My husband gave me a book for Christmas called, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, by T.K.V. Desikachar. I previously posted about my newfound love for yoga, and I wanted to share something I read that applies universally, whether or not you enjoy yoga practice. The following is from Chapter Two, “The Foundations of Yoga Practice.”  Don’t be scared.  Read on, Blogtropolis!

Yoga is “the ability to direct the mind without distraction or interruption.”  One goal of yoga, explains Desikachar, is to “reduce the film of avidya in order to act correctly.”  Avidya literally means “incorrect comprehension.” We don’t see things as they really are.  Desikachar describes it as “the accumulated result of our many unconscious actions, the actions and ways of perceiving that we have been mechanically carrying out for years.  As a result of these unconscious responses, the mind becomes more and more dependent on habits until we accept the actions of yesterday as the norms of today.” With these habits of action and perception, avidya covers the mind and obscures clarity.

Bear with me. I know it’s heavy. I had to think about it for it to make sense. Go back and read it again if need be.

While avidya is difficult to perceive within ourselves, the four branches of avidya are easier to identify. In non-yoga language, the first branch is ego:  the sense that we have to be right, and better than other people. The second branch is making demands, or attachment:  we want things we do not have and what we do have is not enough. “We want to keep what we are asked to give away.” The third branch of avidya is rejection or refusal:  if we have a difficult experience we are afraid of repeating it, so we reject the people, thoughts, etc. that relate to the experience. Likewise, we reject the unfamiliar because we have no experience with it. The fourth branch of avidya is fear:  we have uncertainty and doubts, we are afraid of being judged,and we fear aging.

Desikachar explains that these branches of avidya cloud our perception. “As long as the branches of avidya are expanding there is a great chance that we will make false moves because we do not weigh things carefully and make sound judgments.”

I read this chapter and immediately related to these four branches as obstacles. How many of us are afraid to say “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong”?  How many of us are attached to “things”- getting more things, keeping our things, the sense of security that comes from having these things? What about rejecting the unfamiliar? We don’t understand something so we reject it and devalue it. We don’t understand what it feels like to be unemployed so we say, “just get a job.” We don’t understand depression, so we say, “snap out of it.” And fear? There’s a topic that I struggle with often, especially with writing. Do you, too, let fear cloud your judgment?

So what do we do? How do we reduce avidya and acquire the opposite of avidya, or vidya, meaning “correct understanding”?

Three things are suggested:  First, keeping ourselves healthy and inwardly cleansed. In yoga we breathe to cleanse. Desikachar explains that the breathing exercises of yoga use “the same principle as heating gold in order to purify it.” Breathing releases our blocks and impurities.

Second, we get to know ourselves. Who we are, what we are, what our relationship to the world is. Desikachar says:  “It is not enough to keep ourselves healthy. We should know who we are and how we relate to other people.”

Finally, we promote the quality of our actions. “Keeping oneself healthy, and reflecting on oneself do not constitute all our actions.  We also have to pursue our career, gain qualifications, and do everything else that is part of normal life. All these things should be done as well as possible.”

Phew! Seems simple enough. Be healthy, get to know ourselves, and do stuff well. Not quite so easy in practice, though.

Even if we don’t practice yoga, when we feel these branches of avidya coming to tangle us up, breathing one deep cleansing breath can still help. In yoga and in life, sometimes your mind and body feel completely different after that big breath than they did before that breath. Keeping our bodies healthy and taking a cleansing breath once in awhile can do wonders. Hey, it can’t hurt, right?

Getting to know ourselves is tough. We run through life like a hamster on a wheel, task after task, appointment after appointment, here, there, everywhere. Then it’s bedtime. When do we make time for ourselves to reflect and think about who we really are deep in our cores? Are we satisfied with how we live our lives?  In my Happy Meter post, I wondered how much happiness would be displayed each day if we had to plug ourselves in to the meter every night for a reading. Are we the kind of person we want to be? Do we know what we want, and who we are?

Quality of actions is also challenging. I know I suffer in this area. In some parts of my life I don’t try as hard as I should. I don’t give it my “all.” I don’t take pride in what I am producing. I only want to get through the hour or the day or the week. Get to that “Me Time” and to my bed. But what we need to realize is that if we do our best, even with the stuff we don’t so much enjoy, maybe we will feel better about ourselves overall. For me, when I try my hardest I feel settled because I know that I powered through, and whether I succeeded or failed I did the best I possibly could. That’s all we can do.

I doubt anyone would suggest that working on ourselves to achieve clarity and understanding is easy. It takes a lifetime of work. Is the work worth it?  I think so, because the work itself, the journey, makes us better people. And better people make for better worlds, more loving and understanding families, and a more peaceful existence.

Thanks again for reading.

(Sources:  The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, by T.K.V. Desikachar, 1995; citing Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra)

3 thoughts on “Chopping the Branches of Avidya

  1. It’s one of my favorite sutras: “Avidya (Ignorance) is regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant, and the non-Self as the Self”. Every time I feel lost and confused, I think of it and the puzzle comes together :). By the way, thanks for the add! I also have a yoga blog: :)))


    1. Thanks for the comment, Alisa. I love the quote. I will definitely check out your yoga blog! I am eager to learn more about the practice and philosophy.


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