Are You Patanjali’s Puppet? Find Your Voice!

Via Sadie Nardini
on Jan 11, 2011
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I was just up teaching a weekend at Kripalu. Other than the lack of a good wine bar, I was in heaven. Together with 40 students I offered some real-world ideas for moving into transformation,  according to yoga philosophy, some other teachers’ opinions I value, and of course, to my own take on what yoga is trying to communicate.

Often, I see teachers reading from the Gita, or Patanjali, for example, reading what it says to the class, then stopping there. I’ve been fortunate to run across some uber-talented translators/yoga scholars in my day like Douglas Brooks and Leslie Kaminoff, Sally Kemp and others.

I call them translators because they’re each steeped in yoga culture, the canon of yogic thought and of course, yoga practice. Yet they can talk to you about what to do to put it into your everyday world as easily as they can teach posture.  You only have to read Sally’s articles on everything from surviving heartbreak to letting go of your own dramatic stories to know this.

I’m in the mood to blog more about bringing yoga philosophies–big ones, like the Yamas and Niyamas and other things I hear repeated over and over again in yoga classrooms without further insight, into our day-to-day issues and experiences. Some of it may rub you the wrong, or the right way, because if you don’t know this by now, I have my own opinions on things, and I tend to say ‘em straight.

However, I hope that I’ll widen some space around the box we can all easily fall into. If I hear one more teacher introduce class with the reading of Sutra 1.2:

yogash citta-vrtti-nirodah

Then proceed to tell us that it means “Yoga calms the monkey mind” and if we practice yoga, we will calm the monkey mind, then keep saying periodically “now, in this pose… calm your monkey mind.”,

I just might have to go into Child’s Pose a little early to restrain myself from crying out loud in exasperation, “But…what do YOU think about the frickin’ monkey mind?”  I don’t want to be merely read someone else’s words, unless they are accompanied by my teacher’s ideas on what they mean, to her, to him, to all of us who are striving to walk a path of least resistance and the most core connection to our inner truth.

Otherwise, you’re less a teacher than a pleaser…keeping your voice down to a whisper and letting someone else’s views cover for your own. You tell your class what’s already been said…so what’s new? You’re in danger of becoming the yogic equivalent of the girlfriend who does whatever her boyfriend wants, and never chooses the restaurant:  “Patanjali…whatever YOU say, that’s good enough for me.”

Patanjali, by the way, would seemingly not be a fan of this behavior.

Now, lest some of you guzzle a big glass of haterade and comment at this juncture, please read on: I have compassion for every yoga instructor beginning to bust out of the mold of speaking in someone profound background in yoga philosophy. I was petrified to claim the seat of the teacher as myself. It’s often hard to understand the Sutras, or anything else yoga teaches and still seen as slightly blasphemous to dare to put your own fingerprint on those sacred pages. I totally get why playing it safe is a common practice amongst my beloved community. Safe, however, isn’t good enough if you truly wish to help change the world.

I’m here to tell those who read us things in class but don’t expound on it: Grow a pair. Please. You’re so much more dynamic and interesting that way. You will feel so much more empowered when you stand up and show us who you are.

I encourage you to access your spiritual cojones with the utmost respect, to encourage you–whether you’re teaching yoga or a student–to trust your take on something like:  how we can calm our restless monkey mind. Well? How do you do it? What are the tools you know about? How do you face insomnia or edit your destructive stories or disconnect from the looping anxiety that builds when facing the unknown? What are the struggles you’ve faced when trying to do this? Offer me some of yourself along with the masters’ words. Then I won’t feel so alone in my humanity.

I seek out those teachers who can not only tell me what yoga says, but what to do, practically, to accomplish the action steps to get me there, even if it’s just a suggestion of something that works for them. I’ll take it into consideration, and appreciate that they had the courage to believe their offering might be valuable.

This is in fact, Core Strength 101: Can you dig deep, take heart, speak your mind, and as Patanjali said, release all the books and teachings in favor of the ultimate authority: you. Give us what you already know deep inside to be true for you. Share that, and in that moment, you become a master too.  Besides, you know far more than you might think. Even the act of being you frees me to be me.

Beyond other people’s inspirations, just…talk to me like a friend.

I used to be a shrinking violet, head dipped low behind this or that translation of the Gita, or notes taken from a lifelong teacher at some conference or another. But it was when I began believing that I actually could parallel my own life’s challenges to the teachings, and started adding in my voice, tentatively at first, that my students really started to resonate with the material.  They felt seen, heard, and like we are in this together. I went from preaching to teaching, which inherently assumes you’re giving something of your own perspective, adding to what we already know.

These days, you won’t catch me reading anything in Sanskrit or otherwise that I can’t offer you, clearly, in my own words, how I think it could manifest into reality. It’s a practice of seeing the universal parallels in all things. And it gets stronger (as you will) the more you do it. Am I perfect? I hope not!  Am I me? You bet.

Walking down the stairs yesterday on my way to lunch, I saw this sign:

“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.”

That’s from the Bhagavad Gita. And it struck me deeply: Part of what we’re doing here is to become bold, to step forward into our own skin, and allow ourselves to be seen. Those horrid long holds in Warrior Two or Chair Pose are able to strengthen us, to help us know we can endure great intensity.

And, teachers, tell me–isn’t sharing of yourself in front of a whole bunch of people one of the most intense experiences? Things don’t have to be bad to be hard to endure. If we want the immense goodness of being, we have to have a soft belly and a strong core.

Whether it’s opening to the near-unbearably sweet fire of intimacy, love, saying yes to the raw, stinging vulnerability of being yourself, or inviting your students into your innermost chamber of spiritual secrets, we can practice remaining solidly rooted in our Satya, the real truth of ourselves. How? Open your mouth, speak your truth, let some people be disappointed in you and others resonate. Just say what you think, respectfully…and your tribe will surround you.

Can you do this a little more? How will you? Because I’m interested in knowing your take on all that we call yoga–and I bet a lot of other people are, too.


About Sadie Nardini

Sadie Nardini, is the founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga, an anatomically-optimized flow style that gives you more results and benefits for every minute spent on your yoga mat. She is a holistic anatomy geek, healthy hedonism advocate, yoga expert, author, and TV host who travels internationally bringing empowering tools to yoga teachers and students everywhere. Her new book, The 21-Day Yoga Body: A Metabolic Makeover, Life-Styling Manual to Get You Fit, Fierce and Fabulous in Just 3 Weeks! (Random House), is out now, and her TV show, Rock Your Yoga, is playing across the country on the new Veria Living Network. With Sadie, you'll sweat, laugh, learn, and come away transformed, informed, and inspired anew. Learn more at


41 Responses to “Are You Patanjali’s Puppet? Find Your Voice!”

  1. sanora says:

    Truly inspiring. Yes, do grow a pair. For me the quote that struck me in a similar way was "established in being, perform action" which is also from the Bhagavad Gita. For me, it resonated in the simple truth of first meditate, establish yourself in Being and then open your eyes, stand up and act. So meditation becomes less a passive practice and more a base from which to act. Act in a way that you, the individual, are most effective. Take your big, bright, amazing self out into the world and touch / teach another.

    It is through our small "s" self that we inspire ourselves and others to evolve to large "S" higher unified Self (and, by the way, since all is One, we are Patanjali, that knowledge is already within, no need to use his words to communicate consiousness, except perhaps as an example of someone saying something in the most eloquent way possible).

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bob Weisenberg. Bob Weisenberg said: "Are You Patanjali’s Puppet? Find Your Voice!" by @sadienardini @elephantjournal #elej #yogadork #yoga #anusara […]

  3. Love these insights of yours, Sanora, especially " So meditation becomes less a passive practice and more a base from which to act.". So much the heart of the Gita!

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  4. Carrie says:

    Awesome!! I really, really love this post. While I don't see eye to eye with you, Sadie, on some other issues, I'm looking straight into your eyes on this one. I want a teacher that gives me practical, real world advice on how to walk this path. I want to be a teacher who can give practical, real world advice to students. I teach several Taoist/Yin Yoga classes throughout the week, with the long holds I get a lot of time to talk and teach. I view it as a privilege to be able to actually teach the students that come to my classes. It's scary, it's intense, I make a fool of myself sometimes, but I'm honest, I'm real, and I'm human.

    Thank you for sharing this post.

  5. Betherann says:

    I have now read about the monkey mind in three separate, unrelated places in the past 24 hours!! I think I have my new focus for the time being… 🙂

    Great piece. Thanks!

  6. Nancy A says:

    Love this post on so many levels.. of course because it reminds me to do make my teaching my own, but also b/c I remember the awesomeness of our weekend at Kripalu. Thanks for being an inspiration to me and such a wonderful, honest and fantastic teacher! You rock it lady!!

  7. Ramesh Ramloll says:

    I am currently facing a paradox, the more deeply I go within, the less I feel the need to say anything. Everything said by others appear to have its place, there is no trepidation to get a view across, and the monkey mind appears definitely insignificant in this particular mode. This quietude does not seems compatible with debate because none seems necessary. So I wonder, what does it really mean to be 'me' by projecting 'a world view' or an interpretation…

  8. sadienardini says:

    Hey Eddie,
    Thank you so much for giving us some INsight on you, and your journey through this exact same issue. Yoga teacher, veteran, we can all benefit from being more vulnerable and letting people see our struggles. To me, a teacher is someone who aims to meet their own challenges head-on and has excelled in this enough to be able to let others know that it works. When we just tell them about our victories, it's nowhere near as powerful as the times we can also show them the places we've stumbled, fallen, and still managed to get back up and make a difference. In this place, we are all warriors of life.

  9. sadienardini says:

    Well, It was this weekend that really inspired the article…that deeply grounded feeling of alignment with my core while teaching the group, your honesty and availability as a fellow teacher and friend, and seeing the suffering some people were going through around feeling shut up and shut down. Thanks for your comment–and for a three-day yoga extravaganza that will go down in infamy;)

  10. sadienardini says:

    Yeah–three times is usually the charm for me. I'm reading Paulo Coelho's book The Witch of Portobello because of exactly the same thing. Let us know what you learn!

  11. Corti Cooper says:

    Thanks for this Sadie.

    At one of your recent workshops, I had talked about my insecurity in teaching a particular style or flow that is different from the standard salutation or vinyasa. You suggested to me/us that I couldn't know what was on my students minds so why not rather teach what is authentic to me. So now, mostly without worry, I teach what is important to me; asana's that I am exploring, alignment and ideas that I have applied in my life. Not only has it made it easier to teach, but people are coming back consistently, class after class, week after week. So thanks for the advice. Being true to myself as a teacher is so much easier!

    On the sutra's and sanskrit subject… I am very interested not only in the Yoga Sutras but the context of the history, culture and language. I have always been interested in primary source philosophical and religious writings and even spent many years studying the Bible as well as taking classes on Eastern thought. However, I rarely use sanskrit words, much less Biblical stories, in my yoga classes (except the names of the asanas). As I study Hinduism on my own, learn from yourself and Leslie Kaminoff about the Yoga tradition, I begin to understand more. It is most helpful for me to understand the concepts in relationship to anatomy (as LK and yourself teach). This allows me to materialize the concept and perhaps share with my students simply through alignment points (press down to rise up – apana and prana). I do however tread very lightly in this realm. For me, being authentic with the Sutras and any philosophy in my life is one thing. Teaching it is another thing. In my book, teaching philosophy is a tall order and takes years of study and discovery. In the meantime, I am thrilled to continue to learn from my teachers and explore these concepts in my own practice. As LK has said, there's a difference between being an instructor and a teacher. Sometimes, it's okay to be an instructor.

    Miss you so. xoxo

  12. sadienardini says:

    OOOH–and GREAT photo at the top of this article, BTW–thank you for taking it!!


  13. Ramesh Ramloll says:

    @Bob Weisenberg, I am currently reading a free book of yours (thank u for that, u are very generous) that collects the experiences of many yoga teachers in the US. The second chapter is about Kelly (if I remember correctly) who wrote an article about 'What yoga is not' This piece can look like a piece of bad news and yet rings so true. At times, I too feel strongly the need to solve mental riddles/aphorisms(so that I can use them)… which is like 'you need to solve this Gita riddle before moving on' So two things can happen here, 1. I come across an insight that impresses me in the moment or 2. the riddle remains open, unsolved. In the first case, soon enough, the power of the recognition of what is 'true' starts to fade … which points to the fact, that 'recognitions' 'flashes of insights' are yet deeper level phenomena … which our minds are fond of because they entertain (I would go in too deeply here). May be this is a different way of saying that the Truth with a capital T is actually not accessible by and through the mind. The mind will crave for a path, for coping strategies … yet over and over again, we will keep on hitting the same obstacles and we will wonder 'what did we miss' Yes yoga can reduce the 'feeling' of resistance and pain within 'us'. I think chemicals can do that too … even placebos. Whether we want to act or not, I think, we will. Whether those actions are coming from an enlightened self or not is unknowable. Just an idea, I will probably find it to be wrong tomorrow.

  14. YesuDas says:

    Beautiful, Sadie. When I used to sit on performance juries–those scary troikas of music faculty that evaluate a student's performer's performance before he/she is allowed to proceed with a recital–I had to tell them all the time: "Jenny," your Vivaldi is fine. Your technique is good, your intonation is accurate, your phrasing is coherent. The only thing I'm missing is "Jenny." Because people aren't coming to your recital to hear Vivaldi–they're coming to hear *you.* Vivaldi's had a good run–he's fine. We want to hear *you*.

  15. Thanks for writing, Ramesh. Actually that very article you refer to was published last year on Elephant and became a runaway hit purely through word of mouth on Facebook: The Downside to Down Dog" by Kelly Grey.

    The book it came from, as you say, free online, is YOGA IN AMERICA In the Words of Some of Yoga’s Most Ardent Teachers. I was the volunteer co-editor, but the book is actually Deborah Bernstein's, and she deserves all the credit for allowing it to be made available for free download.

    Thanks for sharing your very interesting thoughts with us. I'm glad you're enjoying the book.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  16. Anna says:

    sadie, i've read both your recent posts, and love what you have to say, and how you say it. this article, in particular, resonated for me. i dove into my practice in new york city, and started teaching there, then made a move to chicago, and found the yoga scene so… well… just different. anyway, the only thing that has kept me interested and engaged as a teacher and doer of yoga is that constant personal curiosity, both in what i read and how i practice. it's sometimes a lonely place to be, and i still feel like i don't fit into any one studio, or resonate with any one teacher. but after six years of staying open and curious to what i'm learning, and sharing it with people who come to my class, i feel like i've found people who approach it the way i do… and then we are each other's teachers, really.

  17. tamingauthor says:

    Sadie, your opinions on this topic give me pause. Do I really want the thoughts of my yoga instructors on the Yoga Sutras or do I simply want to hear the (translated) words of Patanjali?

    One of my yoga instructors possesses considerable knowledge and wisdom. We enjoy talking about the Sutras over tea, privately. Our conversations would frighten away the typical students in a yoga class. With him I love to hear both the original and his thoughts on the material.

    With most other instructors I have met their exposition on the material would be more comedic (though not intentionally). And with a few it would be downright distracting. In these cases, they actually perform more of a service by simply being a messenger, reminding one of the wisdom of a true master.

    My wife and I took one class from a young "valley girl" instructor in which she expounded on Buddhism. It was the most amazing experience. She had all the words right but had absolutely no clue as to the meaning. It was the oddest juxtaposition of wisdom and ignorance we had ever experienced. As we left, slack-jawed, we agreed one could not label it other than truly bizarre. It was equivalent to loading an energizer bunny with the sutras and letting it run around the studio.

    We also see yoga "experts" who reduce the wisdom to western philosophical materialism, which also is quite jolting. Providing encouragement for this conversion of wisdom into its opposite may not be the best approach, from a karmic viewpoint. Perhaps it is better to advocate the beauty of silence in yoga instructors. There may be more value in their providing a quiet non-monkey mind sound track to the practice.

    So I am not sure one can make a blanket statement about which way to go with this choice. Probably best for most instructors to not inject their thoughts up against the words of a master when they have not actually walked the path. They may have "grown a pair" but it may look more like low-hanging fruit.

  18. sandy says:

    Where in the Gita is it said that “Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.”? (web was of no use) -thanks!

  19. Silvia says:

    Thank you Sadie. Your post truely speaks to my heart. Not matter what kind of teacher you are – isnt' the art of teaching based on invoking thought and relating it to our own personal experiences so we can apply priciples in our everyday life? The art of teaching in yoga is often underestimated and has nothing to do with simply repeating or translating text.

    How else would we be able to raise awareness and inspire change? Never be afraid of speaking out!


  20. Denise says:

    Hey Ramesh, totally true – when the mind placates, is still, there is less to say. When you reach that level, your vibrations are different, and people will learn and grow simply by being in your presence – vibrations will trigger shifts in people. I guess Sadie was writing this for those teachers that quote things at the end of their lessons, etc… it is helpful advise as it pushes to further introspection which pushes to further growth, spiritual progress hence change in vibrations.
    I experienced great contentment and peace in one of my yoga classes, where this teacher did not speak much more other than explaining poses. I felt great in her presence though, saw a lovely glow emanating from her. Could feel her mind was pretty much still and the monkey was fast asleep!

  21. tamingauthor says:

    Perhaps it is the opposite. Perhaps the task is to pass along truths from those who have mastered the subject rather than inject ignorance that arises from our own incomplete journey.

    We place so much value today on putting forth "our own personal experience" regardless of the value or depth of that experience. It may make more sense to compare that experience with the teachings of the masters and see if it really has any value.

    Otherwise, we risk becoming a culture of ignorance in which one confusion is traded for another and another and so on. As it stands, most yoga instructors cannot even read and explain the Yoga Sutras, let alone give us any new insights of value. And way too many put forth the antithesis of the Sutras in the form of western materialism. The idea that all yoga teachers should pontificate on the basis of their limited experience and limited insight, just because they "own" their ignorance, doesn't hold much water.

  22. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for your post. I've made a policy over the past 24 years of never teaching anything I haven't fully embodied. I ONLY quote sutras if I've really gotten them on a deep enough level to understand how they relate to my life. So for many years I never quoted sutras.

    I agree with tamingauthor that watering down the sutras by conveying only your own possibly limited take on them is not necessarily a good thing. I've heard relatively inexperienced teachers sprinkle "wisdom" into instructions, and that doesn't work for me. There is no substitute for studying the words of those who devoted the whole of their lives to yoga. There is also no substitute for the painstaking process of truly understanding what these words and principles mean in our lives.

    That said, I may be guilty of this. I wrote a book that's framework is the Eight Limbs (Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, published by Rodmell Press in 2007). I included short personal stories in every chapter, some of which I was hesitant to share with a potentially international audience. But time and again, the feedback I get is that those stories were the part of the book that helped people understand the principles in each chapter. For me, stories integrate on a much deeper level than hard information does.

  23. bo forbes says:

    Sadie, I'm a huge fan- both of Elephant Journal and of you. This is a great post- one of those amazing moments of synchronicity. Just so happens that you picked one of my favorite quotes at Kripalu (such an amazing place!). It has a cool story behind it:

    The quote is actually by Dinabandhu Sarley, Kripalu's innovative and fearless former CEO. It's his interpretation (and an incredibly inspiring one!) of what the Gita means to him. It represents his down-to-earth, accessible distillation of one of yoga's most rich and complex classical texts. So his quote is an example of your wonderful post's message- about allowing the alchemy of ancient wisdom to filter through our own experience. It's a reminder that like Dinabandhu, and like you, we scan explore (for it's never a "done deal") our deepest, most authentic selves, and that the practice of doing so (and of yoga) helps us live with the consequences. Kudos to Dinabhandhu for inspiring hundress of thousands of people, and to you for your creativity and intuition.

  24. Hi, Bo. Really enjoyed this Gita reference, especially since I just posted this:

    Gita in a Nutshell #8: Does the Infinitely Wondrous Universe Give a Damn About You and Me?

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  25. Madelain Burgoyne says:

    I'm about to teach my very first class on Monday… Yoga in general is no small deal because you are responsible for the classes you teach. but on the other hand it can be simple and uncomplicated when you are open and your truth resonates from within. Sadie, your advice is invaluable! Of coarse, it's easy to see the sense in this!

    Thank you!

  26. Madelain Burgoyne says:

    P.S. any more tips for new yoga teachers (first timers)?

  27. […] 1.1 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, atha yoga anushasanam (“Now begins yoga”) suggests that we should be […]

  28. sadienardini says:

    "Vivaldi's had a good run…" Priceless. This being YOU thing is pretty universal, eh? Thank you so much for sharing, and bringing a smile today.


  29. dharma_singh says:

    Hmmm. I disagree to a degree…

    Sure, I would love more teachers to discuss philosophies found in the Gita and the Sutras, however, to do so they need to truly understand those philosophies – not their feelings about them. Being a certified yoga instructor these days does not make someone qualified to “teach” the Yoga Sutras. I would rather hear the literal translations of the Sutras and ponder over it myself than to hear an interpretation that is not grounded in truth and firsthand experience. There is a huge difference between a yoga instructor and a Guru. I would love to see a certification program for teaching the Yoga Sutras and I’ll bet it would take much longer and be infinitely more complex than the average teacher training program at your local yoga studio. But at least then the teacher would be grounded in the tradition. Am I just being old and boring about this?

  30. Charlotte says:

    Yay to being old and boring! I've been studying the sutras for six years. My study partner and I just finished the fourth pada and have decided to do one last overview of the whole thing before we move on to the Upanishads. I am amazed at my notes from the first pada that we studied so long ago and how differently I interpret the first pada now. I could easily start over from square one and probably will sometime in the future. After six years of monthly meetings and intense study, I don't feel as if I have a complete handle on the sutras. This is after 28 years of continuous yoga and meditation practice. The point is, you are right. Most novice teachers these days with a six-month teacher training course under their belts are barely ready to study the sutras, let alone teach them. I absolutely advocate that novice teachers embark on the sutra exploration, but let them marinate for a long time before you teach them. If you are paying attention, you'll see that over time your understanding of them can change radically.

  31. Charlotte says:

    Yay for being old and boring! I've been studying the sutras for six years, and practicing yoga and meditation for 28 years. After six years of intense study, my study partner and I recently finished the fourth pada. Now we're going back through the entire book for an overview. When I read my notes from the first pada, from six years ago, I'm amazed at how differently I understand these sutras now. I could easily go back to square one and spend another six years going through the sutras and arrive at completely different interpretations, and I'm sure I will do this at some point.

    So, what I'm trying to say is that you are right that the insights of a novice teacher who's just barely scratched the surface of the sutras may or may not be helpful. Sutra study is a lifelong practice, not something you can read and be "certified" to teach in a matter of months. It's great for novice students and teachers to be introduced to sutra exploration, but readiness to teach sutras and offer useful insights about them does not come instantly.

  32. Rebecca says:

    This is terrific, as usual!!! I'm struggling with this idea right now, trying to find a way to use the wisdom of yoga to connect on a real world level in myself and with my students. It's really damn hard, but I'm workin' it out!

  33. monkeywithglasses says:

    Bravo! Well said; I agree 300%.

  34. Isvari says:

    It is such a pet peave of mine. It mostly happens when I take class from a younger teacher. If you don't live what you teach there is no shakti in it, it is inauthentic.
    Thanks for writing this.

  35. […] like to think that, as I enter my creative zone, my pointed concentration would surely make sage Patanjali […]

  36. […] the most cynical Westerner that meditation is good for you. But if you are, as Sadie Nardini says, Patanjali’s Puppet, if you are remotely interested in yoga asana, then consider exploring other forms of yoga […]

  37. Argentina Rickenbacker says:

    WOW! I this Launch Pad blows the competition out of the water.

  38. Gov says:

    I am sorry while the quote from the Gita may have significance of some sort , I have to point out that the Gita doesn’t have this quote at all. I think it’s a bit misleading to pass of such things as wisdom from the Gita! Even if we do see quotes such as these it is at best to verify if they are actually from the Gita.