Most beginning students will tell you they got into yoga to alleviate back pain, relieve stress, or become more
flexible—fairly simple responses. I started my own practice after reading that yoga asanas are the best form of exercise ever devised; that belief kept me going for several years.
But the reasons you practice might not be as straightforward as they seem. It's entirely possible that after closely examining your innermost motives, you'll find nothing more than a hankering for looser hamstrings—but don't bet on it. Yoga is full of surprising twists and turns.
It's no secret that we often do things for reasons we're totally unaware of; sometimes our unconscious motives become clear only after a good deal of self-reflection. So it's important to realize that questioning the intent of our practice inevitably leads us to inquire about the meaning of our life as well. We could just as pertinently ask: Why am I really alive?
At the outset, it's natural to assume that our practice and our life are totally separate, that we practice for an hour or so a day and then forget about it. But after a while, the two inevitably begin to merge. As Sri Aurobindo, the great 20th-century Indian sage and progenitor of Integral Yoga, reminds us, "All life is yoga."
In Aurobindo's view, yoga is threaded through the warp and weft of our very existence, and in effect it chooses us. We practice yoga because we really don't have any other choice. Of course, we do decide what form our practice takes—we can go off and live alone in a cave and meditate, or we can stay at home, raise a family, and root for the Yankees. Performed with the proper attitude, each of our everyday actions can be an asana, each breath a pranayama, each thought (or space between two successive thoughts) a seed for meditation.
We may have been gifted with the life-enhancing tool of yoga, but for what reason? The clue is in the Sanskrit word yoga itself, which as you no doubt have heard means "union." For our purposes, though, it might be better to define it as "wholeness," a word etymologically related to both healthy and holy. So why do we really practice yoga? Because life wants us to be whole in the widest and truest sense of the word.