Many students are attracted to practice Yoga by the promise that it can lead to liberation, and enlightenment. For this reason, Yoga practices were designed specifically to take the student through a process of Self-discovery by developing mastery of the mind and body.
Yoga attempts to address the age-old question “who am I”. Initially the Yogi is directed towards self-inquiry to discover their true nature. When faced with the question “who am I” we generally respond with our name, attributes, qualities and the roles that we are identified with as a personality self.
Further questioning reveals that we are in fact much more than our identifications as the mind is directed towards the intangible aspect of our self, the God Self. This insight starts to change our perception, and helps us to realize that we are much more than the roles we have been attached to and thought to be who we are.
Meditation is a very influential aspect of the Yoga tradition, and is widely practiced as a way of attaining liberation. Most meditation practices involve concentrating, and focusing the mind to become aware of thoughts instead of being governed by them. It is generally thought that the practice of meditation is to stop thinking, however, that is not the case. Meditation is about training the mind through observation of it rather than trying to stop it.
Ardent students will sit in meditation in silence for days at a time. Through this process, they learn about them self, mostly by not reacting to pain or any other sensations they may experience. They can feel the reactions in the body without having to react outwardly to them. Through this practice the impermanent nature of all things also becomes apparent since the awareness of the sensations arising, and passing away becomes more noticeably experienced.
Through detachment, the meditator discovers a new aspect of them self and no matter how challenging life may seem they know that it will change. This allows acceptance, and resistance is dropped from their experience. Through deep observation in this way, it becomes natural to allow life to flow, and to be in harmony with it. Instead of our usual experience where we are completely lost in the emotional roller coaster we call life.
To allow for these insights, meditation is mostly practiced sitting cross-legged on the floor. This adds to the challenge of keeping the mind focused, and alert. I know from attending several ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreats, pain is the number one distraction. When identified with, it is nigh on impossible to get through an hour of meditation, however, when observed and accepted pain becomes manageable. The experience becomes something that is happening rather than taken personally, and identified with.
Perhaps you are interested in the practice of Yoga as a way of liberation or more for health and fitness. Either way, when practiced mindfully both aspects are intertwined, and inseparable. Most of the postures achieved by traditional Yogis look impossible although it is through their calm, and focused mind that they are able to achieve them. The body yields as the mind yields.
Our minds are deeply involved with every aspect of our experience, and depending on how we think, believe, and direct the mind, will depend on the experiences we have in our life. Yoga attempts to guide us towards unity of mind, and body through a deeper understanding of our true nature, and leads us closer to Self-realization.
Nb. I use Self to denote God Self and self to denote personality self.
For more information on the Yoga Sutras, I recommend The Yoga Sutras of Patenjali book.