There is a wide range of people practicing yoga. Yogis come in all shapes and sizes. Yoga transcends race, class, gender, and sexual orientation and identification. People all over the world are drawn to this ancient Indian practice. The reasons people practice yoga are as varied as the practitioners themselves! Some begin practicing yoga to increase strength and flexibility. Others practice because it helps them focus and manage stress. Many people attend yoga classes because they enjoy being part of a community with others on the same path. It doesn’t matter so much why we begin practicing yoga. Yoga has an agenda of its own. Yoga is the cultivation of a steady mind.

The five obstacles to bliss.

According to the Yoga Sutras 2:1-2, “Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice. They help us minimize obstacles and attain samadhi.” These obstacles the Yoga Sutras refer to are called the klesas.

The klesas are states most of us know all too well. There are five klesas: ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, and clinging to bodily life. The order the klesas are listed in is important because one leads to the next. As human beings our suffering all begins with the first klesa: ignorance.

Often when we think of the word “ignorant” we either think of someone who simply doesn’t know something or we think of someone who willingly chooses not to learn or accept something as fact or real. The Yoga Sutras uses the word a bit differently. In Sanskrit the word is avidya, or “without knowledge”. In this context, ignorance is our lack of knowledge regarding our true Self. We think we are our bodies. We may even think we are our minds. Yoga says that we are neither.

The physical world itself is an illusion. Our bodies and minds are tools. If the body and the mind are instruments, that indicates that there is something else operating through them. It is that something else that is the truth of who we are.

Because we have forgotten who we are, we become overly identified with what we aren’t. The word “ego” means different things depending on from what context one is defining it. Ego means something very different to a Buddhist monk than it does to a Freudian psychologist. For a yoga practitioner, the ego can be thought of as the persona through which we interact with the physical world. Egoism is when we mistake our ego for our true identity.

Attachment occurs because we are ignorant of our true Selves and believe we are our egos. The psycho-spiritual text A Course in Miracles puts it this way: We are like waves thinking we are separate from other waves. We forget that we are the ocean itself!

Hatred, the fourth klesa, is only possible because we believe we are seperate. We think there is someone else there to hate! I find the mere existence of my neighbor threatening. If my neighbor has something, that must mean I am without. If I hate my neighbor it is only because I believe that my neighbor and I are separate and that it is possible for me to lack. The truth is, by hating my neighbor I am really hating myself. Therefore, I cannot simultaneously hate my neighbor and feel good about myself. This is why there is some variation of the Golden Rule in every major spiritual tradition. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not simply a warm and fuzzy idea that teaches us to be nice to other people. Rather, it is the path to inner peace.

The problem comes bearing its own solution.

Yoga Sutras 2:9 says, “Clinging to life, flowing by its own potency… exists even in the wise.” Our true Self cannot die. When we forget our true Self and identify only with our worldly selves, it is hard to imagine death as anything more than terrifying. One minute we’re here, and the next we’re not. Death is scary. Dying is painful. Death frightens us because we fear the unknown.

However, yoga teaches us that death can also be beautiful. Dying is a rite of passage. Death, like birth, is something we pass through. We may take a new shape or form, but we are still there. From a yogic perspective, it is normal to fear death. It is just not necessary.

We may not realize our true Self, but we cannot undo Who we are. We also cannot imagine away our ultimate connection to the Universe, a Universe that is paradoxically completely impersonal, and yet more intimate than we could possibly know.  Our mistaken identity is the cause of a great deal of suffering. However, the problem of separation bears its own solution. That solution is union, or, Yoga.