Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Defining Yoga: Cessation is Not Suppression

When I’m practicing I’m never alone. Everything that I’m dealing with at that time is with me. Sometimes I bring anger, frustration, happiness, weakness, strength and it manifest itself on my mat. I don’t speak much and I’m not worried about fitting in. I see the improvements in my practice but only after I do the work and if I get complacent I’m reminded to keep working.

Sometimes I struggle dropping in, sometimes I don’t. It depends on the day. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes I surprise myself by going deeper into a pose I’ve been working on. I know it will take time, so I keep coming back to give myself the chance to grow. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing that I can’t turn off. I just know I don’t turn off and I don’t want too-Warren B

I received this amazing comment to a recent blog post, Yoga Dealers of Drug Dealers. Warren brings up a great point about turning off emotions. He is right. Don’t do it.

A long, long, time ago, I used to watch Vampire Diaries. I know. Don’t hate. The vampires, in this show, have the ability to cut off their emotions. However, whenever this has happened, vampires that are normally sweet, upstanding people who risk their lives for friends and family, turn into murderous sociopaths.


The same things happens with… err…. humans. Maybe not the murder but definitely an unintentional negative shifting of pent up emotions to other facets of our lives.  Many times when we think we are controlling our emotions or cutting them off, we are really just suppressing them. Suppression results in post suppressive rebound effect. Scientists discovered that the more you try to not think about  something, the more you actually wind up thinking about it. In studies, people who were allowed to think freely about a given topic thought about it less.  Essentially, when you allow yourself to feel, you work through it faster. Suppression has also been linked to health problems such as cancer,a shortened life spanand depression.


In the world of Yoga, suppressed emotions or unresolved actions have long been thought to cause “karmic” pain.


This form of pain is more difficult for Westerners to understand, as it involves the concept of karma. Through our past actions, words, and thoughts, we have created who we are today, including, according to Patanjali, the type of body, span of life, and form of death we will experience. When Patanjali stated that future pain is to be avoided, he did not elaborate about past pain. Past pain in this context is the pain that we have created through our past actions. It may be experienced now or in the future. We cannot change our past actions. Once the seeds of our actions have sprouted, the karma associated with those actions cannot be intercepted, and the pain resulting from them needs to be endured — not grudgingly endured but willingly accepted as ordained. If it is willingly accepted, it will lead to a karmic purification, to a burning of the old karma associated with that pain.

Occasionally in life we have to go through letting-go processes, and they are not complete without painful sensations. Grief is an example of such a process. Nobody will doubt that a possibly lengthy grieving process, during which we learn or come to terms with letting go, follows the death of a loved one. These processes can come to a conclusion only if we willingly and consciously enter into them.

Karmic pain in asana is that pain that cannot be removed by anatomical inquiry and attention to detail. If you have done everything in your power to correct the posture and the pain still persists, it may be necessary, karmic pain, something you may have to go through. It is very challenging for a yogini to know that she has done everything in her power and yet continues to suffer. Many people at this point will stop practicing because they feel unfairly treated. If you manage to continue your practice, you are fostering tapas, the ability to sustain your practice in the face of adversity. If you refuse to work through karmic pain and simply endure it, your yogic progress may stagnate.- A Deeper Conversation on Pain with Gregor Maehle.


Spiritual Bypassing

Spiritual Bypassing is another form of suppression prevalent in the yoga community.

Spiritual bypassing, a term first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. It is much more common than we might think and, in fact, is so pervasive as to go largely unnoticed, except in its more obvious extremes.

Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many ways, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.

True spirituality is not a high, not a rush, not an altered state. It has been fine to romance it for a while, but our times call for something far more real, grounded, and responsible; something radically alive and naturally integral; something that shakes us to our very core until we stop treating spiritual deepening as a something to dabble in here and there. Authentic spirituality is not some little flicker or buzz of knowingness, not a psychedelic blast-through or a mellow hanging-out on some exalted plane of consciousness, not a bubble of immunity, but a vast fire of liberation, an exquisitely fitting crucible and sanctuary, providing both heat and light for what must be done.

Most of the time when we’re immersed in spiritual bypassing, we like the light but not the heat, doing whatever we can to distance ourselves from the flames.

And when we’re caught up in the grosser forms of spiritual bypassing, we’d usually much rather theorize about the frontiers of consciousness than actually go there, sedating the fire rather than breathing it even more alive, espousing the ideal of unconditional love while not permitting love to show up in its more challenging, personal dimensions. To do so would be too hot, too scary, and too out-of-control, bringing things to the surface that we have long disowned or suppressed.- Avoidance in Holy Drag by Robert Augustus Masters, PHD


From a Yogic stand point, there are two solutions to dealing with negative emotions and thoughts.  You can watch the thoughts and emotions and allow them to move through you or replace the thought with a positive thought.

Yoga Sutras 2:33- When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translated by Swami Satchidananda

No matter which one you choose, you don’t want to continue with the story that caused the emotions. When you allow the emotions to move through you, you are doing it without the story. You are just feeling. When you replace a negative thought with a positive thought, you replace the negative story with a positive story.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:2- Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations in the mind field-Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Cessation is not suppression. It is a result of a deep connection with the Self that usually happens after a long spiritual process. Remember your first crush in school that you thought you would never get over? The one you got emotionally tore up over to the point where you thought you would never breathe or love again? At the time, it felt like everything, but now it feels like nothing. You probably don’t even think about that person unless someone brings them up. The fluctuations have stopped. You are not suppressing it. You are just no longer attached. You still have fond memories but they no longer guide your behavior. That is closer to what Patanjali is referring to in verse 1:2 of the Yoga Sutras.

Feel your emotions. Let them move through you. Eventually situations and events will no longer have the same effect on you but it takes time.

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.


  • Gudrun

    A few weeks ago I had this conversation with a friend of mine.
    Friend: “You always have so much understanding for everything and everyone. And you are always kind of reflective and compassionate about things that happen around you. How do you do that?”
    Me: “Oh… thanks. I think because of my practice I feel calmer and can take another more reflective point of view. But you know what? I wished, I would could come back to the state of thinking of something as absolute (and unreflected) bullshit. Just because it is bullshit.”

    Lets be honest. I was quite proud of that “friendly feedback” and took it for a compliment. Which it was meant to be!
    It made me feel like a better person, someone who people could rely on. Someone who would look at things from another point of view before acting, in order to give the person in front of me the best and most helpful advice possible. Good girl!

    But in the process I was at that time (and still am, but proceeding), I felt something was missing. I was not really sure what led me to my answer to that compliment. It really means a lot to me, because it was made not only from a friend, but a person who has additionally a very important place in my life. So why could I not just take it, smile and say “Thank you!” So, I kept thinking about it…

    Throughout this, some incidents and talks that happend in the mean time, it became clearer to me. I lost the connection to myself, some of my feelings, the knowledge what is right for me and what is not. I buried my needs, fears, desires, pains and sometimes even happiness under a mountain of being understandable and helpful, reflective and kind. It came to me, that I did this for a few reasons like wanting to to be a better person, not being egoistic and simply to feel better, more positive. (How egoistic, by the way… and stupid, as I had to learn…)

    Fourtunately I never had this feeling, when I was on the mat or while dealing with the Yoga Sutra. Especially while being on the mat so many thing happen(ed) that I could not and still can not turn off. Inside and outside… and I was wondering about that…
    From what I had learned and understood until this point, it had to be different. Quitening my mind to let peace (in my understanding not answers) come to me. Answers and action in the right moment were not the most important things, as total peace would automatically lead me to the knowledge what to do. And make it unimportant at the same time, because I would be at total peace… (yes, I still keep banging my head at the wall for so much “spiritual bypassing”, stupidhead I am/ was) So I forgot to go through “my all” and forbid myself the connection to my uncomfortable feelings, as they would only keep me away from “awareness”.
    But on the opposite, I found myself in a state on the mat, which made it luckily impossible to ignore myself or get away with that. There was no hiding place, nothing and noone to blame except myself and, most important, there was nothing/ no “helpful action on the outside” to destract me from dealing with me. First this made me as I said wondering about all that floated into me and blaming myself for “not being a good yogini”” who could go on the mat and stop thinking, as this was/ is what had/ has to be done… but doubting myself I moved on anway, because I felt that this was the right way no matter what. There is nothing wrong about being more calmer in mind, more reflective and less reactive… it is a very good thing. But not for the price of ignoring if something inside myself is going weird as this has to be seen as a signal for my self-development, where I am stuck and what needs to be cured. There is no need to “come back” to something, I think from a certain point it is not possible anyway… but to give it another quality to make it helpful… that is necessary….

    It is of course new, unknown, uncomfortable and sometimes scares me off, but I will move on anyway, as this from deep down feels like the only right thing to do.

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