation to yoga and spent just as much time teaching us about the philosophy and history of yoga as he did the physical aspects of yoga. It is for these reasons that my classmates and I deeply understood that the physical aspect of yoga is a very small aspect of what yoga truly is.

One of the most important ancient texts we studied were Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – today considered to be one of the foundational texts of yoga. It consists of 196 sutras within 4 chapters, which are direct instructions on how to calm the mind and attain Samadhi – union with the ultimate consciousness in meditation.

Yoga is the union of body and mind, of matter and energy, of individual consciousness and Supreme consciousness. Yoga is the path to raising your level of consciousness with time and practice, changing your perspectives and reactions, and liberating you from the sufferings of life – not because life or circumstances have changed, but because you have changed.

In North America, however, the term ‘yoga’ seems to mean nothing more than an exercise routine that may or may not have health benefits. It’s associated with brands like Lululemon and expensive pants that make women feel better about themselves. The training of yoga teachers varies incredibly in North America. Some teachers have never heard of the Sanskrit terms for asanas, while others have never been taught the visual cues for maintaining proper alignment within the bodies of their students to avoid injuries in their classes.

An experience the other day tempted me to feel offended. Then I realized that it wasn’t me that was hurt by the interaction but rather my ego.

I didn’t want to let someone else’s behaviour lead to me falling victim to my own egoism, so I let go of any feelings of offense or resentment. I knew that my ability to rise above my initial feelings and reactions was a great indication of yoga’s continued effect on my mind and my life.

It brings to mind chapter 2, verse 3, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:

 Avidya āsmitā rāga dveṣa ābhiniveśāh kleśāh

The five afflictions (kleshas) are: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear of death.

It has been said that cultivating self-awareness of the five kleshas is one of the most important foundational practices in the entire science of Yoga.

Despite the uncomfortable interactions of this situation, I was happy to have had a chance to reflect on my progression towards limiting my own egoism: I used to be the type who took everything quite personally.

When we look at the five kleshas – ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear of death – what do they really mean? How can we apply them to our lives?

Ignorance (avidya) is said to be the root of the other four kleshas; destroy ignorance and we will destroy the other four afflictions as well. In this way we can feel confident that the pursuit of truth and knowledge with an open mind and heart will eventually destroy our ignorance and lead to liberation from suffering.

Egoism (asmita) is the ego that covers our true self. Ego itself is not the issue, we all have one; the issue arises when we allow our ego to think it is the true self. As an example, when we take things personally, we allow our idea of ego to cause us pain. If we separate ourselves from our ego, we are able to see that whatever we took personally wasn’t a reflection on us but rather a reflection on the other person and where they are at in life, and we can elevate ourselves above our initial reactions to avoid the suffering that would have come with allowing our egos to take something personally.

Attachment (raga) to pleasures and desires will ultimately bring suffering. When we attach ourselves, or the basis of our happiness, to those things in the outer world which we like or find pleasure in, we literally surrender our happiness to the conditions of the outer world. Our happiness will ebb and flow, up and down, like the rhythms of the outside world. Disassociating ourselves from our attachments to pleasures and desires in the outer world allows us to find peace and stability within ourselves, resulting in a consistency of peace of spirit that is truly elevated above suffering.

Aversion (dvesa) to pain or sufferings will also bring suffering as easily as attachment to pleasures and desires will. By constantly trying to avoid what we fear or what we dislike, we allow our fears and our ego-based likes and dislikes to dictate our happiness and direction in life. Another example: we avoid confrontation because we dislike the uncomfortable feelings it brings up. Facing our fears and confronting the issue not only serves as an opportunity for significant growth, but also teaches us that we are capable of acting despite fear, and we are able to overcome.

Fear of death (abhinivesah) is rooted in all four of the other kleshas. Our ignorance regarding our true selves allows us to lead our lives according to our attachments or our aversions, which reflect on our ego and result in suffering. The path of the spiritual aspirant is one of truth; once we realize that our aversions and attractions are fleeting manifestations of our concept of ego, which covers our true self, there is no fear of death. Death happens to the body, the body which is tied to our kleshas; the true self may live within our body but it is not bound to the physical world in the way our physical body is.

Liberating yourself from the five kleshas ultimately liberates you from suffering.

We should all keep in our minds (and our hearts) that yoga is not just about the physical, but also about self-reflection and spiritual growth. Keeping ourselves open to that attitude allows yoga to have a more profound effect on all layers of the human being, from our physical bodies to the most subtle energies of our minds and spirits. So as we move farther into this new year, let us take a moment each day to reflect on how the five kleshas may be keeping us from the peace and happiness we seek.

One thought on “Re-Examining the True Message of Yoga in North America

  1. Pingback: Quote of the Day: Steindl-Rast | Canadian Macrobiotics

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