What does being ‘good at yoga’ even mean?

The winner of the prize for “most meaningless phrase used by yoga students” is:

“Good At Yoga”

I have heard people use this phrase so many times over the years. It’s always in reference to someone who finds the yoga asanas easy to do. In other words the person who uses the phrase “good at yoga” believes that it is important to be strong, flexible and (usually) lean. They see yoga as being equivalent to football, gymnastics or playing a musical instrument, and in order to be proficient in yoga one has to display talent and ability in achieving the asanas.

To be clear, I do believe that it’s important to cultivate flexibility, strength and to live a healthy lifestyle (that usually results in a lean body) but (as I have realised through my own yoga practice and through having a few hundred yoga students walk in our door over the last few years) many of us will never find the asanas to be easy.

The level of ease that we experience in the ashtanga yoga practice is dependant on many factors. Genetics, age, previous injuries and illnesses, and diet are all very big factors in determining whether we’ll find the asanas easy or difficult (or even impossible).

I’ll try to illustrate what I’m trying to get at by way of two hypothetical examples:

Patrick is a 63 year old man who has a history of lower back pain. He ate a diet of rich and refined foods for many years, causing him to gain a lot of excess weight, and he has had reconstructive surgery on both knees after a car accident. He has been practising ashtanga yoga for 2 years and has found that it has given him a new lease of life; greater energy, more mobility, better concentration, and a general feeling of being a bit more in control of his life.

Because of his physical limitations, age, and previous history Patrick is very limited in which asanas he can currently do. Some days, if he feels his energy is low, he does even less than he has been taught, but he does practise every day.

When Patrick is practising yoga he is very conscious of focusing on his breath, he maintains uddiyana and mula bandha as much as possible and his drishti never wavers. If you see him practising you can tell immediately that he is a very focused practitioner. 

Jenny is a 32 year old woman who has a background in dance. She has also been practising for two years. She was able to do all of the poses of the primary series within about two weeks of starting and now practises about half of the intermediate series too. She can drop back into a backbend and catch her ankles easily. She is flexible, strong and lean.

When Jenny is practising it is hard to tell whether or not she is breathing. She often looks around the room to see what the other students are doing and whenever someone walks into the shala she looks up to see who it is.

Which of these students is “good at yoga”?

In the context of the (quite obvious) thrust of this blog post it is easy to recognise that Patrick is really practising yoga in a more productive way, despite being dealt a set of cards which restrict him in lots of ways. However, if most of us were to witness these two practitioners side-by-side doing their practice then we might suggest that Jenny is “better at yoga”.

I have heard so many people over the years suggest that they would like to start to do yoga but they’re just so inflexible that they’d be “awful at it”. “I can’t even touch my toes”, they say, as if that fact alone somehow instantly disqualifies them from beginning a yoga practice. This would be the equivalent of saying “I can’t take piano lessons because I really can’t play the piano at all”. It’s nonsensical.

Yoga practice is purely a means to gaining health, calming the mental chatter of the mind, and ultimately (if we’re really on the right track) gaining some knowledge of ourselves. The asanas, breath, bandhas and drishti are tools to achieve that.

Let us please retire the phrase “good at yoga”.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice. The rest is just a circus”-Pattabhi Jois


We need to talk about dristhi

Well, we need to talk about both breath and dristhi actually. These are two of the three elements which make up tristhana. The third element is asana or postures, which we don’t really need to talk about at all! In fact there is already waaaaaaaay too much discussion of asanas on the internet.

Tristhana means the three places of action or attention within the ashtanga yoga practice. They go from the gross to the subtle; asana purifies the body, breath purifies the nervous system and dristhi purifies the mind. Notice that bandha isn’t included as part of tristhana, it is considered as an extension of the breath.

So we already know all about asana. That is the postures, the most obvious part of yoga. In fact, to the uninitiated, that is all that yoga seems to be about. There is of course a lot that can be said about asana but just for today I’m going to park that one here.

I find it interesting that the other two elements, breathing and gazing, are considered in many traditions to be practices all on their own. The postures alone don’t constitute any kind of yogic practice; when they are practised without the other two elements we call them exercise or gymnastics.

For thousands of years the practice of watching the breath has been in existence and it is a fully-formed practice all of its own.

Also the practice solely of dristhi in the form of trataka has been around for a very long time.

There are so many benefits to practising only these two elements of yoga without even doing the asanas.

It is, of course, the asanas that draw most of us into the practice of yoga in the first place but seeing as we are already there, on our mats, day in and day out, year in and year out, we might as well try to bring as much attention to the other two – equally if not more important – aspects of this ashtanga system. Then we can hope to really reap the benefits of practice more consistently and with greater effect.

For a more comprehensive and erudite explanation of tristhana please read the kpjayi explanation at https://kpjayi.org/the-practice/

Ashtanga: Tradition, Dogma and Modifying the Practice

On first reading this article by Chad Herst, on tradition versus dogma in Ashtanga Yoga, largely I agreed with the thrust of what he was trying to say. However, having reflected upon it for a day or two there are a few points which I think it is important to make. For the most part I still think it’s an eminently sensible article but, that being said, I would like to add my two cents. The reason I am compelled to write is to avoid the above article being used as justification for teachers who wish to change the Ashtanga system to suit themselves, and in doing so, throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Mr. Herst asks the question “Do I uphold the tradition or honour the well-being of my student?”. The answer is obvious; you honour the well-being of the student. But the two are not mutually exclusive. One can uphold the tradition and honour the well-being of the student. He goes on to explain how, early on in his practice he “discovered that in order to bind my legs in a lotus posture (padmasasna), I had to dislocate the meniscus”. Wouldn’t it have been better to discover that you don’t have to take padmasana if it is going to damage the cartilage in your knee.

I have had two very suspect knees since I was a child and, having spent the last five years travelling fairly regularly to Mysore I have never once been told to take padmasana. Never. The tradition is to honour the well-being of the student. Sharath has always been my teacher so perhaps it was different when Chad Herst was in Mysore. It depends who is doing the telling. Many Irish practitioners have had the honour of meeting Peter Sanson (who was in Mysore at around the same time as Chad Herst in the early 90s) on his trips to Dublin, and his message is just that; the tradition does honour the well-being of the student above all else.

It is very easy for us to get ahead of ourselves with the Ashtanga Yoga practice and to think that if we can do certain postures that we are further down the path of yoga. If somebody hurts their knee by taking padmasana (or any other asana) it is because they wanted to be able to ‘do’ padmasana. They wanted to achieve something. It is not because the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga says that you must take padmasana even if you can’t walk home afterwards. It seems that Mr. Herst was caught in this familiar trap on occasion;

“When I reflect on almost twenty years of practice, it seems to me that there have been periods of time when I’ve gotten stuck in the literal. I have, at times, been lured by the trajectory of progressing from the primary series, to intermediate, and then, eventually to the advanced series. Early on as a neophyte practitioner, I’d even hoped that as I advanced along the series, somehow life would take on a new shine, that samadhi was right around the corner.”

The above problem cannot be blamed on an adherence to tradition but, rather, to a misguided interpretation of that tradition. In essence, however, I do agree with the sentiment behind the article, which I read as, ‘don’t get bogged down in dogma which leads to suffering’.

That being said, it is not easy to know when to change the practice and when to rigidly stick with the tradition. That knowledge takes a long long time. We know that Guruji himself changed the practice over the years (read this by Nancy Gilgoff to see many examples). Sharath, it seems to me, has also made some subtle changes as have Richard Freeman and Tim Miller (or so I am told). The common thread amongst these teachers is that they are steeped in the tradition to begin with. From an outsider’s perspective the system seems very rigid but with further inquiry and practice it becomes obvious that it is a flexible system. As an example of this, on my last trip to Mysore Sharath got me to practice some postures out of sequence to help with those cursed knees of mine! A lot of people a very surprised when I tell them that. They seem to think that there is only one way to practise in Mysore. This is a misconception driven by the students, not by the Jois family.

It is my opinion that someone who wishes to teach the practice of Ashtanga Yoga must first learn all there is to learn about the tradition. Only then can they decide whether it works for them or not. Guruji wrote this letter to the Yoga Journal in 1995;

I was disappointed to find that so many novice students have taken Ashtanga yoga and have turned it into a circus for their own fame and profit (Power Yoga, Jan/Feb 1995). The title “Power Yoga” itself degrades the depth, purpose and method of the system that I received from my guru, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya. Power is the property of God. It is not something to be collected for one’s ego. Partial yoga methods out of line with their internal purpose can build up the “six enemies” (desire, anger, greed, illusion, infatuation and envy) around the heart. The full ashtanga system practiced with devotion leads to freedom within one’s heart. The Yoga Sutra II.28 confirms this “Yogaanganusthanat asuddiksaye jnanadiptih avivekakhyateh”, which means “practicing all the aspects of yoga destroys the impurities so that the light of knowledge and discrimination shines”. It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out the essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations.
The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with “power yoga” or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures). It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.
-K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore, South India

 So before a teacher decides to alter the practice in any way they should be sure that they have matured in their own practice. How can you change what you don’t understand? That is why it takes such a long time to become an authorised or certified Ashtanga teacher. Dedication is required.

Part of the practice of yoga is to surrender. Surrender means acceptance. Acceptance of tradition, acceptance of the current limitations of one’s body and mind, and acceptance of the authority of somebody who has more knowledge than you. I am not suggesting that anyone takes Guruji, Sharath or anyone else as their teacher. A student should spend a long time finding a teacher who’s teaching resonates with them. It is important to choose your teacher very carefully. However, having done this, surrender is then required. Otherwise, one could just teach one’s-self.

All that being said, one is under absolutely no obligation to follow the Ashtanga tradition. There are many paths to enlightenment. It is my feeling, however, that if one is to follow this tradition, then one should follow it with as much faith and devotion as possible (let me reiterate that this does not mean putting your leg behind your head if it is going to cause injury). If one chooses to alter the method without fully understanding the tradition then it ceases to be Ashtanga Yoga. How can one decide what is wrong with the method, if one doesn’t fully understand it in the first place?

The Ashtanga tradition is one of discipline but also flexibility. Let us not blame our own failings on the tradition.


I should add that Chad Herst is a dedicated teacher and practitioner of traditional Ashtanga Yoga. See his website here.

Mysore Magic – Yoga at the Source

A new documentary, about Yoga at the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, has just been released. Sharath showed the film to his students this week at his weekly conference so we can rest assured that it has his approval.

The film has many interviews with students at the Shala, articulating their reasons for travelling around the world to be there, at the source of the Ashtanga Yoga practice. Sharath appears in the film, speaking about his Grandfather Sri K Pattabhi Jois and also a little about ‘what is yoga’. The film-maker (Alex Medin) also interviews other residents of Mysore; officials and historians from the palace where Guruji and Krishnamcharya were teaching and members of the faculty at the Sanskrit College (where Guruji was a professor for many years).

Anytime we get to hear directly from Mysore, and in particular from our teacher Sharath, it is a blessing for us, here, on the other side of the world. It is great to see that Ashtanga Yoga is spreading to many corners of the world and films like this can only help in bringing the worldwide Ashtanga community together.

Watch the trailer or stream/download Mysore Magic – Yoga at the Source


Click here to find out about our introductory classes. All proceeds go to Odanadi Seva Trust, a home for trafficked children in Mysore, India.

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