Things have changed since the mid-1970s, when I began to study and practice both hatha yoga and Zen Buddhism. Back then, it was common to be told by Zen teachers that all one needed to do was to sit. Zazen was the be-all and end-all of practice, and if one practiced assiduously enough, nothing else was needed—not therapy, not text study, and most certainly not yoga! Despite the ruin of many a good knee, most teachers were pretty firm in this blanket condemnation. To many at the zendo where I practiced, yogis were bliss-heads, caught in denial of dukkha—the existence of suffering—and they looked askance at my dedication to my twice-weekly hatha yoga classes.
Meanwhile, at the ashram where I took yoga classes, I was repeatedly told that yoga was a complete spiritual discipline, and that the practice of asana (postures) was preparatory to meditation practice. But we never seemed to get to actually meditating in class. As for my interest in Zen Buddhism, as far as those yogis were concerned, there could be a no more dour, joyless, miserable lot than Zen students, sitting stock-still in the severe and colorless zendo, all obsessed with suffering.
Yet right from the start I intuitively knew—and confirmed from my own experience—that these two practices had much to offer each other. And, in fact, over the past three decades, many Buddhist meditators (including Zen students) have been drawn to hatha yoga for the ease and strength it can bring to the body, while many yoga students have turned to Buddhist meditation for the deepening of awareness, insight, and equanimity it can cultivate.
While this complementary approach has much to offer, I have found that a deeper, more integrated, comprehensive approach is possible—and may even be necessary —if one truly wishes to practice yoga holistically. The complementary approach still looks at yoga and Buddhism as different, with the difference being that yoga is understood to be about the body, and Buddhism (and meditation in general) about the mind. A deeper investigation of just what is happening when we practice will quickly reveal the inaccuracy of such a view. When we sit in meditation, much of the “work” is related to how we experience the body, and how we react to that experience. And when we are practicing the asanas of hatha yoga, our minds tend to constantly run commentary, react with story lines and judgments, wander from what we are doing, lean toward the future and away from the past, grasp the pleasant and push away the unpleasant—just exactly what they do when we sit in meditation!
So while things have changed since the seventies, it seems to me they haven’t changed enough. The primary cause of the false distinction between yoga and Buddha-dharma is the historical anomaly that it was the physical aspect of hatha yoga, the asanas, that first caught the attention of Western students. For many people, the great diversity of the yoga tradition was reduced to the mere physical performance of the postures and movements of hatha yoga. But the Sanskrit word yoga, meaning “union,” derives from a verbal root, yuj, “to yoke,” as we do when we restrain our attention from wandering when we sit in meditation. From the very beginning, the prime activity of the yogi was to sit in meditation. The posture one takes in sitting meditation is the fundamental asana, and is described by the sage Patanjali (second century B.C.E)—in hisYoga Sutra, the foundational text of classical yoga—as that posture which is both stable and easeful.
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