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.

Changing my prayers

I didn’t grow up in a religious family, but I still have had the habit of praying since I was a kid. I remember talking to ‘someone’ in my head asking for help in a situation or wishing for something to happen. Maybe it is a cultural thing?

Since I started studying Yoga, my concept of God has been gradually changing. I can relate to my teacher’s explanations about what God or Divinity is in some Yoga traditions. He often describes Them as Pure Potential. In my understanding of my teacher’s explanations, God is not a ‘super-being’ outside me but rather something bigger than me and at the same time something I have in me. It is a very nice way to define God because it also reminds me that every single being in the world is part of this same Whole as I am.

In Karma Yoga, we are taught that God has nothing to do with our joys and sorrows. The life we have is a product of our actions in both this life and past lives. Because we have lost contact with this inner-divinity – what in Yoga is called the True Self- we keep searching for lasting love, freedom, and bliss in the outer world oftentimes making mistakes that bound us to the circle of Karma – life and death. God doesn’t ‘punish’ us, we experience the consequences of our actions either here or in our next lives.

Furthermore, we are here to experience the world through our mind and senses but to transcend both the world and our idea of ourselves so we can see this True Self. Therefore, Faith is an important part of the Yoga practitioner. Faith in the process, Faith in the Guru, Faith in Divinity, and Faith in oneself.

I believe that Faith is very important because non-attachment is a very important part of the spiritual path. We are invited to let go of what we don’t need for our spiritual development. The path of Yoga is a path of letting go of the attachments that create pain in our lives. It can be ideas we have of ourselves, it can be material things, and it can also be people. We need to surrender to this idea and have Faith in the process to be able to let go.

Coming back to the title of this post, I am changing my way of seeing life and its challenges. I have always been the cautious type and dread difficult situations. I don’t like the idea of meeting obstacles and challenges. I often worry about the well-being of my family and loved ones. In short, I don’t like suffering.

However, according to the Yoga tradition – and other Indian traditions such as Buddhism- pain can be the path to self-development when approached with the right attitude, and even better, since the nature of the outer world is to be transient, no pain is everlasting.

I have been reflecting on my worries and anxieties during this summer, and realize that they are most of the time (if not all the time) unfounded and they rather limit me. Every time I have encountered a difficult situation, I have been able to get through it, and there is always a lesson to learn at the end of the tunnel. Maybe difficult situations are often invitations to let go of our perception that makes the situation painful?

In any case, we all know well that meeting the world with fear is what brings suffering for us and for others because fear blinds us and hinders us from acting in a skillful way.

So, lately, when I catch myself praying to ask for a problem-free situation, I rather ask for the strength and clarity to better handle the situation no matter what, and I must say that it makes me feel freer and lighter than when I ask “please let this happen like this, or like that.”

I have created the habit to connect with this Divinity or Pure Potential every day and especially before I go to sleep to give thanks. I give thanks for another day here. For the moments experienced and for having a nice and soft bed to rest in until the next day. I think Gratitude is an important part of my prayers that also help me change my mindset from worry to positivity.

The same but different

You might have heard this quote before:

“Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die.”

I can’t remember when I heard this quote the first time. I think it was one of my fellow Yoga students during my YTT in 2015 who shared it with us at some point, and I think it is rather paraphrasing something that is often attributed to the Buddha. Regardless of who said it (or not), I have found this quote useful ever since then.

I praise myself lucky because I don’t hate anyone. However, there are of course people that have or still trigger me, and throughout the years I have been practicing and studying Yoga, I have been constantly working with my attitudes towards people around me.

This month, I am studying for the first time the Upanishads through the guidance of my teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, and one of my favorite concepts is the idea that we all are part of the same whole, which in Yoga is often translated to Universal consciousness or Brahman, and that it is through our experience of mind and physical body that we create the illusion of separation, or individuality.

Furthermore, we all have the same need to find lasting peace, love, and freedom, and we seek it in different places and in different ways. Our interactions with the world around us are mainly motivated by an often unconscious seeking to feel ‘whole’ (or loved, or safe, or free) and our actions are tainted by our limited perceptions of who we are and the world around us.

Therefore, I often strive toward removing the I from a situation and focusing on the action itself, trying to understand where it comes from. Try to understand the thinking process that might have been at the source of the action. I often end up feeling some sort of connection with the other person, some sort of understanding. I see myself in them and understand that just like them, I act out of my mind in ways that maybe others don’t understand either.

If you think about it, most of what we do is a result of what we feel and think and has very little to do with the person in front of us. The person just happens to be the receiver of our actions. In the same way, I am receiving something from someone but the I is almost irrelevant. It could have been someone else at my place, but for some reason, fate put us on the same path and I can learn something from it.

The challenge for me is often when I feel people don’t ‘try hard enough’, or when I feel I have done my best, and still the reaction is what I perceive as negative or unfair. But it helps me to remember that my best is not your best and your best is not the neighbour’s best. Also, all I can do is act mindfully and with a clear intention, and the response is out of my hands. This is one of the main principles of Karma Yoga which I really like, and I have already written quite a lot about. What I know about Karma Yoga, I have learned through the studies of the Bhagavad Gita, mainly chapters 2 and 3, but this week, we learned a little bit more through the study of Isha Upanishad, which added a useful tool to guide our actions:

  1. Sattvik Karma (righteous actions): actions that are morally right.
  2. Paropkara Karma (selfless actions): actions that are done selflessly.

No matter how I perceive the actions of others, if I go back to either 1 or 2 for my next step, I will be able to find peace of mind.

When I move my attention inwards, in all situations, I find peace faster. I ask myself questions such as why do I react to this so strongly? Why is this challenging me? How can I identify myself with this person? Where could this action come from? What can I learn from this?

It requires (self-)reminders and practice, but it works, and in all cases, it helps me move emotionally away from the situation and recenter myself… in myself.

And those who see all beings in the Self and the Self in all beings has no hatred by virtue of that realization. – Isha Upanishad shloka 6

A little theory of mine

On my way home on Friday, I heard on a French radio station a program about the increasing use of laughing gas among teenagers all the way down to 14 years old and its consequences. It reminded me that not so long ago, I read in the newspaper that in certain cities in Norway, the use of cocaine and hash has become as common as alcohol among high school students. A friend of mine back in Mexico told me recently that the use of drugs among teenagers has increased in the last few years too.

I can’t help but wonder if this is not partly a result of the way my generation is bringing up our kids in what we call the “Western world”. One thing that I think kids in France, Norway, and among the middle and upper classes in Mexico have in common is easy access to what brings sensory pleasure.

We can start with food. Many kids nowadays can eat sweets and drink sugary drinks daily if they want to. What in some cultures used to be limited to special occasions or at least the weekends, has become part of everyday life. Whenever a kid feels the need to be rewarded somehow, they can do it through the sense of taste.

Another way to get an immediate reward is by buying things. It is enough for a kid to express their wish for something to get it almost right away. It can be toys at a young age, clothes, makeup, and devices. What used to be left for birthdays and Christmas, is now part of everyday life. So, when special occasions come, we tend to give more than our kids need.

Lastly, we have the immediate reward electric devices give. Either through social media or gaming.

So, my theory is that we have created a generation of pleasure seekers. Kids nowadays are used to satisfying their senses almost constantly. It is not enough to go for a holiday by the beach, there is the pressure to make it exciting for the kids. So we book activities, or rent or buy equipment so the kids do not get “bored”.

As we all know, the more we get, the more we want. There is always something more exciting to experience, something bigger, better, or tastier.

Added to this is our well-intentioned need to protect our kids. Whenever they experience something unpleasant, especially socially, we intervene. We solve the problem for them. We remove them from the situation. We demand others to solve our kid’s problems. Leaving them incapable of dealing with disappointment, sadness, or pain. We do this to protect them, but we forget that the muscle of resilience needs to be trained.

My point here is not to criticize. I belong to this generation and I have observed in myself and my husband many of the behaviors I describe here, and I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good in some cases. Wouldn’t our kids benefit from having to strive a bit more to get what they want? Wouldn’t they benefit from learning to live simple lives? Wouldn’t they benefit from learning to be satisfied inside out instead of believing that the world around them owes them and that their happiness is in how much they get and how much they experience? Wouldn’t they grow for experiencing difficult situations and getting through them?

I know that the curiosity to drink alcohol and use drugs is not new. I know that the problem of substance abuse can have many reasons, but I wonder if the unlimited and often unconscious access to sensory pleasure is not also contributing to this tendency.

It is great that we have enough to give our kids everything they need and more, but maybe we sometimes need to stop and wonder where happiness really comes from.

Sacrifice in Karma Yoga

“Once, a fellow went into the jungle and became very tired. He foud a beautiful tree and sat beneath it. But the ground was thorny. He couldn’t lie down anywhere. ‘How nice it would be if I had a small cot!’ The minute he thought of it, he found himself sitting on a cot. ‘Oh boy, I have a cot!” He lay down. ‘This is very comfortable, but I’m also hungry. I could use something to eat, maybe a banana.’ Immediately a bunch of banans appeared. ‘What is this?’ He couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘It seems whatever I want I can get here. Then how about some gourmet cooking?’ Immediately, plates filled with delicacies, delicious dishes, pudding and desserts appeared. He ate sumptuously and then thought, ‘It would be nice if there were someone to massage my feet to put me to sleep.’ Even as he thought of it, there was already a beautiful angel-like person there massaging his feet. He became excited, ‘Oho! It looks ike whatever I’m thinking, I’m getting. Now I have a comfortable bed, a good, sumptuous meal, and somebody to massage my feet. But what if, while I’m getting the massage, I fall asleep and suddenly a tiger comes from the jungle. What will happen?’ Immediately he heard the roar, and a tiger appeared and devoured him.”

I read this story while studying Chapter 3 in the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries from Sri Swami Satchidananda. He shares this story when commenting on the concept of yadnya or sacrifice that is described between slokas 9 and 16.

Chapter 3 is about Karma Yoga which encourages us to live a regulated life where our actions are the means to our spiritual development. As you might know, the Bhagavad Gita is basically the conversation between the great warrior Arjuna and his friend and charioteer Krishna, who also happens to be a divinity, right before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is filled with fear and self-doubt and is considering leaving the battlefield. Krishna is teaching him the main principles of Yoga to help him make the right choice. I find it fascinating that the teachings of such an old scripture (it is said it was written sometime between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D.) are of so much relevance for us today. It is maybe not surprising though since the basic needs and inner struggles of humans haven’t really changed since then.

3. 9 The world is bondage when actions are done just for your own sake. Therefore, Arjuna, make every action a sacrifice, utterly free of personal attachment. Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 36). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

I find the idea of yadnya or sacrifice very inspiring, and I believe that learning to live following this principle would spare us and others a lot of suffering.

First of all, what is yadnya? My teacher once described it as ‘the principle of interdependence’. If you look at nature, there is a cyclic system of giving and receiving. Rain falls and all living beings benefit from it. The tree gives fruit so animals can be nourished and by doing so, the seeds of the tree are spread so more trees can grow.

3.14. From food, all beings arise. From rain, food originates. Rain is the result of selfless sacrifice (yajna). And sacrifice is the result of actions (karma). Sri Swami Satchidananda. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 43). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

The idea of sacrifice does not mean self-neglect or self-flagellation, it means that we choose to act with awareness and with the intention that our actions not only benefit us but also the whole we are a part of. We act with a sense of purpose, with the intention to learn and grow and to contribute to the whole.

This does not mean that we all have to give up our jobs to do volunteer work. It means that wherever we are, whatever our roles are (yes, we have many so try to identify yours), and whatever we do, we are encouraged to mind our intentions and let go of the need to be rewarded (here, the principle of vairagya or non-attachment is emphasized) because if we only act out of a need for validation or greediness, we are bound to suffer. Oftentimes we will experience that the validation does not come as we expect it to be, or once we get what we want, we will crave for more falling into indulgence which can have a negative effect on us, the environment and other sentient beings.

Going back to the poor man in the jungle, he had found a source to fulfill his needs, but his uncontrolled mind brought an abrupt end to his life. This story, my teacher tells me, is used to talk about the dangers of greediness. Nature offers us what we need to survive, but we often abuse Her generosity.

3.12. “Dear old friend, you should strike a balance in life between giving and getting. When you engage in selfless service (which is sacrifice), your desires are fulfilled, unasked by nature. Righteous people give more than they receive, indebred ones get more than they give. The one who receives without giving is stealing.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.30)

We consume more than what we need because we have forgotten to take the time to see that our inner life also needs nourishment and that this cannot come from material things. Our inner growth happens through acting with a sense of purpose, offering all our actions to the benefit of the whole, to something bigger than us, and finding a way to cultivate silence so we can access our inner source of peace and contentment.

3.17. “Arjuna, those who have found pure contentment, satisfaction and peace of Atma (the True Self Within) are fulfilled. They have nothing more in this world to accomplish, no more obligations to meet. Being in the Atma, these people are beyond karma.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.31)

There are certain actions where I can easily apply this principle, and I am guessing you can identify yourself with some of them. In the context of my family, for example, or when I choose what to eat. I am also changing my ways when it comes to what I wear, what I buy, what I dispose of and how I dispose of it. There are, however, other arenas in my life where I still struggle to effectively apply this principle. I often forget it. I expect, I seek validation, and when I do not get it, insecurity arises and the cycle of stress is fired up. So, every once in a while, I have to go back to this chapter, to be reminded, to discover new ways, to hopefully internalize.