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The Balanced Body and the Middle Way Print

The Balanced Body and the Middle Way

By
While tension and imbalance manifest as discursiveness, argues Wil Johnson, a truly balanced body generates an ease and relaxation that naturally supports the awakened mind.
 

For the most part, Buddhism has not made a big deal about the body. The great majority of Buddhist schools continue to focus on mind as the arena of maximum reward and accord body a much more diminished status as an avenue worthy of exploration.

The inherent problem with this attitude is that it is the experience of the body that provides the feeling ballast for the mind. If that is forfeited, the mind can all too easily float off into rarefied realms that, lofty as they might be, are but a shadow of the consciousness that meditation practices are designed to reveal. Mind ultimately wants to ground itself in the feeling presence of the body, not escape from it. If you want a mind that is balanced, then you need to create a balanced body to support it.

Alignment, Relaxation and Resilience

If the body is out of balance, it must create constant tension to offset the downward pull of gravity. This tension will manifest as discursiveness at the level of the mind. True balance of body, on the other hand, generates an ease and relaxation that naturally and spontaneously supports the awakened mind. In the words of Sasaki Roshi, "Buddha is the center of gravity."

To find the center of gravity within oneself means to balance the energy field of the body with the gravitational field of the earth. This balance appears through the conscious embodiment of three basic principles: alignment, relaxation and resilience.

Alignment: Ordinarily, we think of gravity as a force we need to brace ourselves against in order to stand erect. But gravity actually functions as a source of support for structures that are properly aligned around a predominantly vertical axis.

Relaxation: A human body that becomes aligned in this way can then begin to relax. It doesn't have to tense its musculature to offset the downward pull of gravity, because its aligned structure provides it with all the support it needs. Through the relaxation of its tensions, it can literally drop its weight and its mind, surrendering to the pull of gravity, and it doesn't topple over.
Resilience: To maintain its relaxed uprightness, a balanced body then begins to make spontaneous movements and adjustments, ever so slightly, ever so resiliently. If the body resists this natural urge to move and holds itself rigidly, it creates tension and forfeits its relaxation.

Of these three principles, resilience can be the most challenging for Buddhist practitioners, who have been taught to sit very still in order for the mind to become still. Stillness, however, implies quiescence, not rigidity, and so the Zen poet Ikkyu reminds us: "To harden into a Buddha is wrong." If you hold your body rigidly, your mind will become very active and agitated. If you allow subtle resilient movement to pass through your body, however, the mind naturally becomes calmer, and you remain relaxed and alert.
The whole purpose of playing with balance is that it lifts the curtain of muscular tension that ordinarily conceals the body's sensations. In the words of the Buddha, "Everything that arises in the mind starts flowing with a sensation in the body." If we remain unconscious of these sensations because of imbalance and constant muscular tension, we remain unconscious of the full depth of the mind and we forfeit our access to the wholesome states of mind of which the Buddha speaks. But when body is vibrantly present, mind is naturally clear and deep. Attempting to manifest clear mind without attending to the experience of your body is like trying to drive away in your car without first turning the key in the ignition.

While the principles of alignment, relaxation, and resilience can guide you as you explore your body's relationship with gravity, balance can't be superimposed from without but must be felt within. This discovery of feeling is the practice. Balance never appears as a static end state or an attained goal. It is something to play with constantly, a dance and practice that never ends.

An Exercise in Balance

Stand for a moment barefoot on the floor with your feet touching. Envision the major segments of your body-your feet, lower and upper legs, pelvis, abdomen, chest, neck and head-as building blocks a child has stacked one on top of the other. If these blocks are stacked up carefully, one directly on top of another, the pile will remain standing. But if they're not, the column will probably come crashing to the ground.

With the least amount of effort possible, feel the major segments of your body lining up, one on top of the next, just like the child's building blocks. Alignment has a distinct feeling of ease and effortlessness associated with it, so be careful not to bring tension into your body as you coax your bodily segments into a more vertical relationship with one another.

Then with your feet firmly planted on the floor, begin to sway the body slowly as a unit-to the right and to the left, to the front and to the back. At first, make your movements quite extreme, almost to the point of toppling over. Feel what it's like to be out of alignment, and then contrast that with the feeling as the body regains its verticality. When the body veers away from alignment, you can feel tension and holding; when the body moves back into a more aligned structure, the tension and holding fall away.

Keep bobbing and swaying randomly, gradually making your movements smaller and smaller. Eventually, you will come to a place where the body does not sway much at all. While this place may feel unfamiliar to you, it will also have a feeling of rightness. The body just stands, supported by gravity. This is your place of alignment.

Now begin to relax. Relaxation is nothing more or less than the surrender of the weight of the body to gravity. Because your body is aligned, you can do this without toppling over. Starting with your head, feel the tension in your body literally dropping away. As long as the tension drops directly through the building block underneath, you will stay standing easily. Can you drop your mind as well? Spiritual teachers tell us to drop the mind-can you feel what it might be to take that instruction literally?

Quite likely this new place of balance will feel willowy and insecure. Wonderful! True balance is never stable and still. A body in balance is constantly, resiliently moving. Feel how natural it is to allow these subtle, spontaneous movements to occur. Keep surrendering and letting go. Play with your alignment. Relax your tensions. Go with whatever movements need to occur for you to stay upright and relaxed.

Keep monitoring the feelings and sensations in the body. They are the guide that helps you maintain your effortless balance. These sensations and feeling tones will constantly change. You can't hold on to any of them; you just have to keep letting go, moment by moment. What is your mind doing? See how when you become lost in thought your body immediately forfeits its balance. Let go of the tension again, allow the body to move like a prayer flag in a gentle breeze, and watch the thoughts disappear effortlessly.

Breath

Let's look at one of Buddhism's favorite objects of contemplation, the passage of the breath. In most schools, breath is presented as an object for the mind to observe and concentrate upon. We count it. We watch it move in and out of our nostrils. We observe how it causes our belly to rise and fall.


While all this is very helpful in concentrating the mind, the Buddha never wanted us just to observe the breath, as though we were watching a parade from a safe distance. He wanted us to dive right into the thick of it, to so merge our awareness of self with the action of the breath that we would become breathing, and in this way, experience how breath, body and being are inextricably one. When you breathe in, do it with your whole body, the Buddha tells us in the Satipatthana Sutra. And then, when you have to breathe out, make sure the entire body participates in that act as well.
To breathe with your whole body, you need to feel the whole thing, every little cell and sensation, vibrantly and palpably alive. You can't just retreat to the cool observatory of your mind, watching passively as the breath moves in and out, and expect to feel this fundamental union of breath and body.

Let your whole body become the organ of respiration. The action of the breath doesn't have to be confined to just the mouth, the windpipe, the lungs, the ribs and the diaphragm. It can be felt to move through the whole body, just like a wave that moves through water, causing subtle movements at every joint. The movement of such a breath will massage the entire body and stimulate even more sensations to appear.

Such an unrestricted pattern of breath, however, is only truly available when the body is balanced. The holding and tension that are necessary to keep an imbalanced body erect will function as blocks to the free movement of the breath, and breathing will remain shallow, sensations dim. Bring the body to balance, however, and the breath can become an extraordinary event that blows away the inner cobwebs of cloudy mind and dull sensation.
Surrender to your next inhalation, let the breath breathe you, and simultaneously relax the body as much as possible. Feel all its energies, all its sensations, head to foot, leaving none out. Go deep inside to a place in which you can feel the whole body all at once as a relaxed, unified field of sensations. Find this place and then surrender to the full power of the breath-in and out, in and out, over and over again.

Don't force the breath, but don't coddle yourself and hold back on it either. Just surrender to its innate power. It will come open on its own, organically and naturally, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively. If you can surrender to the breath in this way, it will take you on a journey deeper and deeper into the uncharted regions of your body, where withheld and unfelt sensations are just waiting to be nudged from their slumber. Over time, as the breath succeeds in melting and healing the restrictions to its freest expression, it will cleanse you from head to toe.

This Very Body

Remember the Zen master Hakuin's declaration, "This very body is the Buddha." When consciousness and the felt presence of body come together as a single, merged phenomenon, awakening occurs naturally. Consider the following instructions from one of the most famous texts of vajrayana Buddhism, Tilopa's "Song of Mahamudra":

Do nothing with the body but relax.
Let the mind rest in its natural, unformed state.
Become like a hollow bamboo.

The only thing you ever need to do with your body is to relax. But once again, this can only occur if you play with balance. Without aligning the body, you can't fully relax, and without surrendering to the spontaneous, resilient movements that naturally want to occur through the body, relaxation cannot continue over time.

The ultimate purpose of balance is that it lets the current of the life force, felt as an unending flow of sensations, pass freely and continually through the entire conduit of the body, just like wind passing through the empty center of a hollow piece of bamboo. U Ba Khin, the twentieth-century Burmese meditation master and proponent of one of the few body-oriented approaches to Buddhist practice, called this bodily force nibbana dhatu, literally, the force that generates the enlightened mind.

Once this force is activated, it functions like a grass fire that burns away old debris and brush, preparing the ground for new growth. When nibbana dhatu becomes operational, it rages through the body and mind and burns away the residues and accretions that keep the enlightened mind hidden and contained. Because any blockage to the free flow of energy in the body will hamper the passage of this force, only if your body becomes like a hollow bamboo will you be able to experience and benefit from its purificatory action.

If you play with balance, whether doing formal sitting practice or moving about in your life, the condition of mind that you long to give birth to will gradually appear as a natural consequence. But never think that there is a perfected end to balance, that you are going to arrive at some kind of ultimate balanced state. Such a condition doesn't exist, and would become a great bondage if it did. Breath by breath, sensation by sensation, everything moves and shifts. Balance is constantly adjusting itself. Just keep staying open to this movement, this ongoing dance of balance.

Will Johnson has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1972 and a certified rolfer since 1976. He is author of The Posture of Meditation and Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness.

The Balanced Body and the Middle Way, Will Johnson, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

 

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Features/2001/july01/johnson.htm

The Complete Package: Meditation and Yoga Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2001

The Complete Package: Meditation and Yoga

By

It came without warning right at the beginning of the day trip down the river. I really don't like water and I am a weak, underconfident swimmer at best. But people I trusted said it was fun and not scary at all. If you did fall out, you would land on a little rock and immediately be picked up in the next boat.

So I went and on the very first bend in the river, I slid out. There was no warning and no big inhale before plunging into icy cold, wildly churning water. And then there I was, trapped under a rubber boat in the whitewater rapids of the Pacuare River in Costa Rica.

No breath in my lungs and nobody can see where I am. I thought, "Wow, this is how it happens," and I visualized a small obit in The New York Times: "Yoga Teacher Drowns Leading Retreat in Costa Rica." My mind raced and my lungs tightened, but somehow I didn't panic.

I never fully realized it before, but the yoga, breathing and meditation practices I had been doing for years had prepared me for this very moment. Practicing awareness, manipulation and retention of the breath allowed me to know intuitively that I could go without breathing for way longer than was comfortable. My daily twisting and inverting enabled me know what was up and down and to maintain a highly fluid sense of balance. Meditation had trained me to stay focused on the task at hand even while thoughts of my own death ran rampant through my head. I groped my way along the bottom of the boat and popped up into the rapids.

A very long minute later, a body-builder/yoga student of mine grabbed me by the collar and plopped me into his boat. My Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche, had taught me that to meet the dharma in your lifetime is as fortunate and rare as a tortoise's head popping up into an inner tube in the middle of the ocean. In that moment I felt just like that tortoise. Sitting in the haven of boat #2, my heart hammering, my adrenaline rushing, my lungs gasping, I was as scared as I've ever been. But when I was under the boat I had not been scared. I was wide awake, balanced and steady. Mindfulness meditation, yoga asanas and pranayama are each powerful practices that can affect our lives deeply. But there is no doubt in my mind that in this life-threatening moment, it was the combination of the three that saved my life.

As a yoga teacher, I am passionate about yoga and have been fortunate to share this passion with many students over the past 20 years. I have been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than 10 years and it has been a natural evolution for the two lineages to merge in my teaching. Yoga and Buddhism offer insights and experiences that complement each other and together complete a basic homework assignment for human beings: What do I do with this body and this mind?

Back in 1972 I started taking yoga classes for an easy P.E. credit in college. The feeling of being cleansed-like taking a shower from the inside out-was unmatched any other kind of exercise I had experienced. My teachers were inspiring and I was highly motivated. It didn't take long for me to be able to hold my breath for over a minute or to stand on my head for five minutes. I was hooked.

I got left behind, though, when it came to the "spiritual" part. I just didn't get it when my teachers quoted Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, who wrote, "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind." They closed their eyes and somehow seemed plugged into a big bliss cloud of happiness. I tried to feel blissful, but then the class was over. Walking down the street, my body was strong, clean, juicy and open, but I felt inadequate and cranky.

It turns out that my experience wasn't that unusual. While most people do walk out of yoga class in better physical shape than when they walked in, personal awakening may still elude them. Yoga is an unparalleled method of strengthening muscles, enhancing breathing, cleansing toxins and soothing the nervous system, but the sense of harmonious rejuvenation that arises by the end of the class may dissipate once our feet hit the pavement in front of the yoga studio door. A person's body may change but their mind will still be jumping, their heart still buried under layers of tension and fear.

As a teacher I have seen again and again that if you are a Type A personality, you will do your yoga practice with the same aggression and competitiveness that shapes the rest of your life. If you are sloppy, your posture will reflect that. If you are easily frustrated, the challenges of yoga may magnify that tendency. It has been my experience that the physical practice of hatha yoga alone is not strong enough medicine to alter those patterns-particularly in the maelstrom of today's world.

My dissatisfaction with yoga left me with a longing for something more, a sad empty feeling. Remembering that my dad's prescription for loneliness or depression was always to do something helpful for someone else, I began to search for a way to take the focus off myself and still be myself. I read about maitri, the loving-kindness aspect of Buddhism, and was drawn to explore that. So when a friend of mine invited me to attend teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I signed on for two weeks worth of teachings.

The first week was slow going, what with translators explaining to us Westerners the teachings of these great lamas. Some of the teachers wore business suits, some wore elaborate robes and exotic hair-dos. I didn't have a clue who they were or what they were saying, but I liked being there. The second week His Holiness explained what it meant to be a bodhisattva, and without hesitation I signed on with a bodhisattva vow.

Through a friend I met the Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche. For at least the first year I studied with him I struggled to follow the teachings, and even to stay awake during his all-day talks. But although I didn't exactly know what he was talking about, I always felt that he was talking right to me. It seemed like he always knew exactly what was problematic in my life and would frame his talks just to help me. I noticed that I was becoming more grounded, more patient and more conscious of others, and over time, inspired by the kindness of my teacher, I began to share what I learned from him with my yoga students. The teachings and techniques were a natural fit with yoga asana practice.

As my Buddhist practice developed I learned to watch my thoughts come and go like watching birds playing in the sky. This mindfulness training began to seep into my yoga practice. Rather than looking for bliss by dropping out, I dropped in, taking notice of my physical sensations and the thoughts that arose in connection to them. I realized I had the same thought every time the teacher said, "Let's do backbending." I thought I didn't like backbends, but my relationship to backbends changed when I recognized that thinking pattern.

Applying Buddhist meditation instruction to how I did yoga postures slowed me down enough to feel my breath, my heart and my mind. My sense organs softened and opened, allowing me to experience each individual new backbend. I discovered that my backbends were different all the time and that was interesting to me. In fact, meditation gave me license to just let that happen, instead of trying to stifle my thoughts and become something different than who I am.

My Buddhist teachers said mindfulness meditation was "synchronizing body and mind" and I understood that conceptually. But after sitting on the cushion for a whole weekend I thought, "What body?" Didn't the Buddha ever walk, stand or climb stairs? History tells us that he did engage in extreme yogic practices and ultimately found them unsatisfactory. Finally, after sitting still under the Bodhi tree he became enlightened, and then got up and began to move through the world again.

Patanjali is credited with writing the Yoga Sutra about 150 years later. Although yoga is often associated with Hinduism, it is most closely aligned with Sankhya, one of the six classical Indian darsanas, or "ways to see." Sankhya is an attempt to explain the nature of all existence by dividing it into purusha, that which is unchanging, and prakrti, or matter. It tells us that the separation of these two states is the cause of our suffering and that the path to liberation is through repression of our thoughts, withdrawal of our senses, and denial of our body in order to reconnect with our true Self. This re-union is the state of yoga, from the verb yuj; to yoke or bind.

The practices of introverted concentration associated with this state are described in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as an eight-limbed path: yamas (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). The limbs begin by refining our behavior in the outer world and then lead us more and more inward until we reach samadhi. Most people doing yoga today are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of immobility.

Buddhism begins with the premise that life is suffering but ultimately leads us outward, rather than only inward. We start the Buddhist path by sitting still and stabilizing our mind. From the spaciousness that arises during this practice of calm abiding, we naturally begin to feel our heart. Combining the practice of non-grasping wakefulness with exercises that generate compassion gives us a recipe for how to interact intelligently, soulfully and spontaneously with ourselves, each other, our family and the world.

These teachings invite us to open up to who we already are, rather than look elsewhere for connection, because the seed of awakened heart is within all of us already. It's our heritage as human beings. It's just that we can't always feel our beautiful lotus heart blooming because we get stuck on ideas of fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, greed.

But Buddhist meditation techniques reveal that none of these emotions are solid and with practice we learn how to watch them arise and fade away and still stay steady on our seat or on our feet. We learn how to remain in the immediacy of everything, for example, backbending, rather than what we are thinking about backbending. Then loving-kindness invites us to approach our backbends with at least an inner smile and a little less crabbiness.
At OM Yoga Center in New York we practice a form of yoga called vinyasa, which is a series of flowing movement sequences coordinated with rhythmic breathing. We approach the vinyasa style with great attention to detail, especially regarding alignment, to ensure that students do not get injured and get the most benefit from their practice.

The other element of OM yoga is meditation in action, which invites the yogi to observe and become familiar with mental and physical habits, to relax the grip of thought activity, and kindly abide in the asana. All this is done while maintaining a sense of vipassana, or clear seeing, which opens the yogi to the world around them and creates a healthy balance to the refined inner vision of yoga practice. The flow, precision and mindfulness of our yoga practice are all supported by Buddhist principles.

The flowing form is the physical manifestation of path without a goal: each pose is connected by a transitional movement that has as much value as the pose itself. This approach relates to equanimity, not knowing when our actions will bear fruit, and helps us break through the goal-oriented mentality we know so well and which is so prevalent in our relationship to our bodies.

This shows up a lot in forward bending. Many people have a desire to be able to bend forward and touch their toes. But guess what-I can do it and can definitely tell you that touching your toes does not make you happier. I do enjoy the lengthened feeling in the back of my legs and the openness in my spine-most of the time. But just like everything else that is transitory and conditional; sometimes it feels stressful or boring. So in our yoga practice we pay attention to how we get into the pose, what happens in our body, mind and breathing while there, and how it is to move out of the pose and on to the next thing.

You can try this without even bending over. The next time you decide to go from the couch to the refrigerator, feel yourself moving through space. You can go slow or at an ordinary pace, but feel the floor beneath your feet, look and really see everything along the way, feel the swinging of your arms and what your breathing is like today, right now. If you are going to the kitchen because you are hungry, feel that. If you are going because you're thirsty, feel that. How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and realized you forgot what you went for? This time feel the coolness when you open the door, and feel the softness of the sofa cushion as you sit back down. We take lots of little journeys like this every day, driving in our car or rolling over in bed. Try to actively participate as you travel through your world, rather than making only about your end point.

Precision is a way to develop clarity of mind at the same time that we develop accuracy in our physical placement. Applying specificity to where you put your hands and feet creates a wakeful mental attitude. You simply can't think clearly if your alignment is sloppy. For example, what is your posture right now as you are reading this? Try changing your position, or even walking around and see if you feel sleepy or clear.

It is also difficult to feel openhearted or uplifted if your chest is sunk and your spine is sagging. Not only are your cardiovascular functions diminished, but your body is a cage. This curling in creates dukha, suffering, which is the opposite of sukha, joy, and can relate to the physical and emotional space created through good posture. Hatha yoga aligns skin, muscles and bones so that each can support each other with more ease than effort. Proper alignment opens energetic blockages which can be caused by diet, stress, illness and emotions, or even tight belts, wristwatches and fabrics wrapped around our bodies. Physical precision extends to your clothing, environment and personal hygiene.
We are also attentive to how we arrange our practice space. Each person at OM Yoga has a mat and organizes their yoga props-blankets, blocks, straps-in a neat and orderly fashion, because a jumbled heap of stuff in your line of sight creates an obstacle as well. Everybody who has a messy desk knows this to be true. The spacious discipline of precision gives the yogi a sense of open heart, open mind and open agenda.
We apply meditation instruction to our yoga practice by using the breath as a reference point for resting the mind. But in yoga we also manipulate the breath in various ways that soothe our nervous system, cleanse our sinuses and oxygenate our entire body. Prana, which means "to bring forth mystical vibration," exists in sunlight, water, earth and all beings. For human beings, the most direct way to feel this universal life force is through the wave-like nature of our breathing, which reminds us that even though everything is changing all the time we can still feel peaceful as long as we keep in rhythm. Whenever you feel out of sync, take a moment to lengthen and equalize your inhale and exhale, and right away you will feel more balanced.

Try this. Stand with your feet firmly planted on the floor with your arms down by your sides. Close your eyes. Don't do anything. Just stand there. You will soon begin to notice quite a lot of movement within the stillness of simply standing. You will feel the movement of your body, expanding and contracting as you breathe; you will feel the pulse of your own heartbeat; you will feel your entire body swaying slightly in order to stay balanced on this big round ball we live on. In fact, if you were truly static, the earth's movement would eventually tip you over. Can you relax and let your body, breath and heart do this dance of balance?

All of these exercises sit on a bed called ahimsa , non-violence, in yoga, or compassion in Buddhism. What's the good of being awake if you can't let your heart be like your lungs, giving and receiving with every pulse? Mindfulness helps us recognize when we have habits that are harsh, and creates a gap between an impulse and the action that usually follows. It creates a space for us to dip into our hearts and come back up with a pearl of kindness.

Since for most of us a major part of our self-identity is tied to the appearance and health of our physicality, our body is an excellent reflective surface for getting to know our habits and applying ahimsa to what comes up. In the wordless conversation between our body and our mind, everything that happens in all our relationships-frustration, aggression, love, tenderness, boredom-will arise while doing downward facing dog. Yoga and meditation help us recognize our form of effort, whether it is too tight or too loose. Either way, effort is related to goals. So instead, with sensitivity, we apply exactly the right amount of action. Right action is a balance of body, breath and mind using the ingredients of rhythm, movement, direction, energy and intention, but never aggression.

When you apply this mind/heart training to the process of doing yoga asanas it becomes a way to understand the whole world in the form of you. It provides the means for working with all of those relationships right there on the yoga mat while you become fit at the same time. And for us busy people who are both meditators and yogis it is helpful to be able to combine practices.

Yoga helps Buddhists embody their meditation. As the meditator's body becomes more mobile, strong and functional, it becomes a support for meditation practice rather than the more familiar and painful distraction of creaking knees and whining spines. Similarly, the specific focus of Buddhist mindfulness and compassion helps the yogi's mind become unbiased, wakeful and connected in whatever physical shape they assume and demonstrates the transient nature of all things, including mastery over body.
Sitting cross-legged at the end of yoga class, I feel elemental. My breath is the wind and my mind is a raft floating on the oceanic tide of prana. The fire in my belly radiates out and makes the sweat on my skin feel like rain and earth mixed together. My heart rests in a big, big space.

Then I get up off the mat and go back to running the yoga center. Hopefully, today I won't have a life-threatening experience but still I'm grateful for my practices. Life might not be a bliss cloud, but through the wisdom and compassion of yoga and Buddhism, it has become supremely workable.

  The Complete Package: Meditation and Yoga, Cyndi Lee, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Features/2001/july01/lee.htm

The Miracle of Downward Dog: A Buddhist Discovers Hatha Yoga Print

The Miracle of Downward Dog: A Buddhist Discovers Hatha Yoga

By

Buddhist practitioner Mark Epstein discovers the joys of hatha yoga.



Yoga came to me as if out of a commercial, or maybe a series of commercials. Advertising companies know that a person has to hear about a new product from something like five different directions before desire for that product is kindled. It was like that for me with yoga. All of a sudden, a number of years ago, I began to hear about it wherever I turned, and, although I resisted (thinking that meditation was enough for me), after a while I could ignore it no longer.


First, an exercise instructor I knew started talking about his friend's newly opened East Village yoga studio, called Jivamukti. My wife went to check it out, but I was not ready to alter my routines. Then my meditation instructors, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, began to make reference to their nascent yoga practices. I took notice because of how much I trust them. Then a yoga teacher named John Friend came to New York and, at Sharon's suggestion, I signed up for his workshop. He poked good-natured fun at me for being a Buddhist but I liked the extra attention he gave me and felt encouraged. Finally, the dance studio across the street from my office began offering lunchtime yoga classes perfectly timed for my schedule. When my next door neighbor told me how good the classes were, I knew my asana time had arrived.

Yoga came along at the right time for me, or perhaps it was a little bit late. My body had begun to stiffen up after many years of sedentary work as a therapist. I began to be afflicted by strange aches and pains, and meditation did not protect me. But the morning after one of my first yoga classes, I remember walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and marveling at how light and pain-free my body suddenly felt. This downward dog stuff is a miracle, I thought to myself as the East River coursed beneath me.

Years of involvement with Buddhist meditation had inculcated in me a tremendous faith in the wisdom of the East. I was delighted to find that the physical challenges of yoga resonated with me as much as the mental ones of meditation. I liked the sense of working against my own limitations, of benefiting even when I could only barely approximate a given posture. I found that the balance required between effort and surrender in yoga was similar to that in meditation, and this was a balance that intrigued and satisfied me. Yet it turned out I was better protected from myself in meditation than I was in yoga.

There is a saying in Buddhism that emptiness, the key insight of meditation practice, should be regarded as like a snake, because if you do not learn how to hold it properly it will reach up and bite you. Emptiness is the relinquishment of views, said Nagarjuna, but those who do not relinquish the view of emptiness are incurable. Nobody warned me that in yoga a similar caution is necessary. Supremely unaware of this, I reveled in my new-found dexterity.
On a recent visit to my in-laws' house in Florida, for example, I took the first opportunity to stretch by their pool. After one or two downward dogs, I had a vision of my last yoga class where we successfully worked on our handstands against the wall-adho mukha vrksasana, the face-down tree pose.

"Begin in a downward dog," I remembered. "Straighten the elbows and stretch the arms, open the chest, walk in, exhale and kick one leg up, following it quickly with the other." I had discovered that I could kick up without fear, and I loved the feeling of flying up against the wall into a handstand. That would feel nice right now, I thought, and before I knew what was happening, I kicked myself up onto my hands. For a very brief moment, I balanced like a true yogi, but I knew in the next split-second that the snake was about to bite.

My enthusiasm had carried me away. There was no wall to support me and I had lifted off with such energy that I was over and beyond the ability of my arms and shoulders to support me. I had the choice of falling onto the gravel in a somersault or collapsing one shoulder and rolling onto my side. Choosing the latter, I felt my shoulder girdle go into spasm as I fell. Three months later, as I write this, the muscles are still healing.
What is the lesson in all this? For me, it has something to do with letting meditation and yoga help each other. I was so excited to have the help of yoga to my meditation that I forgot to use what I had learned from Buddhism to help me with my yoga. I would never let my excitement over emptiness throw me off balance the way I had let my handstand get out of control. In my enthusiasm for the posture, I had lost-or misplaced-the humility that protected me as I felt my way into yoga in the first place.

The lesson was a familiar one-a lesson that links yoga and meditation at their hearts. The successful practice of yoga, like meditation, requires nothing more, or less, than a beginner's mind.

Meditation and Post-Meditation Print

Meditation and Post-Meditation

By 

Normally, when we talk about meditation, we're talking about formal meditation, meaning that our meditation session has a definite beginning and end. We have thought about the time, the place, and how long the session is going to be. We sit down and we follow the meditation instructions we've been given. There is an element of crispness to this plan. We need this formality to train our minds, to let the mind deepen, to allow ourselves to experience insights into our life and into who we are.

 

During formal practice, we know that time has been set aside to meditate. We practice letting go of thoughts. Encountering stubborn thoughts and feelings, we look at them and realize that they are simply fabricated and not substantial. In this way, we are training our mind to be more pliant and supple. But it's difficult for us to continue this all day long, in the same way that we can't exercise all day. We may do push-ups and sit-ups and weight training, but we don't do it all day long. We can do it for a specific time and then we need to rest and recuperate.

In the same way, the meditation session is different from the rest of our life. We regard it as formal practice and the rest of our day as post-meditation. Ideally speaking, the two are equal partners, helping each other. We could say they are like the sun and the moon.

Because we sometimes struggle with finding our breath and acknowledging thoughts, we may feel as though our formal meditation session is spent juggling. We experience moments of peace, but mostly we feel awkward. Nonetheless, after finishing a session we may notice a slight difference in our perception. There might be more clarity. It's not simply that we are relieved that the practice is over, but there is more space in our mind. We may even feel a little younger and fresher. When we talk to a friend, we may see her face more clearly than we usually do, and hear her words in a slightly different way.

This shift marks the beginning of an opening-up process that is quite powerful. We can actually take some pride in this state of mind. It's softer and more accurate than our habitual mindset. There's less discursiveness and more space. Our mind is less busy producing useless thoughts and chatter. We have meditated and worked with our mind, and this is the fruition. We didn't take a pill or drink something; we did it on our own.
The post-meditation period is the time that we deepen our understanding of the meditation practice. We read, we study, we seek to understand ourselves and how our mind works. We take the time to think about the practice of meditation and to deepen our experience of its effect on our mind.

During post-meditation, because we have gained some perspective from meditating, we begin to see the play of our mind. We begin to see its fickle quality. We are able to observe how our mind jumps about from one topic to another: one minute we're thinking about the snowstorm, the next minute we're deciding what to eat for lunch, and the next minute we're worrying that we left our lights on at home. We also see the heaviness of thought and concept. For example, we may go around for days feeling angry at somebody, or we might feel stuck in an argumentative frame of mind. Even though these kinds of thoughts have been going on for our whole life, we didn't have the perspective before we started our formal practice to see how haphazardly our mind behaves.

In post-meditation, we begin to see how our familiar emotional patterns are just the mind fixating on different things. One minute the mind is fixated on self-doubt; the next minute our mind is stuck on irritation with the person we live with. So the value in the post-meditation experience is that it helps us to see gaps in our thinking process. We could see, for example, that our irritation has actually begun because we are irritated with ourselves, and we could see the irony of blaming others for how we feel.

The play between meditation and post-meditation is very important. Formal meditation is like the sun. The sun relaxes us if we are tense and cold. It brings us out of shadows into the open air. The warmth of the sun is nurturing and healing. Meditation has these qualities as well. Our formal session is when we set aside our other obligations. We can observe, acknowledge, and let go of our thoughts. We can rest the mind.

However, the intensity of formal training needs to be balanced with the cool moon of everyday life. We are happy to see the sun because of the moon, and we appreciate the moon because of the sun. If we had the sun all day and all night it would be overwhelming, even debilitating.

Finding the right proportion of meditation to post-meditation is a lifelong journey. There are times when we will need more formal meditation, and other times when we need to accommodate the unpredictability of daily life in our sessions. There will be times when we feel that things are not going so well, when our life feels claustrophobic. Then we may need a little adventure in our lives, something to pique our interest and bring some richness into our routine. We may just need to go for a walk instead of meditating that day.

If we approach the formal meditation session feeling that training our mind is drudgery, then we're entering meditation in a depressed state of mind, and that's not very helpful. Or if we sit down to meditate because we have nothing else to do, that's not helpful either. Then we'll probably just wallow in our depression during the session.

Meditation does not mean formal periods of soberness or heavy doses of reality. What we are doing is simply training the mind. One of the chief benefits of meditation is that it creates lightness and openness in our mind. It helps us to feel less burdened. This is crucial to how meditation helps us, because everything we do is colored by our state of mind. For instance, if we feel good, then things seem interesting and we want to learn; we're intrigued. But if we feel attacked and our mind feels weak or doubtful, then we want to reject the world. At that point, our mind feels heavy and unworkable. By contrast, genuine meditation will bring about a kind of lightness. Once we achieve a certain emotional and mental buoyancy, or upliftedness, then life simply becomes more enjoyable.



Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Meditation and Post-Meditation, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, May 2001.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Sakyong/may_01.htm

Sitting Meditation Step by Step: Being in the Body, Labeling, and Opening into Experience Print

Sitting Meditation Step by Step: Being in the Body, Labeling, and Opening into the Heart of Experiencing


The Buddhist practice of sitting meditation has three aspects. Being in the body is the ground of practice. Labeling our thoughts breaks our identification with them. Opening into the heart of experience awakens us to love and compassion.

I used to approach sitting, and especially retreats, with the idea that meditation was supposed to make me feel a special way. Often, I just wanted to be free from anxiety. As a consequence, I rarely had a clear idea of what sitting was really about. Even now, when I'm no longer trying to feel some special way from sitting, I still find it helpful occasionally to reorient myself to exactly what I'm doing in my sitting practice.

How often have you realized, right in the middle of a sitting, that you don't even know what the basic practice is? How often have you asked yourself, "What exactly am I supposed to be doing here?"

This confusion is a normal part of the practice path, which is a good reason to review basic sitting instructions regularly. Practice can never be learned just through reading or thinking about it. To awaken clarity based on genuine understanding, we have to learn from our own experience. Nonetheless, it's good to have a clear overview of what sitting practice is, even if it is, in part, conceptual.

Meditation practice, can be divided into three parts. These three are not really separate and distinct; they are a continuum. For the purposes of description, however, we will look at these three aspects of sitting as if they were separate.

The first aspect of sitting is being-in-the-body. This is the basic ground of practice. When we first sit down to meditate, we take a specific posture. The important point is not which posture we take, but whether we're actually present to the physical experience. Being-in-the-body means we're awake, aware, present to what is actually going on. So even though it's true certain postures are conducive to this level of awareness, it's also true that we can meditate on a subway, standing up or lying in bed.

It's useful to have a routine to bring awareness to the physical reality of the moment, especially when we first sit down to meditate. For example, when I sit down I ask myself, "What is going on right now?" Then I touch in with my physical state, my mental/emotional state, and the environmental input (temperature, sound, light, and so on). This check might only take a few seconds, but it immediately takes me out my mental realm and grounds me in the more concrete physical world. The point is not to think about the body, the emotions, or the environment, but to actually feel them.

After this quick check, I return awareness to the posture by telling myself: "Allow the head to float to the top, so that the lower back can lengthen, broaden and soften." This reminder brings me further into my bodily experience. Throughout the sitting period, whenever I find myself spinning off into thoughts, I use this reminder to bring my awareness back to the present moment. The essence of being-in-the-body is simply to be here.

Normally, after settling into the sitting posture, I bring awareness to the breath in a very concentrated way for just a few minutes. I am not thinking about the breath, but bringing awareness to the actual sensations of it entering and leaving my body. For this brief period, when thoughts arise I don't label them; I narrow my awareness to focus solely on the experience of breathing. The value of this practice is that it allows me to settle into sitting.

But the value of this (or any other) concentrative practice—that it can shut life out—is also its limitation. Practice is about opening to life, not about shutting it out. And even though continuous concentration on the breath can make us feel calm and relaxed as well as focused and centered, this is not the point of sitting practice. As much as we would like to have pleasing or special experiences, the path of meditation is about being awake. It's about being awake to whatever we feel. It's ultimately about learning to be with our life as it is. So although concentration practices can certainly be helpful at times, we aspire to spend most of our sitting time in a more wide-open awareness.

Wide-open awareness is the essence of being-in-the-body. This is where we become aware of bodily sensations, thoughts, changing states of mind, and input from the environment. The practice is just to be aware, to simply observe and experience whatever is happening. There is really nothing special about this approach—it is very low key. We're attempting to see and experience life as it arises by letting it just be there-minus our opinions and judgments. This approach highlights the never-ending struggle between just being here and our addiction to the comfort and security of our mental world.

So this first aspect of sitting—being-in-the-body—simple as it sounds, is actually very difficult. Why? Because we don't want to be here. A strong part of us prefers the self-centered dream of plans and fantasies. That's what makes this practice so difficult: the constant, unromantic, non-exotic struggle just to be here. As we sit in wide-open awareness, however, as the body/mind gradually settles down, we can begin to enter the silence, where passing thoughts no longer hook us. We enter the silence not by trying to enter, but through the constant soft effort to be present, allowing life to just be.

The second mode of sitting is labeling and experiencing. As we sit, emotions arise. Sometimes they pass when we become aware of them. But sometimes they demand more of our attention. When that happens, we become more focused in our practice. With precision we begin to label our thoughts. As well, we focus on experiencing the bodily state that is an inextricable part of an emotional reaction.

As emotions arise, we can ask, "What is this?" The answer to this question is never analytical. It cannot be reached with thought, because it is not what the emotion is about. It's what it is. So we look to our experience itself, noticing where we feel the emotion in the body. We notice its quality or texture. We notice its changing faces. And we come to know, as if for the first time, what the emotion actually feels like.

Invariably we will slip back into thinking. As long as we are caught in thinking, we can't continue to experience the bodily component of our emotions. In fact, the more intense the emotion, the more we will want to believe our thoughts. So the practice is to label the thoughts over and over-to see them clearly and to break our identification with them. That will almost always involve moving back and forth between labeling and experiencing.

Learning to stay with—to reside in—our emotions in this way allows us to see how most of our emotional distress is based on our conditioning, and particularly on the decisions and beliefs that arose out of that conditioning. We come to see that these emotional reactions—which we often fear and prefer to avoid—amount to little more that believed thoughts and strong or unpleasant physical sensations. We can see that when we are willing to experience them with precision and curiosity, we no longer have to fear them, or push them away. Thus our belief systems become clarified.

The third aspect of our sitting practice is opening into the heart of experiencing. On those occasions when we experience dense, intense or even overwhelming emotions, when we seem so confused that we don't even know how to practice—what can we do?

When the precision of labeling thoughts is not an option, the practice is to breathe the painful reaction into the center of the chest. Although eventually we will still need to clarify the believed thoughts that are an inextricable part of our emotional reaction, for now we simply open to our deepest fears and humiliations. We're pulling our swirling physical sensations, via the in-breath, into the center of the chest, allowing the center of the chest to be a container of awareness for our strong emotions. We're not trying to change anything. We're just learning to fully experience our emotions. Why? Because experiencing our emotions fully will allow them to break through the layers of self-protective armor and awaken our heart. Fully felt, our emotions will clear the path to the deep well of love and compassion that is the essence of our being.

It is in these darker moments, when we feel overwhelmed, that we are apt to judge ourselves most harshly. We're likely to solidify the most negative core beliefs about ourselves, seeing ourselves as weak, as losers, as hopeless. It's at this point that we most need a sense of heart, of kindness, of lightness, in the practice. We do this by learning to breathe into the heartspace, thereby undercutting the relentless self-judgment of our deeply held beliefs. As we breathe into this space, piercing our armoring and awakening the heart, we can open into a more benign awareness toward ourselves and the human predicament. We can begin to relate to ourselves as we might relate to a defenseless child in distress-nonjudgmentally, with friendliness, tolerance and kindness. Our willingness to breathe into the heart, to stay in that space for just one more breath, shows us our strength, our courage to go on.

By opening into the heart of experiencing, we can come to understand that everything is workable. This is one of the key points of practice. Our efforts to be-in-the-body, and to label and experience, will inevitably "fail" at times. We will have periods of aspiration and effort, followed by dry spots and apathy. Ups and downs in practice are predictable and inevitable. That we seize these ups and downs as opportunities to judge ourselves—as failures or as superstars—is the problem. The countermeasure is always to simply persevere-to attend to one more breath, to label one more thought, to experience one more sensation, to enter just one more time into the heartspace. We can then experience for ourselves that it is ultimately possible to work with everything. It may not be possible today, but it is possible. In fact, it may take years of work in all three aspects of sitting practice for this understanding to become real to us.

Until now I've spoken of these three modes of sitting as if they were distinct from each other. In truth, although each mode does entail a different aspect of practice, they do have one essential thing in common: they all require that we experience this present moment. That's what our practice always comes down to: just being here. By continually allowing the light of awareness to shine on the confusion and anxiety of the present moment, we break the circuitry of our conditioning. This is the slow transformative path to freedom.


(c) 2001 by Ezra Bayda. Ezra Bayda received dharma transmission from Charlotte Joko Beck, and teaches and writes at the Zen Center of San Diego.


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