The Language of Yoga

The Language of Yoga: Neti-Neti

The Language of Yoga

Yoga draws us in for lots of different reasons, whether we gravitate to asana, meditation, pranayama, mindfulness, or any of the other practices under the yoga umbrella. For some of us, our practices serve as ways to ground and center ourselves, and to de-stress from our daily lives. For others, it’s a way to get in touch with something bigger – perhaps the universe or that feeling of connectivity between all living things. Whatever your practice and whatever drives you there, there’s a funny reality to all of this: It’s awfully hard to talk about what we’re experiencing, and in many ways, words totally fail when it comes to conveying what yoga is all about.

And this is where the phrase “neti-neti” comes in. The word “neti” actually comes from the two-word phrase “na iti,” meaning “not thus,” and the term is an amazingly succinct way of describing how difficult, bordering on impossible, it is to talk about the personal transformation that yoga can bring. It also reflects how difficult it is to put into words any weighty concept in the universe. Steven Leonard, a teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, points out that the phrase neti-neti is an old Sanskrit term that “translates as ‘neither this, nor that,’ and was the ancient yogis’ way of expressing the inherent limitation of the logical human mind to grasp the ineffable mystery of the universe.”

In other words, neti-neti describes the fact that humans’ perceptions are fundamentally limited by our five senses and by our cognitive capacity. “Consider infinity, the earth, moon, stars, distant galaxies, black holes, human emotions, vast oceans of exotic animals, and the smallest sub-atomic particles,” Leonard says. “Only a speck of this immense reality is understandable to the human mind, and even that speck may be merely shallow.” There are many forces and types of matter in the universe that we can’t experience, but which string theory or astrophysics tells us exist. We’re “seeing” more and more of these realities as science becomes more sophisticated, but there may be some things that we may never totally wrap our brains around, since we’re always trying to understand the universe through the human “lens.”

But as mentioned, the other application of the term is more relevant to yoga itself. Neti-neti is also a way of pointing out how language is inherently unable to describe experience. We can talk about our practices, and about the changes we experience as a result of meditation or asana (or whatever your practice may be), but it’s awfully hard to convey them accurately. Many people have pointed out that language inherently fails when it comes to describing samadhi, the eighth and final limb of yoga, sometimes called “enlightenment.” But even the other, more tangible parts of the practice are hard to convey accurately with words. “How could we possibly describe a reality that is far beyond our discursive minds?” asks Leonard. “Even our most brilliant scientists, poets, yogis, and mystics have struggled with the inability of language to say it all at once.”

So, some things you just have to experience – yoga is just one. Like writing about music, or talking about love, the description of yoga will always fail to capture the experience of it. As Leonard says, “You can’t get at IT through words. If you could, everyone would know it and agree with it. It would be common knowledge. It would be all over Facebook. The only way to know truth, to know the reality of existence, is to allow the mystery itself to penetrate you. And what yogis have said for thousands of years is ‘neti neti.’ Even if you do experience IT, there is no way to describe it.”

You just have to practice it.

Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at and a Contributor at Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at

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