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Teaching Ashtanga and the Benefit of Doubt


I will never forget when I went to a Kino MacGregor workshop and a woman, who comes to Ashtanga, seriously like once a year, told Kino that I was her teacher.  I was standing in line for a picture. Kino was turned towards me and the woman had her back to me. I looked Kino dead in the eyes, and shook my head back and forth, “NO”. Yes, it is super sweet that she felt so connected to me those two or three times I taught her that she considered me to be her teacher but I was not going to take responsibility for anything she was doing in her practice. I had not seen her enough to know what she was doing or if she was doing it properly.  Whenever I am tempted to make assumptions or jump to conclusions about a teacher, I think about this incident.  Someone, from a sweet and innocent place, may have claimed that teacher without really having a deep and personal relationship with them.

I don’t assume that the actions of the teacher or the student are a reflection of the teacher they are claiming to learn from. For instance, if someone says, “Sharath is my teacher” and they add an extra pose to the standing sequence, I don’t assume that Sharath told them to do that.

I don’t assume that, the person someone is claiming as their teacher, is actually their teacher.

I also consider evolution.  A few weeks ago, someone wrote a blog post berating a teacher that they have not studied with for close to a decade. God knows that I am not the same person today that I was last year, even much a decade ago.  A good teacher is an evolving teacher, right? Yoga is the process of letting go of your BS and discovering who you really are, right? Any teacher, who is actually practicing yoga, would be growing and changing.

I also don’t assume that, just because a teacher told one person to do or not to do something, that it was meant for everybody. Every person is different. In Mysore, Sharath would get on me about certain transitions and someone right next to me would be doing the transitions in the same way and he would not say a word to them.  I was held in Pasasana because he wanted my butt to be lower. Meanwhile, people with high butts or whose heels didn’t touch the floor were moving right along. What was being told to me, was for me. What was being told to someone else, was for them. I didn’t know their situations. Maybe they had ankle surgery and couldn’t drop their heels. Maybe he felt I was strong enough for a certain transition and too weak for another one.  Who knows.  And you know what, I didn’t ask so I am not going to make up any stories about it. When someone is told something out of the ordinary by their teacher, I don’t assume that instruction was necessarily for everyone.

I don’t assume that an authorized/certified teacher’s actions automatically have something to do with Sharath or Pattabhi Jois. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t.  My daughter, who lives with me and spends copious amounts of time in my presence, has done things that I never told her were cool to do.  She has her own mind.  Those teachers do too.

I also give teachers the benefit of the doubt because I want to practice what I preach. The Yoga Sutras says that,  we have believed our painful untrue thoughts on such a deep level,  we need a practice to extricate ourselves. If I can build an illusory sense of “I” for myself, I can definitely build that for someone else.  Students can build it for their teachers and teachers can build if for their students. What is the solution? Patanjali says, “practice and non attachment.” Practicing not attaching to a story that I have no clue is really true or not. Getting on my mat and doing my practice regardless of what someone else feels they have been told or not.  Teaching someone from where they are regardless of what information they have been told or not because my relationship with them started in that moment.



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