These days, people begin a yoga practice for all sorts of reasons—stress reduction, weight loss, sleep restoration, pain management, injury rehabilitation, cross-training, personal growth, and more. Yoga classes have even become the habitat du jour for singles seeking flexy, sexy dates and mates. However, despite its growing popularity as a form of fitness, yoga is not merely an exercise program reserved for skinny-minny contortionists and modern-day members of the cult of the "body beautiful." Nor is it an enlightenment fast-track for bendy, trendy spiritual seekers. Yoga is not about being able to touch one’s nose to one’s knees, sculpting a beautiful body, or accumulating experiences of bliss, although all are common effects of practice.
Rather, yoga is about coming into harmony with ourselves, each other, and our world. Yoga is practicing personal and planetary integrity. Yoga is seeing through the illusory divisions and fragmentation that cause unnecessary suffering, and discovering the inherent wholeness within, between, and all around us. Yoga is integrating mind and body, head and heart, depth and breadth, being and doing, self and other, spirit and matter, here and now.
As quite possibly the oldest integral practice for personal well-being and Self-realization on the planet, yoga is essentially a way of learning how to pay attention to what matters. It is the practice of attending to our somatic, psychological and spiritual experience in the moment as a way of bettering each moment of experience for ourselves, each other and our world. Simply stated, yoga is really a way of fully engaging body, heart, and mind in the wholeness of life.
Although most yoga classes in the West emphasize the physical postures (asanas) and energetic breathing techniques (pranayama), these aspects of yoga are merely a starting point. Yoga is a complete system of ethical principles and practices (yama/niyama) for transforming one’s entire being. Asana and pranayama are primarily aimed at developing a habit of attentive relaxation that supports meditative states of awareness by balancing the physical and energetic body.
Through simple poses and breathing practices, we learn to shift our attention from the external to the internal (pratyahara). Through concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) practices, we learn how to be with ourselves and abide in the truth of who we are. Ultimately, we learn to seamlessly navigate these inner and outer dimensions of experience as a holistic whole.
Regardless of what initially attracts one to the mat, all who develop a genuine yoga practice embark on a life-long path of self-realization with benefits usually surpassing those originally sought. With regular practice, one breathes more deeply, eats more lightly, sleeps more soundly, moves more fluidly, sees more clearly, speaks more freely, laughs more easily, loves more wholly, and lives more fully. This ever-growing quality of attention that one develops on the mat is what transforms a series of postures into the genuine practice of yoga.