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Buddhism and Yoga: Where the Paths Cross

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We asked a panel of people who practice both yoga and Buddhism how the two can work together.

In the forests of Vedic India, pupils gathered around teachers who instructed them in the path of liberation called yoga, meaning “union.” One such student, in the 6th century bce, was a young mendicant who came to be known as the Buddha. Three centuries after that, the teachings of yoga were compiled by Patanjali as the Yoga Sutras, and another two millennia later, the teachings of both Buddha and Patanjali have found a new home in the West. We asked a panel of people who practice both yoga and Buddhism how the two can work together.

Shambhala Sun: What would you say to one of the millions of Americans doing yoga who is interested in also practicing Buddhism? Why would you recommend it?

Phillip Moffitt: First of all, I want to be very careful in distinguishing between yoga as a complete spiritual path and hatha yoga, which refers to the practice of the yoga postures, or asanas. I have followed both Patanjali’s path and the Buddhist path. I’ve tried to live the eight parts of both, as best I have been able.

For me, the number one thing that Buddhist practice offers is mindfulness, which broadens your ability to manifest your values in your life. Mindfulness is a critical element in actually living your dharma, whether you follow Patanjali's path or the Buddha’s. It makes such a difference in our daily lives.

Second, a strength of the buddhadharma is that it’s so beautifully complete and integrated. That’s useful to the questioning Western mind, which seeks answers to lots of different questions. The buddhadharma is very complete and you can find answers in a kind of straightforward way.

Sarah Powers: Yoga draws the attention into the body as a prerequisite to sitting still, so the body isn't lethargic or over-restless. The tools of yoga asana are very skillful in creating that inner environment, that potential for inner investigation. The tools of Buddhist meditation bring a calm, abiding presence. So instead of just jumping up after yoga class and running through the day’s errands, you have the tools to explore more subtle regions of the mind and the nature of one's being.

In both yoga and Buddhism, there is a beautiful exploration of the koshas, the layers of the subtle body. But when we discuss mind, the Buddhist system is more descriptive. So it’s not just that we cling, which is in the Yoga Sutras, but we cling in many different ways. And we learn how to isolate the various aspects and subtleties of the mind and its hindrances. There is a wider map of the psychological realm in the Buddhist tradition.

Stephen Cope: I find both paths very similar, but I do find that the buddhadharma has a beautiful immediacy that Patanjali doesn't. It’s the integration, the completeness that Phillip referred to—the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. I don't know many yogis who go to bed with a copy of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. It is difficult, it is sparse, and it is bare. In fact, the teachings are really quite similar to the basic pillars of buddhadharma—karma, kleshas, seeing reality clearly, ending suffering. All that is in the yoga tradition. But still there is something that I find in the buddhadharma—and the way it’s taught in this country is part of it—that makes it an easier doorway in for students.

Anna Douglas: I would say to a person who is interested in yoga and meditation that yoga is very good for awakening energies. We get a little more awake in our lives and begin to see possibilities and potentials that perhaps weren't recognized before. What the Buddhist tradition does is speak very directly to suffering. How could people not hear it? People are suffering. Maybe they go to yoga for five years and they do feel better, but that doesn't take care of all the suffering in their lives.

Sarah Powers: No, it doesn't pull out the roots.

Anna Douglas: For instance, I have observed a tendency in the yoga world to look at the body as an object. To look at the performance aspect of yoga, rather than revealing the hidden emptiness of the body. This solidification of the self-image just adds to the burden of having to “be somebody.” So to me, coming to meditation means that people are ready to free themselves further. They are ready to look at suffering in all aspects of their lives, including the suffering of looking at themselves as objects.

Stephen Cope: Part of the brilliance of the Buddha was that he eschewed metaphysical concerns. He was more interested in how practically to attenuate the kleshas (conflicting emotions) in order to unravel the roots of suffering. I think that among the millions of people who are doing yoga in this country, many have not yet discovered that the foundation of yoga practice is also the attenuation of the kleshas. It is unraveling greed, hatred and delusion. That view is completely present in the classical path of yoga, but we in the American yoga world are just beginning to get down to those roots—the concern with kleshas and suffering—and see how the postures help to deconstruct all that.

Phillip Moffitt: I remember an experience I had once, about 1977, while I was doing a shoulder stand. I was very uncomfortable, and I suddenly realized: this was was just one more meditation posture. I realized I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything with the body particularly, I was just supposed to be discovering the stillness. From that day on, my yoga was different. But I agree with the others that most hatha yoga practitioners in this country have yet to discover this. It is not what has been taught, and I had to discover it experientially. Without making this discovery, it's possible that you do create solidness to the body, and I think that is a misperception of the teachings. You can go directly to the teachings to see that. This body is not mine, this mind is not mine—that's the message of the Patanjali path.

Shambhala Sun: Let’s turn this discussion around. What does an on-going yoga practice have to offer Buddhists?

Anna Douglas: In the early years of Spirit Rock, I started a class combining sitting and yoga practice because I knew how much yoga had helped me in learning how to sit still. That class is still going on and we’ve added yoga to all of our retreats as well.

For myself and the students at Spirit Rock, it comes back to people's relationship to their body. Mindfulness practice really emphasizes the experience of the energetic and sensational aspects— experiencing the body from the inside out. We teach the four foundations of mindfulness, and two of them—mindfulness of feelings and mindfulness of the body—relate directly to the body. We invite people to experience the body from the inside, as sensation, and for many people, that’s a huge leap from their usual way of knowing themselves.


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