That is a very important question because for most of us, practice is done through the body and externally it may look very much like gymnastics. Hence, many people think that yoga practice is done for fitness: to get a better body, to be stronger or to become more flexible. Yoga, however, is not at all about this! Asana practice will definitely do well for your body, but this is just a byproduct and not the aim (See the chapter “The aim and the by-product” in Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar).
When we practice we do things; but, what we feel is much more important than what we do! We perform actions in the poses in order to feel more, to penetrate further, and to explore ourselves more deeply. The object of this exploration is our entire embodiment: our body, senses, breathe, mind, intellect and self.
This kind of penetration is not available to us when we are not active physically. We will never be able to carry out this exploration when sitting on a sofa in a slouch and loose posture.
Iyengar writes: “Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our mind is our goal“. (Light on Life, p. 45). We shouldn’t be carried away by the external movements, but focus on the actions we do, the sensations we get and the reactions of our body-mind-breath to these actions.
What is action?
Iyengar defines it thus:
“Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.” (ibid. p.28)
And indeed, in asana there is a lot of action, but very little movement. But asana practice is not just any action; it’s a very special kind of activity that helps us to explore our internal world, to be more observant, quieter, and more reflective – to penetrate deeper inside. In a good asana there should be a fine balance between action and relaxation (sthirata & sukata or prayatna shitilya).
In chapter 2 of Light on Life Iyengar sheds light on many deep aspects of asana practice: “Balance of activity and passivity transforms the active brain into a witness…” (ibid. 36-7)
“When there is strain, the practice of yoga is purely physical and leads toward imbalances and misjudgment.” (ibid. p. 35)
The ultimate goal of our practice is to know ourselves better, to become more aware; more sensitive. In order to live better we need to become more intelligent. By ‘intelligence’ I mean here the skill to act better in the world and to lead a more joyful and peaceful life.
By observing our reactions, our tendencies, our patterns of behavior (or samskaras) during the practice we explore ourselves to a deeper extent and we get intimate connection with ourselves. This can be applied in our daily activity; we learn to reflect on our actions and to analyze them.
It’s like sculpting where a piece of stone is constantly shaped and refined; but here the sculpture, the sculptor, and the act of sculpting is one and the same – our own selves. Moreover, the sculpture is not a static entity, but a dynamic one that changes over time; it tends to deteriorate if we don’t take a good care of it. Iyengar says: “If you have a knife which you do not use, what happens to it? It get rusted, does it not? … With regular sharpening, you can keep it sharp forever.” (Tree of Yoga p. 28) If we don’t sharpen our embodiment regularly and persistently, the body may lose its flexibility and sensitivity, and the mind may become dull, rudimentary and rude. So we constantly have to refine ourselves, to become subtler, nobler, and sharper.
This is why we need to return to our practice-mat every day, determined to continue the internal quest, to penetrate deeper into ourselves, to transform ourselves.
“You should go on analyzing and by analysis you will come to understand. You have to see what messages come from the fibers, the muscles and the skin… while you are doing the pose. It is not good enough to experience today and analyze tomorrow… Analysis in action is the only guide.” (Tree of Yoga p. 42)
“There should be constant analysis throughout the action, not just afterwards.” (Light on Life, p. 31)