a marriage of Yoga and Buddhism

I have written before about Michael Stone here and here so I was happy to receive his upcoming book to preview, Freeing The Body, Freeing The Mind: Connecting Yoga & Buddhism. It is coming out in September with a Forward written by Robert Thurman:

“Those deep into Buddhism can find a lot to help their understanding and meditation practice in the wisdom and embodying practicality of the Yoga tradition. Those deep into Yoga can find enriching dimensions in the Buddhist Yogas presented herein. And the broad range of readers can find practical help, methods, and tools for a better health, life, and state of mind in the integrated paths presented.”

This book is an absolute must for anyone who wants to explore and better understand the “inter-being” of Buddhism and Yoga. For me, it is a joy. I believe it will become one of the “go to” books for a combined study of these two subjects. If I had my own yoga teacher training it would definitely be on my required reading list.

Buddha studied with diverse yoga masters on his journey towards nirvana. Buddha was a yogi so the Western interpretations of Yoga and Buddhism as being two separate paths never felt right to me in my bones. Just like the first Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock spoke to my entirety as a Buddhist yogini, so does Stone’s book further confirm what I have intuited all along.

In his Introduction Stone speaks to how the oversimplification and misrepresentations of the two traditions disregarded how Yoga and Buddhism share the same ethical and philosophical components. Stone refers to Yoga and Buddhism as being like the ecology of trees — while trees share the same characteristics and similarities, a maple and oak are different. The branches and leaves are different, they have different nutritional requirements, and they look very different from one another. But upon closer inspection, the similarities are clear — root systems grow in similar ways, growth cycles follow the seasons in similar ways. So whether comparing trees or two wisdom traditions, Stone says that “when we look for parallel comparisons, we find difference, and when we look for difference, we find similarity.”

But you don’t have to take Michael Stone’s word for it because various Buddhist and Yoga master teachers contribute the first 12 chapters of the book. Among others, Chip Hartranft and Frank Jude Boccio explore the way their own Buddhist and yoga practices interweave, setting their practices against the backdrop of traditional teachings. Daniel Odier and Eido Shimano Roshi explore the body from the Zen and Ch’an perspectives and in so doing break down the false view that meditation is a mind practice separate from the body. Victoria Austin writes from her perspective as both a Zen teacher and Iyengar Yoga teacher. Christopher Chapple, whom Stone refers to as “one of the most prominent Yoga scholars in the United States” and a practitioner, draws parallels between traditional Yoga and Buddhist teaching. New York yoga teacher Jill Satterfield tells her story about how she integrated Yoga and Buddhism not just in her teaching but also in a dramatic transformation in her own body and heart — and it definitely is a dramatic story of self-healing because I heard her tell the same story at Spirit Rock. Finally, Sarah Powers speaks to her melding of Yoga and yin practices and Buddhist training and what it’s like to practice Yoga and Buddhadharma day in and day out.

Stone’s chapter is the last chapter entitled, “Practice Maps of the Great Yogis”, where he writes of the wisdom of both the body and the mind as the ancients saw it in both traditions. In my experience I have found that some think that reading the ancient texts is a sufficient yoga practice (mind-stuff); others feel that asana is enough and never delve deeper into meditation and philosophy (body-stuff.) Too much of one and not enough of the other is a recipe for imbalance. An emphasis of one over the other further serves to separate the body-mind complex.

Buddha sat down to watch his own breath and knew that no insight was possible until his mind was settled and his body at ease. Patanjali wrote how asana and pranayama help with the release of effort, both physically and mentally. In the section entitled “Right Mind, Right Body”of this last chapter, Stone quotes Takuan who “reminds us of the immovable wisdom we find here in the body and awareness that is free from fixation and ambition.” Takuan said: “The Right Mind is the mind that does not remain in one place. It is the mind that stretches throughout the entire body and self. The Confused Mind is the mind that, thinking something over, congeals in one place.”

Stone then quotes the last line of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

“As long as the Prana does not enter and flow through the middle channel of one’s mind and body, and the internal energy does not become stable by the control of the movements of prana; as long as the mind does not rest in the ease of the inherent resolution of opposites without any effort, so long all the talk of knowledge and wisdom is nothing but the nonsensical babbling of a madman.”

Stone points out that the HYP ends with a “description of awakening as a mind at ease and a body dynamic and intelligent.” So how do we use the body to study the mind and work with the mind through the body? Obviously asana alone has physiological benefits, but we need to remember that asana teaches us to work with the mind. “In this very one-fathom long body along with perceptions and thoughts, do I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the end of the world and the path leading to the end of the world,” Buddha said. That is, the end of suffering, nirvana.

All the contributors mentioned above are practitioners first writing from their personal experiences of practicing both systems for years. Stone says that looking at traditions like Yoga and Buddhism as mere philosophies without practice is not good science, good research, or good history. He believes that a pure intellectual approach leaves core teachings unexamined and in such cases “the scholar is blinded by his or her books.”

Finally, there is an ample Notes section at the end of the book citing references for each chapter from the important ancient texts to the modern Buddhist and Yoga classics — too many to list here but yoga and Buddhism scholars will not be disappointed in the breadth and scope of these references.

Stone’s book, in his words, “attempts to describe not only the philosophical basis of Yoga and Buddhism but also what it’s like to practice within and between these systems.”

Enjoy the excerpt.

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Freeing The Body, Freeing The Mind: Connecting Yoga & Buddhism
By Michael Stone

“Over the years, I’ve found it increasingly frustrating that Yoga is continually reduced to “a body practice” and Buddhism “a mind practice.” This makes no sense at all. Anyone who has practiced deeply in both traditions knows that the Buddha gave attention to the body, Patanjali the mind, and both traditions value ethical precepts and commitments as the foundation of an appropriate livelihood. I organize a community in Toronto called Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving group of people interested in integrating Yoga and Buddhist Practices.

In the Buddha’s teachings, the body is used as the primary object of meditation, so that one can study the universe not through books or theory but through one’s subjective experience. Likewise the Yoga postures, when practiced with breathing and sensitivity, become opportunities for deep meditative insight because they are designed to calm the nervous system. This grounds us. When we move within the various shapes of the yoga poses and tune into the internal energetic patterns of our breath, we are working the habits of mind as well.. Though the Yoga postures we practice in modern Yoga studios have obvious therapeutic benefits at physiological levels, some teachers and schools seem to have forgotten how the postures also teach us how to work with the mind. And for most of us, our troubles are not simply in the body – primarily, trouble is in the mind. How can we use the body to study the mind and work with the mind through the body? By experiencing how the two are completely interrelated.

There is a fundamental affinity between mind practices and body practices. Think of them both as curves in a grand mandala that continually spirals in, on, and through itself with no beginning or end. When I work deeply with my mind, I only do so by giving attention to the body: I witness its processes, from breathing to listening or seeing. The same is true when I study the intricate holding patterns in the web of my body (called koshas in Sanskrit), I end up seeing where my mind sticks, where it can’t focus, where it gets caught in refrains of old tape loops. What I thought was “body” is mostly mental. The Buddha says “Leave the body in the body.” When the Buddha teaches mindfulness practices, he begins with the bare awareness of body.

“The old Indian practice of Yoga,” writes scholar Karen Armstrong, “meant that people became dissatisfied with a religion that concentrated on externals. Sacrifice and liturgy were not enough: they wanted to discover the inner meaning of these rites.”3 Turning inward means taking responsibility for the spiritual path by focusing on the microcosm of reality that exists in the body’s functioning in this and every moment. Although yogic practices can supposedly be traced back some five thousand years, and although yogins described their paths and discoveries in very different terms depending on their respective cultural vocabulary, they all share the same common focus: the body is the primary object of meditative inquiry.

When we begin by taking care of the body and paying attention to its workings, we find ourselves focusing the mind, settling the breath, and learning much more about the nature of reality than we’d know by extroverted thinking alone. There are some things we just can’t figure out with ordinary thinking.

Just resting in feeling the sense of the body without any notions or concepts, we begin to tune in to the glorious operation of the natural world that is only available to a quiet mind. Of course, the mind is not separate from the body in any way – it is just a seamless continuation of the sense organs. We begin with the body because it is always present – it is the very apparatus we need to receive and explore any corner of the natural world. We use “the mind” to explore “the body,” but as we get closer and quieter, we come to see that mind and body are inseparable. The seeker Uddalaka in the Yoga Vashista, a story that interweaves Yoga and Buddhist philosophy, enters a remote practice place and begins practicing Yoga. After some time he exclaims,

“Just as the silkworm spins its cocoon and gets caught in it, you have woven the web of your concepts and are caught in them.

. . . There is no such thing as mind. I have carefully investigated, I have observed everything from the tips of my toes to the top of my head: and I have not found anything of which I could say: This is who I am.”

If we approach Yoga practices simply through books and words, and not direct contact with the physical and material reality of the body and breath, all we are left with is conceptual scaffolding. We can’t know these practices from the outside. They were never meant to be mere philosophy or codified ritual. Knowing about practice is not enough: we must drop our “knowing” and feel our way into present experience by seeing things clearly. By seeing, the old yogis are not referring to the eyes but to what the Zen tradition calls “the true dharma eye”——the eye that sees without clinging, without sculpting, without allowing what is seen to get stuck into the web of like or dislike. The spirit of Yoga and Buddhism embodies a radical approach to human experience – we begin practice through paying attention to what is here in this moment. Each and every one of us can wake up without needing to adopt a new ideology or belief system. When we return to present experience through the sense organs themselves——eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind—we enter the freedom of this very moment, and the old paths of the yogis come alive here and now. There is no freedom in just repeating the words and rituals of the old masters——we must express freedom and interdependence through the action of our whole being and community through mind, body, and speech.

Every morning we wake up under the same bright northern star the Buddha saw when he awoke one dawn in his early thirties. Every moment we breathe the same molecules of air that once nourished Santideva, Dogen, Thich Nhat Hanh, your parents and their parents. Perhaps practice also fulfills our responsibility to the yogi-poets and wanderers who long ago struggled with aging bodies, unreliable thoughts, and an imperfect culture. They took great care in putting together words and phrases to articulate their path: they tried to leave maps for us, so we can enter way life happens in a way that motivates us to meet reality in an embodied and creative way.”

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"Yoga For A World Out Of Balance"

Many thanks to Michael Stone for sending me this passage from his book Yoga For A World Out Of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action and allowing me to use it for a blog post. This excerpt resonated with me on such a deep level that it gave me pause, especially the sentence: “Yoga teaches us that everything is connected to everything else in the ongoing flux and flow of reality, beginning in the microcosm of the mind and extending all the way through the myriad forms of life.”

Sometimes the seemingly most simple insights are the most profound. Over the course of my yoga life I have had more than few epiphanies where the realization of the above sentence sent shock waves through my cells. Once at the Monterey Bay Aquarium where I sat transfixed before the tank containing the kelp forest and having such a deep visceral knowledge of interconnectedness that I felt it in my bones. And in my heart.

Again at the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania in March as I watched the wildebeast migration.

Yesterday as I was gardening when I pulled up an oak tree seedling and found the acorn still attached to the root. As I studied the oak in my hand I remembered the words from William Blake’s poem: “To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.”

There is knowing…and then knowing that you know.

In joy…..

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“The human world is continually speeding up while the non-human world of plants, insects and animals, with its once vast range of ecological diversity, is rapidly declining, causing irreversible symptoms throughout the web of life. A spiritual practice exclusively concerned with my enlightenment, my transcendence, or my emancipation from this life, this body or this earth is not a spiritual practice tuned into these times of ecological, social, physical and psychological imbalance. The declining health of our ecosystems and the call for action in our cities, economies, communities and families remind us that we don’t have time to wait for enlightenment in isolated caves or interior sanctums; instead, it’s time to consider action-in the world and inner practice as synchronistic and parallel. Action in the world is not an externally imposed duty or simply a preliminary stage on the path to greater awareness but is in itself a valid spiritual path and an expression of interdependence, freedom and awakening.

By seeing the inseparability of psychological change, ethical action and spirituality, we can avoid the common fragmented and problematic view that spiritual practice takes us away from the world, excluding the body, householder life and pressing contemporary issues like poverty, injustice, environmental degradation or other forms of inequality and suffering. Yoga teaches us that everything is connected to everything else in the ongoing flux and flow of reality, beginning in the microcosm of the mind and extending all the way through the myriad forms of life. Yoga also claims freedom from suffering as its primary objective. It is from these realizations that our spiritual, ethical and contemplative practices originate and mature. Wherever there is imbalance and suffering, yoga shows up.

Because of the sweeping changes of the modern era – including genetic research, the telephone, internet, high rates of literacy, swift air travel, two column accounting systems and faster and faster lifestyles – the iron-age world view out of which yoga teachings began to be described and refined can only offer us a partial platform, path and set of truths. We begin in this culture at this time, so we must begin now to articulate and re-envision a yoga that is responsive to present circumstances – rooted in tradition yet adaptable and alive in contemporary times. Yoga has always represented a radical path that leaves behind stiff metaphysics and doctrine and instead turns the practitioners’ attention inward to the immediate experience of mind and body. The yogin studies the nature of reality as it presents itself here and now. As we turn toward the mind-body process we begin to open to the temporary nature of our lives as well as the fact that we are inextricably woven into the very elements that constitute everything else – we are the natural world. For too long, yoga has been mischaracterized as an inner practice without understanding the teleology of practice. Yoga practices tune us into reality by waking us up to the inherent transience of earthly life, the freedom that arises when wanting is relinquished, the truth that no thing is “me” or “mine,” and the basic intelligence of the mind, body and the life that supports us. The term “yoga” connotes the basic unity and interconnectedness of all of life including the elements, the breath, the body and the mind. The techniques of yoga – including body practices, working with the breath and discovering the natural ease of the mind – reorient the practitioner to the very deep continuity that runs through every aspect of life until we realize that mind, body and breath are situated in the world and not apart from worldly life in any way.

Beginnings

When I began practicing yoga my primary focus was the physical practice of yoga postures and every morning for the first six years, I woke up to practice at five o’clock , six days a week. I sat in meditation for an hour, followed by standing postures, twists, forward bends, an hour of back bending and inversions and finally breakfast. When I had any free time, I attended academic lectures on Indian philosophy, completed two degrees in psychology and religion and studied Sanskrit; but the formality of my practice began to feel separate from the world I moved through and I felt that formal practice and daily life had little in common. The connection between meditation, the physical practice of yoga, and the spiritual discipline to which it belonged became ambiguous and vague and though I could intellectually grasp the connection between waking up the body and stilling the mind, I didn’t understand how to put these practices into action in everyday life. While I was having significant insights in meditative practices, I felt formal practice and daily life were not seamlessly woven.

This is true for many contemporary yoga practitioners, and as I now teach extensively, the most common question I hear is how to integrate philosophy, body practices, meditation and daily life together with one’s role in relationships, concerns about the world around us, and the desire to take action in a world out of balance. Even when students begin having genuine experiences of insight or meditative quietude, I always ask them how they are going to incorporate these experiences into their daily activities. How does spiritual practice support and motivate our choices and ambitions? How can my personal enlightenment be the goal of practice if there is so much suffering around me? If the domain of any spiritual tradition is the relief and transformation of suffering, what does yoga, one of the great spiritual traditions, have to say about contemporary forms of suffering and existential disorientation ?

For the practitioner of hatha yoga – the meditative practice of waking up to present experience in mind and body – the link between yoga as a “practice” and a “spirituality,” is often realized through an intuition rather than through intellectual articulation. However, intuition is not enough; nor is it enough to imagine that yoga offers a complete set of codes or truths that can, like mathematical equations, tell us what to do in every given situation. The world is too complex, too nuanced, and is always shifting, therefore we need to investigate the practical ways that yoga practice matures both in formal study and in everyday life. Today, our personal, ecological and social situations present unique and direct challenges to each and every one of us to respond to the great existential questions of life and death, to look deeply into interdependence, and to fully actualize our awakening in a world distressed and in need. How is our awakening going to contribute to the world-at-large? Why is our spiritual path important for the great rivers, the butterflies and the architecture of our cities?”

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dharma talk: Michael Stone

What a surprise it was to receive an email from Michael Stone, author of Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action.

Michael told me that he likes this blog (and it always does this old English major’s heart good when published authors tell me they like my writing – he thinks LYJ is “not simply the repetition of familiar yoga cliches”) and asked whether I wanted to contribute to the conversation about his book.

I am sorry to say that I have not yet read the book, but I’m getting a copy from the publisher. When read, I will review it here. I am especially interested in his book that will come out in September Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. The subject is one that is near and dear to my heart, the yoking of yoga and Buddhism:

“Buddhism and yoga share a common history that goes back centuries. But because yoga and Buddhism came to North America from Asia as two separate traditions, their commonalities in the West often seem invisible. Most people choose to study either yoga or Buddhism and generally don’t combine the practices. Michael Stone brings together a collection of intriguing voices to show how Buddhism and yoga really do share the same values and spiritual goals.”

In my humble opinion, Patanjali could not have written the Yoga Sutra-s without being a bit influenced by the wandering Buddhist monks during his time. When I sat in my Sutra-s classes I would think “yes! and Buddhism says….” Then in any Buddhism classes I would think, “yes! and the Sutra-s say….” In my own mind, there was never any separation of the two philosophies. As they say in India, “same same but different, madam!”

For those of you interested in this idea, read Chip Hartranft’s translation, The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary.

Here is an exceptional video of Michael Stone. It’s about 30 minutes long, so make some tea, pull up a comfy chair, and listen to a dharma talk on things such as the Self, karma, transcending patterns, and meditation. I like the reference to “heat” in the title since I always tell my students how yoga marinates and cooks us!

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10336462&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1

Michael Stone Dharma Talk: Let the Heat Kill You from Centre of Gravity on Vimeo.

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