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.
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.