Yoga's root word means union, or yolking. When you join the mind, body, and breath, a profound sense of ease and joy can be accessed. That connection and feeling is what separates the practice of asana (yoga poses) from calisthenics. As a former distance runner and recreational cyclist, I have noticed similar experiences during those activities. After the first 2 miles or so, I was always able to connect the patterns of my breath and cadence, and experience an easy, grounded sense of calm. It was not unlike the feeling that I get during meditation, or yoga practice.
As a yoga instructor, I find great joy and peace while helping students find that experience. I am becoming increasingly aware that there are many ways for people to make that connection. For years, my mother has heard me speaking of my experiences during yoga class, and frequently states, "it's kinda like when I'm quilting". I'd usually listen respectfully, but I was completely disconnected from her thought process. Recently, I have observed many true artists, such as the chef, photographer, musician, and painter. Very much like yogis, these people keenly tune their senses to the task at hand. What I mean is, that focused ease that is what separates yoga from physical exercise.
Much like the artist or athlete who is in the zone, the yogi is able to turn inward, and the need to compete with the yogi on the next mat ceases. As we practice, we begin to carry that grounded, serene feeling into the rest of our lives. That, is the magic of yoga, and why I practice continually, on and off the mat.
Namaste - Beth