Fitness Magazine

Ignorance About Ignorance (Avidya)

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Ignorance About Ignorance (Avidya)

A boy blowing on an ember to light a candle by El Greco

2.4 Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows whether dormant, attenuated, interrupted or fully active. —translated by B.K.S. Iyengar

I’ve been thinking a lot about the yoga concept of avidya, which can be defined as lack of knowledge or ignorance. That’s because Baxter and I are working on a list of essential yoga concepts that we want to teach. And when he suggested avidya, or ignorance, as being one of his essential concepts, I was surprised. It honestly wasn’t something I had thought much about and it certainly didn’t make my top 10 or even my top 25. But because it was important to him, I decided to study a bit about avidya and also to talk with him in person about it. When we got together yesterday, we talked both about why ignorance causes suffering and what you can do about it, but even after our philosophical luncheon, I still felt uncertain, and unprepared to write about ignorance. It wasn’t until I did some further reading and found the following yoga sutra that I reached some clarity:

2.28 By dedicated practice of the various aspects of yoga impurities are destroyed: the crown of wisdom radiates in glory. —translated by B.K.S. Ieyngar

I’ll write a bit more about sutra 2.28 later, but I thought that first—since I’ve had a little epiphany about how ignorance caused tremendous suffering in my own life—I’d tell you that story as a way of illustrating the general concept. During the 90s when I was working at a small software startup company at the same time as I was raising—with Brad, who was a professor at a university—two small children, I had a serious nervous breakdown, which was eventually diagnosed as agitated depression. I can easily say that this was the worst experience of my life. And in retrospect I can now see how ignorance was what led me to that low point.

  • I had no idea that the chronic stress I was enduring at my high-pressure job could lead to a breakdown like that. So I was “ignorant” about the problems associated with chronic stress.
  • I believed that since I was working in a very stressful environment, it was natural and inevitable for me to feel very stressed out, suffer from insomnia, nausea, and so on. Here I was under the “misapprehension” that being stressed out was natural and could not be avoided, which is a form of ignorance.
  • I didn’t have the tools to help myself deal with chronic stress. Those would come later, when I set out to acquire solutions to my tendency to get too stressed out and got serious about yoga. But at the time, my “lack of knowledge” about how to manage stress certainly caused me a lot of suffering.
As you can see from my story, ignorance not only includes just plain lack of knowledge, such as my ignorance about the dangers of chronic stress, but misapprehension, which is a mistaken belief. I mention this because I found it interesting that that Desikachar—who translates the Yoga Sutras using very different language that most other translations—translated “avidya” in sutras 2.4 and 2.5 as misapprehension follows:2.4 Misapprehension is the source of all the other obstacles. They need not appear simultaneously and their impact varies. Sometimes they are obscure and barely visible; at other times they are exposed and dominant.
2.5 Misapprehension leads to errors in comprehension of the character, origin, and effects of the objects perceived.

Of course, I’m sure we can all think of problems in our own lives or our friend’s lives that were caused by misapprehension of one kind of another (financial success didn’t bring happiness after all, your lover wasn’t who you thought they were, the plan you had for your life fell apart, and so on). But mainly I want to say that it wasn’t until I read Desikachar’s translation of sutra 2.28 in which he refers to avidya as “misapprehension” that I had my little epiphany. 

2.28 The practice and inquiry into different components of Yoga gradually reduce the obstacles such as misapprehension. Then the lamp of perception brightens and the distinction between what perceives and what is perceived becomes more and more evident. Now everything can be understood without error. —translated by T.K.V. Desikachar

Now I realize that understanding avidya is so important because it one of the main reasons why we should practice all eight branches of yoga, not just asana. Notice that Desikachar says “practice and inquiry into different components of Yoga” and that Iyengar translates the same phrases as “By dedicated practice of the various aspects of yoga.” And, of course, these different components of yoga are the eight branches of yoga (the very next sutra after 2.28, is the sutra that outlines the eight-fold path). See Ram’s series on the eight-fold path, starting with The First Branch of Yoga: The Yamas and ending with Samyama, for information. But the first step is to acknowledge our ignorance:

2.27 The attainment of clarity is a gradual process.
The first step is to recognize that certain tendencies of our mind are responsible for producing painful effects. —translated by T.K.V. Desikachar
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