Integrating Yoga Philosophy into Practice: The Five Afflictions and Practising with them in Mind

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the goal of yoga practice is attaining a state of yoga, a state where the consciousness becomes still. The benefit of attaining this state is that then we experience our own truth.

I.2 yogah citta vrtti nirodhah
Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.

I.3. tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam
Then, the seer dwells in his own true splendour.

There are five afflictions (kleshas) which impede our progress toward achieving a state of yoga by disturbing the consciousness. These five afflictions are ignorance (avidya), egoism (asmita), desire (raga), aversion (dvesa), and fear (abhinivesa). Through introspection we can trace all pain and suffering back to at least one of these five afflictions.

Ignorance (avidya) is the root of all of the other afflictions. It is the mistaking of the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self. It can manifest in our practice of poses (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama) when we mistake good alignment and skillful action as the end goal rather than a means toward a goal—the stilling of the mind.

Egoism (asmita) can grow out of this mistaken goal. Our ego, sense of self or the “I”-sense, can get wrapped up over-intellectualising the practice of asana. Instead of being present and feeling the actions and reactions in the poses, the ego judges. Our ego can either puff us up, causing pride, or tear us down, creating a false sense of humility. This happens when we intellectually label and limit our practice, preventing our progress and stifling our awareness. For example, have you ever been in class and your teacher gives an instruction such as “Draw the thighs up” in Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana), and because you already know this is a correct action, you assume you are already doing it? Ignoring the teacher, you lose an opportunity for growth and increased awareness. Conversely, have you ever believed you were unable to perform a certain action (for example “My shoulder blades will never do that!”) and don’t attempt a pose or an action because “There is no reason to try”? This is another missed opportunity for the expansion of awareness that stems from the ego.

Desire or attachment to pleasure (raga) can manifest in asana practice when we only practice the postures that we enjoy because we mistake the pleasure we feel in our favorite poses for equanimity. Likewise, avoiding the poses we find challenging, difficult, or distasteful is an example of aversion (dvesa). Practising in this way will continue (and perhaps increase) the fluctuations of the consciousness. The mind is flitting around, following the whims of desire and aversion, instead of practising in a measured and wise way—one that promotes equanimity, serenity, and stillness.

Fear (abhinivesa) causes one to doubt the process and benefits of the practice of yoga. Sometimes, when we experience an injury, instead of having trust in our ability to work in the poses in a safe and heath-promoting way, we take time off or discontinue our practice out of fear of further injury. This fear keeps the mind from settling and us from experiencing our own truth.

These are just some examples of how the five afflictions can manifest in our yoga practice. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to consider how these afflictions may influence our life and practice:

Avidya: How do I mistake the transient for the permanent? impure for pure? pain for pleasure? that which is not the self for the self?
Asmita: How do I identify myself as separate/distinct from others? What labels to I cling to? How do I perceive myself and how do I think others perceive me? How does that make me feel?
Raga: What expectations do I cling to? How do I feel when things don’t happen as I’d like them to? What do I find pleasureful? What emotional attachment arises from this?
Dvesa: What do I avoid even though I know it’s good for me? When has unhappiness led to hatred?
Abhinivesa: What am I afraid of? How does this change my behaviors and choices?