This post was inspired by a lovely conversation I had with two students after class tonight, Katherine and Mark (thank you).
In yoga, we want to take the body and the mind into the opposite place of where we normally take it on a day-to-day unconscious, unmindful basis. We want to break habits and patterns to free up space for potential, for change, for growth. All of life is growth. Don't kid yourself, that is the point.
So, during our practice, we want to try to move slower if we normally move too fast. We want to be more patient if we are normally impatient. We want to be compassionate where we are lacking; we want to soften where we are hard and stiff; we want to strengthen where we are weak and unstable. We want to find a healthy balance where we are working and we are challenged but we are not torturing or overexerting ourselves.
To understand this best, it is useful to understand the yogic idea of the three gunas, or modes of life: rajas, tamas, and sattva. Rajas represents activity and work; tamas is rest and lethargy; and sattva is purity, joy, bliss meditation. We ought to be balancing these modes throughout life, but most of us are dominant in one or the other at certain points. Many of us give little or no time to sattva, to quiet, blissful meditative time spent celebrating life; we move straight from rajas to tamas, often staying geared up in rajas when we are meant to be letting loose in tamas or letting tamas drag its heaviness into our appropriate rajas time. Meaning, we wake up in the morning and instead of taking time in sattva to be grateful for another day and to sit and pray or meditate or sing or do something we genuinely enjoy, we go straight to work, rushing from here to there, getting this and getting that done. Many of us will stay in that mindset even after leaving work, and then we cannot wind down in tamas time and sleep well. Others of us will at times wake up and never actually "wake up," staying in tamas and letting depression, laziness, and lethargy dwell in our bodies all day.
This is relevant because in order to practice yoga in a way that is healthy and beneficial and enjoyable for us, we have to realize what mode we are most dominant in. Physically, most bodies come to yoga for the first time in a tamasic state; few of us will be in a rajasic place. We want to arrive in sattva. However, we must first move to rajas in order to come back to sattva. We have to first wake the body up if it's been tired and unmotivated all this time in tamas; we cannot stay in the hyper, overactive place of rajas though because it is exhausting and can lead to restlessness and injury. So your yoga will feel very difficult at first and you will have to challenge yourself a lot and work what may feel like "too hard" for some time before you can find the peace, quiet, and stillness in your yoga practice.