Obstacles to Happiness: The Kleshas – What is causing you suffering?

We all want to be happy! So what is it that prevents us from existing in a state of happiness? Patanjali says it is because of our ‘Kleshas’ (translated in Sanskrit as ‘poisons’) which are basically our obstacles to happiness. Patanjali describes 5 Kleshas:

  1. Avidya (ignorance)
  2. Asmita (Egoism)
  3. Raga (excessive attachment)
  4. Dvesa (excessive aversion)
  5. Abhinivesha (fear of death)

Last month I talked about the root cause of all the kleshas: Avidya (ignorance of our own nature). Let’s explore the remaining four kleshas that Patanjali asks us to be aware of.


Asmita quite simply is Egoism or “I-am-ness”. It is basically the identification of ourselves with our ego.

We tend to create a self-image of ourselves that we believe is us, but in fact, it is not us. This self-image can contain both external (eg. “I am poor”) or internal (“I am a bad person”) false projections. The more we feed these false projections, the more we become trapped within the projections that we have created of our life.

One of the biggest misconceptions we have is our tendency to view ourselves as separate to other beings. If we actually really believed and lived our lives as though we all share the same nature as all living beings, I think our projections of ourselves would be quite different.

Here is a short ‘label’ exercise to help you explore some projections you may put on yourself or others:

Grab a pen and paper and list some of your observations on these labels:

  • Labels you tag onto yourself
  • Labels your mind tags onto people, things, food, events, actions, dress codes, behaviour
  • Comparative labels (how you compare your labels with those of others…for eg. “I’m better than…. I’m not as good at…”)

Now without judgement, just observe this list you have made and carry your awareness of asmita (egoism) with you in your daily life… observing these imposed labels. How often in just one day do you find yourself labelling, yourself, others and things?

As a result of asmita, we create the next two kleshas (obstacles to our happiness): Raga (excessive attachment) and Dvesa (excessive aversion).



Raga is excessive attachment to pleasurable things and is based on the assumption that this pleasure will contribute to your everlasting happiness. But this is entirely untrue! Excessive attachment to pleasure only causes us more suffering!

If I asked you to hand me your mobile phone (or any other technological gadget for that matter) and said you couldn’t have it back for a day (or even an hour!), how does this make you feel? What is your initial reaction? We may even get to a point where we convince ourselves that we cannot live without certain things…”I can’t live without my phone!”

When something brings us pleasure, our brain wants to repeat that experience over and over. We then expect the things that bring us moments of pleasure (over and over), to make us happy! The possession of objects (eg. your phone) can become very important to us, even indispensible, whatever the cost. This may result in future unhappiness. Perhaps intellectually we know that seeking happiness outside ourselves doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop us from acting as if it did…. How many of us can honestly say that we live without raga in our lives?

So what is it that you’re attached to for pleasure? Latest gadget? Car? Or are you attached to knowledge or even gossip? We become so habituated or identified with the things we love or are attached to, that we rationalise or don’t question our desires.

I am reminded of a quote from the film ‘Fight Club’ where Tyler Durden says “the things you own, start owning you…it’s only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything”.

So what are your ragas? What is it that you feel that you cannot perhaps “live without”? Observe them… maybe start to make some small changes in your daily life to lessen this excessive attachment and have more control over your desires.



On the flip side, our egoism (asmita) not only creates excessive attachment to pleasure, but it also creates dvesa which is excessive aversion or repulsion. When something displeases or distresses us, this can lead to aversion or hate.

If we are in disharmony within ourselves, this creates a chain of negativity. We start creating this way of being that forms our reality – and we become bound by our own suffering.

You know how one thing can put you immediately in a bad mood? For example:

  • Your favourite meal at a restaurant is no longer being served
  • Your favourite yoga teacher has been replaced by a teacher you are not familiar with
  • Your favourite sport team loses a game
  • Someone walked by you and was rude and unapologetic
  • Your partner is rushing you to be ready on time
  • You are in the company of someone who you struggle to get along with
  • And plenty more!

The above examples give you an idea how we can allow our attachment to having things the way we want them (having our preferences catered for) to get in the way of our happiness. When we are confronted with something we don’t like or don’t want, how do you react?


Something to think about:

When you are challenged out of your comfort zone, perhaps at work or home life… or even a difficult yoga pose that you don’t like…how do you react to this?


Being taken out of your comfort zone is a great opportunity for growth!

To step out of a state of aversion (dvesa) is to step out of your ego’s comfort zone. Being pushed around by the ego (I want…I don’t want…) is a vicious, never ending cycle which creates suffering. When we are in control of our emotions and we are freed from their impact and we can live within the middle path (striking a balance between excessive attachment and aversion), we can then relieve our suffering! You have the power to break the cycle!


A short exercise for relieving raga and dvesa:

Identify one habit and make small changes to change it…



The fifth and last obstacle (klesha) that Patanjali describes is Abhinevesa which is translated as “fear of death” or “clinging to life”.

Whether we know it or not, this subtle fear of death is one that resides in each of us. We can pick up on this fear in the way we speak. For example, when we farewell a loved one who is travelling, we often say “be safe!” as we deep down feel afraid of losing them. Another example is the concept of ‘Bucket lists’… thinking of a list of things we need to do before we die. We rush ourselves into living life knowing that we are running out of time.

Many psychologists and philosophers believe that this ‘fear of death’ is the one thing that we all have in common – whether we openly admit it or not. Abhinevesa can take the form as:

  • A midlife crisis
  • Extreme religiosity
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Any form of neurosis!

Patanjali suggests that we calmly accept that death is a natural process and the opposite side of the same coin that carries life. Death is a natural process and to fear it over life creates only more fear and more suffering than we need!

So how do we overcome Abhinevesa?

  • Live in the present moment – enjoy the HERE and the NOW!
  • Remember that everything is as it should be
  • Accept that the life we are living is a sacred gift


A Quick AAAA Recipe for what to do when any of the Kleshas arise:

  • Attention:

Pay attention to what arises in your mind. Observe, observe, observe! Notice your desires, aversions or if a klesha arises.

  • Acknowledge

Acknowledge what comes up. Don’t deny or push it away. Admit to yourself what it is that has come up for you (eg. Your cravings or aversions, your ego labels…)

  • Allow

Allow them to come and to go. Try not to struggle or prevent them. Instead, imagine your mind as an indoor/outdoor vessel. Keep both doors open and try and let go of your obstacles rather than fight or give into them. Allow them to come and go!

  • Accepting

Kleshas are part of being human! We all have days when we are full of aversion or desire or ego… the idea though is not necessarily to be free from them (although that would be nice!), but rather to learn to coexist with them and not let the kleshas control or define you.


And of course the ultimate way to relieve the obstacles to your suffering is: Practice yoga!


 “Practice, practice, all is coming” – Pattabhi Jois

1 thought on “Obstacles to Happiness: The Kleshas – What is causing you suffering?

  1. excellent write up. i must read it again and of course again and again


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