5 Yogic reasons why we suffer and how to overcome them

The message of all great masters like Buddha, Jesus, and Patanjali, is the same. Pain is an inevitable part of life, but suffering is our choice. However, we can liberate ourselves from suffering! And we have to do it ourselves. Nothing or person from the outside can do it for us. So if we want to liberate ourselves from suffering, we need to know what causes suffering in the first place. The good news is we don’t have to find it ourselves. We can learn it from the masters!

In the 2nd chapter of Yoga Sutra, an ancient and one of the most important texts on Yoga, Patanjali describes sources of suffering – the Kleshas. Kleshas are things that obstruct us from realizing that we are already liberated. They cloud our perception and keep us stuck in the limited version of ourselves. Kleshas are the cause of fear, anxiety, depression, and confusion. They are both obstacles to growth and sources of suffering.

The 5 Kleshas are Ignorance, False Identity, Attachment, Aversion, and Fear of Death.

Yoga pose picture

Avidya – Ignorance

Avidya, ignorance, is the root cause of suffering and creates all the other afflictions. Ignorance arises from misperception, from not seeing things clearly as they are. But, at the same time, ignorance prevents us from recognizing the truth. It is not seeing our true nature. And our true nature, our essence, is already whole and divine.

All our actions, thoughts, and decisions arise from the current state of our perception. If our perception is unclear, we don’t recognize the reality and believe that what we think, see or feel at that moment is real. This is because we believe that we are in the current state of our minds.

Avidya can also be understood as the accumulated result of many unconscious actions and ways of perceiving that we’ve been mechanically carrying for years. These actions become habits – Smaskaras – that cover the mind with Avidya, obscuring the clarity of our awareness.

This is why it is essential to practice clear seeing through yoga so that we can see through our ignorance and dissolve it with correct understanding.

Asmita – False Identification or Egoism

Another primary reason for suffering is called Asmita, which is the false self-image we create and take as real. We are affected by Asmita when we hold on to a limited self-concept. We limit ourselves through mind projections that come from ignorance. False identification, like ignorance, comes from not recognizing our true nature, from not realizing that we are already whole and divine.

Think about this like that: If we don’t know who we really are, we make something up. And we hold on to this limited self-concept because we think that’s everything we have. For example, I can identify myself as a yoga teacher or a spiritual person. It is not that I am not that, in one way, I am. Still, suppose I think that’s my only reality. In that case, this will limit my perception and cause two other afflictions – attachment and aversion (more about that later).

To overcome Asmita, focus on strengthening witness consciousness in your yoga practice and do Metta – loving-kindness meditation towards yourself.

Raga – Attachment

You may probably hear this already: attaching to worldly things is not something that will bring you happiness. Still, our life is full of attachments. Of course, we are attached to the people we love. We attach to beautiful things that bring pleasure, money, status symbols, and material possessions. According to Yogic and Tantric philosophy, these things are not bad in themselves – we should enjoy world pleasures and even material possessions. We should be grateful for them. However, the problem arises when we start attaching to them and becoming greedy.

There are two kinds of attachments. First, we can develop an attachment as a result of a pleasurable experience, like eating chocolate! Secondly, we can have an attachment due to false ego identification. We attach to things that create or validate our false identities. Giving up our attachments can be scary because letting go of these attachments would mean losing our identity. It is not an easy process. However, skillful and dedicated yoga practice helps us become less attached to material possessions and status symbols. To overcome attachment, practice karma yoga – selfless service.

Dvesa – Aversion

Similarly, there are two kinds of aversions. We can develop an aversion toward things that were painful in the past, like an unpleasant visit to the dentist… or we can develop an aversion from the false ego-identification. It means that we resist things that threaten our assumed identity.

It is a natural part of being human to want to avoid things that are causing us pain. However, the suffering often increases by trying to resist the pain or discomfort. We can try to resist a painful experience that makes things even more painful. Or we can see it as an opportunity for growth. The choice is ours! Like the other afflictions, aversion arises from not seeing the bigger picture and not recognizing our true nature as inherently divine. Next time you feel resistance, think about it like that: When you deny life, you go out of the flow. It is not the situation that makes us suffer. It is our reaction to it. If we deny life, we
deplete ourselves. To overcome aversion, practice no resistance, acceptance, and surrender.

Abhinivesa – Fear of Death

The final and probably biggest affliction is the fear of death. We can also understand it as a fear of giving up our false identity. It is the most fundamental fear we feel and klesha the most difficult to overcome. It remains with us until our death unless we consciously learn to become familiar with it and take it as a natural and inevitable part of life. As a result of Abhinivesa, we experience fear in many areas of our everyday life. For example, when we feel uncertain about something, when we have doubts about our situation in life, or when we feel sick or old.

The problem is that in our modern culture, we celebrate life and youth and try to avoid being old and dying as much as possible. This increases the fear of death. The truth is that one day we will all be old and die. The sooner we realize and become familiar with the fact of dying, the easier it will be to develop acceptance and trust in life.

Yoga decreases the power of kleshas, so correct understanding can occur. We can reduce their power already by being aware of the afflictions and acknowledging them. This allows us to gain distance and see things from a larger perspective. We must see where we are first and where we are stuck if we want to move beyond it.
Yoga is a lifelong practice. As we go through life, we will have new challenges. There may be times when our mind gets confused and when we get anxious or feel lost. What matters is that we keep practicing and working with the afflictions. It takes time, patience, faith, and devotion.

Desikachar, T. K. V. (1995). The heart of yoga: Developing a personal practice. Inner
Traditions International.