My teacher Nevine says “Practice without theory falls flat. Theory without practice is disembodied.”
I have been both of these kinds of students. Plugging away at a physical practice because someone told me to do it and was good for me. Going through the same old poses, doing the exact same thing and efforting and grunting my way through practices leading up to some performative asana with my foot behind my head or a balance on my one arm….
But there was no “why.” Like WHY am I doing this? Why am I muscling my way through this practice. Why am I doing some poses that I hate. Why do I need to have my foot behind my head?
Without the WHY the practice falls flat. This leads to burnout, exhaustion and eventually the total demise of your practice. WHY are you even doing this? Just to get your foot behind your head? Sure it’s a great dinner party trick but that’s not enough to keep me going. The WHY is needed to stick with it. To stick with anything. To actually learn anything. We have to do some uncomfortable things in yoga in order to feel better in our bodies long term. But with no why, we’re not going to have the patience to stick with things that are sometimes grueling.
The other side is consuming knowledge without putting the information into practice. I feel a burning zeal to study and learn. I eat up books and courses like candy. I keep putting this information into my brain, sometimes haphazardly thinking that I just need to read it to understand it.
But anyone that’s been through traditional education knows this doesn’t work. You cram and cram and study all night to write the test and get it all out on paper then suddenly *poof* the information is all gone. You retained it just long enough to get it on paper. Did you actually learn anything? Could you apply it? This is why hands on learning and colleges and learning on the job are easier ways for people to learn than just reading textbooks and writing tests.
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen students come to workshops on theory….who I’ve never seen practice in the studio before. Sure they may practice at home here and there, but you can tell. Those you practice daily, and those practice here and there.
I’m not knocking the “every now and then” practitioner. ANY amount of yoga is good for you. But if you’re going to invest some serious time and finances in study, lectures or immersions….don’t you want to learn something? The learning comes from practice.
Why are we doing any of this?
I don’t like to waste my time. If I’m going to read something, I want to LEARN it. I’m going to use it. Sometimes I throw a book away half way through because I realize I’ve learned all that I’m going to learn and it’s not something I’m going to apply. I don’t need to finish it just because it’s there.
How do we really learn then? Through repetition. Repeating something again, and again, and again. That’s how we gain insight.
So it’s not just one thing…..it’s everything.
Learn theory, read, consume and study good techniques. Learn our history, our own personal narratives, our habits, esoteric theory, world religions, ways of knowing, ways of being.
Knowledge is at your fingertips and it’s easier to study any subject now than it ever has in the world’s history. Soak it up my friend. You could be a baker, a pilot, a doctor, a photographer….all from the comfort of your home thanks to our good friend google.
But if you want to really KNOW what you’ve studied, you have to practice it. You don’t get good at flying a plane, baking a cake or getting your foot behind your head without practicing the theory of the HOW each and every day. You won’t stick with the practice without the WHY.
Through constant repetition you will gain insight. You will find your own ways of communicating what you have learned, how you did it and how you do it and then and then only can you say that you have actually learned something. At first we learn something through someone else’s lens, then we see it through our lens and maybe another lens….now we’re ready to learn.
I can read something for hours totally checked out before I realize my eyes were glazing the page but my brain was somewhere else (I really struggled in university for this reason). I am often in a hurry to learn things quickly and maybe you can relate. With so much knowledge available at our fingertips, it feels like the pressure is on to know more.
But knowledge doesn’t come quickly or easily. It comes from integration, from multiple perspectives, from practice and repetition again and again. It takes 10,000 hours to be a master at something they say. So quite simply, if you’re a master of all, you’re a master of none because there is no way you can invest that kind of time in everything. Choose what you choose but apply it constantly.
If we learn without practicing we are disembodied. The goal of yoga is union and to put our brains in our bodies. The body is the material that we get to work with, but yoga is all about the mind. Going through the physical postures without knowing the theory or the why behind it is quite frankly boring. It’s not sustainable and yoga is freaking hard sometimes. If you don’t have a good reason for why you do what you do everyday there’s no way you’ll stick with it.
If your brain is not in your body….that’s lunacy. Doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result is the definition of crazy. So put your brain back in the body. Pay attention to what you’re doing and why you do it. The body is the container, the body is the house that the mind has to live in so make your house a suitable domain for the brain to live in.
So much modern day yoga has removed the theory. They have removed the stories, the metaphors, the history and the esoteric lens in favour of attaining a particular physical goal. A practice like this is fun for all of two seconds. I choose teachers based on their ability to integrate esoteric knowledge into their class. The theory’s change and range from chinese medicine to hindu philosophy to more modern day approaches but the theory is always there. It adds richness and longevity to the practice.
So why am I putting my foot behind my head? Putting a foot behind my head is meaningless. It’s the things we do while practicing this pose that matter. Complicated and advanced asanas teach us how to fit ourselves. They teach us where we’re not going in the body. They teach us how to self soothe and sustain a challenging circumstance. They teach us how to put our brain into our bodies so we can become more aware of inner workings so we can fit and fold ourselves. Fitting and folding is not the goal, the goal is the work we have to do to get over and around ourselves in order to get there. The poses are just fancery. They are just the learning tools.
So put your brain into your body. Learn how to integrate the material into your practice and practice with repetition each and every day to gain insight. THAT is intelligence and that is an embodied practice.
How to start a more embodied home practice:
Ask yourself what you need (not what you like but what you need).
What season is it? What season are you in?
What are your physical limitations or ailments
What poses trigger you or are challenging you
Pick a few poses and do those poses every single day. Commit to less poses if need be (maybe even just one to start!) but do it every single day
Put your brain into your body and and pay attention to everything inside of you
Keep showing up and doing the work
When it’s no longer effort, it’s time for a change
Books to read to get started on intelligent theory
Light on Life by B.K.S.Iyengar
Yoga as Origami by Kat Villian
Keep learning folks, you’ve got this.
With grace and grit,