When I was about ten, the highlight of my week was watching a television show called Fantasy Island on Saturday nights. Though some themes presented were a little above my level of understanding, I felt very grown-up because the show began at ten o’clock and I was allowed to stay up late. The show took place on a magical tropical island where guests were flown in each week to have their greatest fantasies fulfilled. Usually the stories involved guests finding the man or woman of their dreams.
One episode in particular came back to me a little while ago. It involved a woman who came to the island looking for the perfect man. Somehow she got lost in the jungle and found a man living in a cottage filled with books. He had read them all and knew something about everything. A number of ridiculous situations followed leading up to the climax in which two men with swords broke into the cottage to kidnap the woman. The man who lived in the cottage immediately picked up a sword and began to defend the woman. The woman asked if he had ever used a sword before. The man replied that he had not, but he had read a book about it. After a spectacular fight, he saved the woman.
I thought this was wonderful. I immediately turned to my mother and asked if I could get a book about sword fighting. (I was ten. The romantic aspects of the situation were completely lost on me.) She reminded me that this was television and that sword fighting could not be mastered this way. Skills require years of practice and cannot be learned by just reading a book.
There are many situations that we see or read about that we intellectually understand, but do not truly comprehend until we experience them. Reading a cookbook is nowhere near as delightful as eating the meals it describes. We can read romance novels or watch movies, but until we actually fall in love, we do not completely comprehend the giddy topsy-turvy ride that love is. We live with a constant barrage of images. Movies, television, and magazines all vie for our attention and each try to reach us in some way. It becomes very easy to distance ourselves and to see the images without really thinking about the situations they represent. Though many of the scenes I see on TV and in movies move me, I know I do not fully feel the depth of emotion I would if I were actually in those situations.
Yoga is considered an experiential discipline. You can sit and watch yoga videos or read about the philosophy, but until you actually experience it, you do not fully reap the benefits. Through classes and workshops we learn form, style, techniques and details. Unfortunately, for many their yoga experience ends with the class.
We encourage students to practice at home because only on your own can you discover what makes yoga so wonderful. To hear an instructor describe a pose and try it with the instructor’s focus is one experience, but it is quite another to work with a pose with your own focus. Only through practicing on our own do we appreciate yoga on a personal level. We learn how our body works: we can sense the details on which we need to focus and we can feel the way each pose affects us. As we spend this time by ourselves, experimenting, playing, even becoming frustrated and impatient, we learn about the tendencies of our minds and about ourselves.
With each new experience, we learn and through these experiences we can better comprehend those of others. When we have had a new love, we can smile at another’s joy with remembrance of our own. When we have suffered a tragedy, we can empathize deeply with another’s loss. When we begin to understand our tendencies and thought processes, we recognize and understand those tendencies in others. Through living and experiencing, we gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the world and those around us.