avidya – the first of the kleshas, the obstacles to our happiness

Like many systems of thinking from around the world, yogic philosophy puts our dukkha or suffering squarely at the foot of our deeply conditioned responses to the world. The reality that we co-create with the people and situations that we encounter in our lives, is a direct reflection of those conditioned responses and together with our samskaras (impressions/experiences that fuel habitual patterns) and vrittis (commotion/fluctuations in the internal landscape), shape the external ‘me’ that shows up, takes action, or sits in inaction. All these together are responsible for our sense of ease or lack of it, that we not only experience ourselves but project into and onto those around us, as well as our wider world and environment.

Our most conditioned responses or ‘triggers’, are given the name klesha or affliction and becoming aware of them and learning to navigate through them, observing them as they rise up but cultivating the ability to choose another response, is a fundamental part of our yoga journey.

There are five kleshas that lead to our dukkha (suffering ) : avidya - lack of knowledge, asmita – egoism (not to be confused with egotism), ragas – strong pull toward previously experienced pleasure; dvesha – strong aversion to previously experienced discomfort and abhinevesha – fear of pain/death. Fear sits at the heart of all the kleshas and all those fears feed into and are fed from the last klesha, abhinevesha. In the same way, the causes of each of the kleshas spring from the first klesha, avidya – ignorance or lack of knowledge (direct translation – absence of light) and so it’s this first klesha that we’ll explore a bit more today.


Vidya is the inner light of knowledge and understanding, an innate part of ourselves that sees the world without judgement or comparison. As young children we’re more intimately connected with this experience, though lack the intellectual capacity to recognize it. As we move through our experiences, our habits & conditioned behaviour start to develop into a series of lenses that we view the world through, and this obscuring of reality is Avidya.

Avidya is both the restriction of our view as described above but also the lack of awareness that our view is restricted. Triggers can arise in many ways through the kleshas but avidya is at the heart of all of them. When we’re in a particularly challenging conversation with someone significant in our lives and find ourselves triggered, strongly angered or upset, it can of course be a justified response to the situation, but often (especially on reflection!) we can get a sense that the strong emotional response was not truly proportionate to the conflict or indeed represents how we truly feel about the situation.

If that's our experience, we’re lucky for we’ve penetrated the first part of avidya, we’re aware that that our view is restricted. In that situation if we can’t recognize that how we’ve responded isn’t truly seated in that particular conflict (and they most often are not!), then we’re experiencing avidya.

Observing these deep and more obvious triggered responses can be our gateway into understanding the more subtle way that avidya works in our lives, determining how we turn up in the world and for ourselves on all levels -  all self-limiting behaviours, the big obvious stuff that rises up in our conflicts and the subtle, more insidious stuff that fuels our negative self-talk, all rest in avidya.

Simply observing these situations unfolding being aware that we’re experiencing a klesha, is the most important step to clearing out avidya and one that we may sit with for many years before we move further into our vidya. In truth, most of our triggers come from experiences in early life that may never be remembered or fully understood at source - pratiprasava, but ultimately letting go of the need to fully understand, surrendering simply into what is - ishvara pranidhana, is enough to start to help us move through the klesha and act from a more intentional place.

As the first of the kleshas, avidya is the most important and the ground from which all others kleshas emerge. In Indian philosophy it’s seen as the root cause of unhappiness and discontent and so with our practice, the key focus of our efforts is the clearing of the clouded lenses of our perception, that keep us in avidya.

We can cultivate the clarity to experience glimpses of vidya through yogic meditation (single point of focus as opposed to guided), pranayama (breathwork) and asana (postures). Through all these we aim to cultivate increased awareness of our body-heart-mind, setting stronger connection into the present moments that allow us to observe what is rising up. What sensations do we feel in our body in specific situations? how do we really talk to ourselves and to others? how are our actions lining up with our intentions? As we explore the reality that we’re creating through our interpretation of our perceptions, with practice we develop keener discernment – viveka, and can start to sort through the citta vritta (mental commotion/fluctuations).

While we may never fully clear out the mental chatter, we can learn to at first understand and then, really feel into the experience that we are not our thoughts and this ‘I’ we sense, that is not our thoughts, is something different, something clearer. Ultimately, it’s the part of our inner landscape most capable at making decisions that truly serve us and then in turn those around us, to the best possible outcomes. From what we eat, to how we prioritise our time, to how we respond in our most challenging situations - tackling avidya, expanding our knowledge of ourselves, is at the heart of each breath of practice on and off the mat. As knowledge increases, so avidya (lack of knowledge) must decrease and in this way we experience an expansion of awareness that allows more and more, the light of consciousness to inform our thoughts and actions and so the way we experience reality.

In our next blog we’ll be looking to the second klesha, asmita, the lack of awareness that leads us to believe we are exclusively our thoughts and emotions. If this blog on avidya has got you thinking, don’t hesitate to put your comments and/or questions below and I hope to see you next time.

Namavaho, Janine