Yoga for adapting to change: Using the kleshas to tackle pandemic-related stress

By Shirley Telles

Yoga contributes to stress reduction, life satisfaction, and overall well-being. It can also foster a sense of stability when we are faced with change. 

Change and uncertainty can feel particularly overwhelming these days. In addition to the tragedies of illness and death, the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it working from home, learning and teaching online, and cutting down on socializing and travel.

Understanding the kleshas can help us organize and adapt to some of these changes with less stress and greater ease. Patanjali—a sage credited with writing a foundational text of yoga practice that also informs yoga therapy—describes the kleshas as afflictions or stress-producing factors. There are five kleshas: ignorance (avidya), ego sense (asmita), attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesha). 

We can use these five afflictions to understand and soothe some of the suffering that comes along with them. 

Questions to ask yourself

Has wrong knowledge (avidya) been stressful? We can understand avidya as a disconnect from the true Self or the true nature of reality—like an understanding of what truly leads to lasting happiness versus what contributes to suffering. We may believe that we know what will yield happiness—for example, the fleeting satisfaction that can come from online shopping when we need to stay at home. However, choices like these can lead to stress when the gratification wears off and we realize that our knowledge about what makes us happy was misaligned. 

Does a sense of Self (asmita) cause stress? Even if we see ourselves a certain way—for example, “I am a yoga teacher and hence I am very compassionate”—we will likely face circumstances that challenge that identity. If we grasp onto an identity of ironclad compassion and situations arise where we are not able to show the level of compassion we expect from ourselves, this can be stressful.

To what extent do strong preferences (raga) cause stress? If I like to travel but travel is restricted, it becomes a klesha if I experience stress due to the restriction. So many aspects of life have changed. . . we may have a strong preference for a change of scenery, for going to group concerts or sporting events, or for any number of desires that make themselves known when they’re suddenly limited. If we experience stress when something that we like very strongly is withheld, we know it is a raga.

Are aversions (dvesha) causing stress? Perhaps we have an aversion to restrictions or strict guidelines. It could be an aversion to wearing a mask or to social distancing. An aversion to being told what to do in general can cause stress.

Has fear (abhinivesha) been a source of stress? During the pandemic, fear seems to be everywhere: fear of losing a job, fear of catching COVID-19, fear of a loved one dying from COVID-19, fear of experiencing long COVID—even fear of reactions to vaccines. Abhinivesha specifically refers to the fear of death, but all other fears are related to this ultimate fear. 

Use the five Cs to manage stress

When stressed, first check whether any klesha is active. Then use these steps to help dissolve the stress. 

  1. How are you coping? Healthy strategies include connecting with others, with nature, and with a divinity, oneness, or spirituality as you experience it.
  2. Comprehend the risks of not resolving klesha-related thinking with clarity—then act based on what you discover. What might be the outcome if you remain in the stress loops without awareness? What might be the outcome if you become aware and work to shift some of this thinking?
  3. Cultivate a community, or sangha, for social support.
  4. Allow your core values—which are under your control (e.g., the resolve to teach yoga or take care of your mind and body)—to give you a sense of continuity.
  5. Show compassion to yourself and to others. This may not be possible all the time—what if you were compassionate toward yourself for not being able to show compassion for others in every situation?

Support self-awareness with yoga

This identification of kleshas asks for self-awareness, and your yoga practice can help cultivate that. Remain in the final position of an asana (posture) as long as it is pleasant, practice pranayama (breathwork) or chant mantras for comfort, and engage in guided relaxation during savasana (final relaxation pose). These practices shift our neurobiological state from vigilance and fear-related arousal to a sense of comfort and quiet.

Shirley Telles, PhD, MBBS, has 30 years of yoga research experience and practices yoga enthusiastically. She’s edited seven books and published more than 200 research papers over the course of her career.