When we think of yoga, we often picture pretzel-like bodily contortions, but yoga is much more than a set of exercises on a mat. Yoga is an integrated science for living life in which we can transform our feelings, reactions, beliefs, the very way in which our mind works.
Asana (the physical postures of yoga) energetically and physically transform the body, preparing us for meditation, which ultimately leads to enlightenment and joy. Asana forms a useful entry point into this wider practice since working with the body is easier than approaching the esoteric aspects of the subtle body and mind.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the most widely known of the yoga scriptures, asana forms only one limb of an eight-limbed path of yoga. Other limbs include dhyana - meditation - pratyahara - control of the senses - and pranayama – breathwork. Included in the limbs are the yamas and niyamas, guidelines on conduct and behaviour for society and individuals. These include societal concepts such as ahimsa, non-violence, and satya, honesty. Individual behaviours include ideas such as saucha (cleanliness) and santosha (cheerfulness).
So how can our practice on the mat help us to practice off the mat? To give a practical example, let's look at a simple standing forward bend, Uttanasana. Immediately in this asana, the mind begins to work. We think, "My fingers should be touching my toes." We push ourselves, straining until we can feel that magical moment of finger-toe contact. Alternatively, our fingers don't reach our toes and our mind again begins to work. We reflect on how inflexible we are and that we are no "good" at yoga.
Actually the guna (character) of the forward bend asana is surrender. When we understand the asana better, we may notice that when we give up trying, forcing, reaching and striving, we give ourselves permission to simply be where we are. We observe our breath and use it to help us release resistance. This allows us to feel this asana in a much deeper way, regardless of where our hands are.
This is really the essence of the yoga practice. Yes, we practice on the mat, with a specific set of postures that form check-in points, little gateways to seeing what is going on inside ourselves. The true practice of yoga is when we can extend those little gateways during our busy days. When we can be at work or with our loved ones, or find ourselves in a difficult situation and still find a gateway somewhere that shows us something about our Self. When whatever we are working on on the mat, becomes what we bring into our lives off the mat. This is when we find the courage to live life in a new way, with more consciousness and compassion, love and joy. This is the real miracle of yoga.