अविद्यास्मितारागद्वेषाभिनिवेशाः क्लेशाः ॥ २.३ ॥

avidyāsmitārāgadveṣābhiniveśāḥ kleśāḥ || 2.3 ||

The Kleśas are Avidyā (ignorance), Asmitā (I-am-ness), Rāga (desire), Dveṣa (aversion), and Abhiniveśa (clinging to life).

अविद्या क्षेत्रम् उत्तरेषां प्रसुप्ततनुविच्छिन्नोदाराणाम् ॥ २.४ ॥

avidyā kṣetram uttareṣāṃ prasuptatanuvicchinnodārāṇām || 2.4 ||

Avidyā (ignorance) is the breeding ground for the others, [whether they are] latent, weak, interrupted, or fully active.

अनित्याशुचिदुःखानात्मसु नित्यशुचिसुखात्मख्यातिर् अविद्या ॥ २.५ ॥

anityāśuciduḥkhānātmasu nityaśucisukhātmakhyātir avidyā || 2.5 ||

Avidyā is the [mistaken] discernment of the eternal for the impermanent, the pure for the impure, happiness for suffering, and the Self for the non-self.


In the yoga sūtra of Patanjali we have the exploration of the mind and the evolution towards enlightenment. In the text are many definitions, not only of yoga concepts such as reincarnation, attaining special powers and behavioural ethics, but also of commonly used words and phrases. Although many people try, you can’t really say ‘this is the most important sūtra’ or ‘this verse is the one that makes everything make sense’. A sūtra text is written in the way that like the thread that makes up a blanket, each line is threaded into the next and so it forms part of the whole.

We’re all well aware of the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ and although we might not use the phrase ourselves we have an understanding of its meaning. In some ways it can be a good thing, sort of like minding your own business, it can be healthy to be ignorant in some aspects. Do you really want to know what’s happening with everyone all the time? Do you look into your neighbours windows and see what they are doing everyday? Do you walk down the street and ask strangers where they are going and why?

In the yoga sūtra we are definitely not saying that ignorance is bliss, in fact it is saying that your ignorance is your main reason for suffering in this life. But ignorance of what?

Imagine for your whole life you were told that walking or driving in traffic that red means go and green means to stop. You live this way everyday of your life and yet are constantly frustrated about the accidents you are causing and near missing, you’re wondering what’s wrong with everyone and why they can’t walk or drive properly. Essentially you have Mis-knowledge. You think you know but you don’t.

Now yoga says that you are an enlightened being, your soul or spirit is purely divine and an emanation of the essence of God. You’ve forgotten, or you think that you are just a walking and talking flesh suit of bone and blood and your only purpose in life is to eat food, have fun, procreate and die.

In Sanskrit and in the yoga sūtra this is described as avidyā. Vid means knowledge and the prefix “a” negates the following word, so it’s not-knowing or mis-knowing.

Avidya is described as being an obstacle to enlightenment and your own spiritual evolution. We can say that you can have avidya on particular subjects, people and places. But ultimately the avidya we have is of our own Self.

It may seem silly or a little too ‘woo-woo’ but each one of us is a divine being, not by who we are, what we do or look like but from our innate spirit. Yoga teaches that this inner essence, our spirit, is not only interconnected with every other spirit but is coming from the same source. You can call that source God if you like, maybe you prefer to think of it as bliss or something of a divine essence. In the yoga sūtra the word used is puruṣa – which can translate to be the Seer

The goal of the yoga practice is to return your own spirit to this puruṣa and avidyā is going to be your first (and main) obstacle.

These concepts might seem to have little to do with downward dog or cobra but essentially we are trying to break free of the self-limiting conditions we have placed on ourselves. I hear so often in yoga classes “I can’t do that” or even more disheartening is “I’m not doing that.” Essentially by saying this we are wanting to live in a state of mis-knowing, not wanting to look into the window of potential of our bodies and our thoughts along the way. What stems from this first thought-response are the rest of the obstacles to yoga: sense of self, attachment (to things you like and feel comfortable with), aversion (to things you don’t like), and ultimately fear of death (or clinging to life) – “if I try to stand on my head or bend backwards any further I might injure myself and maybe even die!”

Now of course injuries happen in yoga, they happen in almost all physical disciplines, but injuries also happen in the home, on the street and even while you sleep! Ever woken up with a sore neck or stomach ache?

By limiting ourselves to the skin encapsulated ego of our body and what it can and cannot do we are not progressing on our yoga journey. It’s important to remember that nobody has ever reached enlightenment purely by being able to do the splits but we are not always referring to progress in the yoga practice by how many āsana you can do or how straight your legs are. Progress in the yoga practice as defined by the yoga sūtra looks like overcoming obstacles that in most cases has you thinking you know, when in fact you don’t. This is what makes yoga humbling, it removes ego and hopefully has the student looking deeper into themselves and discerning why they do the things they do, the results and outcomes of the things they say and decisions they make and ultimately what they really fear in life and why.

So as much as ignorance can be blissful and we should mind our own business, even more so is the necessity to check in with our own inner self and ask the more important questions of “who am I?” and “how did I get here?” and even “what would it take to let go of the things I think I know?”

We can adapt an old Zen parable:

The student, having mastered every posture and knowing every text off by heart approaches the teacher with the hunger and thirst to know more. “Please, I know all of the ancient verses and have memorized all the meaningful chants, I can even stand on my head for hours. Won’t you teach me the real secrets to enlightenment?” Of course, the teacher is not interested and tells the student to come back another day when they are more ready. This same back and forth goes on for a while until finally one day the teacher says, “ok meet me next month and we will have tea and discuss the finer points towards your spiritual evolution.” Elated the student finally will reach their goal and practices even harder for the next few weeks until the teacher invites them for tea. Sitting down across from each other the teacher begins to pour the student a cup of tea. Without stopping or pausing the teacher continues to pour the tea, filling the cup, overflowing the cup as tea spills onto the table and over the floor. “Stop, stop, that’s enough, you’re wasting the tea all over the floor!” the student exclaims.

The teacher responds, “Ah, correct, finally you can see. You are like this cup, so full of knowing and always wanting more. Perhaps it is time to empty the cup, free yourself of all you think you know and perhaps you will find the answers you are looking for.”

– Doug Whittaker