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Samsara Hala Hala: The Pain of a Conditioned Ashtanga Practice


peg and shanna
Me and Peg working on backbends. This is the best backbend I have ever done by the way.


Last night I had my world rocked by Peg Mulqueen of Ashtanga Dispatch. I can’t stop thinking about it. This line from the Ashtanga opening Mantra just jumped into my head.


Remove the poison of conditioned existence


This line also popped into my mind.

“Many teachers, crazy making” Pattabhi Jois

I have chanted that line thousands of times and used the Pattabhi Jois quote at least 50 times but It didn’t’ really hit me until last night. Through a few simple exercises, Peg showed just how much BS I had picked up that had nothing to do with Ashtanga yoga.  She used  Sharath’s book, Astanga Yoga Anusthasana, to show us how clean, simple and to the point  Ashtanga is  and how complicated we had made it. She had us do exactly what the book said without adding any extra stuff we had picked up from other teachers, Instagram and You Tube.


An example would be Bujapidasana. Is there a Tittibhasana exit from Bujapidasana? Is there even a transitory movement into Titttibhasana after Bujapidasana? Lets look at both the Yoga Mala, written by Pattabhi Jois and the Astanga Yoga Anusthasana written by Sharath Jois. For clarification, puraka means inhale. Rechaka means exhale.


Then while coming into the 7th vinyasa, and using the strength of the arms, jump the legs around the shoulders without touching the floor, doing puraka, place one foot over the other, squeeze the shoulders forcefully with the thighs, and straighten the arms; this is the 7th vinyasa. Then, slowly doing rechaka and without touching the legs or feet to the floor, touch only the chin to the floor, and do puraka and rechaka as much as possible; this is the 8th vinyasa. Next, doing puraka, come back into the 7th vinyasa, this is the 9th vinyasa, Then, doing rechaka, take back both legs without touching the floor, and balance them on the backs of the arms-Yoga Mala by Pattabhi Jois


Nava 9: inhale, lift the head or chin up off the floor. Exhale.

Dasa 10: inhale, take bakasana position by bringing the legs back, pulling the knees into the armpits and keeping the heals together.  Astanga Yoga Anusthasana by Sharath



Yep, its not there. It also does not say, and if you are advanced, It is cool to take 5 extra breaths here and pop up into handstand. It does say you can take as many breaths as you want in Bujapidasana itself but it NEVER mentions taking extra breaths in transitions.

I could really go on and on with these types of examples.

Also, using Bujapidasana, she explained to us how the breath supports the practice and if we don’t second guess ourselves and follow the count, you actually use less energy and it is actually EASIER. She had us jump into Bujapidasana with no hesitation and using the count. The majority of the class could wrap their legs around their arms in mid air where we had never ever been able to do that.  Now, we may have fallen backwards shortly after but we got closer than we ever had. Why? We took out the lift up that most people have in their jump throughs, stayed low and just went straight around. Like it is supposed to be done.

Something I always say to people when they start to complain about yoga  is that, yoga  is not the problem, the people doing it have the problems. This workshop showed me this in a whole different way. We are hurting themselves, getting stressed out and pushing ourselves over stuff THAT IS NOT EVEN IN THE SEQUENCE. We are worried about getting it right we are worried about making it pretty. That was never the point.

Have you watched these videos of Sharath practicing? Probably not. At the time I wrote this post, this video had only 307 views and it was put up January 8 2015.  I suspect it is because it is not pretty. It is simple. Oh, my goodness, dare I say that, his knee is not where the anatomy police would like it.

You have probably seen videos like this though of Sharath practicing. This was probably taken on someone’s I phone without him even knowing. Why are ones like this circulated? We love the fancy stuff! Or dare I say, our ego loves the fancy stuff.


I am not going to name any names but I checked one of the popular Ashtangi You Tube channels. One  person posted a video YESTERDAY,  and it already has 2,800 likes. The pose is visually beautiful. The person is visually beautiful.

I have suffered the pain of a conditioned Ashtanga practice. Maybe you have too. Over the years, I have collected a plethora of extraneous exercises, movements, transitions, anatomy cues, and breaths that have not served my practice. I thought they did until I was forced to take them out and then I saw them for what they were. Crutches and samskaras (deep mental imprints). I was conditioned to the point that, even though I have read the Yoga Mala and the Yoga Anusthasana numerous times, I could not believe that it could be that simple. Even though these books were written by the masters of Ashtanga Yoga, I doubted them and chose to pattern my practice after the more fancy practitioners.  I chose to do the practices that fed my ego which wanted prettiness, grace and perfection. I chose to do the practices that brought up doubt and insecurity. Instead of trusting my breath, I added in extra ones so that I could do a half handstand, a pretty float or get deeper into a pose (why does it need to be deeper?).

I have been conditioned to the point that I had to talk myself into adding the top video of Sharath. My ego did not want to show the world such simplicity. My ego did not not want to defend that knee to the anatomy police. I will not be defending it either. You want to know why? Because Ashtanga yoga was never meant to be a workout. It was never meant to be some show stopping feat of beauty. It was never meant to be a platform to show off your beautiful body lines. Pattabhi Jois did not make a mistake when he named this practice “Ashtanga”. It was a very blatant way to say that this practice is about the 8 limbs of yoga. I don’t know how much clearer he could have been about it. In fact, he was so clear that he numbered the poses for us and gave us a whole map on  how to do them and in what order. He took all the guessing out!

Pattabhi Jois purposely left no room for our egos to get involved in this practice.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail


  • Casey J Palmer

    1000s of yogis have lived and died without anyone ever hearing of them. And they never heard of Sri K Pattabhi Jois. They were yogis out of their own inner drive to abide in the wisdom of clear seeing. Some just could simply abide, others needed a method to get started.

    The best method is to go into a room and practice (maybe what your teacher told you) alone, then don’t ever tell anyone you do yoga. Simply be a yogi and live in the great benefit. More and more is revealed but only from within. The teacher is only a guide. The real teacher abides within.

    The results of the ashto-angani of Patanjali don’t come from good karma alone, that’s just a preliminary condition, what we seek is already embedded in us, is us, if we have the ability to see. The krama is just there to get us prepared, get us off the old hook, not get us on a new one, to never be removed. The body doesn’t last. We get sick, old and die. And we are meant to do a lot of things on the way. Asana practice is only a tool, one of many, this is what sadhana means, a tool.

    Don’t mistake what I’m saying for not knowing the value of ashtanga yoga, I’ve been working with the orthodox vinyasa krama for 15 years, so I know how it worked on me. But even Guruji was not so fundamentally bent that he offered such exact specifics. The practice has never been the same even from Krishnamacharyas time. No moment is the same. The entire system we so adore and hold up so high, it’s just guidelines to be adhered to over time. The practice does not exist beyond the moment. All we have is method and seeing.

    The method we use is the same, tristhana, but the application has always been retooled to meet the students needs. My “view” is related to my lifestyle relative to regular practice, but not this asana or that asana and certainly not being determined by the impossibility of an outside observer knowing my state of being.

    The desire for orthodoxy stems from a lack of confidence due to not sufficiently exploring yoga practice beyond the initial stages. This can go on for YEARS in some cases and a lot of misconceptions and limitations get put in place, a lot of hiding from ourselves gets established and we never learn to tell the difference between a limiting imposition and an actual supporting method of transition. Basically we rely on the power of the orthodoxy to make us feel safe or to be in power or create a means of prestige. Orthodoxy some how drives people to want to get on top of rather than be controlled by it. None of this has much to do with yoga. Yoga is a choice not an imposition. Sure, do your practice, do The Practice, do it well but remember that it’s not always what you project on to it, it just is what it is.

    When dealing with the body, we are dealing with karma and the practice is only there to regulate karma (which is manifest as prana and chitta, stemming from the triguna and mostly pre and trans-verbal in its results. ) so we have the opportunity to receive more adroit teaching and wake up to “seeing”. There’s nothing that can be “said” that will give us what long term practice gives us.

    What’s been happening in the yoga community, especially Ashtanga, is the turning of the practice of the krama into a fetish of some sort, along with all the veneer of “giving poses”, being the “teacher” and Mysore standings and rankings and who’s the best yogi. The work of ashtanga yoga is so much greater and deeper than this and not limited to the person with the perfect asana practice. Be grateful for the later part because if you see through the madness you’ll know you have everything you ever needed within to see without limits.

    If you are new to yoga and wonder if you’ll ever be allowed to progress in your teachers eye’s, make sure they can accurately “see” you in the light of classical yoga, that they have done more than offered up the tip of the iceberg of yoga. That they don’t want to fit you in a box.

    Enjoy the benefit of ashtanga vinyasa krama but also take the initiative and dig deeper into the esoteric teaching of Patanjali and try to put it to work. There is so much more to ashtanga yoga than the 8-Limbs, but who knows this without giving more to the work than only relying on the shapes made by an impermanent body. It’s all there if you can see.

  • ALise

    Beauty in simplicity. Thanks for the wake-up. Any idea where to get a copy of Astanga Yoga Anusthasana (not in bulk)?
    Many thanks,

    • admin

      Wow, I didn’t know that it was sold out like that. I have no clue. I am sorry. The Yoga Mala is really good though. You can still get that.

  • Leanne

    Hi Shanna! I loved to read this article, you write much along the same lines as myself! Practise changed for me when after four years more or less I actually truly finally stopped caring about the outcome! That is why the breath count is so important isn’t it, it stops us getting hung up on stuff! we begin by observing our poses and ourselves but it just hit me the other day as I was reading the Upanisads, we should be more concerned with understanding that which is doing the seeing!
    I lo0k forward to reading more of your writing !

    Leanne ‘Ashtanga Geek’

  • Babetta

    How fitting that today I poured over SAMSARA HALAHALA MOHASHANTYAI
    In my study and YOU showed up Shanna 🙂
    Thank you for the great reminder, and the examples of keeping it simple.