Most people think that “doing yoga” means that you have to be flexible, and that you’ll be putting the body into strange, complicated and maybe unachievable shapes. But “doing” postures is not necessarily yoga, and I think this leads to a lot of confusion for most people, especially beginners. Yoga asana, the practice of yoga postures, is an experiential mind-body method of transformation. Yes, posture practice includes physical work, and sometimes difficult shapes, but not all yoga asana practice requires this. No matter what kind of physical practice (or other yoga practice – there are way more than the postures!), two key ingredients of “yoga” are presence and intention.
Usually, someone starts “doing” yoga because they have heard about how it helped someone else with health benefits, stress reduction, or a happier quality of life, for example. So, they start their practice with a bit of curiosity and hope to benefit from their experience. We all probably started with some sort of similar mindset when we started our relationship with yoga, too. The intention that we bring to the mat, “sets the table”, so to speak, for change to occur.
A second key ingredient is presence, because without it, we would just be mechanically and mindlessly making shapes with our bodies. We may as well be doing any “exercise.” Presence of mind is everything. If we set the table but ignore the guest (our own presence), why be there in the first place? Without a sincere embodiment of the posture, we will not only be missing the point, but we won’t benefit as much from it either. Moreover, without presence, we would be unable to observe the qualities of steadiness and ease (sthiram sukham) called for in yoga asana in the Yoga Sutras.
Yoga is a practice for a whole person, not just the suit a spirit is enclosed within. Mind, body, spirit, drives, loves, hopes, fears – all of these (and more!) are all affected by - and benefit from - a yoga practice that is mindful and sincere.
The same for a teaching practice. If I teach in a way that doesn’t provide and encourage feeling, presence, and whole heart, whole body attention, then what makes what I do different than group exercise instruction (or PT, if the session is yoga therapy)? Teaching students to slow down, to cultivate focus and observation skills of feeling, noticing, and reflecting teaches us to shine the light of awareness on everything that we do. We learn the importance of finding an alignment that fits our unique needs, we learn to open to the physical, energetic and meditative qualities of the pose while we’re in it, and everything changes as a result – not just on the mat, but off the mat, too.
If “we are what we repeatedly do”, as Aristotle famously said, then practicing asana with the intention to transform ourselves – mind, body AND spirit – paired with mindful attention will lead to deep, meaningful, beneficial changes on all levels of our being and our lives.