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Yoga Sutras for Modern Life: Every Pose is a Lesson

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Book 2: 3-4 There are five kinds of coloring/afflictions (kleshas): 1) forgetting, or ignorance about the true nature of things (avidya), 2) I-ness, individuality, or egoism (asmita), 3) attachment or addiction to mental impressions or objects (raga), 4) aversion to thought patterns or objects (dvesha), and 5) fear of death (abiniveshah). Ignorance is the source of all the kleshas whether dormant, attenuated/thinned, interrupted or fully active.

Defining the Sutra:

The afflictions, that Kriya Yoga deals with, are the Kleshas. Kriya Yoga consists of:

Tapas-fiery discipline

Svadyaya-study of scriptures and study of your Guru or teacher’s teachings

Isvarapranidhana-surrender to the universal flow or God.

The Kleshas are spoken on more in depth in the next few sutras. Patanjali says that the first Klesha, Avidya/Ignorance, is the root of all the other Kleshas.  I will use a Yoga example to explain the states that the Kleshas can be in.

Dormant: You are progressing through Primary Series. You finally feel like you understand it. You feel really good about where you are. Your teacher walks over to you and says, “lets start working on drop backs”.  All of a sudden, you are gripped with a fear of falling and hurting yourself. The need for self preservation takes over in a very visceral way.  The fear is paralyzing and you start to freak out. This was always there, it was just dormant. The drop backs brought the fear up to the surface. Dormant is when  the Klesha is buried and something brings it to the surface in a major way.

Attenuated: Your teacher says, “it is time for drop backs.” There is a little bit of trepidation but you have been working with your fear and you know that everything is going to be alright. You take a deep breath and you get it done. When a Klesha is attenuated, the remnants of it are still there, but its grip is tenuous. It barely bothers you. You shrug it off and go.

Interrupted State: You traveled to Mysore. It is time for drop backs. You want to impress Sharath. He walks over to do drop backs with you and you take a breath and do them. You do them not because you don’t still have fear of bodily harm but because fear of embarrassment trumps it.  The Klesha has been interrupted by yet another Klesha.

Active State: You put your mat down and start Sun Salute A. You cannot even concentrate on any of your practice because you know that  every pose you do takes you closer to the the dreaded drop backs. When the teacher finally comes over you whine, fight and protest. When the Klesha is active, it is alive in you. You cannot see around it. You cannot think rationally. You are so attached to it that you see it as the truth and you cannot find the separation at all. It feels like the Klesha is you.

Modern Day Application

If you choose, you will choose what is most comfortable for you. It may not necessarily produce results, or it may be an unnecessarily long route. I am not interested in your comfort. I want you to get there, because your time and energy are limited. -Sadhguru of Isha Yoga

Many teachers feel that students should always be comfortable on their mat. This is a concern because it leaves the Kleshas in an active or a dormant state. A Yoga teachers job is to teach Yoga which is defined by Patanjali as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. We don’t know if this cessation has occurred unless we test it.

It is like going to a used car dealership and assuming that, because the car looks good on the outside, that it is fine and you don’t need to test drive it. It is not until you test drive it and get it checked out that you know it is ready for the road. We want a car that can get us where we need to go efficiently and with little to no problems. We don’t want our car to break down half way to work.

It is the same with our Yoga practice. The practice should give us the tools to be able to thrive in our lives. We want to keep our break downs to a minimum. In the the safe, controlled environment of our Yoga practice, we can test what is going on inside of us and fix it. When we do this work and go out in the world, our afflictions are so thin that we can just shrug them off. Eventually the affliction is not there at all.

This view of Yoga practice is important. Many students feel that, when a teacher has them drop back, gives them poses they don’t want, or hold them back, that it is personal. Sometimes it is. With a good teacher, it is not. A good teacher sees the Kleshas inside of you and will use the practice to bring your awareness to them.

Working with the Kleshas is one of the greatest benefits of an Ashtanga practice. The Ashtanga practice is set up so that you cannot avoid what you don’t like, what you are not good at and what you are afraid of.  The sequences and poses progress in the same way for everybody. If you don’t like backbends, you gotta do them anyway.  If you only like arm balancing, you can’t skip to Third Series.  You can modify for injuries but once you are healed, you are forced to take a close look at what happened because the same poses are waiting for you.  At some point, you are going to come up against a pose, a technique( like pranyama) or a situation (maybe being “stuck” in a series or on a pose) that is going to bring up those Kleshas. This is the point where many people quit. Those who have embraced the components of Kriya Yoga, discipline, study of the practice/scriptures and surrender, will continue on.


Each Asana is a Lesson-Sharath Jois

Why it is Important:

By studying the Kleshas, we are able to see them when they are within us. Until then, they can be in an active state where they run our lives and keep us on the path of suffering or a dormant state where they are waiting to strike and take over when we least expect it.   Using the Ashtanga practice as a Klesha buster takes the practice out of an ego driven need for postures and a cute butt  to a life changing spiritual discipline. This transforms the practice because you surrender and deal with what comes. Instead of searching for perfection in your practice, you awaken to the lessons of the pose.



Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail


  • Sandra

    Thank you so much for this post, you put words to some of my feelings in the practice. I’ve been practicing for less than a year but feel that with different moods and difficulties in everyday life – the same asana can be extremely challenging or simply joyful on different days while some are scary, agonizing and anguished until suddenly they are not. And it’s amazing how true it is, the lessons in the asanas often go back to lessons in life.

  • Sarah Boulter

    Excellent blog post, and so very true. For about 6 months after I started practising Ashtanga, I had an epiphany whilst practising ‘restorative’ Hatha (basically a class where we would hold each pose, then sit for a few minutes with the eyes closed, then into another pose per the instructor) and the teacher said ‘if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it’. It was then and there that I knew I’d had enough of the ‘fluffy, feel good’ yoga and only wanted to practise Ashtanga. That’s not how life works, so why should yoga be like that? Only cherry picking the experiences we want to avoid challenges or discomfort is not a way to progress. Your example with the dropbacks is spot on. My father always said ‘life throws lessons at you until you decide to learn from them’.

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