As it became popularized in America, the focus of yoga was on the third limb of the classical Ashtanga or raja yoga practice: asana. This is probably because the physical aspect of yoga was most tangible to the western mind and easiest to commit to. However, this is surely not what the pioneers who brought yoga to this country had in mind. They understood that asana was just one of the eight limbs of yoga and was to be viewed and practiced as a preparation for pranayama and seated meditation. They knew that the purpose of yoga is and has always been to gain control of the mind, which is a source of suffering, and to unify body with breath, breath with mind, and mind with universal consciousness.
Some people argue that when this fundamental understanding is ignored, the essence of yoga as it has been practiced for thousands of years, is lost and asana becomes just another form of exercise or physical achievement. As a result, many people seeking spiritual growth have turned away from the yoga asana that is offered by most yoga studios today, in favor of a solitary practice, more intimate meditation groups or something completely unrelated. I recently read an article by long-time yoga practitioner who had become disenchanted with yoga and even rejected the practice because popularized Yoga has become synonymous with a physical workout at the expense of committing to a complete yoga practice.
This has made me think about why I became interested in yoga. I was, at the time, being exposed to a certain style of asana, taught by a gifted teacher that led to a big opening of heart and softening of mind. This yoga sometimes challenged me physically but always allowed me to practice within or near my comfort level. It profoundly reduced the mental and emotional stress that I had accumulated and been living with for many years as a result of the “work hard; play harder” ethic. Fortunately, this came at a time when my body had experienced a series of injuries and I was not really able to practice yoga with that “play harder” attitude. My interests became more about making movement a meditative exercise, connecting it with breath, promoting relaxation of body and clarity of thought, and maintaining some degree of calm under stress. With time, I even noticed that had become a little more interested in what I ate and how I behaved toward others.
I don’t mean to suggest that I have committed to practicing classical yoga in its entirety. However, I do believe that I have experienced a trend of positive change over time. And that, it seems to me, is the magic of yoga: Yoga is available to meet you where you are and offer what you need at the present moment. A strong asana practice may be what you need to strengthen the body or energize the mind. A gentle practice may calm an agitated mind and help to heal the physical body; and maybe that’s all you desire. But then without even really noticing it, the physical practice might lead to a more contemplative period of personal inquiry and a desire to read more about yoga or change the energy of your asana practice. You may find that some habits begin to change and you are becoming more aware of how you relate to other people. Maybe that personal inquiry creates an interest in dedicating time for regular meditation or leads to a focused spiritual practice. And all this may happen despite your original desire to just work on the body.
It’s not that one aspect of yoga (behavioral, physical, mental, or spiritual) is superior to any of the others; it’s that all these aspects are connected. So by focusing on one, there’s a natural tendency to become more conscious of all aspects of yoga and to integrate them both into your practice and into your life over time.