Yoga is an internal practice, all else is a circus
The year was 1994 when one of my massage clients asked about doing a little "yoghurt" with me. She said she needed to stretch. And although my yoga practice was still my own I was willing to show her what I knew because I knew enough to know that yoga wasn't a delicious dairy product. Hey, it was a beginning. Fast forward twenty years and I still know that yoga isn't yoghurt, but even with consistent study, practice and teaching of yoga it still seems a nebulous topic. The more you learn about yoga the more you know you don't know much. If you ask twenty yogis what yoga is you will get twenty answers. In the west it has taken on the form of pure exercise for many and that's ok. But yoga is such a deep topic I thought it might be helpful to flesh it out a bit. The word yoga means to yoke, as in to tie or tether together. Imagine two oxen plowing a field and the device on their shoulders keeping them in sync is the yoke. Only in yoga what we are yoking is body & mind. I think if you have 100 people there are 100 varations on this yoking, which is why I do a lot more privates and yoga therapy sessions these days because a one on one teaching is the only way to get specific for an individuals yoking. But let's get to the commonalities that we should all experience in practice. And for the sake of clarity when I say practice in this context I mean asana, or the physical practice. But let's also remember that of the 8 limbs of yoga asana is only one.
So, what is the difference between asana and shape making anyways? First, for a position you are taking to be considered yoga asana both the spine and the breath must be unrestricted. So in a posture is it helpful to make micro movements of the spine in all six directions that it moves. (Forward fold, backbend, side bends, and twists). If your spinal movement is not accessible in all six directions then you should back off into a smaller version of the posture. Then check in with your breath. Remember we breath 360 degrees into our torso, not just into the front body. So for instance if you are in a side bend, check the side that is compressed to see if you can still breath there. If not, again back off to make it yoga by unrestricting the breath.
Secondly for a shape to be considered asana we must balance the action of our muscles with the softening of our shape. We must find a right amount of effort with awareness of our foundation and a vibrant core, but equally important is that we find a certain amount of ease, or letting go. The ease is generally found in our perimeter, our jaw, our skin. It is not more important to apply effort than it is to find ease, but rather like wings of a bird we need them both to fly. So, find your Goldilocks posture: not too hard and not too soft.
And, finally, yoga asana is defined by continually bringing the wandering mind back to the breath as it moves through our bodies. it is not defined by staying present which is nearly impossible, but by returning to presence again and again. In the body mind conversation that yoga is, breath is the middleman. So keep observing the breath and every time you notice your mind has wandered, congratulations you are back. It is best to just simply welcome yourself back.
This most basic practice of yoga, checking in with your spine and breath and balancing your effort and ease and being present can be done on the mat, on the sofa, in the grocery store and in conversation. it is especially useful in uncomfortable conversations and situations. Take a few moments out to stealthily practice a little yoga in your off the mat life and see what happens. It may just make a yogi out of you yet.