The Kleshas in Practice

The Kleshas in Practice


The Kleshas:
that affect all levels of our being except the spirit

In [YS 1.3] Patanjali describes a state of yoga as being able to live from the unchanging freshness of the spiritual principle (Purusha), rather than from the constantly changing often habitual natural one (prakriti), where we identify ourselves with the contents of our minds and our external circumstances.

It can be interesting, and often helpful to yoga practice  to think about some of the things that can obscure that experience, of living from a spiritual perspective.


Patanjali defines the mind (citta), which is part of nature and can obscure the spiritual principle according to its activities or patterns, of which there are five, understanding, error, imagination, deep sleep and memory [YS 1.6].

All and any of these mental activities (citta vritti) can be seen as either of two types.Those which either move us along the path of yoga towards a state of clarity, stability and luminosity (aklista citta vritti) or those which disturb the mind and move us further away from this state (klista citta vritti). [YS 1.5]]


According to Edwin Bryants book on the yoga sutras the disturbing mental activities are underpinned by deeper, often unconscious psychological mechanisms. These are fundamental forces (kleshas) which affect us on all levels of our being except for spirit.

Patanjali, in the yoga sutras, lists things according to a hierarchy of importance, putting the most most important first. Vyasa, in his commentary on the sutras, says that the first klesha listed, confusion (between the mind and the spirit) is a perception in its own right rather than a lack of perception or knowledge and is the root cause of the following four.

The next four evolve out of the previous one these are ego, desire, aversion and fear. They are natural impulses which are necessary for life but can become problematic when they become excessive. This excess can lead to actions (karma) that may cause suffering and be a further obstacle to moving towards a state of clarity, stability and luminosity. These actions leave imprints (samsaras) on the mind and often lead to further unhelpful actions either now or in the future.

The kleshas are sometimes considered to be synonymous with duhka. On a practical level you can feel when  kleshas/duhka are increasing, the body, breath and mind can feel constricted and contracted. Equally when the kleshas/duhka are easing you can feel the converse effect of a gradual expansion of space and a sense of ease.

Yoga practice can help reduce these kleshas from overwhelming to intermittent, then to weakened and finally to dormant [YS 2.4]. As the kleshas are reduced the mind gradually clears, stabilises and becomes more luminous, gradually uncovering the spirit [YS 2.2].

When the kleshas are increasing or decreasing, they are underpinned by the energies of the gunas (three energies of nature). When the kleshas are increasing, the energy of agitation (rajas ) and/or the energy of dullness (tamas) are behind the disturbing mental activities (klista citta vritti) . When they are decreasing they are influenced by a predominance of the energy of luminosity (sattwa) helping to bring the mind toward, clarity, stability and luminosity and so making it easier to see from a perspective of spirit.


Vyasa, the principal commentator on Patanjali’s yoga sutras, explains that there are five states of mind. A.G.Mohan describes these states as agitated, dull, distracted, focusedand absorbed.

The first three are not considered to be states of yoga. The third state (distracted) is probably where most of us find our minds, alternating between being focused and being distracted. This third state brings to mind what it is like to practice the tools of yoga, to align and constantly realign attention within asana, pranayama and meditation.

Normally the mind goes in many directions at the same time sometimes leading to feelings of being scattered, generally uncomfortable and overwhelmed but working in this third state aiming for the fourth (focused) we are not attempting to stop the movements of the mind, but rather to channel them in one direction. This can seem like a more accessible aim for practice rather than stilling the mental activity completely. The aim is not to stop the mind or thoughts but to become increasingly absorbed in our activity.

The fourth (focused) and fifth (absorbed) states of mind are considered to be states of yoga as they have both clarity and stability. The fifth mental state is the highest state of yoga where the mind is not just focused on an object, it is absorbed. This state of mind is rare.


Broadly speaking , practical ways of working with the kleshas can be practices which focus on reducing the disturbing energy which feels more prevalent at the time, agitation(rajas) or dullness (tamas)

Gary Kraftsow suggests two such practices. The first one address a predominance of agitation, expressing itself as anxiety and irritability in a middle-aged person who leads a sedentary lifestyle.

The approach here is to stimulate the energy in the body up to the level of the mental agitation and from there they can be more easily reduced together.

The practice starts with bridge pose and kneeling forward bend to begin to open the chest and mobilise the spine. These are followed by some poses which will continue to open the chest, such as warrior pose with a short retention of the breath after inhale, to increase the stimulation in the body so that it more closely resembles the level of mental agitation. This makes it easier to come to poses lying on the back and finally taking a lying rest. To further calm the body and mind, the pranayama is focused on progressively lengthening the exhale in order to relax the body, breath and mind.

The second practice is aimed at a predominance of dullness. For a middle-aged person who felt depressed, tired easily and had little interest in anything, for example. The approach here is to begin with gentle, simple, lying down poses so as not to discourage the person from practice.

Then progressing to more physically demanding ones like combining two poses and introducing a pause after inhale. There is also focus here on chest opening poses but with no lying down at the end of practice in order to prevent the spirits and energy from sinking again. During the sequence, care is taken to prepare and counterpose to avoid over-stimulating the energy. The pranayama focuses on expanding the chest and deepening the capacity for inhale without compromising the exhale.

Both practices aim to reduce the energy of agitation and dullness with a subsequent increase of clarity. The aim is to impart a sense of space and ease to the body, mind and breath following the practice.

The heart is considered to be the seat of the mind– Desikachar.

Ann-Marie works as a yoga therapist and yoga teacher in the tradition of Krishnamacharya and his son Desikachar. Her practice, The Yoga Process, is based in north Wicklow.