The meditations now arrive at asana practice. Gates discusses the ideas that people have about the purpose of asanas. Some say its preparation for meditation. Some say it prepares for mediation and has physical healing. And some say that asanas are an end in itself. My guess is that all three of these notions are probably wrong.
As for asanas and meditation, it may well be that asanas help some people prepare for other types of meditation. When asked why no meditation is included in the Bikram sequence, Bikram answers that there is. Which part? "All of it." He insists that one of the goals of his practice is to make the class a 90 minute moving meditation.
On this, I take him at his word. I haven't come anywhere near having a full class that felt like a meditation, but I've had some moments, and even some longer stretches. I also haven't gotten anywhere near getting my head to my knee in Standing Head to Knee. At first the idea of the class as being a 90 minute mediation seemed laughable to me. Now, it seems more plausible than the idea that I will ever get my head to my knee in that pose, or do a split in Standing Bow.
As for the physical benefits of asana: I think they are a wonderful byproduct of the poses. I suppose its possible to prescribe a series of asana to someone to help with a physical problem. But just because they are wonderful for you physically does not mean that that is their driving purpose.
And I certainly don't think of them as an end in themselves. To me, that sounds very much like people who see asana practice as being just another form of exercise. It brings to mind the little shudder I get in my spine whenever I hear someone after class talking about what a good "workout" Bikram is. Yes, it often wipes me out. But I don't even really think of it as exercise anymore. For exercise, I'd still go ride a bike. Yoga is more a way to help with alignment, of mind, body and spirit. The exercise now, at least for me, is incidental.
Also, its not an end in itself because its so clearly connected to learning to breathe (pranayama), and as I said above to meditation. Moreover, its a laboratory for working on the niyamas. It's so easy to see how purity, contentedness, self study, zeal, and devotion work in action during class. Purity just in the discipline of holding still between poses, keeping posture good, breathing in slowly and trying not to be a mess. Then learning to be content with staying within the form, yet having the zeal to push to the edge of a pose. Self-study comes in learning where that edge is, and not pushing beyond it. And devotion just from being thankful and grateful at having the opportunity to do all of that one more time, the opportunity to make an effort to improve yourself.
Similarly, I think asana practice gives opportunities to practice the yamas. Certainly non-harming, moderation, non-hording, and honesty. (I'm less sure about how non-stealing works with asana practice). So, since asana practice connects so readily with the other paths in yoga, I reject the idea that its an end in itself. On the contrary, the amazing thing to me is how thoroughly it draws people into the spiritual aspects of yoga, even when they are otherwise unaware of the spiritual side of yoga.