Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Yoga Sutras For Modern Life: What is a yoga practice?

Defining the Sutra


Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

1:12 The fluctuations of the mind are controlled by practice and non attachment

1:13  Practice is efforting towards steadiness of mind


In the previous segments, we talked about how yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind  and these fluctuations are right knowledge (or lack thereof), misconception, verbal delusion, deep sleep and memory. These fluctuations keep us from finding lasting peace. You work on the fluctuations two ways, by practice and non attachment.

Later on, we will discuss the qualities of a yoga practice but for now, according to Patanjali, the purpose of a yoga practice is to bring about steadiness of mind. Any benefits gleaned from the practice should go towards the stilling of the mind or it is not a yoga practice. So if yoga makes you healthy, that health should free up space for you to work on your mind.  Practicing just for the benefit of health is not yoga. If yoga gives you handstand, how did the process of learning the handstand help to still the mind? Going to class just to learn handstand is not yoga.



Why is this important?

To be a yoga practice, the end goal must be liberation from the fluctuations of the mind. What are you really doing when you get on your mat? In modern times, the word ” yoga” is being applied to physical activity that  really is more of a workout, a gymnastics practice or a physical therapy session.  Ask yourself, which one of these are you doing?

People come to yoga normally because of the physical benefits. The physical practice is also fun and challenging and people enjoy the work. That is not a problem. The problem is when we  perpetuate and propagate a misconception of the practice. This is usually done  by yoga teachers and studios because they want to capitalize off the  name “yoga” and its popularity. Lets be real, which one do you think will pull more people in?  “Come to my class so I teach you how to steady your mind” or “come to my class so I can give you that bikini body”?

I will be the first to attest to how changing a class description from a spiritual one to a physical one can double class size. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, used to travel around and do physical yoga demos. Everyone gets the  fact that the physical benefit pulls people in.  Again, not a problem. I have yoga teacher friends who have said, “I don’t teach or practice yoga. I teach and practice something that will eventually one day lead to yoga”. I love the authenticity of this view. It is a start. This I respect.  However, when students are taught that the physical practice is the be all end all of yoga, this is false information. Patanjali makes it very clear that if a yoga practice’s end goal is not stilling the mind, it is not 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 shanna@shannasmallyoga.com.