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How Understanding the Kleshas and Gunas Helps Your Asana Practice

Republished with permission from The Yoga Lunchbox, NZ’s most popular online yoga magazine

by Kara-Leah Grant

Asana is a powerful tool to access our psyches, release tension in the body and help us understand the hidden aspects of Self. Practicing asana gives us the opportunity to observe our relationship with the postures, with our bodies, with our minds and with our breath.

This relationship is what reveals ourselves to ourselves.

In other words, paying attention to questions like this is how we use asana to awaken.

  • Are you liking the pose?
  • Disliking the pose?
  • Or are you completely absent from the pose as you think about what you’re going to have for dinner tomorrow night?

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Being aware of your thoughts and where your attention is going takes your asana practice to the next level – it takes it into Yoga. This awareness opens up yoga philosophy on the mat – and yoga philosophy (simply the study of the psyche) directly answers everything that is going to come up on your mat. It answers your fears, your anxieties, your tension, your discomfort, your emotions and your thoughts.

There is so much to learn about yoga philosophy you can spend a whole life time studying it – and lots of yogis have done just that. They’ve studied the fluctuations of the mind, the psyche, the body – and they know how all of these things work together.

But these yogis weren’t reading books to gain these understandings, they were reading their bodies and mind on the mat (and off)… and then passing on everything they experienced for later yogis like you and I to read all about – and then discover for ourselves on the yoga mat.

What are Kleshas?

For example, there are the Kleshas, described as obstacles of the mind and five in total. These obstacles of mind block you from truth.

  • Ignorance – thinking something is true when it’s not – like yoga’s just for women. Uh-uh!
  • Egosim – identifying the Self with the mind, thinking that you are your thoughts. Not true!
  • Attachment – having to have something. Like a certain spot for your mat in class every week or it ruins your class. Only because you think it will!
  • Aversion – avoiding something. Like handstand because you’re afraid of it.
  • Fear of death – ok, pretty big, and kinda the whole crux of getting to enlightenment… Fear of death often arises in class as fear of letting go and surrendering into the practice.

Practicing asana begins to reveal the way our mind works, and the obstacles it throws up – the Kleshsa.

When you’re on your mat and the teacher says, “Now we’re going to do crow.” and your mind thinks “Oh I hate crow.”

That’s aversion, and aversion leads to suffering, which is what we’re working to release when we practice yoga. If you’re new to practice and new to asana, you’re likely to let that thought determine your experience. You won’t wholeheartedly listen to the instructions or allow yourself to surrender into the posture.

However, as you become more experienced in the practice, you’ll recognise this thought as an obstacle to practice, you’ll let it go, come back to your breath, and go into Crow with beginner’s mind as if you’ve never done it before so you don’t know what it’s like. Because it’s not like anything. It’s just Crow.

Over time, as you do the same postures in class after class after class after class, you’ll observe that your experience of those postures shifts and changes – and you’ll notice that your experience of those postures is dependent upon your thoughts and feelings about those postures.

This is a huge lesson to learn, and a big step toward self-realisation. It comes through a combination of asana practice, and awareness of your relationship to asana practice.

Case in Point.

How to overcome your fears in yoga

For years, when I practiced Bikram Yoga, I would get to Standing Bow pose and I would start to cry.

Something about going into that postures just broke me open and I would end up with tears streaming down my face for the rest of class.

Over time, I started to fear coming into Standing Bow Pose, fear for the tears that were going to arise, fear for the experience I was going to have. I would notice myself thinking as we approached the posture “I hate Standing Bow Pose” – I would literally stiffen up before we even began the set-up for Standing Bow.

Finally, I noticed myself doing this and I wondered – what would happen if I changed my thoughts? Would my experience of the posture change?

The next time we approached Standing Bow Pose, I told myself, I love this pose, I love this pose, I love this pose. I was totally faking it, but it shifted something in my body and my physical experience of the posture was difference – there was more ease and more softness.

Standing Bow Pose

That was a watershed moment for me – understanding that the way I approached the postures and what I thought and felt about them completely influenced my experience of them.

Even though I’d been doing Standing Bow Pose all those classes, I’d been subtly avoiding it – holding against it – and this is one of the obstacles of the mind, aversion.

You don’t need to study the kleshas or know them inside out  to gain more benefit out of your asana practice. You do need to bring awareness to what you think and feel in relation to your practice.

When you see or feel the same thing coming up repeatedly – if you notice that you get angry if someone else takes your favourite spot in the room – then it shows there’s something to work with.

Then it can be useful to go away and do some yogic reading. Read up about the kleshas at that point and see if deepening your understanding of these concepts helps you to understand yourself and your practice better.

What are gunas?

However, it’s not just the kleshas which describe what we might experience in relation to our yoga practice, there’s also the gunas, or states of mind, three in total. The gunas describe the general feeling-sense of your thoughts.

  • Sattva – balance, order, purity. This is how you maybe feel after class. Everything is just cool. You feel calm and centred and blissed out.
  • Rajas – energetic, active, frantic. This is when you feel motivated and all fired up to do something, but it can also be too frantic and too ADD.
  • Tamas – lethargic, dull, slow. This is how you feel when you’re depressed and can’t be bothered. It’s when you’re glued to your couch or just can’t get yourself out the door to practice.

When we practice yoga, we learn that no matter what our state of mind before class – generally rajas or tamas – simply by turning up and getting on our mat, we can shift that state of mind towards sattva.

We learn not to wallow in tamas;

“Oh I can’t be bothered, don’t feel like it.” 

Instead of accepting that state of mind as just the way we are, we recognise that we are ultimately masters of our minds and we can take action to shift our state – like doing some asana practice, or chanting, or doing pranayama.

We also learn that’s it also ok to just accept our state of mind for what it is right now, and not let it throw us off course. Even though we feel lethargic and slow, we still turn up and do what we have to do.

Through constant observation of our mind and the states of being that it fluctuates through we begging to realise that our state of mind colours our experience.

Being aware of this means we can learn to see through that filter. We understand that because we feel lethargic and slow, everything seems dull and lifeless yet it’s not. It is we who are dull and lifeless. In that recognition and acceptance of our state of being and stage of mind, we have a choice – stay with it or take action to shift it. It doesn’t matter which choice we make, either one means we are coming into our power.

Why is understanding the kleshas and the gunas so important for yoga practice?

Understanding just these two concepts of yogic philosophy – the kleshas and the gunas – can have a profound effect on your experience in yoga class.

It’s all too easy to go to class and think you’re doing yoga while getting all caught up in the web of liking/disliking/attachment/egosim/ignorance. Sure, your asana might be looking better and better… but your relationship to that asana hasn’t shifted since the very first class.

In fact, it’s possible for asana to become an obstacle to truth as your ego feeds on your yoga practice and it becomes just another thing you do that builds up your ego identity.

It’s awareness that breaks this cycle and moves you beyond practising physical postures and into practicing yoga, where the postures serve to illuminate your thoughts and feelings.

Knowing that yoga explains what’s going on in the psyche in these easily digestible concepts helps us to understand what’s happening on the mat, and what’s happening in our relationship with our practice.

We begin to grasp what yoga really is and what it can do for us in our lives. It’s total awareness of our moment-to-moment experience, and learning to met that moment fully, as it is.

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Kara-Leah Grant

Founder & Editor-in-chief at The Yoga Lunchbox
Kara-Leah is an internationally-renowned teacher, writer and retreat leader. Millions of people have been impacted by the articles, books and videos she has published over the last ten years.
Kara-Leah is the founder of New Zealand’s most popular yoga website The Yoga Lunchbox and the creator of the Forty Day Process – a method to change or install habits into your daily life.
Kara-Leah Grant
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