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.
In this Shambhala Sun feature, we asked Phillip Moffitt, Anna Douglas, Stephen Cope, and Sarah Powers — all of whom 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.
Stephen Cope: That is so true. I often start a yoga class by having people do a little bit of centering, a little bit of meditation. I might say, “Close your eyes and bring your awareness inward,” and I try to help people locate their subtle energy body. And out of a class of fifty people, maybe ten of them will not be able to do that at all.
Anna Douglas: It’s quite difficult for many people. I teach people who literally cannot locate a sensation in their body. It is quite mind boggling to me, but it is true.
Therefore it is said traditionally that yoga is a wonderful preparation for sitting practice, because it helps people to discover a more energetic and sensation-based way of knowing themselves. Yoga helps people to get in their bodies, to be able to sit still, to feel the breath in the body, to be mindful of breathing. That is really valuable because the qualities of consciousness that we are cultivating-calmness, ease, joy, tranquility, stillness-all are partly experienced through the body. They don’t just come through the mind. They have to be felt as part of our living experience.
Sarah Powers: Hatha yoga has the potential to mobilize energy. If you’re just sitting, you don’t utilize certain tissues and they can lose their mobility. That stagnation can impede clarity, even if you are a full-time sitter. Yoga brings a kind of inner energetic clarity.
Anna Douglas: Yes, it awakens energy.
Stephen Cope: I started out with Buddhist practice when I was a stressed-out student. I loved the equanimity I found in meditation after the crazy mind of graduate school. Yoga wasn’t in the picture until I did a sabbatical in 1989 at the Kripalu Center. I didn’t know much about yoga and I was astonished by what I discovered. I found that it deepened my equanimity and all the other factors that I needed in sitting meditation. That was twelve years ago and I’m still at Kripalu. I’ve continued sitting, I’ve continued studying yoga, and I integrate both into my teaching.
What yoga really gave me was the language and understanding of the subtle body and subtle world. I love the yogic teaching about the koshas, the sheathes. It really helps you locate the subtle world of the energy body, the more subtle mental body. There is some really nice mapping in the yogic tradition of that whole world. I have found it incredibly helpful to anchor awareness and mindfulness in that subtle world.
In general, a lot of my students find that a rigorous program of sitting meditation-you know, thirteen hours a day on retreat-is just impossible. So yoga is a kind of meditation in motion for them that begins the basic training of drawing awareness in and locating the inner world.
Shambhala Sun: And on a very simple level, a lot of Buddhists, particularly older Buddhists, are finding that yoga helps them sit longer and more comfortably.
Stephen Cope: I think that is a very good point. I teach at the long retreat at Spirit Rock that Anna teaches every year, and there is a very practical benefit to doing the yoga. The students say, “It is so much easier with the yoga.” It just makes it a lot easier to go deeper.
Anna Douglas: It is like creating space in the body through yoga, which helps to create that sense of space in the mind.
Sarah Powers: The link is the breath. It joins the body and the mind.
Shambhala Sun: Generally we’ve been talking about yoga in the context of mindfulness practice, and vice versa. Are there other Buddhist meditation practices that can be helpful to the yoga practitioner?
Sarah Powers: Vajrayana practice is all about the subtle body-mobilizing the inner fires, understanding how to utilize breath control. The Tibetans have had a kind of yogic practice for as long as they have had tantric Buddhism.
Stephen Cope: I have also found helpful the very precise teachings of jnana (absorption) practice in the Buddhist tradition. The beautiful precision of the teachings on jnana practice has illuminated for me the ancient samadhi practices that are at the core of yoga. It has been an interesting experience to learn more about my own tradition from Buddhism.
Sarah Powers: A number of Zen monasteries have yoga as part of their sesshins as well. Blends are happening.
Shambhala Sun: So does that mean we heading toward a new type of spiritual practice in which these two traditions are combined?
Anna Douglas: I feel that what we are talking about is part of the manifestation of the dharma coming to the West-that all these traditions are meeting here and having a dialogue. What is to come out of it, we don’t know, but I love that there is this kind of integration beginning to happen.
Phillip Moffitt: I agree with Anna that the traditions of the East are getting united in the West. This is a new birth, one that we should all be grateful to participate in and experience the benefits of. It reflects the practical Western mind. Thoreau and Emerson read the Upanishads and all of that, but they brought American practicality to their mysticism. Which is now, all of these years later, blossoming.
Shambhala Sun: But how compatable are these traditions on a philosophical level? For instance, are they different in how they define enlightenment?
Phillip Moffitt: That’s a long discussion.
Anna Douglas: I think hatha yoga and the practice of mindfulness meet in deconstructing the body, in seeing where the holding patterns are and learning to let go.
Stephen Cope: Both traditions have the concept of samskaras (the underlying impulses or intentions that precede actions). The yoga tradition literally fleshed that out. It explores the way in which samskaras are held in the physical body and what their release looks like.
Sarah Powers: Yes, a good term to bring up. Because most yoga classrooms have a lot of craving and aversion, creating samskaras in the way they treat the body.
Phillip Moffitt: Both traditions are liberation-oriented. At a certain point, the map looks quite different because the descriptions of how liberation unfolds are different. But they are both oriented towards liberation, which ultimately can’t be described.
Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama has said, is the science of the mind. You could say that the Forest tradition of Patanjali starts with an exploration through the body. But they both go to body-mind in the end.
I also think it is important to note that neither of these traditions is conversion-oriented. When I am teaching buddhadharma, I do so without any agenda that people should become something different. It is truly the Buddha’s indication to see for yourself, and that same quality is there in the people who are teaching the Patanjali Sutras. Both traditions offer a space for people to have their own experience, whether they are a Christian or a Jew or whatever. It is an exploration of the mind-body.
Anna Douglas: Come see for yourself-that is a teaching that really appeals to Americans.
Anna Douglas is a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, is a psychotherapist and senior teacher at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.
Phillip Moffitt is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers’ Council and founder of the Life Balance Institute.
Sarah Powers lives in Marin, California, and teaches a blend of yoga and Buddhism, at workshops and retreats internationally.