What is yoga for you today ? When you hear the word "yoga" what comes first in mind ?
Nowadays, people often relate yoga to an ensemble of beautiful postures, flexibility of the body and deep relaxation. However, this is only a small part of the yogic practice and surely not the definition of yoga itself. Throughout history, the term yoga appears in the very early texts of Hinduism, with different usages but with a common notion of union, assemblance, putting the parts together. In Baghavat Gita for instance (Holy text of Hinduism), yoga refers to the piece that links together the Arjuna's chariot with the horses. Literally or symbolically, yoga is a tool to guide you in life and to help you keep the parts of yourself together while walking on Your path. Later, when the sage Patanjali put some "notes" (sutras) for the disciples together, he defined yoga as the "complete mastery of the modifications of the mind" (Sutra 1.2: Yoga Chitta Vrtti Nirodha). What are the modifications of the mind? This constant movement of thoughts, that arise and govern your mental space at each and every second of your daily life, all those thoughts and storylines that are created when you try to meditate, when you cook, when you work, when you catch the bus or when you miss the bus (!). So yoga is a way to master all those fluctuations, to keep them quiet and less significant in your mind, so that you can walk in life with centeredness, that you perform each action with focus and that you handle each of your emotional reactions with grace.
And what has this to do with a beautiful down-dog and a perfectly aligned warrior II posture? Well, the physical practice, asana, is the first line of the work out, it is a powerful tool to modify the brain function without working directly on the brain itself. As a student nicely put it, in order to access more easily your mental state and work on it, you "target the hardware first", rearrange the bodily functions and the breath in a way that the mind calms down automatically. Then you can start working with meditation. When you practice asana your mind's attention is directed to the body (and thus away from all other thoughts) and the work-out itself changes your body's chemistry, the function of the different systems (digestive, immune, hormonal and nervous systems) and the signals that are transmitted to the brain. After several asana, you reach a modified function of the entire body that leads to a different biochemical and mental state. When on top of that you practice pranayama, specific breathing exercises, you directly and powerfully modify the activity of the autonomous nervous system. This network of nerves govern all the functions of the body, including the activity of the heart, and sends signals to brain regions that are implicated to emotional generation and emotional control. And when on top of that you practice one-point concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana), you directly work on the brain function on a cognitive level, where you are actively training your brain to focus and remain focused without engaging in the possible arising thoughts. Those are the main doorways to a peaceful mind and a healthy body. You will certainly feel such effects after a yoga class comprising of all those modules. Then, of course, in the everyday life the body systems are used differently, some of them underused and some of them overused, and this maintains a disbalance (if there is one) that is difficult to overcome only with one yoga class or with a random practice. To reach that state of mastery of the mind, one needs to practice consistently and to use the yogic tools in his everyday life; if not all of them at least one or few of them.
So, yoga in modern times, consists of a permanent ongoing personal practice and adoption of yogic techniques in our daily program. To attain change of habits that we dislike, a controlled mind function and prevention of burnout states, overwhelming anxiety or depression, one has to incorporate such practices in his daily or weekly schedule. Yoga is a complete path to carry you through such changes; nevertheless, there are multiple contemplative practices that lead to the same goal, from traditional cultures (Taoism and Buddhism) to modern approaches (i.e. Rìo Abierto).