I recently had a conversation with a fellow yoga teacher about our shared background in psychology and neuroscience. She and I agreed that understanding the practice of yoga from a more Western perspective is helpful to students who don't resonate with the "hippie dippy" yoga stuff - chanting, sanskrit, ritual.
The physical practice of yoga - a.k.a. hatha (pronounced HA-tah) yoga - is one of eight ways on the yogic road to stillness. In the states, and perhaps even more in sprawling, overpopulated cities like Los Angeles, experiencing yoga through the body is sometimes the most visible way to get there.
The human experience is composed of a constant influx of sensory information and internal dialogue as a result of what we take in. Our mind works relentlessly to organize, prioritize and find homeostasis among the high volume of information.
Moving through a yoga practice allows our minds to focus on coordinating body movements with instructions from the teacher, and even deeper, to more subtle movements like our breathe and attitudes. With practice, this physical exercise permeates our mental movement and then the more powerful aspects of yoga begin to take place. The waves of information we absorb during the day surge less often, or with less velocity. As the physical practice grows with more loyalty, the undercurrent of yoga (literally, "to yoke") stabilizes the reactive processes of the physical body with the flexible resilience of the mind.
Think of final resting pose (a.k.a. Shavasana/Corpse Pose) after a vigorous flow class, or challenging standing sequence. You've spent the last hour or more honing your focus from the sound of your breathing patterns to the physical placement of your hands, feet, thighs, tailbone...your eyes are closed, your heart rate is neutralizing, and you feel a sense of calmness move through you as you melt into your mat. This integration point is the epitome of what it means to be in yoga. A happy marriage of physical discipline and mental surrender! With your body more aligned to move fresh oxygen through your muscles and organs, your mind is refreshed to continue processing and organizing. On the whole, you are better prepared to ride the wave of experience that takes place once you roll up your mat and leave the studio!
There is a deep value to beginning your journey on the yogic path at the physical level. As my fellow teacher said during our recent conversation, "It's like swimming in the the shallow end of the pool," ...This physical practice can bring us to very deep, very weird places. Luckily, we need not worry about drowning! On the yogic path there are many, many lifeguards.