Talk doesn’t cook rice. – Chinese proverb

My teacher’s teacher, Pattabhi Jois, famously said, “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.” We can get together and discuss yoga philosophy over cups of tea. We can study the teachings and research the lives of the masters. We can read step-by-step instructions for the asanas (poses), and memorize anatomy manuals to try to understand the mechanics of the body. We can read volumes on the chakras (energy centers) and pour over pranayama (breathing practices) tutorials. We can sit at the feet of our favorite teachers and learn from the wisdom they’ve acquired. We can read yoga articles and try to compose illuminating blog posts. We can become fluent in Sanskrit. We can spend decades conversing, expounding, and dissecting the yoga experience. In fact it’s encouraged – and we will gain a great deal of knowledge and intellectual insight. But, if we really want to experience yoga, we absolutely must do the legwork and commit to our practice…again and again and again. 

Yoga is a journey to our deepest knowing. It is the return to our divine nature, and the remembrance of our connection to all of creation. It is ineffective to try to use the mind to understand an experience that transcends intellect. It’s the wrong tool. It’s like using a fork to eat broth. You might get a taste, but most of it will drip through the tines. The mind, by its very nature, needs to quantify everything by cataloguing and tucking things into neat little boxes – This is good, that is bad. That was then, this is now. I am this, not that. The mind’s job is to understand, to try to make sense of what it encounters. This act of sorting and interpreting removes us from the moment itself. The goal of yoga is to simply experience every moment exactly as it is, without trying to figure out what it all means. So we use the yoga practices to access universal intelligence through our bodies and breath, while quieting the mind’s incessant need to explain.

Language is limited, and completely inadequate for describing a sensation or experience. How do you describe the taste of a mango, the feeling of salt water drying on sun-kissed skin, or the holistic release and relief when your psoas finally lets go in a lunge? How do you convey the full-body hum of a deep backbend, or the delicate moment when a balancing pose settles at center? How do you describe the vibration of prana (energy) flowing through the subtle channels of your body? How do you explain the blissful peace in shavasana (corpse pose) or deep meditation when you absolutely know, if only for a second, that you are not alone, and are always being held by a loving universe? You can’t. You have to feel it and live in it. You have to turn off your brain and get inside your body. When you are anxious, how much more effective is it to take ten slow, mindful breaths than to command yourself to relax while trying to talk yourself down? Our thoughts and interpretations can be interesting, but they tend to get between us and the visceral experience of yoga.

My teacher, Bhavani, refers to the Yoga Sutra as a roadmap. All of the things we read, study, and learn about yoga are travel guides. They can give us an idea of what yoga is, what it feels like, and how to get there. But they can’t create the experience for us. Imagine you’re preparing to visit Blacksburg for the first time. You could spend months studying maps, talking to residents, and reading about the town’s community, culture and history. You’d certainly learn a great deal, and might imagine you know what the town’s all about. But all that research could never capture the feeling of a perfect, crisp autumn day in Blacksburg…the peace found at the top of the municipal golf course looking out over the vibrant colors of Ellett Valley, the friendly warmth of the people strolling through the quaintness of downtown, the haunting quiet and intense emotion of the April 16th memorial, the community spirit of a tailgate at Lane Stadium, the ecstatic vibration of thousands of exuberant Hokies jumping to Enter Sandman.

If you really want to know a place, you have to go there. It’s the same with yoga. Set down the books and the guides. Close your eyes and mouth, open your heart, and turn inward. Dive beneath your thoughts and into your practice. Step into your body and fill it with your breath. And then do it again and again. Forget what you think you know, and do your work. The experience of yoga is rich and pure and physical and deeply personal. It defies description and transcends expectation. You’ll know it when you feel it.