Aging and Yoga Psychology: Conquering the Kleshas

woman doing a yoga stretch at sunsetMany people today have a basic, working knowledge of psychology, but chances are it is based on a Western model. In fact, there are many systems of thought that shed great light on human experience—and they long predated Sigmund Freud!

The ancient yogis had no fancy diagnostics to peer into people’s brains; they just had a lot of time and developed great powers of observation. One of the most interesting concepts they developed is the kleshas. The kleshas are like psychological obstacles to our highest selves. They are:

  • Ignorance
  • Egoism
  • Attachment
  • Aversion
  • Fear of loss and especially death

These “afflictions of the mind” get in the way of our daily functioning. All of them can be said to stem from the first, which is ultimately the most important. If we cannot—or do not—see reality as it is, then all the others can run rampant. Most of us have one or the other that we default to. Are you an avoider or excessively attached? Are you living in denial to escape reality?

As we age, these five kleshas can really impede our ability to live life fully. In terms of ignorance (avidyā), consider how many of us deny our aging process and still try to do what we always have. The reality is that we may have less energy or stamina, but because we do not want to face our aging selves, we push too far.

Another example might be that of trying to change a loved one. Though we know they don’t want to change and have never responded to our proddings, we still hope they will change—and we end up disappointed and aggravated. If we were able to see clearly, we might realize that it is our own unwillingness to accept the person “as they are.”

Egoism, as we age, might be reflected in the expectation that the world conform to our needs, though it is really no one else’s responsibility to make that happen. We often forget that we are part of a complex and interconnected universe and that we are only a small link in the chain.

An example of attachment would be a clinging to identities of ourselves that no longer hold true. For instance, if you were always a woman who attracted a lot of men, you may struggle with holding on to that part of yourself because you don’t want to lose that attention. In so doing, you aren’t in the moment, and always feel you come up short.

Avoidance is the opposite of attachment: Instead of dealing with things head-on, you just ignore or bypass them. An example might be not following up with doctors’ appointments because of fear of what you will find out.

Finally, abhinivesa is a fear of loss/death and might manifest as expending precious energy and time “fighting” the inevitable. I have had many difficult conversations with people who convinced themselves that they are invincible and that sickness and death wouldn’t happen to them! Imagine their terror when they realized that they, too, will succumb to this inevitable end. It would be much healthier to accept that this is a natural, unavoidable part of life, and to utilize your precious energy to enjoy the present, take care of yourself, and let go of “fighting.”

If you are interested in learning more, two good resources are: The Pure Heart of Yoga: Ten Essential Steps for Personal Transformation by Robert Butera and Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lillian Rozin, LCSW, MFA, RYT, Aging and Geriatric Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Chloe

    January 13th, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    mmmhhhmmm my husband has that avoidance thind DOWN PAT!

    He thinks that it is better to avoid and not to know than to face something head on and deal with it. I try to tell him all the time that burying his head in the sand isn’t the way to deal with it, but he doesn’t listen to me at all.

  • elaine s

    January 14th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    This is difficult for even the person who is the most open minded and the most willingto change because all of these things are very real challenges to who we are and what we ultimately believe about ourselves. Most of us probably feel that deep down we are right about pretty much everything and that we know what’s best in life, right? Well, this totally challenges all of that, leaves us with this feeling that there are things that could stand improvement although we have pretty much been thinking that allaong l things are pretty good. It is a hard pill to swallow at times.


    January 14th, 2014 at 11:00 AM

    I don’t know, I kind of disagree, I think that I have become a little more laid back as I have aged, a little easier to live with and I know more readily available to just go with the flow. I used to have a list for everything and have everything go just so, but now that I have gotten older the small things don’t bother me quite as much and I have realized that it’s all about the people and the love in my life. Those are the things that count, not the always being right and being in control.

  • Stella

    January 15th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    Yes, I can see how this could effect older people, but I am not that old and I can see how the kleshas impact me too in a negative way. There are times too that I still feel like I can do all of the things that I used to do when I was younger or turn a blind eye to the things that I know to be true but I just refuse to see the honest truth about. I think that as humans we all have a tendency to do this and for most of us it has very little to do with our age. What I do think that it has to do with is learning to grow and evolve as a person, to open our minds to the good things that life can bring and learning that the things that are sometim es seenn as negative can always be seen as something positive too if you just change the way that you look at them. This is about growing and becoming more as a person, which is something that I would assume that most of us are striving to do and achieve.

  • simms

    January 16th, 2014 at 6:31 PM

    All I ever hear is that older people should be respected for their age and wisdom, but why? It seems that many times they are so obstinate and set in their ways that it’s kinda hard to respect all of that.

  • Caroline

    January 18th, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    If you have always been on a lifelong journey of growing and listening and learning then mastering these things won’t be nearly as difficult as it will be to those who have always chosen to live with thier heads buried in the sand and have only chosen to see things as being their way or the highway. I hope that I have not lived my life with blinders on, and reading this simply reinforces within me that I don’t want to. There is far nore to life than the little space that simply surrounds me, I want to know more about it and savor all that I have the opportunity and the good fortune to find.

  • betty c

    January 23rd, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    Thanks for the recommendations of reading materials- I think that I will try to find those over the weekend.

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