This quote from B.K.S. Iyengar defines yoga as a special kind of mirror, which, unlike any standard mirror, can reflect our inner mental state. How can yoga serve as such a mirror?
We have the ability to connect with ourselves in every activity that we partake in. Theoretically, in every action we take, we can observe tendencies and mental traits such as carelessness vs. perfectionism, excessive recklessness vs. over-cautiousness, hastiness vs. prudence, procrastination vs. overactivity, patience vs. short temper, ability to focus vs. distraction, and so on.
These tendencies and traits we bring with us to the mat, and we can watch them in our practice. However, there are particular reasons why Iyengar claimed that yoga as opposed. To any arbitrary activity can serve as such a magical mirror to look within. Yoga is a unique activity in many respects.
First and foremost, the practice is a lab to explore ourselves; i.e., we pause from our daily activities and the business of our lives and devote time to be with ourselves, to observe, explore and study ourselves (Svādhyāya). In our daily lives, many things happen rapidly and often simultaneously. We need to react and multitask in a timely manner. As a result, we are usually too active and reactive and cannot pause to look deeply and observe.
When we practice āsanas we must be fully mindful and attentive; we must seek a balance between stability and spaciousness, effort and effortlessness, over-extending ourselves and lagging behind. We must bring awareness to what we are doing and be present.
When we are mindful and concentrated in this way, our nervous system relaxes and our mind becomes quiet and clear. So, while most of our daily activities create much disturbance, over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and lots of mental noise, yoga practice does the exact opposite – it activates the parasympathetic nervous system and creates mental poise.
When the mind becomes clear, it can reflect like a quiet lake. We can look deep inside and observe the deeper layers of our inner lake. Then we can see our hidden traits and tendencies in a neutral, objective way; we can learn our natural ways to react and consider whether these reactions are beneficial for us and for our environment and whether they decrease or increase our suffering. Then, we gradually become more mindful and this mindfulness extends into our daily lives. We learn to respond appropriately, rather than react automatically. We become freer as we are less bound by mechanical behavioral patterns which often lie below our conscious awareness.