Four experts on combining yoga and Buddhism
Stephen Cope, psychotherapist and author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, started sitting meditation every evening at the Boston Dharmadhatu around the corner from his house when he was in graduate school. His life took a different turn, though, when he discovered Kripalu yoga. He is now senior scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
People say that yoga is a preparation for meditation, but I’ve never met anyone who actually taught it that way.
I do. I had a lot of formal training in meditation by the time I came to yoga, and I realized that yoga was a shortcut: slow, deliberate movement is concentration practice. It’s not unlike shamatha, but in the case of yoga, the body becomes the object of meditation. Then increasingly subtle aspects of the body become the object of concentration. Of course, the more subtle the object, the more subtle the mind becomes. I instantly recognized that I was dealing with meditation.
How does that translate into the actual physical practice?
It means there is more focus on the internal experience. There are a lot of traditions that have a strong focus on alignment and details, on the more external aspects of the postures. This form of yoga is more interested in the internal, concentrated mental states that are created by movement and posture.
To what end?
Very much the same end as Buddhism. We practice asana in the context of the classical eight-limb path that was laid out by Patanjali in the second century CE The ends are to attenuate suffering and to see reality clearly—very much the same thing that the Buddha was interested in.
To attenuate your own suffering, or the suffering of others?
Ah! In the classical yoga tradition, there does not seem to exist the same bodhisattva archetype that they work with in the Mahayana tradition. It is more about the attenuation of the afflicted emotions—the kleshas. That's where the real core of the similarity is. The whole path is about the attenuation of the afflictions that create hatred and delusion.
Do you see yourself as a Buddhist teacher?
I see myself as a yoga teacher who is deeply steeped in Buddhism. One thing that's very interesting is that, in the Buddhist tradition, practice depends on the cultivation of both concentrated mind states and investigative mind states, or insight. In the yoga tradition, very few people teach the insight series. So a lot of American yoga students have to learn that part of practice from Buddhists, as I did.
What do you mean by "insight"?
Seeing the three marks of existence—suffering, impermanence and egolessness. In the classical yoga tradition, final liberation depends on seeing that everything in the created world arises and passes away, moment to moment, and everything in the created world is empty of self. And also there’s the reality of suffering. Those three marks of existence are very much the same in both systems, except that the final insight in the yogic series is to see that pure awareness abides behind the whole shower of phenomena.
Most of the yoga classes I've taken have been about getting in shape.
No kidding! Well, that’s the first step. A lot of beginning yoga focuses on alignment and strength—learning how to inhabit your body. I think you’ll find that in almost all the traditions, the more advanced stages are about penetrating the subtle body.
Do you do sitting meditation yourself?
I do. I sit every day. Our whole community sits together every day. Everything stops. Employees are paid to sit. We usually combine yoga with sitting. In one practice period every day, we do an-hour-and-a-half of postures and then a deep relaxation and then a half-hour of sitting.
Does the yoga practice change the meditation practice?
Very much. It entrains people into a very highly concentrated state. When we all sit down to meditate at the end of an-hour-and-a-half of postures, you can feel the samadhi—the concentration—in the room. It is very deep from the beginning; it is like a wonderful bath.
Shosan Victoria Austin was ordained as a Zen priest in 1982, and received dharma transmission in 1999. She began to study yoga after a near-death experience pushed her into practicing zazen with "such fervor," she says, "that I almost burned out my nervous system." Having trained with senior Iyengar yoga teachers in the United States and India, she now teaches yoga to meditation practitioners across the country. She currently serves as president of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Do you actually integrate Buddhism with hatha yoga?
I try to be true to the lineage I'm teaching. When I teach an asana class, it's an asana class. When I teach zazen, I teach according to Suzuki Roshi's lineage. Some people think the disciplines can be blended, but that's not so. If I do that, I run the risk of losing what makes each lineage a teaching. But they're both yogic practices. Zen is a yogic school of Buddhist meditation: it has to do with the development of effort, which is exactly what hatha yoga has to do with.
The development of effort?
How to make a balanced and constructive effort that actually helps you. Yoga practice taught me right effort. But to experience the fruits of practice I had to actually practice the practice, not practice according to my own ideas.
Do you think there are a lot of dharma practitioners for whom yoga is essential?
Yes, I do. People who have obstacles in meditation practice—which is everybody—need some way through them.
Are you talking about physical, mental or emotional obstacles?
They are not split up that way. Obstacles are obstacles. I don't think there is such a thing as a purely physical obstacle.
Let's say a person experiences knee pain while sitting. We usually think that is just a physical obstacle, right? Actually, it isn't. Is the person sitting in a position that respects the way hips and ankles bend? This is physical and psychological. Also, does the person clench their body through the "fight or flight" response while sitting? This is physical, and it's also physiological and emotional. A position that truly respects the way their hips and ankles bend is certainly physical. But it's also psychological, energetic and ethical.
Because of the experience the practitioner is having while sitting?
Right. People want meditation practice to be restful, and in a certain sense it is, because there are not so many outside stimuli. But meditation experience gets personal very fast. Any obstacle will loom extremely large in the person's consciousness when he or she sits. All the ways the person deals with anger, fear, desire, aversion and, thus, ego, will come into play. Can we let go of that and work with the knee as it is? So working with the knee pain transforms the practitioner's experience of pain into an education in integrated effort.
How would asana practice help a person work through their obstacles?
Asana practice puts the person, knee and all, into situations in which they can understand the activity of their body—physically, physiologically, psychologically and in relation to their spiritual intention.
In Buddhist practice there are steps and stages which Zen teachers don't often talk about: there is the path of preparation and accumulation, and then there is the path of insight. Many people see asana practice as part of accumulating or developing the equipment with which to sit. But you can see asana as stabilization, and you can experience asana as insight. Patanjali, the codifier of yoga, said, "Asana is a steady, comfortable pose." And Suzuki Roshi, the founder of my community, said, "Just to sit with perfect attention on posture and breathing and great, pure effort, is zazen." Instead of drowning in our obstacles, let's hear these words.
So the two practices fit together.
Yes. The process of studying oneself through asana is the process of understanding the obstacles of action—how these have developed over time into habits. These habits seem to be written into the cells and the shape of the body, into how we act and react. We need to trace them back to the source.
In meditation, the same process occurs with the subtle afflictions. Whatever comes up is what we study. We apply ourselves in a balanced, constructive, wholesome way, until finally we just sit in silence. In that state, we experience no separation between the self and the world. There isn't any dualistic assumption. Without the assumption, we respond rather than react. Without a reaction, we are free.
The first yoga teacher Richard Freeman ever met was a Zen Buddhist at the Chicago Zen Center in 1968. “He taught only one posture,” Freeman says, “sitting zazen. But that was yoga.” Since then, Freeman has spent nearly nine years in Asia studying various traditions which he incorporates into the ashtanga practice taught to him by his principle teacher, K. Pattabhi Jois. Freeman’s background includes Zen and Vipassana meditation, Bhakti, traditional hatha and Iyengar yogas, and Sufism. He lives in Boulder, Colorado where he is the director of the Yoga Workshop.
How are yoga and Buddhism similar?
If you look at something like the Yoga Sutra, you can see the Buddhism woven into it. A lot of the terminology is Mahayana terminology. The schools are similar enough, but their cultures are different—so they either infuriate or inspire one another.
The Indian yoga that is popular now in the States is not really representative of yoga. Most yogis in India will do a couple of postures, get that alignment and quit when they’re twenty-five because they hurt their necks doing it.
Then what do they do?
Then they do their meditation and pranayama. If you go all over India, that’s mostly what you find. In terms of the brilliant practice of asanas that you find in North America, that’s just one thread coming through Krishnmacharya and his students.
You teach ashtanga mainly because ...
It’s just what I wound up doing! The term “ashtanga” isn’t just referring to the vigorous methodology of Pattabhi Jois; it refers to the classical eight limbs, not unlike the eightfold path of the Buddha. Within the yoga schools, ashtanga implies a type of practice that is oriented towards insight for the purpose of liberation—not the cultivation of anything else.
Is it true that people are turning to Buddhism in order to gain insight into the three marks of existence, because those teachings aren’t available through the study of yoga.
People are turning to Buddhism for that because of the dubious quality of the instruction that is available. This is part of the social phenomenon of yoga. So many people have gone to India for teacher training, and have gotten a watered-down version for mass consumption. It’s easy and profitable.
Most of the yogic scriptures start out talking about suffering, impermanence and the basic problem of ignorance. If you were from another planet, you would say that yoga’s the same as Buddhism.
The thing with Indian yogis—and this is not universally true but it is true with some—they’re very reluctant to really teach stuff that is chewy and heavy. They have this cultural snobbery, particularly if they’re Brahmins. They figure that these students can't understand it anyway—maybe they will in their next life. Or maybe if they’re good boys and girls, they will in this life.
One of the traditional Hindu teachings is that most people aren’t really interested in the truth. So you give them some religious form that will do them good, and you keep them in their place. Then, at a certain point, they’ll inquire.
So there’s not the urgency for Indian yogis to save all beings. Eventually they want to save all beings. But they figure they have lots of time.
If you look at what’s happening in Western yoga, people are pretty much caught up in the idea of being super-healthy and full of bliss, grasping at pleasurable states of consciousness.
Does that disturb you, knowing what you know?
Oh yeah. So this is the way my contemplation usually goes: at least they’re a little bit interested in the subject. At least they’re getting started in it. If their teachers have some integrity, people will start learning more.
People come to yoga for all kinds of reasons. Mostly they want something. But the same could be said of Buddhism: people want peace of mind or something. Their desire still tends to be egocentric. But if they’ve come to a good source, they’ll start to get more than they asked for, more than they bargained for. And that’s the hope with this huge wave of popularity of yoga—that there’ll be a significant percentage of people who really take to it and really inquire into its roots. I remain optimistic.
Seven years ago Jill Satterfield met Tsoknyi Rinpoche, the son of renowned Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen. After getting to know her as his student, Tsokyni Rinpoche asked Satterfield to be his yoga teacher. Since then she’s been teaching at his North American retreats. She lives and works in New York City.
How does yoga practice differ from Buddhist practice, in your experience?
In the Vajrayana, we don’t view the body and mind as being separate entities the way some hatha yogis do. It is the same. In order to introduce this to someone who is practicing hatha yoga, we need to start by introducing the subtle body: the mind lives in the body through the energetic system—the subtle body—and that affects the gross body. It is not the other way around. That is a huge difference in attitude and view.
Can you explain what the gross and subtle bodies are?
The consciousness of the mind is reflected in the energetic body. Where your mind goes is where your energy flows. Where your energy is blocked is where your consciousness does not reside yet. In order to know where your mind lives or does not live in your body and how that is manifested, you need to start to understand your energy. The simplest way to begin to understand how energy works in the body is to begin to picture the central channel—the sushumna, in Sanskrit, or the uma, in Tibetan. This is pretty easy to introduce to hatha yogis: they’re used to feeling some interesting natural bliss feelings when their practice gets going.
How is the central channel related to bliss?
According to the Tibetans, the central channel is where the bliss runs. Picture a river or a beam of light that begins at the perineum and goes straight up through the body—through the throat, through the skull to the crown of the head. If you picture it as water, you can feel where it flows and where it is dammed up or blocked. If you picture it as a beam of light, you can picture where it is light and where it is dark. Once you start to understand where it’s flowing and where it isn’t, then you start to understand energetically where there are knots and contractions. I say to people, “Is the place where you feel tight the same place that’s dark or blocked?,” and they always say, "Yes!"
All tightness in the gross body, unless it is an injury, emanates from the central channel. You’ll never fix something that’s tight in your outer body or gross body without addressing the central channel or the consciousness within. It’ll just be a quick fix, a Band-Aid. So the investigation is, "What is that darkness containing that I need to know about? What does that block mean?" It’s not necessarily that you need to go back to when you were two and say, "Oh, my teacher yelled at me so I tightened up.” It’s more that you’re taking time to look and be there.
Once you can stay there with those dark parts of your body, of your self, and are O.K. with them, then compassion blooms like a flower. Bodhicitta starts to rise. Once you start to feel that, then you can start to give to others because you are accepting who you are. I think what we’re trying to do in both this kind of yoga practice and in Buddhist practice is to be more natural. That isn’t easy.
To be a natural human being, to find our natural state, to uncover and uncover and uncover until we see our pure buddhanature. That takes practice and time and courage.
This article originally appeared in the Shambhala Sun magazine
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