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Mindfulness Yoga:
The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind

Frank Jude Boccio
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004
341 pp.; illustrated; $19.95 (paper)

Yoga Body, Buddha Mind
Cyndi Lee
New York: Riverhead Books, August 2004
320 pp.; illustrated; $15.00 (paper)

The Tibetan Book of Yoga: Ancient
Buddhist Teachings on the Philosophy
and Practice of Yoga

Michael Roach
New York: Doubleday, 2004
114 pp.; illustrated; $15.95 (cloth)

Sneaking Hatha Yoga into a Buddhist practice used to be a guilty pleasure, like nibbling a secret stash of chocolate during a meditation retreat. In recent years, however, that attitude has begun to melt away, as these two practices—long separated by geography and sectarianism—cross-pollinate in the Western spiritual landscape.

Historically and philosophically, Buddhism and yoga have common roots stretching back thousands of years to ancient India. In fact,yoga—a Sanskrit term that refers to both the union of the self with the Absolute and the vast array of techniques for achieving it—embraces all the great Indian-born spiritual systems, including Buddha-dharma. Nonetheless, Buddhism and hatha yoga, which uses physical postures and breath work as tools for awakening, evolved distinctly different methods for pursuing their common goal of liberation. For centuries, Buddhist masters warned that hatha yoga’s emphasis on physical practices encouraged a dangerous obsession with the body, which, like all things, is impermanent and destined to decay. To some modern teachers, yoga’s popularity only compounds the problem: how seriously can you take a spiritual practice featured in a “Buns of Steel” workout tape?

All that is changing, however, as hatha yoga regularly shows up as an integral part of the schedule at Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhist retreats. Buddhist meditators are starting to acknowledge what hatha yogis have long known: that the state of the body profoundly affects the state of the mind and heart. Indeed, body, mind, and heart are not separate entities but one interpenetrating, unified system.

Several new books explore the fusion of Buddhism and yoga. The most philosophically comprehensive is Frank Jude Boccio’s Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind. Boccio—a yoga teacher, interfaith minister, and student of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh—solidly locates hatha yoga practice in Buddhist history and philosophy, emphasizing the mindfulness techniques laid out in the Anapanasati Sutta andSatipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourses on breath awareness and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which offer some of his most explicit instructions on meditation practice.

Boccio traces the development of yogic practices in India from their rudimentary beginnings in pre-Vedic civilization throughthe mystical flowerings of the Upanishads. (It’s worth noting that Boccio’s version of early Indian history is that of his teacher, the prolific yoga author Georg Feuerstein, who wrote the book’s foreword. Feuerstein discounts the prevailing belief that Indian culture was shaped by an Aryan invasion from the steppes of northern Europe and places the roots of Vedic culture firmly within India.) Boccio’s account culminates in the life story of the Buddha—himself a wandering yogi who studied with the greatest masters of his day before forging his own version of the yogic path.

From there Boccio moves into a dense but readable summary of both the Buddha’s core teachings and the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the central text of classical yoga, which was strongly influenced by Buddhism. Packed into this section are the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, the Buddhist precepts, and a discussion of the basic practices of mindfulness meditation; practical tips and personal anecdotes laced throughout make the sheer volume of material easier to digest.

The rest of Mindfulness Yoga is devoted to four complete, illustrated asana (yogic posture) sequences. Each explores one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: awareness of the body, the feelings, the mind, and the dharmas (the basic truths of impermanence, dukkha, or suffering, nonself, and nonattachment). Boccio reminds us to focus not just on the physical postures but also on what they teach us about the deepest truths of our lives. This is a welcome approach at a time when yoga is too often seen as just another way to get fit.

If Mindfulness Yoga is the most erudite of the new offerings, Cyndi Lee’s Yoga Body, Buddha Mind is the most readable. A practitioner of both yoga and Tibetan Buddhism for more than twenty years, and the founder of the popular Om yoga center in New York City, Lee is well known as both an inspiring teacher and a good storyteller, and has a wide following from her books, retreats, and Om Yoga in a Box practice kits. Rather than plowing through the classic teachings of yoga and Buddhism up front, she lets their wisdom gradually permeate a lively, practical, and personal exploration of what she calls “a basic homework assignment for humans—what do I do with this body and this mind?”

Asana practice, as Lee teaches it, is always linked to the breath, without which “yoga is just a series of frozen shapes that solidify whatever opinions we already have about who we are and what our bodies can do.” Each chapter of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind picks a particular theme—from goal-less practice to nonharming to dynamic equanimity—and addresses it in a mixture of anecdotes, dharmic insights, and practices drawn from the two traditions. For example, a chapter on the awakened heart includes both maitri (lovingkindness) meditation and a back-bending sequence that opens the heart area at the level of bones and muscle. A chapter titled “Topsy Turvy World” helps us break up our fixed views by literally turning upside down, in headstands and shoulder stands.

Tibet has a long tradition of merging asana practice with Buddhist teachings, points out Michael Roach in The Tibetan Book of Yoga: Ancient Buddhist Teachings on the Philosophy and Practice of Yoga. While engaged in finding and preserving ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts, Roach, an ordained monk and a scholar of Sanskrit and Tibetan, uncovered a number of previously untranslated works on yoga. Heart Yoga, the approach outlined in his book, draws on two main lineages: hatha yoga postures brought to Tibet by the Indian teacher Naropa in the eleventh century, and the classic Tibetan Buddist meditation practice of tonglen, or “giving and taking,” in which we take in the difficulties of the world and send out love and support to other beings. According to Roach, these practices had merged by the early fifteenth century, when the scholar Tsongkhapa taught them to the first Dalai Lama. The instructions have been passed down in the Gelugpa tradition to this day.

Heart Yoga aims to affect not just the body, breath, and nervous system but also the subtle “inner winds” that, according to Tibetan teachings, flow through a network of invisible channels in the body and are powerfully influenced by our thoughts. “The whole shape of our body, inside and out, is simply a reflection of the shape of these subtle inner channels,” Roach tells us. Heart Yoga combines breathing and asana sequences with visualizations and meditation in a half-hour program that directly affects the inner channels, healing and aligning the body from the inside out. While flowing through a classic Sun Salutation, for example, instead of focusing primarily on its form, you’re asked to send love and energy to a beloved friend with every exhalation.

Notably absent from these books is discussion of the advanced states of meditative awareness commonly associated with intensive Buddhist practice. Instead, all three emphasize embodiment—dwelling fully not only in our individual bodies but also in the greater body of the world and our relationships with other beings. And that kind of embodiment is, perhaps, hatha yoga’s greatest gift to Buddhist practice. As Lee writes, “Yoga, Buddhism, and all spiritual paths are a map showing the journey back to the heart of the universe, Big Mind, Great Spirit, the Source of all that is. And the heart of the universe is, of course, always within our own hearts, if only we can be brave enough to feel its movement.”

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