How Can Yoga Free Us from Suffering?

Buddha declared, birth is suffering, death is suffering and our very existence is suffering. Since Buddha’s time the world has become a safer place, with less war and conflict, more material wealth, better health and more social freedom. Yet despite this we seem eternally dissatisfied and stressed.

Evolutionary science helps us to understand why, in the modern world, humans are hardwired to be anxious and fearful, are biased to negativity and subject to cravings. -see my post Yoga as A Cure for the Human Condition. Everyday life is full of difficulty, loss, and heartbreak, over which we often have no control. Our innate negative bias leads us to dwell on these problems, no matter how small, creating a spiral of negative thinking, which can consume us. The average human has 12,000-60,000 thoughts each day; up to 98% of these thoughts are the same thoughts we had yesterday and as many of 80% of them are negative thoughts. Our naturally anxious mind can spin impending disaster, shame, guilt, fear and regret from the most innocuous of happenings, creating negative scenarios that we play like mini-movies in our minds, over and over again. These responses only serve to increase and compound our suffering further.

Without the support of modern psychology or evolutionary science, our ancient Indian ancestors, already had a good understanding of the mental patterns the all humans experience. They sought to explore and put names to these concepts. Yoga developed as a set of tools to help overcome these mental patterns and ultimately put an end to human suffering. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers us a blueprint to break free from human despair.

According to Patanjali, the five Kleshas are the causes of human suffering. The first Klesha Avidya is the source of all suffering, the parent from which other Kleshas are born. Avidya is sometimes defined as ignorance and refers to an incorrect understanding of the nature of things brought about by our warped perceptions. Life is an accumulation of things, thoughts and experiences that we identify with along our journey. Once we have identified with these things, thoughts and experiences, we can no longer perceive life the way it truly is. Our perception becomes fogged and we are unable to see things clearly; we instead perceive life the way it is necessary to do so (or we perceive it is necessary to do so) for our survival. Unless we can create a space between our own perceptions and the real world, we will never see things as they truly are.

Through the eight limbs of classical yoga, Patanjali sets out tools to enable us to create this space, in the form of physical and mental practices, which will rid us of despair. Yoga can ultimately provide the mental clarity we need to help us to separate out our perceptions of the world from the way they really are. Yoga enables us to see suffering for what it really is, beyond our control and compounded by our negative bias and warped perceptions. Yoga practice creates in us an awareness in each moment, a stillness and an understanding that the lens through which we look at the world is just that, a lens and not reality. Through cultivating this awareness, we create the distance and clarity we need to end our personal suffering.

Yoga as a Cure for the Human Condition

Do you find yourself anxious or fearful much of the time? Do you dwell on bad things that happen, no matter how small, and blow them out of proportion? Do you feel unfulfilled and exhausted by the constant need to strive for goals, whose achievement brings only fleeting happiness? You are not alone. The truth is that almost everyone feels this way. It is part of the human condition, a condition that is hard to escape.

200,000 years ago when humans lived in caves, the most anxious and vigilant had a better chance of survival, being constantly primed to fight or run away. Now in the modern world, each of us is descended from those fearful ancestors and, while we may no longer need to be on constant high-alert in order to survive, we remain hard-wired to be permanently on the lookout for threat. This evolutionary process has left humankind with a negativity bias, where we pay more attention to the bad things that happen, making them seem much more important than they really are, while barely registering positive things. To make things worse, our brains have become adapted to ensure that any pleasure we experience is only fleeting, so that we do not become demotivated to continue the fight for survival.

To summarise, the human brain has evolved to ensure that

  • we are hard wired for fear and anxiety;
  • we have a negative bias;
  • pleasure has a short-lived impact and always leaves us craving more.

The human condition, therefore, is one of suffering. Our subconscious is hard wired for this suffering, a suffering that, while inevitable is not inescapapable. Yoga, in its true sense, provides a means to escape this suffering; a tool to help the diligent practitioner master the subconscious, conquering fear and negativity and driving out cravings.

To be released from fear, anxiety and cravings, the yogin must begin by seeking to understand the true essence of yoga. Yoga is not just a physical practice that happens in yoga classes labelled Vinyasa Flow, Hatha, Iyengar or Yin. It is a spiritual science of self-realisation; a holistic practice, which includes every aspect of life. These aspects include

  • universal ethics (Yama),
  • personal ethics for self-purification (Niyama),
  • body cultivation through practice of postures (Asana),
  • mastering of energy through breathing exercises (Pranayama)
  • control over the senses of perception (Pratyahara)
  • concentration (Dharana) and
  • meditation (Dhyana).

Through yoga we learn to master our body and mind, to cultivate inner stillness and become free of suffering.