Much has already been written about how little those of us folding ourselves into downward dogs or stretching backward into camels understand yoga’s history. Which is to say, not a lot. Dabblers may not even know the basics: that the postural practice of yoga now so popular in the West is descended from a Hindu tantric, or esoteric, tradition called hatha yoga. This confusion may seem compounded by the fact that Western mindfulness and yoga traditions are now deeply intertwined, both often taking part in the same spaces (think yoga warm-ups at meditation retreats) or fusing together (as in mindful movement practices at Chan centers). Purists may object that we are mixing historically different traditions without regard for their separate root systems. While there may be some reason behind that concern—jumbling different practices together with no clear idea of what they are for or how they really work is not a recipe for deep transformation—the idea that we’re mixing two distinct things may be based on yet another misunderstanding of history.
Until recently, I myself thought of a yoga class infused with Buddhist meditation lingo as a mingling of two distinct spiritual traditions. But in significant ways I was wrong. Although I knew that yogic and Buddhist traditions had deep affinities in their views and practices, finding out that the historical lines between them are much more blurred than I had ever realized has made me feel more comfortable including both in my inventory of skillful means and more comfortable with the ways they coexist in the modern age.
I FIRST BECAME INTERESTED IN ZEN AFTER reading about it in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums when I was 14. I devoured several books on the topic, but it wasn’t until I was just out of my teen years, suffering from a bad relationship and the poverty of a merely intellectual approach to things of the spirit, that I began to experiment with daily Zen-style meditation. Around the same time I became interested in hatha yoga, which I understood to be the meditative use of special physical postures for mental and physical health. That is not an uncommon way of understanding it, though it is one, as I would later learn, that jettisons much of what premodern Indian hatha yoga had actually been about—goals like liberation from delusion and suffering, the purification of the subtle energy body, and union with the divine ground of being.
I also worried whether in mixing the two traditions I was not being enough of a purist in either.
After several false starts, when I was in my early 20s and living as an ordained Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest Tradition, I finally began practicing a wider range of traditional Indian hatha yoga techniques such as pranayama (breathing exercises), bodily purification (e.g., pouring salt water through the nasal cavities), and bandhas (muscular contractions that have energetic effects on the body and mind). I saw those practices as useful aids to prepare myself for meditation—as does the seminal 15th-century Hathayoga Pradipika, a text that describes these and other hatha yoga practices as a “ladder to reach the heights of the path of meditation.”
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Although I was immersed in Theravada Buddhism, I became more and more fond of the yoga traditions and was pleased to find out that Burmese teachers commonly referred to Buddhist practice as yoga and its practitioners as yogis, as did key Buddhist texts such as Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) by Buddhaghosa, composed in Sri Lanka around 500 CE. I enjoyed the little vocabulary overlap between the major practice and the minor practice in my life, though I also worried whether in mixing the two traditions I was not being enough of a purist in either. Some teachers from Buddhist and Hindu lineages alike warn about the dangers of being a dilettante who borrows from different religions instead of going deep with just one. Was it kosher to mix?
That was the beginning of my curiosity about the relationship between Hindu yoga traditions and Buddhism, an exploration that opened up a sea of connections and the realization—backed, as it would turn out, by recent scholarship— that the historical boundaries between the traditions are much more porous than one might think.
THE PALI AND SANSKRIT WORD YOGA goes back to a verbal root meaning “to harness, yoke, bind.” The Buddha himself spoke repeatedly of the goal of his spiritual path as “anuttara yogakkhema,” the “unsurpassable safety from yoga,” referring not to burning one’s yoga studio membership card but to being free from bondage. Not long after, though, the word yoga begins to be used positively. The Katha Upanishad, probably composed by Hindu sages within the first few generations of the early Buddhist community, mentions yoga in connection with discipline—in other words, yoking the body and mind to the will. Later Buddhist sources likewise use the word yoga to refer to spiritual discipline. Later Hindu writings emphasize yoga more as a state of union that is attained rather than as a means, though yoga as practice is a meaning that continues to be used beside this and eventually resurfaces as primary in the premodern and modern periods.
It is the Bhagavadgita, a section of the epic Mahabharata (sometime between 300 BCE and 200 CE), that embodied the full flowering of this classical concept of yoga as spiritual discipline. It outlines several different types of what it calls yoga as paths to spiritual liberation. By the medieval period both Buddhists and Hindus were using the word yoga to refer to their spiritual disciplines.
Premodern Indian hatha yoga was a complex group of bold and sometimes dangerous tantric practices.
Looking for more clarity on this, I spoke to James Mallinson. In 2011 the renowned Oxford-trained Sanskritologist and scholar of classical and medieval Indian texts (with special interest in yoga), who himself looks more sadhu than professor, went on a pilgrimage to Kadri in southwest India, to visit a monastery of the Naths (“Lords”), a centuries-old tribe of sadhus, ascetics living in quasi-monastic groups outside of mainstream society who are known for their nomadic, renunciant lifestyles and complex tantric traditions. (Mallinson’s own resemblance to a sadhu is striking: in fact, he is the only Westerner ever to be recognized as a mahant, or senior sadhu of standing, by one such tribe of yogis.) Mallinson was in Kadri to see two statues on the altar of the monastery temple, having read about them in the work of a French anthropologist named Véronique Bouillier.
The central deity of the altar in Kadri is Manjunatha, a form of Shiva, the Hindu god most closely associated with tantra and yoga. (“Manjunatha” means “snowy lord,” a reference to Shiva’s mythical mountain home.) On either side of the deity, tucked away in the eaves, Mallinson saw what he was looking for: two 3- or 4-foot-high statues that he told me were “among the most beautiful bronzes in India from their time period, in the Chola style.” One of them is identified in an inscription from 1068 as Lokeshvara (Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion); the other is Manjuvara (Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom). But how had two Buddhist bodhisattvas come to flank a Hindu tantric Shiva?
The statues are evidence, Mallinson told me, that the monastery once belonged to Buddhist practitioners of tantra. This indication is also supported by a reference to it as a vihara (a word used only for Buddhist monasteries) in the annals of a Shaivite king who made donations to the monastery in the 11th century. The physical integration of a Buddhist tantric monastery into the Nath tradition mirrors a process Mallinson has been interested in for years—the integration of elements of Buddhist tantra into Hindu tantric traditions, including into the tradition we now know as yoga. One of the integrations Mallinson has been researching is quite shocking, and in conversation with him I found it was only the tip of the iceberg.
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What inspired me to talk to Mallinson was a text he had included in the anthology The Roots of Yoga, which he edited and translated together with another scholar of yoga, Mark Singleton. The text was an 11th-century tantric Buddhist writing, the Amritasiddhi, which lists the physical practices called bandhas (“locks”).
If the term bandha sounds familiar to you, that may be because you have practiced yoga according to the popular Ashtanga yoga system developed in the 20th century by P. K. Jois. In Ashtanga yoga, throughout the practice one holds three such bandhas: the mula (in the perineum), jalandhara (in the neck), and uddiyana (in the lower abdomen). Those three bandhas, long thought indigenous to the Hindu tantric tradition, have been traced to the Amritasiddhi, which “actually contains the first example of using the physical body like this—to influence the subtle energy body—that we are aware of,” Mallinson says.
Although the term hatha is often translated as “force,” hatha yoga is usually associated in the West with a gentle, traditionalist approach to yoga postures in distinction to more athletic Western varieties. Premodern Indian hatha yoga, however, was a complex group of bold and sometimes dangerous tantric practices that went well beyond asana and aimed to restrain and harness the vital energies of the body for the ultimate purpose of spiritual liberation. That group of practices was thought until recently to originate in Hindu tantra, but Mallinson and others say there is mounting evidence that they actually originated in Indian Buddhist tantra, or Vajrayana.
What’s even more surprising than finding the bandhas in an early Buddhist tantric text—as Jason Birch, a scholar of medieval Indian traditions at the University of London, has pointed out—is that the first known mention in any Indian work of the very term hatha yoga occurs in an important 8th-century Buddhist text, the Guhyasamaja tantra, where it is recommended for practitioners having difficulty attaining tantric visions of their meditation deity. The earliest known explanation of what hatha yoga is, though, has been located in an 11th-century commentary to the Buddhist Kalachakra tantra, which identifies hatha yoga with the forceful retention of bindu (semen) and prana (breath) as well as work with nada (internal sound) as aids to practice. The roughly contemporaneous Amritasiddhi, discussed above, identifies bindu, prana, and nada with mind. So the original hatha yoga aimed at the mastery of vital energies and the mind as one interrelated practice.
THE ORIGINS OF THE BANDHAS AND HATHA yoga in Buddhist texts are dramatic examples of the close relationship between Buddhist and Hindu tantra. They also share similar philosophical concerns and goals—so many, in fact, that their obviously intimate relationship is hidden in plain view, as it were. Key words like “yoga,” “tantra,” “mantra,” “siddhi,” “nirvana,” and “karma” are fundamental to both traditions, and many of their practices, goals, and views of the mind and reality resonate with each other—for example, the dreamlike quality of reality or the already liberated nature of awareness, which are fundamental ideas in both traditions.
Perhaps more surprisingly, they even share teachers. A much-loved 12th-century Tibetan Buddhist tantric text, The Legends of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas, contains stories of enlightened Buddhist masters, several of whom were also teachers recognized and celebrated in Hindu tantric lineages: for instance, the Buddhist teachers Minapa (Matsyendranath) and Goraksha (Gorakhnath) were also founding figures in the Nath tradition, which is closely associated with the development of hatha yoga in India. Yet research has something even more startling to say.
What is the origin of the physical postures known as asanas that we in the West now identify with yoga? Surprisingly asana practice does not appear to have been part of early hatha yoga and was not integrated with it until centuries later. The earliest known description of the therapeutic use of asanas in fact occurs in a Buddhist tantric text, in the aforementioned Kalachakra tantra:
Holding the feet while in the lotus position gets rid of back pain. Having the feet up and the head down [i.e., a headstand] removes in its entirety a disease of phlegm in the body. (Kalachakra tantra 2.112d–113a)
Mallinson says that this Buddhist teaching, which was written between 1025 and 1040 CE, is “the first mention of therapeutic benefits of asanas in an Indian text that I know of.”
Asana meant “seat” or “seated position” in early yogic texts and could just as easily refer to a stool as a physical posture; it came to mean “seated meditation posture” in the Hindu texts of the first millennium. In the early 12th to 14th centuries the use of the word asana expanded in Indian culture to include postures for wrestling and lovemaking.
Not until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga) are a variety of asanas—15 in total—said to have spiritual and medical benefits and are identified officially as part of “hatha yoga”—an identification that stuck. Yet the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written four centuries after the Kalachakra tantra, making the Buddhist use of therapeutic asanas much earlier than the Hindu one. If you find this hard to follow, you’re not alone. “Yogic language is fragile and protean,” according to David Gordon White, a renowned scholar of medieval Indian yoga traditions and J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion at UC Santa Barbara. “Words are embedded in crystalline structures of yogic thought, but then meanings change over time, being reclaimed and repurposed again and again in light of evolving traditions.”
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In fact, the connection between Yoga and Buddhism in India goes back much further than the examples from the medieval tradition above. The Yoga Sutras, the popular philosophical treatment of ethics, meditation, and liberation usually ascribed to Patanjali that is commonly used in today’s Western yoga teacher training courses, dates back to before 400 CE; it contains such strong Buddhist elements that one contemporary Indologist, Michel Angot, believes that the text was written by a Buddhist and later overwritten and adopted by Hindu traditions.
The 6th-century Vedanta philosopher Gaudapada is known to have adopted elements of Buddhist philosophy from the Madhyamaka and Yogacara traditions. His work in turn heavily influenced the thought of Adi Shankara, who is considered to be the founder of the Advaita (nondual) school of Vedanta, a tradition whose central ideas have pervaded philosophical strands of Hinduism for several centuries now. Both Gaudapada and Shankara were accused of being “crypto-Buddhists” in their time, though most scholars today assert that they were more likely simply Vedantins influenced by Buddhist thought.
Maybe we could adopt a metaphor of two overlapping gardens whose seeds pollinate each other.
The view that Buddhism and Hinduism were distinct traditions at odds with each other in India may have arisen from polemical texts that never accurately reflected the complex situation on the ground. It was common for sages from different traditions to write texts asserting the value of their own traditions by criticizing other traditions’ shortcomings, and public debates between the intellectuals of different traditions were popular. Yet these rhetorical practices, which tended to draw sharp distinctions between the viewpoints of different groups—and which are still studied in Buddhist circles today—may not represent the lived reality among practitioners. “Eclecticism has been part and parcel of Indian philosophy from the beginning,” says White. “We don’t even really know how hard the lines were drawn between Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Sometimes we see pandits from the different traditions dissing each other, but they knew so much about each other, they must have been practicing across the lines.”
White also points out that many tantric practices that became popular with Buddhists, such as identification with a deity, visualization of mandalas and chakras, the pursuit of magical powers, the subversion of normative ethics, and the use of wrathful divinities, likely originated in Hindu contexts. White believes they were adopted by Buddhists during a period when Buddhism was in decline and Hindu tantra was on the ascent.
Maybe this cross-fertilization shouldn’t surprise us—the yogic culture of the 5th century BCE was, after all, the womb in which the Buddha’s awakening was born. Before Buddhism’s center of gravity shifted away from India in the 11th century, the Indian Buddhist tradition largely grew through being either inspired by or in argument with Hindu traditions.
Instead of seeing Hinduism and Buddhism as two different animals staking out neighboring territories, maybe we could adopt a metaphor of two overlapping gardens whose seeds pollinate each other, their worlds meeting at the “fertile edge,” the rich borderland where ecosystems merge. Those who today combine Vajrayana practice with hatha yoga are not so much iconoclasts as returnees to the fluid tantric culture of medieval India.
I HAD WHAT I FEEL WAS A watershed moment in my own understanding of the Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions of India when I was a Buddhist monk and came across a copy of the revered text of modern Advaita Vedanta, I Am That, a collection of the conversations of Nisargadatta Maharaj, a simple storekeeper and family man who taught out of his apartment in Mumbai and whom many Westerners, including Buddhist teachers such as Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, went to see in the 1970s. While inspiring, Maharaj’s focus on the realization of the “Self ” can also be unsettling for a Buddhist.
“What self?” a Buddhist may ask. How can you become free of all attachments and suffering if you believe in a self?
This very question is addressed by Maharaj when challenged by a Buddhist monk who visits him. When pressed, Maharaj admits that there is in fact no self and that the state of freedom is impersonal. “The Self is just a hook we use to catch the fish of the ego,” says Maharaj. “Once we have the fish, we throw the hook away.”
I realized when I read this that these two great traditions might not be just intertwined; perhaps they were using different languages and paths to reach the same goals. Perhaps they were like the different “skillful means” Mahayana Buddhists discuss, not two competing, mutually exclusive traditions. If that’s true, and they can be understood as two different languages for talking about the same underlying human journey to freedom, then the yogi should be free to learn from—and judiciously adopt practices from—both.
Maybe we’re more like family, or a conversation, or different parts of one garden, than sectarians throwing barbs at each other in debating halls. If that’s true, maybe a tantric Shiva flanked by two bodhisattvas like that on the altar in Kadri is just right.