guest blogger Barry Wadsworth on "Yoga as Mindfulness Practice – A Buddhist Perspective"

Many of you know that my yoga practice is informed by Buddhism. I am unable to treat my physical yoga practice as anything other than a moving meditation or mindfulness practice. I have studied the buddhadharma for so long with various teachers in both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions that I think it’s ingrained in my DNA by now! Yoga is my meditation and vice versa. In some of my workshops I’ve started to incorporate dharma talks on Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness as they apply to the physical yoga practice.

Most yoga teacher trainings (at least the ones with which I am familiar) do not speak much of Buddhism (even though Buddha was most definitely a yogi) which is why I was so glad I found the first Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock in California. It was finally a training that spoke to my entirety and I am blessed to have been part of the first training with such wonderful teachers in both classical yoga and Western Buddhism.

I see no conflict with my Buddhism and my traditional yoga training in India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and with Srivatsa Ramaswami. It’s all good and each enhance the other as far as I am concerned.

Vinyasa krama is what I have studied with Ramaswamiji since 2004 and it is the yoga style that I primarily use for my own practice (combined with yin yoga) and with private clients. According to Ramaswamiji, vinyasa krama yoga is an ancient practice of physical and spiritual development, and is a systematic method of practicing and adapting yoga for the individual. Krama is a Sanskrit word meaning “stages.” It is a step-by-step process involving the building in gradual stages toward a “peak” within a practice session. This progression can include asanas of increasing complexity or gradually building one’s breath capacity. In his book The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, Ramaswamiji says that “by integrating the functions of mind, body, and breath. . .a practitioner will experience the real joy of yoga practice. . .Vinyasa krama yoga strictly follows the most complete definition of classical yoga.”

So I was glad to “meet” Barry Wadsworth when he made me an administrator of the Vinyasa Krama group on Facebook. He has just completed Ramaswamiji’s 200 hour vinyasa krama teacher training and is also Buddhist so we had a lot to talk about. Our Facebook conversation about yoga and Buddhism morphed into his writing here…enjoy!

For those of you who would like to explore classical yoga with a true yoga master who studied with Krishnamacharya for over 30 years, Ramaswamiji will be teaching in Chicago during September.


“For Buddhists, the practice of yoga asanas as a method of mindfulness practice is especially meaningful. Although some traditional yoga teachers emphasize mindfulness of breathing in synchronization with the breath, the Buddhist context of using bare attention to penetrate the moment as a means to realization is not as emphasized or is missing. During Chan and Vipassana practice, especially on retreats, slowing down all activity to the point that you can peer into its very nature is essential and can lead to a very direct experience of impermanence and self-nature. This understanding and emphasis coupled with the practice of yoga asanas is particularly useful.

In the Yoga Sutras, there is the concept of uninterrupted, moment-to-moment one pointedness or focus. But the goal there is not realization of self-nature in the Buddhist sense, but realization of individual self (atman) as distinct from the citta vrittis. Of course, this is where Buddhism departs, with an emphasis on there not being an independently existing person, self, or soul.

Practicing yoga has been a kind of experiment for me. Can a practicing Buddhist practice yoga in such a way that the fundamental truths of Buddhism, suffering, impermanence, and no self (anatma), are not distorted or lost? I think the answer is definitely yes, but it requires a clear understanding of the differences in addition to the similarities of the two traditions. Otherwise, it becomes a confusing melting pot that doesn’t do justice to either tradition. For me, the goal is not Patanjali’s dualistic realization of individual self as distinct from phenomena and Universal Self (Purusha of Isvara). It’s also not Shankara’s non-dualistic realization that self is Brahman. Rather, it’s the complete liberation from attachment to any notion of self. Once self is removed from the picture, perception is pure and everything is seen just as it is. This is true, unimpeded and boundless liberation. When the experience of self is lost, perception pivots on itself and myriad things sing in harmony with all other things, infinitely correlated, perfect and complete. Any clinging to “self” collapses this perfect harmony, the natural state of things, to self and other, internal and external, interesting and uninteresting, good and bad, mine and not mine.

One might say that one who experiences “aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman) also experiences this same non-dualistic reality and is not impeded by attachment or aversion to anything since everything is experienced as Self. Yet Buddha’s awakening specifically had the characteristic of going beyond an eternal notion of self, even Universal Self, as the highest enlightenment. According to Buddhist sutras, as long as there is any identification with self, one is still trapped in the cycle of birth and death and not completely liberated. The wisdom of knowing the truths of suffering, impermanence, and no self engenders compassion for all sentient beings and frees one to act completely for the benefit of others, without regard to self. I’ve seen this selflessness in my Shifu, Chan Master Sheng Yen and in my Vipassana master, Ven. Chanmyay Sayadaw. They both have the quality of being completely present and available, fully there for you with no distraction, when you talk with them. Your ego could even get puffed up with the feeling that you were the most important person in the world to them at that particular moment. But, they also had the compassionate ability to deflate the ego when the time was right. I’ve noticed the same quality in the Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen and some of Chanmyay Sayadaw’s disciples and lay students — fully present, awake and clear, penetrating, insightful, patient, and compassionate. I noticed the same qualities in the Dalai Lama. The world needs more saints like these!

For Buddhists and non-Buddhists, practicing yogasanas with mindfulness can be very beneficial in developing a very direct perception, a bare awareness of space, time, motion and sensation. Deepening this experiences enables the silence of meditation to stabilize in daily activity and bring about moment-to-moment penetrating focus along with awareness unbound by the environment. The union of Buddhist understanding with mindful practice of yogasanas is particularly beneficial. I’m very glad to hear of courses being taught, such as those at Spirit Rock, that have this focus. This is bound to improve the overall landscape of Yoga as it is taught in the West.”

Read more at Barry’s blog Chan Practice.

the retreat, part 1

Phillip Moffitt said it was an historic event. Jack Kornfield said that he has not been this excited since the Dalai Lama came to Spirit Rock. Stephen Cope compared us – the 90 yogis from around the world – to the original yogis, the sramanas, who in the 8th Century BC distanced themselves from the rituals of the Brahmin priests, taking to the forests and questioning the status quo.

I returned from the first 10 day retreat of the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California inspired but also with a confirmation of what I have always felt about yoga – that yoga taught without attention to mindfulness of the body and the breath and without meditation is not yoga, but merely acrobatics. Indeed, this is what Desikachar told us in my trainings at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.

This training is a ground-breaking 18-month program for yoga teachers and experienced practitioners that integrates asana and pranayama, mindfulness meditation, and Patanjali’s classical yoga system. It is led by nationally renowned teachers in both the Buddhist and yogic tradition, using asana and pranayama as foundations for the more subtle limbs of yogic practice (meditation, concentration, and insight), using the techniques taught by the Buddha. Phillip Moffitt told us that planning this program has taken two years and as far as they knew, this training has never been taught anywhere in the world, that is, a program that integrates Buddhism with Patanjali’s classical yoga as written in the Yoga Sutra-s.

According to Spirit Rock’s website, the benefits of this blended program include: an experiential grounding in an integrated yoga and vipassana practice that can nourish practitioners in their daily lives; a solid understanding of the entwined history, philosophy, and techniques of both yoga and Buddhism; and the foundational skills and understanding necessary to practice yoga–and for teachers to teach it–in a way that embodies and facilitates a deep understanding of core Buddhist principles such as mindfulness, lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and the interdependence of all life.

There is a core group of vipassana and yoga teachers with guest teachers coming in for each retreat. The vipassana teachers are Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffit, Mark Coleman, and Anna Douglas. The yoga teachers are Stephen Cope of Kripalu, Anne Cushman, and Janice Gates. The guest yoga teacher for this retreat was Tias Little. Future guest yoga teachers will be Sarah Powers, Frank Jude Boccio, Judith Lasater, and Jill Satterfield, among others. Dr. Dean Ornish is also scheduled to teach.

Before the retreat we were required to read portions from four books: Loving-Kindness: The Revoluntionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg; Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation by Jack Kornfield; Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind by Frank Jude Boccio (who was also at the retreat but did not teach); and a recent translation of the Sutra-s by Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali. This is the first translation I have read that takes into account the influence of Buddhism on Patanjali.

We woke up every morning at 5:15 for the first 45 minute sitting meditation at 5:45 am. The first three days we had 11 periods each day of either sitting or walking meditation, 30 or 45 minutes at a time, with two hours of yoga practice, together with a yoga talk in the morning and a dharma talk at night. The next 7 days we had 9 periods each day of sitting or walking meditation. We had a choice during one of the 45 minute morning time slots to do walking meditation or our own personal yoga practice. Most people chose yoga. At this point in the retreat we did not have the yoga talk in the morning, but had a three hour yoga seminar in the afternoon and this is when Janice Gates and Tias Little taught. We still had the dharma talk led by a different vipassana teacher every night.

I have never been to Kripalu but I’ve read Stephen Cope’s books. All I can say about him is that he is brilliant. A brilliant lecturer and a brilliant yoga teacher, besides being a classical pianist obsessed with Beethoven. If you ever get a chance to go to Kripalu, run, don’t walk, to sign up for his teachings. On the second night of the retreat he gave the dharma talk and drew us a yoga timeline from the Vedas to the explosion of yoga after 1975 when Yoga Journal was first published. He emphasized that the renouncers of the Hindu rituals, the sramanas, starting from the 8th Century BC to the 2nd century CE, used their own bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and for the research on the nondualism of body and mind — just as we will do during the next 18 months.

He told us that Patanjali wrote the Sutras as a treatise for advanced yoga students and reminded us that only three sutras mention asana, all the rest are about meditation and the human experience. So when people say that “yoga is 5000 years old”, that really isn’t accurate because it was not until the Middle Ages (1300 app.) when the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written followed by the Geranda-Samhita (1600 app.) and the Shiva-Samhita (1700 app.) that the yoga poses we do today were revealed.

Cope said that the core of the Yoga Sutra-s is not about asana practice but about uncovering the roots of human suffering. He said that yoga and Buddhism both grew out of the same cultural milieu of India at that time, that is, as a reaction to the dogma of the Vedic and Brahmin culture. Buddha (563-483 BC) lived about 700 years before Patanjali wrote the Sutra-s but Cope said that given the religious atmosphere of India in the 2nd Century (wandering Buddhist monks), it would have been impossible for Patanjali not to have been influenced by Buddhist thought. Both the Sutra-s and Buddhism seek to uncover the roots of human suffering. When Buddha said that “second hand answers have no power to transform”, he was talking about direct insight into known experience, the known experience of sitting and watching the breath, watching the body in the body and the breath in the breath.

the times they are a-changing

Y’all won’t be reading very many cathartic musings and rants because a week from today I am headed to Northern California for Spirit Rock’s Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training. I will be gone for 10 glorious days.

I can’t tell you how excited and grateful I am to be accepted into this program because it is truly a ground-breaking, leading-edge training, something that I have searched for for a long time — well, ever since I started teaching. According to the latest Tricycle magazine,

“the 18 month long training is designed to ground participants in the deeper, meditative dimensions of yoga as set out in Patanjali’s classical yoga system, through the integration of asana and pranayama with mindfulness meditation techniques…. The program’s integrated approach harks back to the way yoga was practiced thousands of years ago.

The teachers for this retreat — and what’s cool is that there are different yoga and Buddhist teachers for each retreat — are Jack Kornfield, Anna Douglas, Phillip Moffit, Mark Coleman, Stephen Cope, Janice Gates, Anne Cushman, and Tias Little.

The retreats follow a structure similar to a vipassana retreat, with regular periods of seated and walking meditation and yoga interwoven with dharma talks, yoga talks, workshops, Q & A sessions, and individual interviews with both yoga and vipassana teachers. Awesome!

Between retreats there are readings and practice assignments and we are assigned a “dharma buddy”, somebody in my geographic area.

So no blogging for me. It will be good to detach from the outside world, or at least detach as much as possible. It will almost be like going to India because when I am in India, I rarely read newspapers — maybe the international version of the New York Times occassionally — and I especially don’t want to read about the United States. When I was in India the first time, I completely missed Hurricane Katrina. and you know what? it felt good.

So try it some time, detaching from the constant barrage of negativity and the “live in fear” mantras that this culture is bombarded with 24/7/365. you will feel a difference, believe me.

And when I return I will tell the story of how I left the yoga studio where I have been teaching the last few years. Let’s just say that I had the guts to stand up and be honest about a situation that was based on delusions and lies and I got shot down in flames for it. Since Friday I have been honored and humbled by students who told me that they consider me their “spiritual teacher” — when most days I consider myself a fraud, merely an ant at the bottom of the yoga hill.

So this retreat at Spirit Rock can’t come soon enough because I feel disappointed, betrayed, and totally emotionally fried by the entire studio experience. if that sounds melodramatic, oh well, it’s the way I feel. I don’t live my life in delusions or lies. not anymore. and any life (or yoga studio) that is built on those two things will crumble soon enough, it’s only a matter of time.

But as they say, a door closes and another one opens. I talked today to a studio owner who sounds wonderful and we are getting together after my return. Plus I will learn a healing modality in November that my gut tells me is going to be an important part of my Path. As a reiki master I always intuited that there was something more out there, something much deeper and more profound. An akashic record reader told me that “reiki is too mundane for you.” And Ma India is only 86 days away.

I will leave you with the words of my teacher, Gelek Rimpoche, about how to deal with someone who upsets you:

You should try to realize that the person who is upsetting you is not doing it willingly. They are under the control of their own self-grasping ego and driven by delusion toward harmful actions. In that sense, their actions are like that of a drunkard or madman. With that understanding, ask yourself if it is worth getting angry with a madman or a drunkard. There is no reason to hate such a person, who is suffering under the control of their negative emotions.

Go with the flow, Sama, just go with the flow. Detach from the outcome and all is coming.

While I’m gone, please go over to the sidebar and look at “Compassion in Action” — please click one or all of the charity buttons to donate…it doesn’t cost you anything but about 10 seconds of your time.

salaam aleikum

do you want enlightenment with that?

Mass Producing Meditators

In this episode of Buddhist Geeks, Vince talks with Theo Horesh and Duff McDuffee, two SN Goenka practitioners. They discuss the effects of what can be called the mass production of meditators. They also explore the differences in using a single technique or multiple techniques for realization.

You can listen to Part 1 in my post here.

Theo and Duff raise some good questions in this interview. I thought it was interesting when they compared Goenka’s approach to that of a fast food franchise or Henry Ford’s production line. The interviewer compared the vipassana technique to what he heard Bikram say about how he styled his yoga on the McDonald’s model of fast food production.

While I’m not a vipassana junkie, I believe that a committed yoga teacher who is walking the spiritual path, regardless of tradition, should do at least one vipassana retreat. You will explore places of yourself that you have never explored before! I have only done one 10 day retreat, but I plan to do at least one retreat a year, even if it is only a three day one.

In October I am starting Spirit Rock’s Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation training. I am committed to this program until 2009. I am very excited because this training is the first of its kind, a ground-breaking program that incorporates classical yoga and Buddhism. From the website:

…an experiential grounding in an integrated yoga and vipassana practice that can nourish practitioners in their daily lives; a solid understanding of the entwined history, philosophy, and techniques of both yoga and Buddhism; and the foundational skills and understanding necessary to practice yoga–and for teachers to teach it–in a way that embodies and facilitates a deep understanding of core Buddhist principles such as mindfulness, lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and the interdependence of all life.

According to the website, “a good portion of the retreats will be spent in silence, following a full schedule of seated and walking meditation. The daily schedule will also include approximately 2.5 to 3 hours of yoga asana and pranayama.” Can’t wait!

What is so exciting about this program is the chance to study with the “biggies” of the Western Buddhist and yoga world such as Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffit, Tias Little, Stephen Cope, Judith Lassater, Jill Satterfield, and even Dr. Dean Ornish, among others.

This is the type of program that I have been looking for as long as I’ve been a student/teacher, and when I read about it, I jumped on it immediately, no hesitation. I am honored and grateful to be accepted into this training.