Why do we do the physical practice of yoga? Is it to become more flexible – both physically and mentally? Maybe we practice because it feels good to slow down and get fully present in our bodies. Is it to have less stress in our lives or to have better responses when life gets tough? Or maybe it’s to increase the flow of life force energy throughout our bodies.
Physical and Mental Balance
There are many reasons why we practice asanas in yoga, but for most of us in the Western world, we come to the physical practice of yoga for physical reasons. We have a bad back, chronic headaches, or a need to lose weight. The more we delve into the practice, we find that it feels so much better than traditional exercise. Then we realize that's there’s more to it. Eventually, we do yoga to calm the mind and to feel more balanced – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. (Read more in Mind-Body Health and Happiness.)
We may not consciously understand why we keep returning to our yoga mat. It can take time and significant self-inquiry to become aware of what our deepest intentions are in our yoga practice. Initially, it may seem as if our practice is separate from the rest of our lives. As time passes, however, and our practice matures, yoga begins to pervade all aspects of our life.
We may begin to question the nature of our existence. Spiritually speaking, that’s a good thing because we came to this planet to evolve. According to yogic philosophy we have a purpose to fulfill, a dharma. Our physical yoga practice inevitably leads us to wonder what that is – especially if we join our physical practice with meditation and the study of yoga philosophy.
The physical asana practice works to purify the energy in our bodies. This is an essential point to understand. It's the reason why we typically feel so much better by the end of a yoga class when we’re lying in savasana, than we did before we started. As we flow in and out of the poses, we are getting rid of energy blockages. We are clearing the energetic pathways in the body so that energy flows more freely.
Before practicing a sequence of yoga poses, our energy is often not flowing in the most efficient way. By the end of practice, this flow is improved. According to the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika," this purification of energetic flow is really the main reason we practice asana.
Union with the Divine
Yoga means "union." It is a system of tools for experiencing a union within our selves and a union between ourselves and the Divine. Another way to understand why we practice asana is to understand its sequence. According to the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika," a manual on Hatha yoga written by Swami Svatmarama in the 15th century C.E., this union, or oneness, is the last and ultimate aim of Hatha yoga.
In order to reach this final stage, we have to first practice asana. Next, we add what’s known as kumbhaka, or breath retention. Then we also practice mudras, the seals or gestures of the hands. Last, we practice what’s called nada. In Sanskrit, this means “inaudible sound" or "the eternal vibration of the Universe."
Kumbhaka is the containment of energy. We’re gradually creating a reservoir of prana in the body when we practice this kind of breath retention. When combined with asana and then mudra, things get even better. (Read more on The Practice of Pranayama.)
Mudras help us move energy to locations in the body where physical asana practice can’t reach. One of the primary reasons we practice Hatha yoga is to refine our relationship with the prana in our body. In this stage, we’re moving from having an awareness of our bodies, to having a keen sense of the energy in our bodies. This is one of the many reasons yoga practice is so profound and unlike other forms of exercise. (Learn The Best of the Mudras.)
Yoga helps us realize that we’re not merely a body - we’re also a sacred container for cosmic energy. Today we’re understanding that the entire universe is basically one, big vibration. To express this notion, we chant the sacred syllable, Om. This is nada. (Learn more about The Meaning of Om.)