The quote above comes from a series of lectures given by the German philosopher Theodore Adorno in 1965. Here Adorno was speaking about the relationships between society, culture, and consciousness; not yoga. But he was—as is yoga—very much concerned with reality: what is real, and what is the relationship between thought and everything which is not thought. For Adorno, not only is neither theory nor practice alone sufficient, but “an act of thought about reality is – whether consciously or not – always a practical act” (48).
One word for “theory” in Sanskrit is siddhānta. The beginning of the word, siddha, has the same root as in the yoga pose called Siddhasana (Adept’s Seat). It is one of the few poses described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita, two of the oldest and most revered yogasana texts, and Iyengar quotes passages from each book in his explanation of the pose in Light on Yoga (116-20). Siddha means a pure being or one who is celebrated. It also means to make ready, to prove, and to be adept. The end of the word, ānta, means conclusive. So siddhānta means to arrive at a truth. It denotes a kind of journey toward truth insofar as an adept is one who has proven themselves capable and proficient. In this sense, theory is not passive doctrine; it is not blind rules or conjecture. It is active inquiry which is preparation for decisiveness and discernment.
Abhyasa, which means to be established in intense repetition, is one way to translate “practice” from Sanskrit; it’s the word Patanjali uses in the Yoga Sutra (verses I.12-14). Another is vyayahāra. The beginning of this word, vyaya, means expense and sacrifice while the end of the word, ahāra, means to procure and to seize. So practice translated in this way means to both give and take, to offer and receive. Yoga asks a lot of us, but it also gives a lot in return.
It’s only been recently that the physical aspects of yoga have taken precedence over its philosophies. Even when the contemporary yoga luminaries of our lifetime; namely, B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, were studying yoga as young men less than a hundred years ago, yoga meant philosophy, scripture, language, literature, history, and culture as much or more than it meant asana. The practice of asana was—and still is—meant to prepare the body as well as the mind for philosophical studies. The Yoga Sutra even describes intellectual inquiry (svadhyaya, II.32, 44) as a type of practice which mirrors the idea above about thinking being a practical act. Adorno also says—and I suspect the ancient yogi’s might agree—that we owe it to ourselves, that it is a kind of moral obligation, to “give serious attention to thought” and reflection whenever possible (58). By that he means that whenever the narrow parameters of our hectic everyday-ness as well as the broader global climate allows, we have a duty to think carefully. We don’t always have the luxury of time and space within which to stop doing, acting, moving, consuming, going, going, going. But when we do, we can—and arguably should—use those moments to contemplate the unfolding of positive acts.
Our yogic ancestors warned against practice without philosophy. They said that practice not properly aligned with its higher purpose—going through the motions without truly understanding why or how—intensifies the ego and weakens the heart. In yoga, the image of the heart represents your emotional center, the place within from which you feel ups and downs, pleasure and pain. But it is also knowledge; not just facts stored in your brain, but Knowledge as in intuition and wisdom. To have a healthy and open heart means to align yourself with that which is most important, most essential. It is said that practice without theory suffocates the heart by fostering the six enemies of consciousness: desire (kama), selfishness (lobha), hatred (krobha), arrogance (mada), delusion (moha), and jealousy (matsarya). When practice is balanced with acts of both giving (vyaya) and taking (ahāra), then the six enemies die. That requires devotion of time and energy, physically and intellectually, acting and thinking. In return, you are made ready to receive vitality, longevity, happiness, freedom, and intelligence. Only practice grounded in sincere introspection leads to real understanding.
Mere theory, on the other hand, has its own dangers; it is a kind of ignorance. An exclusively scholarly study of philosophy without acting out its ideas fails to affect positive change. Lack of thoughtfulness does not prevent activity, because acts happen regardless of conscious awareness. The six enemies which the yoga sages warn us about are natural occurrences of human consciousness. Thinking about their existence may lead to recognition, but won’t in and of itself cause them any change. It is only by confronting them and challenging them through deliberate practice, through establishing yourself in the eight stages of practical living espoused in the Yoga Sutra, for instance, that you learn how to diminish that which is harmful and cultivate that which is wholesome. And therein you come to truly experience and embody reality.
The word yoga means to unite. For yoga to be successful, there cannot exist any separation of theory and practice. They are eternally married. They inform each other. Theory draws the path under our feet; it tells us where we’ve come from, where we stand, and where we want to end up. Practice moves us forward in the direction we most need to go. Only from their cohesive continuity can yoga be what it is meant to be: an affirmation of pure Self Consciousness.
All Adorno citations refer to the following text:
Adorno, Theodor W. Lectures of Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. English ed. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008. Print.