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.


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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6 thoughts on “a marriage of Yoga and Buddhism

  1. Thanks for this very interesting and compelling account. I appreciate the detail of your report and the inclusion of the excerpt. This blog really left me with a good feel for the book.

    Bob W.


  2. You post the most beautiful photos along with your writing. Thanks for the great excerpt. I appreciate you taking the time to write in depth… Michael Stone is a gifted Dharma teacher.


  3. I haven't read any of his books yet, but he'll be nearby in Oct where I live (in the city) so I've been debating about signing up for the workshop (b/c of cost for hotel etc). . . but this post makes me think it would be worth it (although I see on his schedule that he will be back in 2011).


  4. Oooh! I'm definitely gonna have to get this book!

    Yep, finally got around to reading this post in full – I wanted to take my time with all of the juicy and wonderful words. 🙂

    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.

    Most of what this excerpt is about is what my teacher refers to as the “Primacy of the body”. We can't go about getting all transcendental in our practice and neglect the physical, because all of our karmas and indeed our minds are tightly bound up in the body.

    So we MUST work with and through the body in order to see clearly and learn discrimination. It might be the outermost layer of practice, but it is a must, especially for stuck-in-our-head westerners.

    I think there's a tendency to not investigate deeply enough. This is what I meant eons ago in previous conversations about the difference between “book learning” and really understanding yoga. Books are great, but they do not and can not replace practice in order to develop in-depth knowledge and understanding.

    Thanks for this one!! 🙂


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