Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Activism in Yoga


Activism is built into Yoga.  They are called the yamas and niyamas.

Racist? Follow Ahimsa(non harming

Like to have sex with your students? Bhramacharya (self control)

Doing unethical stuff to make money?  Aparigraha (non greed)

Show off? Santosha (contentment)

Yoga is intended to be taught as a system that combines ethics, practice, discipline, study and surrender. The minimum result of yoga is you become a decent human being.   Use the system of yoga to the maximum, you get enlightenment.  The minimum is not asana.   It is easy to do asana and be a jerk. It is easy to do asana and not be a decent person.  You just treat it like a workout, a competition, a business or a social media lifestyle manifesto. However, to use the yamas and niyamas, I have to take a hard look at my life.

I know what you are thinking. 50% of the members of the Yoga Sex Club For Men and maybe 30% of the Elitist Rich Ladies Handstand Union, can quote the yamas and niyamas. True. The key is application.

Here is the thing. 99.9% of the articles I read about the colonization of yoga, racism in yoga, and the deyogification of yoga, don’t mention the Sutras.  I rarely hear about the yoga Sutras in Yoga class. I rarely hear about them in workshops.  If you look up #yoga on instagram, yoga sutra quotes won’t come up.

The types of things that are mentioned are “feeling good”, “living your best life”, “being happy” and “doing you”.  “Feeling good” to a person who is out of touch with humanity can look like racism (feels good to get rid of Blacks!). “Living your best life”, to a person who objectifies women, may look like reaching out and touching a boob without permission.  Being happy to a pedophile, well you get where I am going with this, right?   Terms like these are way too subjective. The yamas and niyamas, no matter how they are interpreted, would stop these behaviors.

It blows my mind that an article, conference, or video on ethics in yoga does not include the yamas and niyamas or make any mention of the ethical principles that are built into the practice. That is like having a talk on Christianity without mentioning God or a talk on racism but you “don’t see color.” Well, what are we talking about then? Without  talking about yoga, it could be any conference, article or commentary on racism, sexism, classicism or ageism.  How can we say we are talking about yoga if we are not talking about yoga? It essentially becomes a talk on classicism that just so happened to occur at a place where asana is practiced.

Don’t get me wrong. That is still important.  However, to present it as a yoga problem without talking about yoga, is leaving out a huge part of the picture. Therein lies the problem. Our continual practicing of yoga without really practicing yoga perpetuates the behaviors that we are meeting or writing about. So let’s talk about yoga. Let’s practice yoga as a living science instead of as a set of exercises.

Let’s send a message that being able to choreograph a banging asana class is awesome but we also want teachers that value the ethical principles of yoga.  That is activism. How do you send that message? With your feet.  You support those who do and you withdraw your support from those who do not.  Not just in the yoga world but in general, we are failing at this most basic step of activism, non participation. Nothing can continue in this world that we don’t endorse.

Yoga Sutras 1:33 says, “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard towards the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calmness.” Why are we not disregarding the wicked? Meaning, why are we still supporting them? Because it is comfortable.  It is comfortable to continue purchasing from the unethical company down the street then to drive 10 minutes to the one that is.  It is comfortable for yoga teachers to tell their students to “be happy”,  “do you” and “do what feels good.”   It is not comfortable to talk about Ishvara Pranidhana.

 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

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@ashtangayogaproject.com.


  • Cindy

    ‘Let’s practice yoga as a living science instead of as a set of exercises.’
    Amen. Because if you only want to feel good, you better go to a spa, or have a massage.
    And indeed, what a beautiful photo.

    Caught in the web of satisfaction of desire, is also a phrase which comes more than often in handy. It is whole new thinking pattern, to ask yourself WHY do I want this? WHY do I do this?

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