A well-known practitioner of Ashtanga-yoga jokingly said once, "Don't make an ass of yourself practicing yoga-ass-ana." This is paraphrased, but it brings to mind how yoga is not just for the sake of the postures. Paradoxically, it is a journey of doing in which we discover our state of being.
Inherent in the practice is a unique method of using the breath combined with moving the body. As we move from one posture to another with a focus on staying focused, there are often pockets or moments of feeling connected to our deeper self. As intangible as these moments might seem they gradually bridge the gap between the state of 'doing' to that of 'being'. One of the biggest complaints about yoga in the West is how it gets taken up for manic reasons without shedding the layers of pride, egotism and arrogance. Rather than letting go there is more pride, conceit and vanity created. Given how the West is generally known for being less evolved spiritually than the East there tends to be less awareness about practising for a higher purpose. I myself came to yoga with the work-out mind-set.
But I would argue none of this is worth getting hung-up over. How many blogs, posts and debates exist about why Ashtanga-yoga, as an example, is only physical and another yoga is better. Or as one student asked during a backbending workshop I was offering, "Why does everyone resonate so much with Ashtanga-yoga?' (Eh?)
Certainly, I have no answer which would be the same as answering for other people why they prefer the taste of a green apple versus an orange. This question, however, shows how our attention and awareness is diverted from what's really important. Not to mention it was a workshop in backbending and not of Ashtanga-yoga.
In the end, every practice of yoga including Ashtanga-yoga is a clear set-up to elicit stillness. These are through the breath, gazing points, the length of time a posture is held and the resting posture at the end of class. A typical class contains a clear beginning in which the mind is directed inwardly, a series of postures practiced to help the mind from going out and the resting pose completes it.
The whole practice is laid out in the Yoga Sutras. The first verse states, "Yoga is the cessation of thoughts (1:II). This simple statement contains a great deal of insight but also questions. That is, what does cessation mean since we know we cannot actually stop the mind? Do we first achieve this through struggle? How can this be mastered? Usually we think of mastery as a skill we acquire. It can mean, however, an on-going skill and process that lies beyond gripping one's jaw or losing one's breath. If yoga is about stillness then it is not mastery of the outer form alone.
Patanjalim's yoga makes this clear.
Another verse speaks about the efforts made in practice becoming effortless. Confusing indeed. This Sutra says the when efforts cease and the quality of the postures arises.
"Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached." B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.The best way to understand this is to be reminded of the fact that postures are not static. Each pose contains an element of struggle and one of relaxation. That is, both the state of being and the one of doing, which are not the same in every pose. The point of relaxation is not the same in the wheel as it is in the bow. If we only fight to get into the postures there will be less of a chance to relax, reflect and expand. It is more like an elastic band stretching with great care and skill.
In many ways practice is like learning to ride a bicycle. In the beginning you have to really concentrate and put in a great deal of effort. I will never forget when I was learning I forgot how to use the brakes and hit a fence! As you one learn how to cycle a natural rhythm gets started. The practices of yoga are equally about good health and fitness as it is a continous path to touch our inner state of being. All the systems of yoga are the perfect place to practice 'doing' and 'being' and 'being' and 'doing'.
We learn to take both and become one with them.
That is how the postures lead to a state beyond just being an ass-ana. And perhaps more importantly, why spending your time over why one practice is not for you is a waste of your time and energy.