Alignment and Injuries,  Ashtanga Adaptability,  Ashtanga Quotes,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Yoga Practice in Good and Bad Times

“Your toothache is impermanent, but your non-toothache is also impermanent. With that insight, you look at birth, death, old-age, ups and downs, suffering, and happiness with the eyes of a sage, and you don’t suffer anymore. You smile, no longer afraid.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh

The Sutras does not say that, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of life.” It says that “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. ”  The world turns, burns, rises and falls. Teachers come and go, hamstrings tear and heal. In yogic terms, the gunas will keep interacting with prakriti and, while I play in this world,  I can’t stop it. My reaction to it is where my power lies.  That power is cultivated through practice.

When we get on our mat expecting everything to be “good” we are practicing the Klesha of Raga, attachment to pleasure. When we stay off our mat because of what we think is “negative”, we are practicing the Klesha of Dvesha or avoidance. In yoga, they both fall under the category of  Avidya or ignorance of what we truly are which is the unchanging Self.

Yoga is asking us to watch the toothache but also watch the non toothache.  Watch the body when it is injured but also watch it when it is not. Watch our minds when everything in our life is horrible but also watch the mind when everything is great.    Usually what happens is, we contemplate life when everything is going wrong but we stop when everything  is going great.  What is the problem with that?  Just like when we drive our car to familiar places, we go on auto pilot and wind up in our garage, at work or at the grocery store. This is great if you are trying to wind up where you have always been. If you want to be somewhere different in your life, you cannot use autopilot. In yoga, we chart a path. We keep our eyes open at every turn looking out for things like Vrittis, Kleshas, obstacles,Dukha, Sukha, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

” In order to be truly free, you must desire to know the truth more than you want to feel good. Because if feeling good is your goal, then as soon as you feel better you will lose interest in what is true. This does not mean that feeling good or experiencing love and bliss is a bad thing. Given the choice, anyone would choose to feel bliss rather than sorrow. It simply means that if this desire to feel good is stronger than the yearning to see, know, and experience Truth, then this desire will always be distorting the perception of what is Real, while corrupting one’s deepest integrity.

In my experience, everyone will say they want to discover the Truth, right up until they realize that the Truth will rob them of their deepest held ideas, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. The freedom of enlightenment means much more than the experience of love and peace. It means discovering a Truth that will turn your view of self and life upside-down. For one who is truly ready, this will be unimaginably liberating. But for one who is still clinging in any way, this will be extremely challenging indeed. How does one know if they are ready? One is ready when they are willing to be absolutely consumed, when they are willing to be fuel for a fire without end.”- Adyashanti

The yogi is keeping their eyes on truth. Practicing consciously through all ups and downs. Through consistent practice, the yogi learns that they can connect to the Self, to truth, the soul or to God in all circumstances. Happiness has nothing to do with that which changes. The seat of happiness is in that which is watching the change.  This realization comes when we cultivate the ability to practice through all circumstances.  Each chapter in the Yoga Sutras always starts with the most basic way to achieve what the chapter is about and then it gives more detailed ways for those who need a bit more.  The first verse, in the chapter on practice, says that yoga in action is discipline, study and surrender. Essentially, you discipline yourself to study and than surrender to what you learn. When we allow the changing tides of life to distract us from practice, we fail at all three.

Though practice changes at different stages in our lives, we have to be careful to not use this as an excuse to build a shallow well. The tradition of  yoga gives different types of practices for different stages in life so that we don’t have to have a shallow well. We can choose the practice that allows us to go deeply in the time we have. A few examples are selfless service to our family, keeping the name of God in our minds or a more physical practice.  In order to chose the right practice, we still need the discipline to study (so we can figure out what the right practice is) and surrender to our current circumstances. This is illustrated in the story of the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna wants to take on a practice that is not meant for him. Krishna knows that Arjuna wants to become a renunciate simply so he can run away from the real work he needs to do. Instead of rolling with the changes, he wants to avoid them. Krishna knows that this avoidance will only result in more evil and devastation.  Krishna cautions Arjuna to not make decisions about his practice during times of despondency but to reestablish discipline and discernment first.

I try my best to never make decisions about my practice when I am emotional.  I was on an emotional roller coaster before, during and after my trip to Mysore, India to practice yoga. My mind told me that I needed to change my approach to practice. However, I knew I was not in my right mind and It was not the time to make that decision. I needed to keep practicing and processing the thoughts in my mind until I had sifted through the mud and found the gold. I needed to be strong through the changes in my life, body and mind until I could see the unchanging thread that ran through it all. I needed to reconnect to my intention and reason for practice. I needed to stay firmly in the seat of that connection long enough for the dust to settle and to see clearly. I needed to take my eyes off the impermanent situation of being in Mysore and the impermanent feels I was having being away from my impermanent family and my impermanent normal routine. What is there after that? The realization that there are many ways to get to the same place and that this one is as good a one as any. Through understanding that everything fluctuates and I have the ability to chose how I stand in the midst of it all is the whole point of yoga.


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 [email protected]