Mindfulness Yoga Rule # 1: We are not here to make asanas of ourselves.
For the vast majority of practitioners and non-practitioners alike, Yoga has become reduced to, and synonymous with, the postures and movements of found in the various styles and brands of contemporary hatha-yoga. Yet for most of its history, meditation has been an essential aspect of "authentic" yoga practice. While often taught as a preparation for meditation, the asanas can be practiced as contemplative meditation when we coordinate breath and mind with the movements and postures. After all, much of the “work” of meditation involves how we experience the body; particularly our reactivity to experience. And when practicing postures, we learn to deal with the mind’s commentary, its leaning toward the future or the past, grasping after the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant -- exactly what we do in seated meditation!
The word yoga comes from the root yuj, meaning to “yoke or to harness,” and has come to signify both spiritual endeavor, especially the disciplining of the mind and the senses, and the state of integration. As such, yoga is the generic name for the various Indian philosophies and practices Georg Feurstein calls “the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India,"[i] the purpose of which is to liberate the practitioner from the existential human situation of duhkha, variously translated as suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction. Given this context, Buddhism is a bona fide child of the Yoga Tradition completely yogic in purpose, intent and methodology. The four noble truths and eightfold path offer a complete and coherent model of yogic theory and practice. Like all authentic yoga, it is moksha-shastra, a liberation teaching designed to free us from duhkha.
Hatha-yoga refers to the relatively more recent form of yogic practice utilizing the familiar postures (asanas) as well as breathing practices (pranayama). This form of yoga practice has its roots in the tantric movement that influenced both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. While the asanas of hatha-yoga are what most westerners are familiar with as "yoga," many of the postures currently practiced were developed rather late in the history of the yoga tradition. In fact, much of the contemporary approach to yoga-asana pretty much date back to little over the last 150 years!
Many Buddhist meditators have been drawn to hatha-yoga for the ease and strength it can bring to the body, while many hatha-yogis have turned to Buddhist meditation for the deepening of awareness, insight and equanimity it can cultivate even though Classical Yoga has it's own meditative traditions. While this ‘complementary’ approach has much to offer, a deeper, more integrated, comprehensive approach is possible.
In an early discourse, the Buddha is asked if it is possible, by traveling, to know, see, or to reach the end of the world, where one does not experience duhkha. He responds that it is not possible to reach such a place of peace by traveling, “However, I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end to duhkha. It is, friend, in just this fathom-high body endowed with perception and mind that I make known the world, its arising and cessation, and the way leading to the cessation of the world."[ii] The Buddha could not have more clearly stated that it is with the exploration of our bodily experience, where we so often find discomfort, pain, and suffering, that we can also find peace and liberation. In fact, the body and the fluctuations of the mind, what other yogis saw as obstacles to liberation and experiences they sought to suppress through concentrative meditation, became for the Buddha the very objects of his insight-oriented meditation.
The proper and natural posture of the body in sitting meditation is called asana, defined by the second-century Indian sage Patanjali in the Yoga-Sutra, the foundational text of classical yoga, as that posture which is both “stable and easeful,”[iii] accompanied by “the relaxation of effort and the revealing of the body and the infinite universe as indivisible.”[iv] When this state is attained, “one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites.”[v] Whenever this state of embodied integration manifests -- whether one is sitting, walking, cutting carrots or changing diapers -- there is yoga.
While the Buddha taught a variety of practices, perhaps it’s his emphasis on mindfulness that has had the greatest impact. The Pali word ‘sati’ (Sanskrit. smriti), most often translated as mindfulness, is related to the word for remembering. To ‘re-member’ is to ‘re-collect,’ to bring together all the seemingly disparate aspects of our experience into an integrated whole. In this way, remembering is synonymous with the definition of Yoga. Whenever we see our mind wandering from the intimate, immediate, spontaneous and obvious experience at hand, we remember to come back -- to just this, right here, right now, using the breath as the yoke.
In both the Anapanasati-Sutta (Awareness of Breathing), and the Satipatthana Sutta (The Domain of Mindfulness), the Buddha instructs in observing the breath, gradually extending our awareness to include the whole body. He says the practitioner should be aware of the movements and positions of the body, while standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, while bending over, or stretching one’s limbs and notes that nothing is excluded from mindfulness, including such activities as eating, drinking, dressing, urinating, and defecating. No aspect of our lived experience lies outside of practice. This is not practice as preparation, but practice as vocation.
The applicability of this teaching for practicing hatha-yoga should be obvious. When we combine awareness of breathing with asana practice, we can observe how movement and posture affects the breath and how the breath affects the body. We become aware of habitual patterns of reactivity. For instance, do you hold your breath when reaching out with your arms into a deep stretch? Do you unnecessarily tense muscles not involved with the movement you are making? Do you compare one side of the body with the other? When engaged in repetitive movements, does your mind wander? In maintaining a posture, can you see the constant changing phenomena, or do you concretize the experience, reifying the changing phenomena into a static entity that you then either grasp after or resist, depending on whether you find it pleasant or unpleasant?
Following the four domains of mindfulness, the practice of postures becomes much more than merely preparatory to meditation. Directing mindfulness to the four domains, asana practice becomes a fully integrated mindfulness practice, in essence no different than sitting or walking meditation. Asana practice need not be conceptualized as a complement or preliminary to sitting. It’s simply another way to practice mindfulness. This is the practice of Mindfulness Yoga. The priority here is the cultivation of mindfulness with asana as the vehicle for such cultivation. The practice of mindfulness, the Buddha assures us, “gives rise to understanding and liberation of the mind.”
The four domains of mindfulness include body, feelings, mind and dharmas. Each foundation includes a variety of objects, meditations, and contemplations. When practicing asana, we can choose to devote our practice to any one of these, or work through them sequentially.
[i] The Yoga Tradition: It’s History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein (Hohm Press: Prescott, AZ, 1998) p. 7
[ii] The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2000) p. 157 - 158
[iii] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary by Georg Feuerstein (Inner Traditions: Rochester, NY, 1989) Book 2; Sutra 46
[iv] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft (Shambhala: Boston, MA, 2003) Book 2; Sutra 47
[v] ibid., Book 2; Sutra 48