Alignment and Injuries,  Ashtanga Adaptability,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Teach What You Want, Just Don’t Call It Ashtanga

At a workshop, when asked about teaching a modified version of Ashtanga, David Swenson said,

“Teach what you want, just don’t call it Ashtanga”

The beauty of Ashtanga is that it was laid out count by count, pose by pose by Pattabhi Jois, via what he learned from his teacher Krishnamacharya so that there would be no confusion about the method and to maximize effectiveness. Theoretically, you should be able to go anywhere in the world and seamlessly join any Ashtanga class without missing a beat. There have been some changes made over the years but they have been relatively small. The wheel of Ashtanga has not been reinvented.

David Swenson was adamant that if a teacher changed something, they needed to make it clear that they changed it or they needed to give the class another name. To not do so causes confusion for the student, disrespects the lineage and is a misrepresentation of the teachings.

Confusion For the Student

Years of had work and dedication is required to learn the Ashtanga Yoga Method. I have been practicing for 13 years and there were many places in my practice where I realized that my teacher changed something and I had to spend years creating new patterns that I should have already known. There were places where I was given modifications and props that only further entrenched my patterns of weakness instead of breaking them and forcing me to be stronger. I will be honest. I had a brief time where I actually felt some resentment towards those teachers. Now, I know better but I don’t want anyone to go through that.


Through my own travels and my own humble work with other Ashtangis in my town, I have witnessed how confused and frustrated students get when they have to sort through differing bits of information they have been given from multiple teachers. It is made worse when the techniques they have been using are not Ashtanga but yet they are effective.

The truth of the matter is that Ashtanga is one method. There are many approaches to yoga that are equally effective. I am not saying that non traditional techniques should or should not be used. If a student is told that the techniques are not traditional, then there is no confusion. The student knows that the technique is something that is useful but will be dropped when it is no longer needed. They also understand that if they go to another Ashtanga class that the technique will not be included and they are not surprised or confused.

In Ashtanga, the teacher/student relationship is important. The student is being asked to do difficult poses and techniques that require a high level of trust.  One of the obstacles to yoga, from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:30, is doubt. If the student doubts themselves, the teacher or the practice, the process of yoga is interrupted and it is potentially injurious. In the military, soldiers are trained to be able to react quickly in a crisis situation. Just one moment of doubt could mean the death of their whole squad. In yoga, just one moment of doubt could cause someone to tense up when they should be relaxed. To let go, when they need to be firm. That one moment can cause injury not just to the student but to the teacher.

In this lineage, teachers have the responsibility to prepare their students for other teachers and to be able to practice on their own. It is common in Ashtanga to practice with your teacher for a few months and then not see them for awhile. Students go home. Students move away. Yoga programs end. When a teacher takes a student outside of tradition without letting them know, they are setting them up for doubt, frustration and failure.


If you are a teacher, you know how it feels to have to help a student who is confused about the lineage. It requires weeks of work and undoing. Again, I have been one of those students that had to be stopped because my practice needed to be “cleaned up”. Teachers don’t enjoy having to deal with an angry student who has had their practice disrupted and students don’t like the feeling of being in that situation.


Disrespects the Lineage

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:30 lists carelessness as another obstacle to yoga. Carelessness is not having respect or care for the yoga. What makes this situation so bad is that because of a teacher’s carelessness, the students suffer the obstacle called “failure to  maintain firm ground” which is also in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is kind of like when your mother in law visits and she rearranges your kitchen when you go to work because she thinks this works better. Even thought she was trying to be helpful, it was disrespectful to do without your permission and without a full understanding of your original set up.  It no longer feels like your kitchen and you have to go back and fix it….when she leaves town… LOL.

This is Pattabhi Jois and Sharath’s kitchen. If you don’t like the kitchen, build your own kitchen.  If the student came to learn Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Pattabhi and Sharath Jois, that is what you teach them.  Respect what they came to learn or start your own yoga.


Misrepresentation of the Teachings

Have you ever been in a situation where someone said you said something and you didn’t? Do you remember how angry you got? Have you ever been in a situation where you got blamed for something because you were the leader but the people under you were not even following your directions? Have you ever been in a situation where someone could get hurt or have disastrous results if they didn’t follow your directions exactly as you laid them out? If you are a parent, you know the heartache of having a kid who disobeys you but everyone is looking at you like a bad parent.

No one likes the feeling of being misrepresented. However, when we change up the teachings and pass them off like tradition, that is what we are doing. The golden rule is a good one. “Treat others like you want to be treated”. The Yoga Sutras also talks about truthfulness. Passing things off as tradition, when they are not, is not truthful.


PS: Before I wrap this post up, this is not about if you should or should not add, subtract, or deviate from tradition. It is just saying, if you do, make it known. This is also not about people who have unknowingly done it. Everybody makes mistakes. This is about those who know they are but are not saying so.

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


  • LoRo

    The one good thing this author points out is that, “the student knows that the technique (meaning the use of props) is something that is useful but will be dropped when it is no longer needed.” Aside from that this article is teetering on the edge of fundamentalist and goes so far as to use the Yoga Sutras to support such claims, the same way that religious fundamentalists selectively choose certain verses from the Bible to support intolerance.

    I agree that there is some conflicting information going on out there, but to attach oneself to an idea of what is “traditional” is so limiting and inaccessible for so many people who want to work the practice. And to make yogis analogous to soldiers, who are trained not to question, to take orders and have a rigid set doctrine that they subscribe to because they are trained to kill people, is really, VERY scary.

    Hopefully Ashtanga yoga is cultivating a sense of curiosity and playfulness about one’s body and mind. And while having to stop and go back in one’s practice to “clean things up” can be slightly frustrating, it’s more about the blow to the ego than anything else. Any feelings that come up around that are worthy of being observed, rather than projected onto another teacher or oneself. If this practice (or all of yoga for that matter) is not giving you a taste of what it means to become softer, compassionate, patient, kind and to remind you to have a rocking sense of humor, something is not right. Time to find a different teacher or change your approach to the practice.

    I HIGHLY suggest you check out the YouTube video with Maty Ezraty that was filmed at Purple Valley about the philosophy behind Ashtanga yoga and the varying methods and approach to practice.

    • Liz

      I couldn’t agree more. I was particularly caught by the analogy of following the strict tradition just like a soldier. Discipline and respect for tradition are extremely important but so are softness and listening with an open mind. Ashtanga yoga anf its avid practitioners definitely tend towards a rigid military attitude at times.

  • Chris Croft

    Although I understand the sentiment behind the article I find these teachers dangerously close to literalist fundamentalism – the trap of all powerful systems! I’ve been practicing and teaching this method for nearly 15 years, so I know that to attempt to stuff everyone into the Ashtanga method, without adaptation or an appreciation of these students as individuals, is both irresponsible and negligent. And in the long run it propagates a very narrow bandwidth of practitioner, who has their existing obsessive tendencies transformed into apparently more acceptable Ashtanga scented limitations. All I’m saying its a dangerous and exclusive club, that can follow the method precisely and maintain longevity. Those that have fallen trying are rarely mentioned or considered. Take it from my own experience of double knee surgery!

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