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Ups and Downs of Desire

Desires are not all harmful...

In our yoga immersion group, we have been paying attention to the potential pitfalls of strong desires and aversions. Desires are not all bad; they can motivate us to improve our health and lifestyle; likewise, not all dislikes are problematic. My aversion to spending time with abusive people is a healthy choice. Yoga warns about the emotional rollercoaster of having impulsive and unchecked desires and aversions. If you'd like to follow our practice, here's what we've been exploring.

Firstly, it's helpful to know that Yoga describes five causes of suffering (kleshas); they are:

- Lack of awareness (avidya)

- Pride (asmita)

- Desire (raga)

- Aversion (dvesha)

- Fear (abhinivesha)

If we want to reduce turbulent emotions, it helps to develop an awareness of thoughts, words and actions and then notice how pride and limiting attitudes drive our efforts (or lack of).

Sutra 2:11
Meditation will overcome the fluctuations of the mind.


Raga is much like Freud's pleasure principle; it's the intense attraction to what brings pleasure. Raga causes us to seek immediate gratification driven by wants and urges. Underlying feelings of anxiety often spur this impulsive behavior, but a bit like a dog chasing its tail, the result is also anxiety and stress.

Raga keeps us unsatisfied even when what we want is in our lap, we might try to retain what we have or impulsively reach for more, i.e. the urge for more than one glass of wine, or one more medal. Raga can lead to addiction, over competitiveness and limiting beliefs.


Dvesha is the Sanskrit word for aversion literally meaning "hate", "dislike", or "rejection" it's the avoidance of all things that we don't want to experience.

"To set up what you like against what you dislike, this is the disease of the mind."

~ Third Ch'an Patriarch Chien-Chih Seng-ts.'


  • I must be at the top of my game (desire); I refuse to rest (aversion).

  • I feel the need to be popular (desire); I avoid being on my own (aversion).

  • I must have a drink on social occasions (desire) because being sober is awkward (aversion).

  • I don't like changing teams (aversion). I love my team (desire).

  • I don't like savasana (aversion). I'd rather be doing something else (desire)

  • I don't like John (aversion) he doesn't talk to me (desire to feel important).


When you notice yourself desiring something, ask yourself,

  • What am I avoiding? I.e. anxious feelings, boredom etc.

  • Is there a healthier alternative to the initial urge? i.e. deep breathing.

  • Is the thing I want going to make me happy in the long run?

When you notice yourself avoiding something, ask yourself,

  • What is the underlying desire? I.e to be comfortable.

  • Is the experience I'm avoiding really that bad?

  • What are the benefits of trying the thing I'm avoiding?

Remember, there are plenty of healthy desires and aversions; this exercise is to bring attention to urges that cause suffering. Journaling about your observations can help reduce impulsive behaviour, which may be contributing to anxiety and limiting beliefs.

How to recognize someone who has minimized the adverse effects of craving and aversion:

  • They motivate themselves and others to complete tasks that are typically considered unenjoyable.

  • They don't rely on food and substances to bring pleasure.

  • They happily engage in new experiences.

  • They'll give unpleasant experiences a second chance.

  • Instead of focusing on the difference between people, they focus on what people have in common.

  • They are less judging of people, experiences and places.

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