Ask the AYP,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Ask the AYP: What is an Established Yoga Practice?

I was asked by Natalie to define Sutra 1:14-“Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.”

What feels like a long time is different for everyone.  I have seen students give up on Ashtanga because they can’t go past Marichyasana after a month and that feels like a long time for them. While other students are at Marichyasana for 2 years and they are totally content and unbothered.  I am not going to focus on the time because it is an illusion.  What feels long for one, feels short for others.  While commentators have definitely taken a stab at what a long time is, I am not going to focus on that.  I will say this though, Patanjali believed in past lives so I am going to guess that a long time is probably closer to several lifetimes than it is to a month to 2 years.

I am going to focus on the “earnestness” and “without break” part.

Signs that your practice is done with earnestness/faith and without break


Your practice is non negotiable

You practice stops for nothing and no one. It happens rain, sleet, snow, hail or highwater. It happens when you are on vacation, slammed at work or on unemployment. It happens if you are pregnant, sick, an amputee or having a bad hair day. It happens during the holidays, when your friends come into town and on your birthday. It happens when you have 2 kids or 20 kids. It happens if you lose your teacher or fall out of love with your guru. It happens if Sharath takes your name off a list or you get a bad assist.  It happens if the yoga studio shuts down or if a new one opens up. It happens in your home or at a shala.

Your practice has become something that you work into your schedule no matter what is going on in your life or the world of yoga. As a matter of fact, you may even work your whole life around your practice. As a matter of fact, you whole life becomes one big yoga practice.

Let me expound on that last sentence because it can be used as a cope out. If yoga is your whole life, your life looks way different from the average life. Many people are like, “I am practicing 7th series” but 7th series looks like drinking, yelling at kids, and being overworked and stressed out.  “I wasn’t on my mat but I still practiced yoga today” yet they were cursing in traffic, giving the check out girl the side eye, drunk at “da club”  and judging all of humanity and finding them lacking.  Living yoga means discipline of mind, word, diet and deeds. It means Yama and Niyama. If you live yoga, it should be apparent. Like, so apparent that people, who have never heard of yoga, know that something is different about you and the way you live. So different that your mother in law is questioning your sanity every time you come for Thanksgiving dinner. So different that your teenage kids are asking you to act normal when their friends come around. So different that people have no clue what to get you for Christmas or if you even believe in Christmas. So different that people don’t really know what you mean by bar-b-q.   Like that type of different.

It is on a schedule and not left up to chance

Just like you know when you need to show up for work, when you need to pick your kids up from school, when you need to pay your mortgage, you know when you are supposed to practice everyday.

You are like Job

Do you know Job from the Bible? He was the richest man in his hood. He had all the latest stuff, the smartest kids, the hottest wife, the coolest house and the most awesome-est friends.  He was also God’s biggest cheerleader. He worshiped him and lived the life of a devotee of God.  Job was also a really nice guy. He was positive, helpful, and a powerful force in the community. Everyone loved him. He was good looking and healthy. He could probably do Marichi with no problem.  Satan saw him and said to God, “meh, he only worships you because he has all that cool stuff. Take it away and we will see who he really is.”  God was like, “Whatever, lets do this.”

God took away everything. He made Job sick and gave him boils. His kids and wife died. His friends turned on him. He lost his land and cattle and street cred. He probably couldn’t do Marchi anymore. Despite all this, Job still loved and worshiped God. He was still nice, optimistic and happy. He was still an upstanding man in the community. His old friends would be like, “your God sucks. Let go of that dude and follow my God.” Job was like, “I’m good but thanks. My God is an awesome God.  This is happening for a reason.”

After testing him for a while, God was like, “See, Satan, you don’t know what you are talking about” and he gave Job everything back and then some.

Satan was right…about most people. For most people, they will practice as long as they can do the poses, their life is going good, they are getting new poses, their teacher is around, people are looking at them, they have a community, friends etc. However, if they loose their health, get injured, their teacher leaves or is human, their friends are not down for what they are doing, their life goes topsy turvy,etc, they stop practicing.

A person with an established practice is like Job.  They understand why they are practicing. They know it is not about their teacher, their body, the lineage, the shala, their friends, the fame, the fortune or the handstands.  They have allowed the yoga to pierce the veil over the heart and mind and their faith cannot be shaken.

It ain’t done until it is done

The reason, that people have trouble with finding an established practice, is because they don’t really understand the goal of yoga. Some people understand it, but they don’t really believe in it. At the end of the day, they are actually practicing for surface level reasons.  For instance, if you are practicing in service of the body, if your body breaks down, you cannot do the asanas, you get injuries, you are not getting a workout etc, you will stop practicing because it is done. If you are practicing for your body, and your body gives out, in your mind, you are done. If you are practicing for your teacher and they turn out to be an asshole, you are done. If you are practicing for your community and your shala closes, you are done.

The established practice, that Patanjali is talking about, is one that ends with samadhi. The book, that this verse on established practice comes from, is called, “Samadhi Pada”  or ‘the book on Samadhi”. The last verse, where Patanjali talks about the end result of all the practices of Samadhi Pada is “When the impression made by that samadhi is also wiped out, so that there are no more thought-waves at all in the mind, then one enters the samadhi which is called “seedless.”

No matter which Pada you read of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali leaves no doubt that the culmination of yoga practice is samadhi. It is not handstand. It is not authorization/certification.  It is not 100k followers. It is not abs, friends, a yoga studio or influence. It is samadhi. And not just any samadhi. It is the last and final samadhi. The one that wipes out our karmic storehouse. The one that constitutes your last trip to this earth. The big daddy of all samadhis, Nirbija samadhi. You are not done with yoga when you “take rest”. You are not done with yoga when you get up from your mat. You are not done with yoga when you leave your meditation cushion, it is not done until Nirbija samadhi and you don’t come back to earth LOL.

A person who is practicing with all earnestness, faith and devotion is not stopping before Nirbija samadhi.

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


  • Jan von Meppen

    What a beautiful and well written article. What you describe has been my life for a few years now and knowing that there are others who live like that is wonderful. Thank you for posting.

  • April Cannon

    Thank you! I needed this. I’ve not had an established practice for 2 years because I allowed people, and bad experiences with them get in the way. I began to associate the practice with deception and drama. Then I became very sick and gave up out of frustration caused by recovery limitations. It’s taken me a very long time to come full circle and I am proud to say my practice is in the process of being established once again. I have let go, forgiven, and moved forward. I have come to accept that anatomically I will never be the same, nor will my practice ever be what is was or could’ve been. But my practice is not about the poses, it’s about what I learn along the way while attempting them. Thank you again for this post.

  • Christine

    omg your retelling of the story of Job !
    i started saying to myself “practice even if nothing is coming.” this is how i feel about practice. it is breathing to me. i take small joy in accomplishing an extra deepening of a pose, or the instruction of a new one, but i know that tomorrow i could be set back, not be able to do any of it at all, just barely muster 1 surya nama A, and that is ok.
    i always look forward to your Saturday morning posts; wish i could attend your talks. 🙂

  • Oksana

    Encouraging! I’ve just started reading and my feeling is YES, that is something I ‘ve been waiting for a long time doing my practice at home. Doing it if it’s rainy or sunny, being lazy or being enthusiastic, feeling lonely or feeling connected, watching Ashtanga videos or reading Ashtanga blogs, knowing that no one can assist me, but NOW getting the idea of being earnest. Thank you so much, Shanna! I feel really grateful to you, to your sense of humour, to your unique ability to persuade telling simple stories, saying simple words. You’ve inspired me to realize what true practice IS. From Russia with love)))

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