Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Buddhist Yoga

In the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, the Buddha taught, "Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom," a teaching that echoes Patanjali's definition of asana (yoga postures) as "stable and easeful". In both the Anapanasati Sutta (Awareness of Breathing) and the Satipatthana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha tells us to observe the breath and then extend our awareness out to include the whole body. He says that the practitioner should be aware of the movements and position of the body, "bending down, or standing, walking, sitting, or lying down."

--from Breath and the Body by Frank Jude Boccio

I found this quoted today on the blog Blue Lotus Seed, and thought, yes! There it is! An example of yoga teachings and Buddhist teachings brought together. Now, this is hardly novel, but often the link is made without specific reference points, in a sort of abstract way.

During yoga teacher training class last night, we were asked to speak a little about how we would run a yoga class, and what might be guiding the ways in which we are choosing to do so. I have been setting up practice class structures, with postures and meditation and whatnot, getting ready to do a bit of practice teaching. Anyway, when I started talking about how I was approaching teaching, it always came back to how to bring people into the present. How to help folks develop awareness and mindfulness. And how to plant the seeds that these practices are really gateways to liberation, not simply a way to feel good or be physically fit.

One rub I have had during this program is that many of my fellow students haven't spent much time with meditation, the yoga sutras, or other deeper aspects of the practice. It's harder for some of my classmates to view the physical postures as a form of moving meditation, which they can be if approached in certain ways. And so, what has happened is that there is a lot of energy around discussions of alignment, posture variations, health benefits of poses, and the like, and less around meditation, yoga philosophy, and mantra practices. It's not a lack of interest, nor is it a lack of attention given by the program - it's more about where the bulk of the students are at.

One of our instructors recently spoke of coming into yoga from the opposite end that most Americans seem to do. Like me and one other guy in my core class, she has had a long term meditation practice. And because of this, the way she approaches yoga classes is much different from the average yoga teacher. I have found that there are a few other instructors like her in our program, as well as a few more students in the larger group like me and the other "meditation-based" guy in my core group. But we're in the minority, a fairly small one I'd say.

So, it was interesting to speak about how I'd run a class to my classmates. How I would bookend any asana practice with meditations, or how I'd sacrifice excessive talk about alignment in favor of drawing students to stay with whatever they are experiencing in the pose they have come into. Or just the use of silence, of allowing people to be without too much teacher talk. Even the little bit of yoga teaching I did with my old ESL classes, I offered some silence to my students - in fact, I did that a lot even during the language class itself, developing activities that allowed for group silence at times, knowing how busy and chaotic many of my student's lives were.

As I told another classmate who spoke of having a fast flowing class with lots of music: "I love that kind of thing too, in small doses." My way isn't necessarily the better way. I have been in fast moving, intensely physical yoga classes with a teacher who had a deep sense of the whole of the practice and was able to convey that depth regardless of the outer form. Which was pretty amazing to me.

It all comes back to how best to point people in the direction of "stability and freedom." There isn't a single way, but certain approaches are much more likely to get people there than others.


Kashif said...

I'm also somewhat dismayed when I notice how yoga has become associated with just physical asanas, a form of gynmastics, and gone further and further away from what I believe are it's origins ... experiencing unity and oneness.

Nathan said...

Yes, this has been something I have spoken out about in the past. If I end up teaching yoga, it certainly won't be about gymnastics.

But I think a lot of people are simply approaching it that way, which is kind of disappointing.

Brikoleur said...

It's very good gymnastics, though!

Robyn said...

(laughing at what Petteri wrote!)

I also have struggled with how to teach yoga in a way that gets to the heart of how I have come to understand it. It is so easy to get confused about it all - so many possibilities, so many pressures to teach what (I assume) people want to hear and do.

The truth is, group classes are kind of a joke if what we are interested in is some kind of yoga related to the Yoga Sutra or even to Krishnamacharya. So where even to begin?

I have discovered that, while group classes are a steep compromise, they did get me to where I am today so the possibility remains for others as well. So, that is a point in their favour. Then, when I think about what constitutes a "good" class, it is more about the teacher connecting to what they love about yoga and communicating that as it is about any specific sequence. I have been to lousy ashtanga led classes where the sequence is exactly the same every time - so it is definitely coming from the teacher.

Stepping back from any kind of notion about "real" yoga or infusing it with some Buddhist ideas - perhaps there isn't any line there to begin with. Why is yoga separate from any other activity? When I am authentically teaching, I am teaching a Buddhist yoga if you want to put it like that. How could it be otherwise?

Nathan said...

"The truth is, group classes are kind of a joke if what we are interested in is some kind of yoga related to the Yoga Sutra or even to Krishnamacharya. So where even to begin?"

So true. That's maybe one of the things I'm facing, that working with groups - especially ones that frequently change - has definitely limitations.

"Stepping back from any kind of notion about "real" yoga or infusing it with some Buddhist ideas - perhaps there isn't any line there to begin with." Yeah, at some level, trying to define and label isn't helpful.

I obviously have some deep reservations about the "gymnastics" approach, but even that can be dropped off in the end. Or joked about, as Petteri's one liner did so well :)

Brikoleur said...

Well, it is.

Yeah, it was a wisecrack of sorts and I'm glad you didn't take it the wrong way, but I was also making a point.

One of the biggest problems lots and lots and LOTS of people have these days is not getting enough exercise. Asana is damn near perfect exercise -- almost anyone who has use of some of his limbs can get started with it, you can deepen it indefinitely, it covers just about all the bases from muscle condition to flexibility to aerobic condition, it's safe, it's inexpensive, you can do it alone or in a group etc. etc.

Conversely, Chögyam Trungpa said that most people shouldn't even attempt a spiritual practice, as it'll only screw them up. I think there's something to that too.

I think the only real problem with yoga-as-gymnastics is a semantic one. People who do asana-as-gymnastics might be entirely uninterested in or even hostile to yoga-as-spiritual-practice, and vice versa. So there is some potential for irritation there, on both sides. As someone who does a little asana-as-gymnastics, I certainly get mildly irritated when yoga-as-spirituality people try to take it away from me, or guilt me into making it into something other than gymnastics. If I want to pull my knees to my armpits to stretch my tendons, I'm bloody well going to do it, and you can't stop me!

But, frankly, I don't see it as a really huge issue. There are bigger ones around yoga and meditation, such as spiritual teachers who really have no business being spiritual teachers, or trademarking and commercialization and such.

If competent gymnastics teachers can inspire people to do gymnastics, how much does it matter if they call it yoga?

Nathan said...


It is kind of like the issues that come up with people calling this, that, and the other thing "Zen" or "Buddhism." On the one hand, arguing over labels is pointless. On the other hand, if anything goes, then you kind of get a big mush. Or an all you can eat buffet, which might taste good, but doesn't really help people wake up.

Yogic practices and spiritual teachings are older than Buddhism. It's only been in the past century or so that the asana practices have been pulled out and taught as mostly for health and exercise.

Now, I'm not interested in shaming people who are certainly doing something healthy, and the little bit I have taught was emphasizing health aspects - since I was in a secular classroom.

But there is something off to me about calling poses done for exercise "yoga," just as there is something off about people calling a mix of psychological teachings and a bit of meditation "Zen."

Honestly, though, the longer I sit with all this, the fewer answers I have in terms of dealing with this rub between forms and labels. It might just have be something that is ultimately not really resolvable, which is ok.

Brikoleur said...

I'm currently in France, which is really big on "Zen." As in, they like to use it to label stuff, from yogurt to beauty products. "Restons Zen" is a common expression that just means something like "Hey, let's not get annoyed about this."

My usual reaction is amusement mixed with mild irritation and embarrassment.

I would rather not have this type of linguistic cross-talk, as it does often produce misunderstanding. However, that's just the way language works. Words jump around, get appropriated, shift meanings. I used to fight this a quite a lot when I was younger (I'm a member of the 'Hopefully Is An Adverb' society, as a matter fact), but eventually I gave up and figured that as long as people understand each other, I can live with it.

In practice, I think the semantic confusion around yoga-as-spiritual-practice as opposed to asana-as-gymnastics is pretty easy to resolve from context and through additional explanation, as is the use of "Zen" to label a beauty salon as opposed to, well, Zen.

But if someone starts a movement to relabel asana-as-gymnastics or yoga-as-spiritual-practice so the two wouldn't get confused, count me in. If you want to reclaim yoga for spirituality instead of finding a new word for it, you'll have your work cut out for you, though!

Nathan said...

Yeah, trying to keep words stuck to particular meanings would make herding cats look easy. I guess this particular thing has been on my mind because I have had a lot of people who see yoga as gymnastics getting excited when they hear I might be teaching. Which makes for some interesting conversations.

Craig said...

As a long time student of yoga I'm happy to see this article and discussion on yoga and meditation, Buddhism, etc. In the past couple years I mostly practice at home, so I don't have the support of a class and teacher.

One thing that is striking to me is how much my "attitude" or "view" towards my practice affects the practice itself. If I go into it with a relaxed, more open state of mind, the practice and the result will mirror that, and if I go into it with a rushed, compressed for time attitude, the practice and result reflect that as well.

I'm saying this because the question of the teacher and the approach they take is important, because the teacher has a lot of influence in the student's experience. That you are bringing mindfulness and awareness to other people's lives is inspiring.

Nathan said...

Thanks Craig. I have had the same kind of experiences with my practice as well. It's interesting how that rushed quality takes awhile to break down. People who have debated me about the impact of yoga asana practice have often said things like "the practice will do it's work on you." Which is true to some extent, but if there's little or no focus on the mind or even deeper body awareness, it's hard to break through that rushed, or aggressive approach. And I think a lot of the yoga for fitness classes easily extend all that, with their rapid movements and hyper teachers.

Craig said...

Hi Nathan,

After reading your post a couple days ago and adding a comment, I did a yoga session later that day. Because my mind had engaged the question of attitude on your site, my practice session was considerably deeper than usual :-)

It's an interesting question of how much the attitude that we bring to the practice shapes the practice, and how much the practice "does it's work on you." One of my meditation teachers says that a lot of meditation happens before you get on the cushion, how you prepare yourself, and how much of your daily activities you bring with you when you sit down. I think the same is probably true with yoga practice.

Nathan said...

When things are really flowing, it's all seamless. Your formal practice, your attitude, and how you live the rest of your life. It's all imbued with that depth.

But what you write also reminds me of something our Zen teacher often says.

"You turn the dharma wheel, and then the dharma wheel turns you. Or the other way around."

A certain amount of preparation and effort are necessary, but then there's also an effortlessness that occurs, where the practice is working on you.

Glad to hear of your experience with the yoga session!

Craig said...

Thanks Nathan, that says it beautifully.