The mental aspects and particular involvement of the mind in yoga is a large part of what makes it different from other forms of exercise. Practiced with mindfulness, yoga becomes a sort of moving meditation. Practiced without awareness, with a scattered mind thinking of other things, yoga loses some of its benefits and begins to have more in common with ordinary exercise.
There are many different types, traditions and methods of both yoga and meditation. Looking a little more closely at meditation and yoga may help to describe what they have in common.
Different schools, cultures and religions have different ways of practicing meditation. Ultimately, meditation comes down to a single-pointed focus or state of absorption. The mind is aware, alert and observant, yet thoughts are absent. Traditionally practiced, meditation involves sitting still, though there are variations that can include walking or chanting. Meditation calms the mind and relaxes the body. There are benefits such as lowered blood pressure and improved feelings of well-being.
The classic definition of yoga, from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. This means the mind becomes still and undisturbed, like it would in a state of meditation. Though they have many other benefits, the yoga asanas, poses, are one way to achieve this.
Yoga as Meditation
Practicing yoga poses, we work toward a more ideal state of physical alignment. Retraining the body requires concentration and mental focus or else the body reverts to its old habits and form. The complexity and challenges of some asanas requires this focus in order to maintain the pose. The mind becomes fully absorbed in the actions of the body. This full absorption is actually a state of meditation; the attentive mind is not distracted by outside thoughts.
We can imagine that difficult yoga poses require mental concentration. There are also many yoga poses that are physically easier, involving simple variations on sitting or standing. In these cases, the mental aspect of yoga is more like traditional forms of sitting meditation. We have to look to the stillness of the body to lead the way for the mind.
It takes practice both to move and, especially, to be still with mindfulness. As Zen masters and Buddhist monks spend decades training, the yogi spends countless hours over months and years learning to unite the mind with the body. Fortunately, it is not just this ultimate goal that we strive for, but all that we learn and the benefits we receive along the way.