How can we use the body to study the mind, and work with the mind through the body? Michael Stone connects the practice of Yoga and Buddhism.
Over the years, I’ve found it increasingly frustrating that Yoga is continually reduced to “a body practice” and Buddhism “a mind practice.” This makes no sense to me. Anyone who has practiced deeply in both traditions knows that the Buddha gave attention to the body, Patanjali the mind, and that both traditions value ethical precepts and commitments as the foundation of an appropriate livelihood. I organize a community in Toronto called Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving group of people interested in integrating Yoga and Buddhist practices.
In the Buddha’s teachings, the body is used as the primary object of meditation, so that one can study the universe not through books or theory but through one’s subjective experience. Likewise the Yoga postures, when practiced with breathing and sensitivity, become opportunities for deep meditative insight because they are designed to calm the nervous system. This grounds us. When we move within the various shapes of the yoga poses and tune into the internal energetic patterns of our breath, we are working the habits of mind as well. Though the Yoga postures we practice in modern Yoga studios have obvious therapeutic benefits at physiological levels, some teachers and schools seem to have forgotten how the postures also teach us how to work with the mind. And for most of us, our troubles are not simply in the body – primarily, trouble is in the mind. How can we use the body to study the mind and work with the mind through the body? By experiencing how the two are completely interrelated.
There is a fundamental affinity between mind practices and body practices. Think of them both as curves in a grand mandala that continually spirals in, on, and through itself with no beginning or end. When I work deeply with my mind, I only do so by giving attention to the body: I witness its processes, from breathing to listening or seeing. The same is true when I study the intricate holding patterns in the web of my body (called koshas in Sanskrit); I end up seeing where my mind sticks, where it can’t focus, where it gets caught in refrains of old tape loops. What I thought was “body” is mostly mental. The Buddha says “Leave the body in the body.” When the Buddha teaches mindfulness practices, he begins with the bare awareness of body.
“The old Indian practice of Yoga,” writes scholar Karen Armstrong, “meant that people became dissatisfied with a religion that concentrated on externals. Sacrifice and liturgy were not enough: they wanted to discover the inner meaning of these rites.” Turning inward means taking responsibility for the spiritual path by focusing on the microcosm of reality that exists in the body’s functioning in this and every moment. Although yogic practices can supposedly be traced back some five thousand years, and although yogins have described their paths and discoveries in very different terms depending on their respective cultural vocabulary, they all share the same common focus: the body is the primary object of meditative inquiry.
When we begin by taking care of the body and paying attention to its workings, we find ourselves focusing the mind, settling the breath, and learning much more about the nature of reality than we’d know by extroverted thinking alone. There are some things we just can’t figure out with ordinary thinking.
Just resting in feeling the sense of the body without any notions or concepts, we begin to tune in to the glorious operation of the natural world that is only available to a quiet mind. Of course, the mind is not separate from the body in any way – it is just a seamless continuation of the sense organs. We begin with the body because it is always present – it is the very apparatus we need to receive and explore any corner of the natural world. We use “the mind” to explore “the body,” but as we get closer and quieter, we come to see that mind and body are inseparable. The seeker Uddalaka in the Yoga Vashista, a story that interweaves Yoga and Buddhist philosophy, enters a remote practice place and begins practicing Yoga. After some time he exclaims,
Just as the silkworm spins its cocoon and gets caught in it, you have woven the web of your concepts and are caught in them.
. . . There is no such thing as mind. I have carefully investigated, I have observed everything from the tips of my toes to the top of my head: and I have not found anything of which I could say: This is who I am.
If we approach Yoga practices simply through books and words, and not direct contact with the physical and material reality of the body and breath, all we are left with is conceptual scaffolding. We can’t know these practices from the outside. They were never meant to be mere philosophy or codified ritual. Knowing about practice is not enough: we must drop our “knowing” and feel our way into present experience by seeing things clearly. By seeing, the old yogis are not referring to the eyes but to what the Zen tradition calls “the true dharma eye” — the eye that sees without clinging, without sculpting, without allowing what is seen to get stuck into the web of like or dislike. The spirit of Yoga and Buddhism embodies a radical approach to human experience — we begin practice through paying attention to what is here in this moment. Each and every one of us can wake up without needing to adopt a new ideology or belief system. When we return to present experience through the sense organs themselves — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind — we enter the freedom of this very moment, and the old paths of the yogis come alive here and now. There is no freedom in just repeating the words and rituals of the old masters — we must express freedom and interdependence through the action of our whole being and community through mind, body, and speech.
Every morning we wake up under the same bright northern star the Buddha saw when he awoke one dawn in his early thirties. Every moment we breathe the same molecules of air that once nourished Santideva, Dogen, Thich Nhat Hanh, your parents and their parents. Perhaps practice also fulfills our responsibility to the yogi-poets and wanderers who long ago struggled with aging bodies, unreliable thoughts, and an imperfect culture. They took great care in putting together words and phrases to articulate their path: they tried to leave maps for us, so we can enter way life happens in a way that motivates us to meet reality in an embodied and creative way.