Reflections over Karma Yoga, Pancha KIesha and Yamas/Niyamas

Although the path to liberation from suffering described by Patanjali is through meditation, we cannot reach a state of meditation as long as our mind is a mess. In order to calm the mind, we need to live a mindful life, and this can be done through the modalities Patanjali gives us in the method of Ashtanga Yoga, which in some aspects, seem to me to be connected to the principles of Karma Yoga as I have studied them in the Bhagavad Gita.

I recently wrote a post about the Yamas and Niyamas which can be seen as values and observances that when used in our interactions with ourselves and others, help reduce and eventually eliminate the fuss in our minds (chitta vrittis). In the same scripture, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we learn about the five kleshas (pancha klesha) or afflictions which are described as the obstacles to cultivating a calm state of mind. As long as our actions are a result of these afflictions, we are stuck in the cycle of karma – cause and effect. If we, on the other hand, choose to live a life of awareness and apply the Yamas and Niyamas, we avoid increasing the karmic load for ourselves, and contribute to a better world.

II.12 The stock of karma has the kleshas as its root. It is experienced in present or future lives. -Patanjali Yoga Sutras

The five kleshas are: avidya (ignorance), asmita (egoism), raga (attachment), dvesha (repulsion or aversion) and abhinivesha (fear of death – clinging to a life of delusion).

The klésha that keeps us in the loop of the other four is avidya, or ignorance. In the context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the ignorance referred to is our inability to see what is called our True Self (Purusha) which lies beyond our thoughts and physical body. This ignorance bounds us to act out of attachment and/or aversion and their derivates such as anger, fear, greed and so on. Purusha is described as eternal consciousness or pure potential. It is said, that once we realize our True Self, we find inside us a steady state of peace, love, freedom, and happiness. The problem, and the source of our suffering, is that since we’ve lost contact with Purusha, we keep seeking for peace, love, freedom and/or happiness through our actions, but nothing in the world around us -called Prakriti in the Yoga Sutras and Sankhya philosophy- can give us a constant unchangeable feeling of peace, love, freedom, and happiness because the nature of the world is transient.

“II.5 Ignorance is the notion that takes the self, which is joyful, pure, and eternal, to be the nonself, which is painful, unclean, and temporary.” [Commentary: ] Patañjali here gives a very important definition of ignorance, the primary cause of all bondage: Avidyā, ignorance, entails confounding the nature of the soul with that of the body. The body is here described as painful, duḥkha; unclean, aśuci; and temporary, anitya, unlike the puruṣa who is joyful, sukha; pure, śuci; and eternal, nitya.” Bryant, Edwin F.. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (pp. 216-217). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I have to say at this stage, that I often see the path of Yoga as a game with levels. At the level, I operate today, the idea of Self Realization, or reaching a state of complete awareness of Purusha seems a bit far out for me and challenging to grasp. However, the path towards it is what motivates me to study and practice Yoga which, will lead me to develop a better version of myself by living more mindfully and creating less suffering for myself and others- note that suffering is used as a common term for distressing feelings such as frustration, anger, regret, stress, and anxiety.

Also, the idea of having, inside me, a place of peace, love, freedom, and happiness that is constant and independent of my mind and the world around me gives me comfort, even though I still have a long way to go, sitting down in silence, practicing breathing exercises and studying and reflecting upon scriptures such as The Yoga Sutras, bring peace and reassurance to my mind and body, especially when being challenged by life and/or my thoughts.

I believe that the two main ways avidya is at the source of all the other kléshas are:

  1. Since we don’t know who we really are, we identify ourselves with our physical body, our mind, what other people think and say of us, and all the different roles we play in life. From the moment we are born until we die, we become the child of someone, the grandchild, the sibling, the student, the friend, and as life advances, we keep adding to the list. We create, in a way different identities in relation to each role. Each identity has its attachments and aversions and whatever happens, through the lens of the identity (ego) will be liked (attachment) or disliked (aversion) leading to a specific thought and emotion in our minds and a possible action or reaction. For example, in my role as a teacher, if I step into a classroom and the students are unable to be quiet and listen, I can experience frustration and anger. Why? Because I expect the students to show respect since I am the teacher. If I go into the same classroom as a guest, I most probably won’t experience the same strong emotion since I have no attachment to the role of being a teacher nor expectations towards the kids in the room. On the other hand, if I start my lesson and things are flowing smoothly, I might feel a pinch of anxiety for the rest of the lesson hoping that the students continue displaying the same expected attitude (attachment). I can observe the same in every role I play. If my husband forgets something that I asked him to do in the morning, I might get offended because I have expectations towards him in my role as the wife. If I ask my neighbour to do the same thing and she forgets, I might not react the same way since my relationship with her and expectations are not the same as towards my husband. But I might get annoyed at her if she parks her car in my carport. And so we move around in the world, each role we play is the ground for likes and dislikes creating a bunch of emotions and thoughts in our heads.
  2. Since we don’t know that we are love, freedom, and bliss, we seek it outside ourselves. We use our identities to find them through validation, recognition, achievements, and so on. Every time we do not meet our own expectations in our role, we experience aversion to what we see as a failure or mistake. We seek our value in our roles and in other people’s opinions about how we perform in these roles. Here again, we get trapped in the cycle of attachment and aversion. One example can be that I get caught up in seeking pleasurable experiences to keep feeding into the idea I have of happiness. Overconsumption can be a good example. We believe our happiness is in having things. Clothes can be a good example for me. I wish for a specific pair of trousers, when I finally get it, the joy of having a new pair of trousers lasts for a little while until I find out that I also want the shoes that go well with them, or the jacket, or the sweater, and so on. In recent years, I have become more mindful of the impact the garment industry has on the environment, so I buy used more often than new. This summer, while tidying up in my closet, I realized that I have lured myself with this. I need to stop buying altogether! It happens also with our roles. I am attached to my idea of a ‘good mum’, My idea of a ‘good mum’ is, among other things, that she is liked by her children, so when I set boundaries, or are strict, and my kids show their displeasure, I experience self-doubt and thus distress because I am not getting the validation that I unconsciously expect from my children. This can lead me to be an unclear and stressed parent affecting also the well-being of my children – I realized this recently too.

So, because we don’t know our True Self, we identify ourselves with our body and mind and the different roles we play in life. For each role, we have consciously and unconsciously a list of likes and dislikes that trigger emotions and thus actions and reactions. When we are not aware of this, we trap ourselves in some sort of hamster wheel (the wheel of karma). Reflect on the following quote written by my teacher, Prasad, for the Yoga Sutras course from 2021:

“The wider the net of I, Me and My, the more our energy dissipates.”

This is the essence of the Pancha Klesha teachings, I think.

The theory of pancha klesha, Karma Yoga and the study and understanding of Yama and Niyama can help us develop better habits to calm our minds and thus live a simpler, more content life. This in return affects in a positive way our environment because we become clearer, more confident, and compassionate members of society.

One way I use to get myself out of an aversion-attachment situation is to tell myself that things are happening and it is when I add ‘to me’ and especially ‘to me in the role of ____’ that distress happens, or at least it is amplified.

Changes

This Summer, I am observing that I have a tendency to be anxious about my role as a mother. This feeling is rather new to me because as the mum of babies, toddlers, and young children although demanding, I felt relatively sure about what I was doing. During the last two years, however, I have become more and more worried about not having done the right thing until now, not having made good enough choices that affect my children, not giving them enough, not giving them the right upbringing, etc.

Needless to say, it is quite tiring, and I must confess that all these worries and anxieties do wake me up in the middle of the night sometimes. My latest anxiety has been the summer break. My husband and I decided not to plan any trip abroad partly because we didn’t want to have to deal with COVID-related complications during a possible trip, partly because we didn’t plan economically for it, and partly because we love spending the Summer in Norway. It is the best time to be here for us because we like riding our bikes, hiking, orienteering, bathing in lakes and the sea and lately, my husband and I have become more and more interested in learning about edible wild plants and mushrooms.

Our plan was to visit my husband’s family that we don’t meet very often in the south of Norway, stopping on the way to make it a bit of a road trip, and maybe spend some days in the mountains in the end of July. The road trip was very nice and spending time with family is always well-spent time, especially for the kids. After ten days, though, we drove back home because our cat was home alone, and although she was being fed by friends and neighbors, she is not used to us being away for long periods of time.

This Summer, the weather in Trondheim hasn’t been great, so we spent some time doing some home improvements, I finished some sewing projects, and we managed to take some trips to the forest too. One of my daughters and I have been also bathing quite regularly even though it is a bit cold.

Our youngest daughter is very social and has a couple of good friends in the neigborhood with whom she has been spending a lot of time. We live close to the sea, and close to a farm, and they spend their days visiting the sheep, visiting a neighbor whose dog just had puppies, and when the weather allows, at the beach.

Our oldest has had a less exciting summer, I think, and maybe that is where my anxiety comes from. He is sixteen and at what I see as a crossroads. He will start High school this Fall, and he is a bit in limbo for the moment. Not much to do. Not many friends to hang out with since some are traveling and others are busy with other friends and/or family. Although I do feel for him, I also think this is quite normal. I also went through a period like that when I was around his age.

So, why my anxiety? Well, it has taken me quite a few days to sit down and write this in my journal and realize that my worries are unfounded. It sometimes seems like ‘everybody’ travels abroad at least once a year in Norway, but although it might be true for some, it is not everybody. And why is traveling abroad better than enjoying time together in nature? Or with family? We made a choice not to travel, why spend time stressed questioning a choice I can’t change now? We do try to give our kids experiences. For us, developing awe, love, and respect for nature has been important. Not to mention joy in simple things.

Maybe what is important to acknowledge here is how everything is in constant change. Our oldest and youngest don’t share the same interests with us anymore. Thus, they don’t always want to join us for our hikes, and they might complain if we insist. But hey! that’s partly the job of a teenager, isn’t it? So why do I torture myself like this?

Being a teenager is going through so many changes, but being the mum of three teenagers also requires changes in my mindset and attitude. I realize that I try to be everything for my kids because that is what I was when they were younger. I don’t need to do that anymore. I just need to be a clear, steady, and reliable adult for them. They might not always like my choices and my ideas, but that is part of allowing them to become more steady in who they want to be. I can listen to them, and we can start making projects together instead of my husband and I deciding for everyone, but I most probably won’t always be able to or even wish to do as they want.

So, to reduce my anxiety, I need to be steady in the choices we make as the adults in the family and accept that some or many of them won’t necessarily be popular among the teenagers in the house.

What do we know?

Last week, I went for a hike with a couple of friends, and somehow our conversation moved to grizzly bears. One of my friends is Canadian and she worked as a guide in nature while living in a small town in the Rocky Mountains so she obviously knows how to behave around a bear. My other friend does too because she has spent time in Canada too, and most probably because she is interested in nature.

I shared with my husband the stories they told about close encounters with bears, and we started pondering the importance of learning how to behave around wild animals and in nature in general. He is Norwegian and believes that most Norwegians nowadays, even those who live in remote rural areas, have lost this kind of knowledge. This lack of knowledge creates separation and fear and has led to what we see as little respect for certain animals such as bears and wolves. We constantly hear about how low the bear and wolf population in Norway is and it is because they are often killed out of fear.

This morning, after hearing about the heat wave in Europe, I asked myself, how long have humans been on Earth (according to atlas.com, six million years if we count our ancestors, 300 000 years as we are now!) and how come it seems like the destruction of our planet to such the scale we see now with pollution and abuse of natural resources seems to be relatively new?

I believe that one of the reasons why we are abusing nature and leading our planet Earth towards climate change is the distance we have created between nature and natural processes and ourselves. In part, urbanization is responsible as more and more people move to the cities attempting to improve their lives and lose contact with nature, in part capitalism, especially in rich countries, which teaches us to believe that our well-being is in buying stuff and experiences.

I am constantly surprised by the attitude many people have towards nature and especially animals. It often seems to me that animals are seen as objects and not as sentient beings. Even thousands of domestic animals are dumped every single summer in Norway because people want to go on a vacation and can’t bother to find someone who can take care of their cat or dog.

We buy our food in supermarkets, spend a lot of money on fruits and vegetables that come from abroad, and are ignorant of all the local edible plants. We recently visited a botanic garden in Hamar, where the guide explained that for hundreds of years, Scandinavians got their vitamin C from among other things, Elderberry. Until someone in the 1700s, I think, introduced lemons as the better option. Lemons that need to travel from afar. Then, gradually, the knowledge about elderberry started fading away. The same has happened with medicinal plants. We have no clue on how to heal ourselves from minor ailments other than going to the doctor and getting a prescription where we could easily use plants and/or common sense.

My point here is that I feel we have lost so much valuable knowledge that on one side would contribute to our immediate well-being and on the other help us develop respect for all living beings. As a global community, we need to stop and reflect on what kind of information we keep feeding our minds and our children’s minds, and whether half of this information is useful.

The more I spend time in nature and learn about the local ecosystems, the more in awe I am and develop a respect for it.

Luckily, I see a trend at least in Norway, where people are going back to traditional knowledge. We are also rediscovering the importance of making and repairing things ourselves. For the benefit of the Earth, but also for our personal well-being. Just remember how well you felt last time you made something with your own hands.

As one of my students said the other day, it is not about going back to the old way of living, but it is about not forgetting the valuable knowledge and values we had before the industrial revolution at the same time as we benefit from the advances and inventions we have today.

The Truth

My cousin recommended me some months ago to follow an account on Instagram called Yo Soy Fermentista (I am ‘fermenter” – someone who ferments) owned by a woman who calls herself Katita. I think she’s American but she mostly posts in Spanish. I don’t agree with everything she says and don’t find everything she does related to what I am interested in, but last week, she posted a video that caught my attention. She explained that she was low in energy and that she was eating raw chicken hearts to feel better. I didn’t really bother to watch the whole video. Still, I did hope that Mexicans following her were cautious with raw chicken meat since it can easily be contaminated with Salmonella.

Some days later, she posted another video saying that she had received a lot of criticism for the video about chicken hearts. One of the comments she got was that she was being irresponsible for encouraging people to do something that can put their lives in danger to which she responded that when she talks about what works for her, she expects people to do their research and make choices that are right for them.

I connected this to my studies in the Yoga Sutras this Summer. I have been thinking about the Yama Satya translated to Truthfulness. Its first meaning is connected to the truth that is based on facts, but it is also an encouragement to live our own truth. This is easier said than done and very important in order to cultivate a calmer state of mind. It requires that we spend some time reflecting on what is important to us and try to live a life in line with our chosen values and priorities. By choosing our core values, we avoid acting in ways that harm us and/or others, and by choosing our priorities, we avoid feeling that we are constantly missing out on something or that we are not doing the ‘right’ thing or even worse, that we are not doing ‘enough’. Thirdly, we choose a lifestyle based on these values, priorities and knowledge we gather about our body, mind and what helps them thrive. What to eat and how much, sleep higiene, exercise, rest and activities that feed us in a constructive way.

I think, however, that every once in a while we need to question and evaluate our truths as objectively as possible and adjust if necessary but avoid jumping from one idea to another without thorough reflection. We live in a world with an overload of information, thousands of ‘influencers’ and ‘experts’ willing to tell us how is a ‘better’ way to live our lives, but at the end of the day, we need to develop enough insight to know what makes sense for us.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the truths that we create in our minds, are not absolute truths. My truth is not necessarily your truth, so why not let people choose their own truths? According to Yoga, there is one Truth that can only be accessed once we manage to liberate our mind from its limitations, and the more in opposition we are with the world around us, the more ripples of distress, restlessness, and stress we create in our own minds moving thus further away from the Truth that we might want to reach.

Yamas and Niyamas

During this Summer, I have been spending my mornings revising the notes we got for an online course I took in 2021 with my Yoga teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, about The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the Yoga Sutras since they were part of the syllabus during my YTT in 2015, but this time, we spent eight weeks going a bit deeper.

Ever since 2015, it has resonated with me that one of the best ways to reduce suffering is to get to know my mind better and thus work with the modalities Patanjali offers to gradually change the aspects of it that create stress and distress. The goal of Raja Yoga, as it is called, is “to bring the seeker from a restless state of mind to a completely regulated state of mind.” (Prasad Rangnekar, 2021) However, the Yoga Sutras seemed a bit dry to me back then, and shortly after, in 2016, I started studying the Bhagavad Gita through Prasad’s guidance. Back then, the teachings in the Gita felt more accessible and easier to grasp, and I focused all my attention on them. This said, out of the little I know about the Gita, the chapter that is closest to my heart and that oftentimes has taken me out of moments of distress is chapter 6 called Dhyana Yoga, which Jack Hawley translates as Taming the Mind and the Senses.

Now, going back to the Sutras after several years of focusing mainly on the teachings of the Gita, I feel that I am getting more out of my studies, and I feel the motivation to approach the teachings in a more systematic way.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with commentary from Bhashya, it is explained where human suffering comes from, and a model called Ashtanga Yoga is given to calm the mind and thus stop the suffering. This model has eight components, and the two first ones are Yamas and Niyamas which can be seen as values and observances that the practitioner should follow at every moment in thought and in action. In the mentioned course, Prasad explained that by living an ethical life following the Yamas and Niyamas we refrain from doing actions that cause harm to others and simultaneously create mental disturbances in us that can generate suffering and keep us in the ignorance of Self. It is important to clarify here that the end goal of all Yoga traditions is to unite us with this Self with a capital ‘s’. This Self is pure, and independent from anything that happens in the mind and physical world. It is said, that once we get in contact with this Self, we will realize that we don’t need anything else. It is called Self-realization. This end goal seems a bit too high for me, so at this stage in my life, I am content with creating clarity, harmony, and peace of mind. Anyhow, back to the Yamas and Niyamas.

The Yamas are called ‘the great vows’ and they are Ahimsa or Non-harming, which is considered the most important value, Satya or Truthfulness, Asteya or Abstinence from Stealing, Brahmacarya or Continence/Moderation, and Aparigraha or Abstinence from Covetousness (for a more in-depth explanation of each of the Yamas and Niyamas, please consult one of the many translations and commentaries on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in book 2. I like especially, Swami Satchidananda’s, but there are also some resources online).

The Niyamas are often described as observances, and they are Sauca or Purity, Santosa or Contentment, Tapas or Zeal/Penance/Austerity, Svadhyaya or Study of the Sacred Scriptures for Self understanding, and Isvarapranidhanani or worship/faith in something bigger than us, often translated as God.

They seem simple, but, I believe they are difficult to follow at all times, so I have decided to be more systematic about how I try to apply them to my life. I started by writing in my journal how I will apply each Yama and Niyama in my life as I am right now, and I will revise them regularly to remind myself and also to decide if I need to be more precise or if I have to change them.

I wanted also to find a way to be reminded as I go about in my everyday life. First, I thought about getting a tattoo, but that seemed a bit too drastic and expensive, I then checked online if there are bracelets that have some sort of image that symbolises the Yamas and Niyamas, but I landed on making my own bracelets. One with the word ahimsa, one with ASABA (Yamas) and one with SSTSI (Niyamas).

The first day wearing the bracelets, we went for a hike in the forest. We have three teenagers in the house, and our oldest and youngest aren’t very keen anymore to join us on our hikes. However, 1) they spend way too much time sitting in front of screens during the Summer break 2) we like spending time with them. So, my husband and I decided to gently force them to join every other day we go for a hike this Summer. A way to motivate them this time was by planning a stop at a cabin to get a sweet treat during our hike. Halfway through it, however, we realized that we weren’t going to make it to the cabin before closing time. This didn’t help for motivation, and especially our youngest started showing very clearly her discontent. I noticed how this was affecting me. I was getting stressed by her discontent, and somehow it started creating a feeling of annoyance in me.

I decided to quietly stay in the back as we walked to observe my emotions and thoughts for a while. I started to feel guilty for pushing them on this hike, for not bringing an extra snack, I asked myself -should we make it shorter than planned? I then realised that I am often stressed when our three kids join us for a hike, or when they don’t because ‘maybe we should have pushed them to come instead of allowing them to stay in the whole day with their phones’. Either way, my mind creates stress for me. So, what am I going to do? While lost in my rumination, I got a glimpse of my left wrist, and I read ASABA, where the S stands for Satya, truthfulness. What do I believe in? I believe in my kids benefiting from being physically active, I believe in my kids being in contact with nature, and I believe in my kids spending time with us. They might not always like it, but this is being true to my beliefs as a mother, and thus, I should stick to it and get through their discontent without making a big fuss. It felt like removing a heavy weight from my shoulders. Unsurprisingly enough, after a few minutes, the frustration from our youngest was gone, and she and I had a very nice chat on our way back. I didn’t react to her discontent and even better, I noticed my unnecessary stress. I used one of the Yamas to help me accept my choice and the consequences it brought.

I am very curious what the next days of using my bracelets will bring. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities daily. 😀