Sarah Powers, Shiva Rea, and Tsultrim Allione in conversation about the interface between yoga and Buddhism in America.
Our annual yoga issue features asana instruction by yoga teacher Shiva Rea and a profile of yoga teacher Sarah Powers. Off the page, both of these teachers have a connection with Lama Tsultrim Allione, a long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and a leader in women’s wisdom practice in the West. The three of them are leading retreats at Tara Mandala Retreat Center in southern Colorado. Here Sarah Powers, Shiva Rea, and Tsultrim Allione talk about the interface between yoga and Buddhism in America, the role of women in these traditions, and the perils and promise of making ancient Asian practices workable in the West. Devon Ward-Thommes guides the conversation.
Ward-Thommes: The practices of Hatha yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism arose in different cultures during different time periods. Now in the West we have the opportunity to study both. As prominent teachers of yoga and Buddhism, what differences do you see in these paths? How can we reconcile them?
Sarah Powers: In my practice, I’m more focused on the similarities than the differences. Both yoga and Buddhism are wisdom paths that require personal commitment and create a vehicle for insight and transformation in one’s own body and mind – the word “yogic” refers to the breadth of lived-in, embodied wholeness. Yoga is a path of awareness, and thus Buddhism is a yogic path. However, there are some modern differences, depending on what any teacher decides to focus on. In my early explorations of yoga I didn’t encounter a lot of teachings stressing the importance of acceptance, instruction that focuses on how to observe what is happening within us. During this time, I was curious about not only what I was feeling in terms of physical challenges in the postures, but how I was relating to my experience and how that affected my overall sense of suffering or joy. I found it curious that yoga classes did not emphasize psychological practices of self-reflection, but was relieved to find Buddhist teachings that did. I found it liberating to learn how to cultivate witness consciousness from my Buddhist teachers, allowing experience to unfold without interference. I have enjoyed cultivating this very practical skill in both meditation as well as asana practice. My practice now weaves together the psychological teachings of the West with yoga and Buddhism, creating a place inside myself to integrate concentration and activity, reflection, and engagement. Within me, these three streams feel completely interdependent and consistent with each other.
Shiva Rea: My lineage of yoga sees the practice as universal, available to all beings regardless of their spiritual orientation. When my teachers, Desikachar and Krishnamacharya, work with people who are Christians, they use Christian words like Amen and Hallelujah. Both taught in the Indian military; they founded a center of yoga therapy that served people from all walks of life. Similarly, in my teaching and practice I relate to all beings as the expression of a unified consciousness. This kind of yoga combines with any orientation, including Buddhism. Some people may ask, why combine things? If you are studying within a school that is complete within itself, then why look any further? In my view, each path has lost certain elements. There are no historical records of Buddha offering asana practice. In studying Buddhism with Lama Tsultrim, I’m deepening my understanding of Tantra; I appreciate how she is bringing the ancient teachings of the twelfth century Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdrön, back from the brink of disappearance. For me, having taught embodied practices of yoga for twenty years, I see how asanas can become sacred gestures, embodying the Buddhist energetic system. But this Tantric understanding of asana remains rare in the West, where structural conceptions dominate. I feel at home in Vajrayana Buddhism, which sees the body as a naturally pure emanation of energetic consciousness. So I use yoga as an integrated, Tantric meditation practice that encourages deep, embodied awareness.
Lama Tsultrim Allione: The kind of Hatha yoga practiced today in the West appeared at the same time as Tantra came into Buddhism. The historical Buddha did not teach sacred sexuality, yogic asana, mantra, or visualizations, elements shared by Tantric Buddhism and yoga. Both traditions honor the sacred feminine, the Shakta in yoga and the pantheon of female Buddhas in Vajrayana Buddhism. Tibetan practice includes a yogic element—a series of movements and pranayama rather than held asanas; this subtle body yoga activates and purifies our energies that get tied up in the subtle channels called nadis. Through practices such as the cultivation of inner heat, we begin to realize that what flows through these inner channels is really bodhicitta, the awakened heart-mind energy of compassion. By activating enlightened mind, we bring forth innate bliss, our Buddha nature. This action rests on an understanding of emptiness, which is why it is not taught openly to beginners. If these practices come from an egotistical place instead of the basic view of emptiness, then they can be problematic. So we do foundational practices first, to cultivate wisdom, before we can work with inner body practices. The connections between yogic and Buddhist practitioners are developing spontaneously. I think yoginis are looking for ways to deepen their spiritual paths, particularly in Tantric ways. I met Sarah Powers at a sacred sexuality workshop, and Shiva is also interested in my Yab Yum teachings on sacred sexuality. Buddhism is a body of knowledge that can enrich the path of yoga, and I think many teachers are seeing that and wanting to bring it to their students.
Ward-Thommes: Lama Tsultrim speaks about the sacred feminine in yoga and Buddhism. We certainly see a predominantly female culture emerging in both communities in America. Is this gender difference important? Will a particularly feminine way of practice change the traditions?
Sarah Powers: Gender is essential in the discussion of the future of yoga and Buddhism. From the absolute perspective, of course it’s not important, because all of us possess Buddha nature. But in order to make the teachings personally accessible to women, it is helpful if they are shared by women teachers as well as men. If I only see the teachings reflected through male teachers, it may be more difficult to see how they relate to my life as a mother, sister, and daughter. Women before me have had more work redefining the teachings, and I’m thankful for the unique paths they have forged. Being a mother encompasses a huge part of my adult life, so having teachers such as Lama Tsultrim, a teacher and a mother, inspires me, since she models a woman living her full potential. Integrating patriarchal teachings is still difficult for women today, but I recognize that things were much harder for previous generations of female practitioners. It’s like talking about Barack Obama versus Martin Luther King; Obama’s work is different with these shoulders to stand on. I think it is important to give ourselves permission to adapt some aspects of the traditional teachings in a feminine way, to trust our instincts about the balance between surrender and action, acceptance versus improvement. Grappling with this balance is essential for males and females to be sure, but for me, it has been important to trust that I can draw from a number of sources in order to widen my perspective. I’ve not been able to give my full allegiance to one path; I’m multi-colored inside in terms of my dharma streams. This feels like a feminine capacity for inclusiveness, and helps me stay alert to a potential for dogmatism about one right way. I am often attracted to teachers who express a balance of feminine and masculine qualities, whether they are male or female. I appreciate a non-authoritarian style that encourages self-reflection and experiential insight and have felt blessed to have wonderful male and female teachers to draw wisdom from. One issue that can come up for women in yoga is that historically females have been conditioned to focus on appearance. Classes that emphasize how a pose should look instead of what is going on inside will applaud external feats and cause women to lose sight of the deeper meaning of yoga. I think it is important for female teachers to value the inner experience of the practice and to share that with others. This can be deepened through solitary investigation. It is helpful for women to hear about other women going into solitary retreat in order to deepen personal exploration, as this will inspire more women to feel comfortable doing this. I would love to see more women in yoga engaging in longer self-practice retreats. Lama Tsultrim, with her mission to support deep retreats at Tara Mandala, makes this possible for many more women now.
Lama Tsultrim: In both yoga and Buddhism, Western culture empowers many women, which is wonderful. Gender is important, but essentially male and female teachers transmit the same material. The difference lies in the way we teach. In general, women are relational, more concerned with feeling and energy, while men focus on precision and form. Ultimately these are dual energies that can manifest in both genders and need to balance in healthy ways. The presence of the feminine in these paths manifests through the idea of embodiment as sacred. Women give birth, so we cannot help but hold life in our bodies as sacred. We embrace physicality, practice sacred sexuality, and see nature as sacred as well. Historically there’s this split between matter and spirit, samsara and nirvana. We see this in the story of the Buddha—he leaves his wife and child in search for enlightenment. In Tantra, we have the idea of the sacred couple, the Yab Yum ideal, the union of masculine and feminine. It’s important that we have women in the spiritual traditions, because historically patriarchal religion embroiled itself in battle, eliminating heretics, and losing life for the sake of one’s religion. With the feminine, we see an embrace of life, enjoyment, seeing pleasure as positive, not non-spiritual or dirty. In this paradigm, we have a lot less violence. From a more private perspective, we can see that women have always held spiritual tradition – look at who’s in church, who keeps the roadside shrines, who’s really doing the religion. Now that women occupy positions of power, we’re doing what we’ve always done, but we have social permission and recognition for this role.
Shiva Rea: We live during an interesting time in the cultural history of the planet, where both men and women can realize the divine feminine within themselves and within the earth. In the Tantric tradition that I study and teach, gender hierarchy dissolves, and women symbolize a sacred connection to embodied wisdom. However, in order to stay close to this feminine force, I have to come from a deep motivation, not from an egoistical one. In yoga, I’ve seen a need for more feminine styles because some forms, like Ashtanga, are not good for older female bodies. Women lose their menstrual cycles, over-masculinizing their systems. From a Tantric perspective, they have too much solar current and not enough lunar energy, so I try to integrate a balance where that which we avoid is integrated and honored. I worship the goddess energy of compassion, that unconditional embrace of whatever state we’re in, like the child in the lap of the mother. A lot of Westerners get tense and neurotic about yoga, upholding a patriarchal orientation to practice. So I call on Durga Shakti, the Goddess with ten weapons, for her clarity, her ability to remove obstacles and wake up with fierce energy, and in that waking up, we realize that essential feminine love is what we all need.
Ward-Thommes: How important is keeping the purity of lineage to you? How do you view your own practice as continuing the traditional teachings versus informing the innovation of these paths in the West?
Shiva Rea: I’ve experienced both tradition and innovation. In Kerala I studied Kalari, one of the oldest martial art forms on the planet. Once you learn the root form, you’re encouraged to have your own expression. Modern times require this kind of practice. It’s about roots and branches. Our technology, our family structures, the whole cultural mandala is in a big shift. Innovation allows root systems to respond by nourishing new necessities and situations. Nature is constantly adapting and innovating itself; this kind of change doesn’t deny the wisdom of original roots. My innovation in teaching comes from my body itself, my practice, and circulation. For example, I teach vinyasa through moving in a mandala. Traditionally we always face east in sun salutation, but this cultivates a frontal plane, a flat kind of consciousness that loses the fullness of mandala existence. Unless you choose to live in nature, you’re stuck in a kind of grid or block, a linear urban architecture. Moving in a mandala allows people to recover a full, circular consciousness. That’s tampering with tradition, but I’m clear why I offer it; it has the same root effect yet greater efficacy because it addresses current problems. Ultimately, all the root practices were once innovations. Tibetan Buddhism was an entire innovation. As long as modern practices do not come from some branding, egotistical place, they can be beneficial and appropriate.
Lama Tsultrim: The Vipassana community had this conflict about tradition versus innovation a few years ago. Some teachers thought others stretched the teachings too much in trying to remedy Western needs, and in doing so they lost the original wisdom. After much debate, they decided it was okay to have some purists and some innovators within the sangha. This created balance; they keep a spectrum of perspective, with one extreme allowing the other to exist. If we only taught the pure traditions, we would lose the richness and diversity of spiritual communities now available in the West. But we cannot deny the importance of honoring our teachers and their lineage. We don’t want to corrupt the ancient teachings with our changes, but at the same time we have to act as bridges, making the teachings understandable and beneficial for people with specific Western problems.
Sarah Powers: In my teaching and practice, I draw on a number of wisdom paths—yoga, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese medicine; I value the diversity of insights and practices that they offer. I have grown to call my own path Insight Yoga, a daily practice where experiential insights about the body, mind, and spirit can emerge and grow. I feel yoga is a vehicle for awareness and embodied wholeness. In my practice I combine the four features of development: body, heart, mind, and relationships. Asana maintains bodily pliancy and ease of being through the balance of yin and yang energies. Through Buddhism, I’ve learned heart-opening and awareness practices that can both heal the wounded heart and allow opportunities to experience deeper truths. I have appreciated studying with Lama Tsultrim and integrating the psychological demon feeding work into my practice. I also engage in relational practices such as contemplative dialogues and shared awareness practices. Throughout the years of practice I have sensed that there are at least two important qualities that support one’s ability to continue deepening insights: the willingness to pause, which could be called inner listening, and an interest in questioning one’s assumptions and attitudes, often called meditative inquiry. With the support of a skillful practice, through listening and questioning, our yogic path can become not only personally nourishing, but a place where insights can dawn as wisdom and be given expression in compassionate acts that benefit others.