Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

The Myth of the Perfect Yoga Practice

I had a dream that one day I would get on my mat and everything would be easy. That if I practice every day and work hard, I would one day have a practice that consistently felt like floating clouds, rainbows and puppy dog kisses. Do you have that dream?

The mythical happily ever after is a construct of the mind. Yes, you can be happy. But the mythical happiness is different. The mythical happiness means that every day you have good hair, everybody is nice to you, you never get sick, everything goes your way and catching in backbends always feels “yummy”.  The mythical happy ever after is based on external circumstances. The happiness that Yoga is talking about is internally generated.

At no time in anyone’s life has everything been consistently perfect. We may have a few days (more likely hours) of perfect hair, skin, and health, amiable family members, and well behaved kids, however, the bubble does pop.

Why do we think our yoga practice would be different? It is something we do every day and every day is rarely mythical fairy tale level happy ever after. I suspect it is because many are using the practice as a drug instead of as a tool for taking out the trash covering the heart.  Drugs are supposed to always make the pain go away. So if we don’t feel good when we practice, the drug is defective.  Many are using the practice like Fabreeze on their garbage. If we smell the fragrance of  our putrid thoughts, it must not be working.  I realize today that my practice didn’t even start until my Fabreeze stopped working.

The Yoga Sutras even tell us that a perfect yoga practice is a steep request. It lists 9 obstacles that we most likely will face.

Obstacles (1.30)
Illness Dullness Doubt
Negligence Laziness Cravings
Misperceptions Failure Instability

Consequences of these obstacles (1.31)
Mental and physical pain Sadness and frustration
Unsteadiness of the body Irregular breath

It is very clear that there will be some dukha/suffering.

Some days your practice will not feel awesome. Some days you won’t be able to bind. Some days you won’t be able to stand up out of your backbends. Some days you will be sore. Some days, you will hurt. Some days you will be sick.

Just like any day of your life, right?

The only permanent samadhi/bliss is the one you take when you die.  If you believe in reincarnation, that one most likely is not permanent either. As long as we are in this body, we will experience different states of mind and different states of wellness.

Yes, there are physically gifted ones. People who have very few impediments when it comes to asana. People who, when work combines with genetics, have the privilege of performing asanas in a seemingly effortless manner. I say, “seemingly” because, if you really sit down and talk to these people, they will tell you that they have the same tightness, pains, bad hair days, surly children and doubts that you have.

Not being one of the physically gifted ones can actually be an advantage. In the Yoga Sutras, the powers that yogis get, come with a warning. They can be traps.  Yoga Sutras 3:47 says the yogi can receive beauty, strength, grace and bodily perfection. Let’s be honest. That is why many modern students come to this practice, right? The physical asana opens up the gateway to the soul. The Yogis knew this. That is why it is listed in the Sutras. It is a draw.

Sutra 1:51 goes on to say that by nonattachment to these powers and gifts, the seed of bondage is destroyed and freedom follows.  For those of us who have had to push and pull for every finger we manage to grab in Supta Kurmasana, we learn about non attachment quicker.  Every time, we eat a single french fry, and we can no longer bind in Pasasana, we learn about non attachment. It is an opportunity to learn how to be happy even without the bind. Non attachment is something we can get even quicker.

Through letting go of the need for physical perfection on the mat, you gain freedom in your body. Many modern students associate freedom in the body with handstands, arm balances, flow, and heat.  You can also find freedom through letting go. If you don’t bind today, you try 3 times and let it go. That is freedom that translates into life.  You cannot do a handstand in a stressful meeting at work or behind the wheel of your car in traffic, you can however, take 3 breaths and let go. Associating freedom with bodily perfection turns the practice into a drug for suppression instead of a cure for suffering.

The drug is external. The cure is internal. All the “things” we do in life for happiness are the drug. The drug can point us to happiness for sure. It is like a person with high blood pressure slowly weaning themselves off a life saving drug by changing their diet. The asanas can be one of those life saving drugs. Eventually, for true freedom, we shift our focus to the internal. That is the only way we can feel good in our bodies on a continuous basis. The fairy tale dream of 24/7 good hair, fresh breath and perfect asanas is a fairy tale.



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.


  • Diane Handler

    This was a great post for me to read as I deal with ongoing aches and minor injuries, mostly due to being nearly 58 and just not bouncing back as quickly as I could even 3 years ago. I have a steady practice and I’m still making forward progress, but the toughest part by far has been acceptance of where I am at this particular moment in time. Dealing with the attachment to an image of myself as always “fit”
    I appreciate your posts very much; I like your common sense and practical advice and attitude toward the practice.

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