Richard Freeman on the “99% practice, 1% theory” equation

Richard Freeman’s latest “Ask the Expert” hits right in my sweet spot. It’s about Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ famous (among Ashtangis) pronouncement: “99% practice, 1% theory.” (I’ve seen it as “95%, 5%,” and maybe a few other permutations.)

Specifically, Freeman is asked whether Guruji was referring just to asana in that 99% or all eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga.

Here’s Freeman’s answer:

One could speculate (as many have) for a long time about what he meant by that statement; and I suspect he considered this from a number of different viewpoints. To Pattabhi Jois you couldn’t separate asana from the other limbs of the practice, so certainly he was not only referring to asana as the practice. At the same time, he was very clear in his teaching that the mind–in the form of too much fear, too much analyzing, etc.–can hinder an asana practice. So part of what he intended referred to this; keeping the practice fluid without the interruption of mind wandering (and theorizing) via the joining together of opposite patterns of breath and movement.

As someone for whom the 99% — when you’re thinking of it as asana — comes so slowly, I continue to be pretty preoccupied with this small statement of Jois’. (I still maintain that my brain is my most flexible muscle.) I’d rather the ratio be weighted more toward theory. I probably try not to think about it, to some respects, because it easily could be a pronouncement that translates to: “Some other yoga is better for you.”

And so Freeman’s take on it is encouraging and interesting, as I read it. Freeman puts the statement into the moment of the asana. While moving, in other words, don’t think too much. Remember the “theory” but let the practice — your breath, your badhas — be your guide.

There are — as Freeman suggests — plenty of other ways to interpret the equation. My understanding is that Guruji figured most Westerners coming to yoga weren’t going to get it in this life; we might get to the doorway if we are lucky. (I’m hoping to get into the hallway leading to the door). In that sense, if asana this time around is all preparation for actually doing yoga and the other limbs of Ashtanga in the next life, then the emphasis on the practice makes more sense.

As another way to think about it: You crawl before you walk before you run. Most of us, whether we want to admit it or not, are probably crawling, from Guruji’s perspective. Maybe some are wobbling along on shaky legs.

So, ultimately, the equation might just be a shorthand way for Guruji to have emphasized that his system is heavily grounded in asana, in getting the body — and by extension, the mind — ready for the real work to come.

But Freeman’s take is a good reminder not to get too caught up in the moment while on the mat.


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Richard Freeman on the “99% practice, 1% theory” equation”

  1. For what it’s worth, here is my two cents on this teaching. I won’t pretend that what I am about to say ever crossed Guruji’s mind, but given his deep relationship with yoga and sanskrit, I’m willing to bet that he was at least aware of the following distinction.

    In Sanskrit there is the term jnana, which is typically translated as “knowledge.” In the west, this would be understood as theoretical knowledge. There is also the term “vijana,” which is most often translated as “realized knowledge.” Thus, the difference in terms of yoga would be between simply knowing that ahimsa is the first of the yamas and that it prescribes living a life free from harming other entities and having actually instituted such a stance in one’s life. That is to say, the difference would be between “knowing” yoga and actually “practicing” or “living” yoga on a practical level.

    In the above case, one might see Guruji as advocating “vijana” over simple “jnana” in terms of yoga practice and thus advocating the difference between having a simple theoretical understanding versus applied knowledge. As I said, just my two cents.

  2. Thaddeus hit the nail on the head. Some forms of Buddhism emphasize that one of the most difficult steps is to bridge the gap between intellectual knowledge and internalization, i.e, BEING/LIVING the dharma not just “understanding” the concepts through cognitive analysis. Everything we do in life can be understood as a practice. I think Guruji was referring to precisely that. I remember Saraswathi, Guruji’s daughter often looking at me and simply saying, “You Do!”

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