How yoga has the power to transform and release avidya (self-ignorance)

KL experimenting in a variation of Virabdrasana I

KL experimenting in a variation of Virabdrasana I

My first experience with the power of avidya came about twenty minutes into my third ashtanga yoga class. Or maybe my second. The exact number is not important, just that I was a broke backpacker partway through a pre-paid ten week yoga course.

The teacher, a long, lanky woman in her early forties, brought us into Warrior One – Virabhadrasana I.

My hips were skewed decidedly sideways. My back heel struggled to connect with the floor. My arms were crooked and screamed in protest as I attempted to bring them in line with my ears. But it was none of these physical sensations that affected me.

No, it was something else entirely.

At the time, I didn’t know what was going on.

All I knew was that one minute I was in the middle of a class in the middle of a course I had wanted to do for many months and had saved up to pay for…

And then I was outside the class and gone from that course.

I didn’t contact the teacher. I didn’t ask for a refund. I just stopped in the middle of Virabhadrasana I and ran for the door.

At the time, I didn’t question my behaviour. Like all the rest of my behaviours at this time, I just did what I did and kept on doing it.

What made me leave?
I seemed motivated on the outside to doing the course.
I wanted to be there.
I loved how yoga felt.

And yet still I ran away.

Now I can see that I was afraid, and I did what I always did when I was afraid. I turned and ran as far and as fast as I could, while my mind comforted me as best as it could, weaving a mental construct to support the action I had decided to take.

Only I didn’t really “decide”. There was no consciousness about my actions. My actions were all about passive reaction. I was completely mired in self-ignorance, or avidya.

Now, if I’d been paying attention at the time, I would have asked myself, “Why did you just run out of that yoga class?”

But I didn’t ask. There was no attention being paid, no witness in action. No awareness to tap into.

Have you ever been so afraid in the middle of a Step Class, or a Spin Class, or a Power Walk that you ran out of class and never went back?

Probably not eh? Yet it happens in yoga. It’s happened to me. I’ve been in other classes and seen other students flee. I’ve even been teaching and lost one or two students.

Very few of us will leave in the middle of a public event – we’re too afraid of what people will think of us.

Well, whatever I was afraid of… my fear of it was stronger than my fear of what people would think about me. And that fear was plenty strong enough. Although I didn’t know that at the time either :)

I hadn’t yet learned to pay attention to my mind.

Have you paid any attention to yours lately? Watched the thoughts that circle around inside it like sharks under burley?

Or maybe your thoughts patter through like the relentless march of an army of ants, so close to each other that squint slightly and they blur into one ribbon of black.

Regardless of how they shift and move and erupt and dissipate… do you notice your thoughts? Do you hear what they say to you? Do you ever stop to question the validity of what they are telling you? Do you ever ask – what’s that all about?

I didn’t back then, or I would have noticed the desire to flee while I was in Virabhadrasana I, and I would have breathed into the pose and wondered, Now what’s that all about?

And in wondering, I would have broken the chain of command that starts with feeling and moves to thought and ends in reaction. In breaking the chain between thought and reaction, I would have been able to turn the thought upside down and see what was propelling it forward. What lay beneath.

I would have recognized Fear.

In recognizing it, I would have allowed myself to feel it.

And what better place to sit in Fear than while holding Virabhadrasana I – Warrior Pose? So named because it commemorates the ideal of a “spiritual warrior,” one who bravely does battle with the universal enemy, self-ignorance (avidya), the ultimate source of all our suffering.

Instead, mired deep in said self-ignorance, I wasn’t even aware that I was afraid. All I knew was that I had to get out of that yoga class, right there, and right then.

Avidya won that battle, as it wins most battles for those of us that have no self-awareness.

Yet some 9 years on, I am still here, still practicing yoga. I may have quit that course, but something else inside me, the part that loved yoga, got me back to classes.

I learned to stay on the mat when feelings and sensations began to arise. I learned to sit with them. To allow them to move though me. All the while doing battle with avidya.

It is this ability to change the way we interact with our selves and with reality that makes yoga so powerful. Combining awareness of breath with opening the physical body creates doorways into our suppressed pasts. It allows us to let go of all that holds us back, all that subconsciously drives us, all that we no longer need.

When we practice yoga, it is not just our bodies that change, but our entire selves that morph. Like a caterpillar entering into a cocoon, yoga reveals the butterfly within.

And this happens even when we’re only practicing physical postures. We may think we’re just getting a work out, but asana works deep into our nervous system, deep into our bones and our organs, our joints and our heart. When we practice, day in and day out, week in and week out, we learn things about ourselves we didn’t know before.

Whether we want to or not, we begin to wake up.

I still have a way to go in Virabhadrasana I. Every time I practice, the pose feels different, and new nuances reveal themselves to me. It is a constant process of unfolding. And the same goes with avidya. Just when I think I am truly getting to know myself, another layer of ignorance is revealed, peeled back, stripped off.

But now, instead of running from the pose, I enjoy it. I spend long periods of time coming feeling my way slowly into it. And I teach it this way too. I’ve since discovered that Virabhadrasana I is a posture for “standing forward in your truth”. All those years ago, the truth was, I was living in deep fear and wasn’t even aware of it.

It took yoga to show me this.

What will yoga show you?


  1. says

    Yes Yoga is the ticket to body, mental, intellectual vital, and even spiritual alterations. Asanas or postures when done correctly can bring about Self Realization, Samadhi or communion with the Soul/God, and in this way for sure bring about life altering changes.

    Even 1sec of Nirvikalpa Samadhi (self realization) will burn all karma, and bring about life altering changes.

  2. says

    Hi, Kara-Leah.

    Saw your comment on Yoga Muse and popped over to look at your terrific website. Great work. It’s wonderful to see what a thriving Yoga community you have in NZ.

    Like you, I’m a Yoga universalist. Sometimes I think we should start a new Yoga movement called just that–“Universalist Yoga”–embracing all Yoga styles and all Yoga-like spirituality in all other spiritual and philosophic traditions.

    I assume you’re tuned into the great Yoga blogosphere. There are many great sites like Brooks’. Also Twitter–search #yogadork @namastebookclub. I have my blog on Yoga Journal Community (id reweis), but I’m now mirroring my blogs on my own website.

    Great to meet you here. Please let me know if I can help you in any way. All other links for me are on my site below.

    Bob Weisenberg

  3. says

    Hey Bob,

    I’ve seen a few of your comments on some of the yoga blogs – great to have you stop by.

    I’m slowly finding my way around the yoga blogosphere. Blogging hasn’t really caught on the same way over here in NZ – you’ll notice Kiwis haven’t really got comfortable with commenting so much yet :)

    Many blessings,

  4. Mali says

    Hi Kara-Leah,

    How do I begin this? I’ll start in the ‘now’ ’cause that’s what yoga seems to be a lot about. I’ve never blogged before but here I am – a beginner yogi who has dabbled through the years with the odd class – I even attended an Iyengar class regularly for a while, years ago, until…..well I haven’t looked into that yet – but suffice it to say I keep finding myself returning to yoga. Now I’ve found a class and a teacher I connect with…a gentle, affirming vinyasa flow with some yin yoga thrown in. So I go once a week and am getting inspired. Yesterday however, a world away in a ‘stretch yourself over a rack’ class, I held the first pose for about a minute and thought…I wanna leave. This can’t be good for my knees or my back. I can’t know what is good for me or else I wouldn’t be looking for a teacher. What am I doing here? Should I stay or should I go? I stayed….interesting.

    I love your honest, approachable writing and am learning lots from reading the articles on your site. Thanks a bunch YogalunchBox

    • Kara-Leah Grant says

      Hey Mali,

      Nice witnessing… and staying. It’s fascinating to watch what the mind throws up during our practice. Tuning in and knowing whether or not to listen to what it’s offering is the key… and that comes with time and practice.


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