Thursday, September 8, 2011

Practice report, 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory

Practice this morning was nothing to write home about, to say the least. In the first Surya A, I felt this tightness in the left hamstring, near the attachment. Which is always something to be careful about, because the majority of hamstring tears/injuries occur near the attachment, which is the weakest part of the muscle.

I worked slowly and carefully with the hamstring, doing an extra Surya B to try to slowly work it out. The tightness persisted through the Suryas, and the first few standing postures. But when I got to the Prasaritas, things got a lot better. There was still a slight "off" sensation, but other than that, it seemed to have opened quite nicely.

Because of this less-than-fully-powerful start to my practice, I thought of doing primary only. But I went ahead and did second anyway. Why? I'm not sure; probably a combination of stubbornness and curiosity about how my mind and body can function under less-than-ideal conditions. Not the best kind of curiosity to have, I admit: It sometimes gets me into trouble.

Second proved doable. Kapotasana felt harder than normal, although I still got my heels. Surprisingly, leg-behind-head wasn't hard at all, despite my worries about my left hamstring. And then Karandavasana... today is definitely not a good Karandavasana day. Made four attempts, and didn't land the duck a single time. Finally convinced myself that it wasn't going to happen today, and moved on to finishing.

So all in all, today's practice was somewhat lackluster, physically speaking. But that's practice. Some days one floats along like a butterfly, other days one crawls along like a caterpillar. But butterfly or caterpillar, one practices. And then, all is coming.


Along with the latest incarnation of Kinogate has sprung up a side discussion about the "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory" doctrine (for more details, see the comments in this article).

In the discussion, Nathan remarked that,

"Perhaps the 1% theory view is part of the problem. When people don’t take the time to learn the philosophy and spiritual teachings behind the physical practice, and then actually allow that to become embodied in their lives, you get all sorts of junk coming out. Including a hell of a lot of flaky yoga, and sometimes equally flaky judgements."

Interesting. Let me begin by noting that Guruji said, "Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory." I'm quite sure he did not say, "Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory." Which means that he intends for this statement to apply to any kind of yoga, not just Ashtanga. I know this makes me sound like some kind of an Ashtanga Fundamentalist, but before you get mad and start hurling such accusations at me, take a moment to consider the matter: Guruji also did not say that "Yoga is 99 percent physical practice, 1 percent theory."   

What all this means is that, according to Guruji, whatever kind of yoga you practice (Raja, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, etc.), no amount of theoretical understanding is going to get you anywhere if you do not spend a lot of time and energy devoting yourself to practicing whatever you have learnt, however much or little that may be: As a general rule of thumb, for every one ounce of energy and/or time that one invests in theoretical study, one needs to invest 99 times more of that time and energy into practice. Hence the "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory" doctrine. This applies whether practice for you consists of doing the primary series (or whatever series you are working on), devotional chanting, doing good works, or meditating on particular scriptures. In Ashtanga, you simply can't "get" the philosophy and spiritual teachings behind the physical practice without doing the physical practice. I think David Williams said somewhere that before you do the practice, the theory is useless; after you do the practice, the theory is obvious.

I think the trouble here is that there is some kind of an artificial divide going on: People who think that the so-called spiritual aspects of yoga are more important tend to think that getting too much into the physical practice causes one to shut off the mind/consciousness, leading to "flaky yoga" (hmm... not quite sure I know what this means, but whatever...). I can't help feeling that such a way of looking at yoga belies a tendency to draw an artificial line between the "physical" and "spiritual" aspects of the practice, when one cannot properly be separated from the other: Done properly, the physical is spiritual (and probably the other way around too...). Any attempt to artificially separate and divide the two runs the risk of turning yoga into a cerebral exercise.

These, at any rate, are my paltry thoughts on this issue. And no, I do not think that whatever I write on this blog counts as that "1 percent theory" that Guruji talks about. This is just me running my mind off in a random, musing fashion.


  1. "Done properly, the physical is spiritual (and probably the other way around too...). "

    This, really, is my point. I have spent years trying to break down that physical/spiritual divide in myself, and writing about it to perhaps help others similarly break that down.

    However, when you consider the majority of what's called yoga in North America, it's about exercise, stretching, and tangentially physical health. The divide in how it's approached is quite clear. Maybe my terming this as "flaky" isn't fair, but the reality is that the philosophical and spiritual elements are frequently cut off completely.

    Which is why I also think there is the phenomenon of heady spiritual types who cut out most, if not all of the physical practices, and focus too exclusively on the theory and spiritual teaching side of things. And then go and bash heads with those who could care less about any of that.

    I totally agree with you that a variety of actions can constitute "practice," but if you lined up a hundred yoga practitioners and asked them what practice is, I bet you 70-80 would say exclusively asanas.

    What I found interesting was that even the reply left on my comment on RecoveringYogi by Yyogini focused on the practice of asana, suggesting that one would "naturally" move towards the philosophical/spiritual elements of practice after mastering the physical forms. Something that I don't agree with. How things are presented deeply impacts how practice unfolds. For example, I've been reading Steven Cope's memoir about, in part, the Kripalu center. And he speaks in there about how it wasn't until he started practicing at Kripalu that he made the connections between asana and most of the other elements of yoga. Because where he had been doing yoga, it was mostly about asana practice and the physical benefits. I can imagine some people gain intuitive insight and desire to explore deeper simply from doing asana, but I believe that Cope's experience is a lot more commonplace.

  2. Hello Nathan,
    thanks for your insightful response. I've never met Stephen Cope personally, but I read his "The Wisdom of Yoga" a few years ago, and find that he has a really integrated perspective on how the eight limbs of yoga come together in day to day practice.

    I really don't know just how many people out there identify yoga exclusively with asanas. Being an Ashtangi, I tend to be sympathetic to such people, because I think that different people have different entry points to the yoga practice. Some choose bhakti, for instance. Other more physically inclined people choose asana. Yet others choose a more intellectual study of the scriptures. Whatever the entry point, a serious humble practitioner who is willing to be open will ultimately achieve self-realization. And this includes, I believe, people who seem to be very asana-oriented. Most of my writings on this blog and my practice, for instance, is very asana-oriented. I'm not pretending to be self-realized or anything like that; I'm just saying that spiritual growth and evolution is possible from many directions.

  3. The little bit I've seen of Ashtanga practice, and practitioners, is that there seems to be an openness to the other limbs built into the asana practice. It's different from the average exercise yoga class at the YWCA or some fitness gym.

    I definitely agree with you that asanas are an entry point, and definitely one that can lead to deeper awakenings. However, from what I've seen, there needs to be a nudge in that direction - often coming from a teacher or other influence - to see yoga as more than just exercise and good for your health. If you're in classes, for example, where all the talk is about tight abs and feeling good, that kind of leap is less likely.

    It's just been really interesting for me since people have learned I'm in a yoga teacher training program. I've gotten a lot of insight into what people think yoga is about, and surprise is a common expression when I speak of it as a spiritual path.

  4. Interesting, Nathan. It's been a really long time since I was in a class in which everybody was talking about tight ab and feeling good; it's probably because since I became a full-time Ashtangi, I've kind of limited to classes that I go to to Ashtanga classes. Which may, in a way, have sheltered me from the realities of the greater yoga-fitness world :-) Oh well, the only thing I can really do, when all is said and done, is to do my own practice as best as I can, and share it with whoever is interested in this practice as well. Everything else is Maya.