Three well-known teachers and practitioners of yoga and Buddhist meditation discusses the benefits and pitfalls of bringing both to your mat.
Shambhala Sun: Perhaps each of you could start by giving us a brief description of your yoga and meditation practice.
Phillip Moffitt: My primary practice is Theravada meditation. This includes Vipassana mindfulness mediation, as well as the other concentration meditations that are part of the tradition, known as the jhana absorptions. For the last thirty-eight years I have had a hatha yoga practice, and at various times I have done other movement practices, including aikido and awareness-through-movement practices. I encourage everybody I teach to have a movement practice and a sitting practice, because I think they supplement each other so well.
Anne Cushman: My practice, like Phillip’s, has combined movement practices, primarily hatha yoga, with various Buddhist practices. They’ve gone together for me for about twenty-five years at this point. I am a mother, so that is a big part of my practice as well. I do between forty-five minutes to an hour and a half of asana yoga practice a day and between fifteen minutes to a half an hour of sitting practice, depending on the time I have available. Whether I do more sitting practice or more asana practice varies depending on the needs of my body and mind and energy systems on that particular day.
Richard Freeman: My primary practice is Ashtanga yoga. That includes yoga asana and pranayama breath practice, and then I practice with mantra and chants. I practice probably two to three hours a day, and as part of that I do sitting meditation for about ten to fifteen minutes a day. I do Buddhist retreats throughout the year. Sometimes I teach yoga asana practice at the retreats while a Buddhist co-presenter teaches meditation.
So I am probably weighted on the side of the hatha yoga tradition, with a sprinkling of the buddhadharma to make the context interesting. Actually, my first teacher was a Zen roshi, and ever since then I have looked at hatha yoga practice within the overall view of the dharma. I still look at most of the Hindu disciplines in that context.
Shambhala Sun: We normally think of spiritual practice as working primarily with the mind or soul or spirit. Why is it helpful to have a movement or posture practice as well?
Phillip Moffitt: If you’re actually going to take dharma into daily life, awareness of the body is the single most useful thing you can have, because the body is always there. Lots of times you can’t remember to do the other practices. You may not remember, “Oh, these are my values, or this is what I want to be paying attention to, or this is how I want to act,” because you get caught up in your emotional reactivity. But in my experience, almost everybody can develop a ground of awareness through awareness of the body in this moment. They can get used to coming back and resting in an awareness of the body—whether they’re sitting in a meeting or working at their computer, they can still be aware of their body. They don’t have to lose themselves.
Richard Freeman: People who simply do sitting meditation can develop a kind of a crust around themselves, in which they avoid temptation, avoid feeling, and avoid the groundedness of the body. On the other hand, while hatha yoga practice is extremely helpful it runs the danger of people not practicing it mindfully. So body and mind practices are kind of an antidote for each other. Historically, this has been expressed as the joining of raja yoga, which would be considered contemplative practice, and hatha yoga, which is primarily energy work. When the two come together there’s success in practice.
Anne Cushman: In my experience, the state of my mind and heart is profoundly influenced by and intertwined with the state of my body and energy system. They are a continuum of experience that can’t be neatly broken down into units—here is the mind and here is the body. I find that working with the body can be the doorway to a kind of spacious, calm, and steady awareness that is harder for me to access if my body and nervous system are stressed. By doing yoga practice I can dissolve some of the barriers to awareness that might take me a long time to deal with through sitting practice alone.
We live in a time when our bodies and nervous systems are being battered by a level of stimulation, agitation, speed, and information that is unprecedented in the history of the human organism. The hatha yoga practices of working with the body, breath, and energy system can calm down and rebalance that extra agitation, so we can come back to a more natural and balanced state of being. It’s a question of undoing, rather than doing. We’re doing the yoga practice to return to a more natural and calm state, in which we can rest in seated meditation more easily.
Phillip Moffitt: The most detailed explanation that the Buddha gave of how to practice meditation is the Satipatthana Sutra, in which he describes four fundamental ways of developing insight into the true nature of oneself and of the world. They’re called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and the very first foundation is awareness of body. He describes this as awareness of the body in the body. You’re not observing the body from some distance place—you’re actually feeling all the aspects of the body, whether it’s the ouch of the body, the pleasure of the body, or the way the body is always changing.
The Buddha says there are four basic postures in which we develop awareness of the body: sitting, lying down, walking, and standing. This is the kind of the awareness of the body that can come through hatha yoga. Also, insight can arise while you’re doing yoga. You can watch the mind while you are doing your asana; every asana is an opportunity to watch the mind.
Richard Freeman: What is the difference between the body and the mind, ultimately? One of the axioms of yoga is that the mind, or chitta, and the internal breath of energy, prana, are really two ends of the same stick. So all of our sensations, feelings, and thought forms actually correspond to fluctuations of our prana.
Phillip Moffitt: To do hatha yoga without pranayama—without working with the breath—would not be practicing full awareness of the body. The breath and the body are entwined and both are reflected in the mind.
Anne Cushman: I can observe in my own practice that thoughts have an immediate impact on the body, which is sometimes quite dramatic, and that working with the body has an immediate effect on what we would call the mind. In the traditional yoga model, the body is seen as increasing subtle layers, or sheets, that interpenetrate each other, so that the mind and the physical body are actually interpenetrating layers of reality, rather than separate entities.
Shambhala Sun: We’re having this conversation because a lot of Western practitioners want both a body and a mind practice, and they’re finding it in the combination of hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation. What are the potential problems in combining different traditions like this?
Richard Freeman: Today in the West we are being overwhelmed by the variety of lineages and practices we can choose from. Most of these are imported practices, which means we don’t have particular obligations in terms of our family or culture to favor one over the other. We are in the position to look at all of them and ask, What does it all mean? Can we legitimately borrow from one and then borrow from another? Can we synthesize them? At what point is that appropriate? That makes it very challenging for practitioners, yet I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to really get to the bottom of the practice.
On the other hand, we always run the risk of becoming watered-down eclectics, using the fact that there are alternative practices and views to avoid going deeply into any one of them. If a practice is legitimate, at a certain point it’s going to make us face things as they are. We’re going to have to face the fact of impermanence and death, and that’s very difficult. Often people will bail out at that moment and jump to a different tradition. Then they’ll stay with that one until the same crisis arises, and they’ll jump to a different school. That’s why we need a lot of communication with a good teacher, so that they can check whether we’re avoiding something or actually facing reality. We should never just assume that what we’re doing is the right thing.
Shambhala Sun: While yoga is of course an ancient and profound spiritual tradition, it’s now being practiced by millions of people in the West with a wide range of motivations. A recent article in Atlantic Monthly called American yoga the unlikely joining of gym and church. How would you characterize the spiritual side of American yoga? Overall, is it more gym or more church?
Richard Freeman: We see everything from utterly materialistic yoga practice, in which people are looking purely to enhance the beauty of their body, all the way across the spectrum to yoga practice as a form of inquiry into reality. It’s my perception that the big fad of yoga is probably weighted a little bit towards the materialistic side, where people are simply looking for some kind of pleasure that works. But I’m also sympathetic to that type of practice. I think people find that unless they follow the practice to its end, it doesn’t really work as a permanent source of pleasure. So at least people are getting a good start and going to the right source. Then they have an opportunity to discover what the practice is really about. I’m optimistic about the overall state of affairs in the yoga world.
Anne Cushman: I find that many people come to yoga with one set of goals or expectations, and find those goals shifting and deepening over time. Someone can begin a yoga practice with the most superficial of motivations—wanting to look better in a bathing suit—and then over time their life transforms to the point where they want to seek out deeper teachings.
So even the superficial approach can be a doorway into deeper realizations. Even if people seem to be drawn to yoga for the most superficial of motives, they are actually looking for the relief of suffering, and that is the beginning of the spiritual quest. Then they may find that the more superficial approaches to the practice don’t address the roots of their suffering. That’s when people want to go deeper.
Phillip Moffitt: When I started doing yoga, nobody talked about coming in to look better, although some people were doing it for health reasons. People at that time were looking for a spiritual path. Then we had this odd experience that as hatha yoga became popular, it became far more materialistic. But what attracted people originally wasn’t materialistic, at least in my experience.
Shambhala Sun: It’s clear that a lot of people doing yoga want more than just fitness. They’re looking for a spiritual practice. Given that yoga itself is an authentic spiritual practice, why should they turn to Buddhism, as many are doing?
Richard Freeman: On a very practical level, Buddhist communities are well-organized to conduct sitting retreats. Traditionally, in the more traditional yoga lineages, one learns the meditation and then goes off and practices in retreat, but not often with a large group of people. What the Buddhist communities do so well is conduct practical meditation sessions in a way that’s very inclusive. The simplicity of the mindfulness-awareness approach is that it doesn’t require a theological commitment. It doesn’t require a secret mantra; it just puts you face-to-face with your breath and your mind, allowing people to get started right away with the meditation practice. I think that’s wonderful. So here in Boulder, which is a great Buddhist center, I try to take full advantage of the local resources, and I encourage all my yoga students to meditate.
Phillip Moffitt: I agree. The mindfulness-awareness practice offers a direct experience for students who want to deepen their understanding. It does not require that they embrace any kind of philosophy or theological system. So that inclusiveness is the first thing that Buddhism offers.
Second, Buddhism offers a systematic approach to learning about and working with the mind, and that empowering. It’s not like surrendering to someone else’s authority. It is gaining your own understanding, your own techniques. That’s very useful.
Third, Buddhism is so good at deconstructing experience. Therefore it allows you to see all your life’s experiences more clearly, including your practice. Because you deconstruct your experiences, you cease to be hypnotized by what’s pleasant and unpleasant about them.
Anne Cushman: The yogic path is complex and diverse, and one of its beauties is that there are different paths for different people. I would never say that Buddhism is the path that everybody ought to turn to. I think it’s a question of temperament and conditioning and the nature of the pain that you are struggling with. For many people, yoga may be better suited to their nature. Of course, there are multiple philosophies and schools within Buddhism, as there are multiple schools within yoga. That’s part of the delicious confusion that Richard was talking about earlier, in which there are a lot of different practices offered, many of them lifted out of their cultural context. Practitioners really get to see which ones resonate and serve them at a particular time in their spiritual development. Many people are drawn to a Buddhist tradition because it’s the philosophy that make the most sense to them. They try out the practice, they find it skillful, and they progress. Other people are drawn to different threads of the yogic path.
Shambhala Sun: Turning the question around, Buddhism has its own body practices. Many are advanced practices, but the sitting posture itself is a form of asana. So why are many Buddhists doing hatha yoga?
Richard Freeman: I think one of the advantages of “importing” hatha yoga into the Buddhist community is that the current state of yoga asana technology arising out of India is very good. It’s just a very wonderful practice. I know the Tibetan system usually requires years of sitting practice before students are allowed to study the tantric yoga practices. A lot of those practices are not taught to large numbers of people, whereas millions of people practice hatha yoga.
If they’re shopping around for hatha yoga, I think Buddhists should look outside of the Buddhist community for the latest updates, the most efficient information about how to do it. Conversely, the non-Buddhist community—I don’t want to use the word “Hindu” because that’s too confusing a label—should look to the Buddhist community to see how to present the essence of the Vedanta in a very non-sectarian, compassionate way.
Anne Cushman: Hatha yoga was always meant to be practiced in conjunction with the path of meditation. If you look at the earliest hatha yoga texts, they all say that this is not designed to be practiced separately; it’s designed explicitly to support the practice of meditation. It’s designed to stabilize the body and open the energy systems, so that there’s more energy and alertness available for meditation.
In terms of my own sitting practice, I’ve found it’s more efficient for me to incorporate movement because I can balance out the energy systems in my body so that I can sit more easily. In the short term this makes my sitting more efficient. In the longer term, the asana and pranayama practices can be skillful means for working with the different hindrances that arise in longer periods of practice, such as lethargy, torpor, agitation, or anxiety. Not as a way of eliminating these, but as a way of balancing out the energy systems so we can look more clearly at the roots of these obstacles without getting stuck in their surface manifestations.
Phillip Moffitt: The Buddha abandoned the path of rejecting the body. For a long time he was an ascetic, but he only gained his profound understanding after he said, “That’s not the way, there is a more balanced approach.” To me, asana practice adds this kind of balance to sitting practice. It’s in keeping with the view that we’re not rejecting the body, we’re not saying there’s something wrong with the body. The body is fine, and it’s to be met with compassion and loving-kindness. It’s just that we just don’t overly identified with it. Asana practice reflects that view of the body, so I think it’s a great fit.
Shambhala Sun: Are there issues about the qualifications of yoga instructors teaching Buddhist practice, as well as Buddhist centers offering yoga?
Phillip Moffitt: One of the things that has been of concern to me is that teachers get a little bit of exposure to one of the traditions and then they bring it into the other without really understanding it. That was part of Spirit Rock’s motivation in offering, with the Kripalu Center, a mindfulness meditation program for yoga teachers. We know from word of mouth that a lot of yoga teachers are doing short mindfulness meditation periods at the end of their yoga classes, and they are using the language of mindfulness in teaching asana. They may have learned mindfulness practice on a retreat or something, but not really had any instruction or anyone helping them incorporate it into their yoga teaching. Our idea was to offer the traditions side by side, making the overlaps clear but not mushing the two together.
Anne Cushman: The Spirit Rock program was designed to offer to the hatha yoga community an opportunity to go deeply into the meditation dimensions of yoga practice in a way that’s not normally taught in your average yoga class, or even in your average yoga teacher training. The program offers in-depth training in meditation practice for people coming from the yoga world, and it offers the Buddhist community an opportunity to explore more deeply all of the sophisticated practices of hatha yoga as a support for meditation practice. The program consists of three ten-day retreats over the course of a year and a half, led by teachers from the different schools of the hatha yoga tradition and from the Buddhist tradition. All of the yoga teachers are experienced in Buddhist meditation and all of the meditation teachers have some experience with hatha yoga. In between the retreats, there’s a comprehensive curriculum of reading and practice to develop a solid home practice that integrates asana, pranayama, and meditation, while continuing to deepen the practitioner’s understanding of the philosophy and history of the two traditions.
Shambhala Sun: Where do you think this exchange between yoga and Buddhism is going to end up? Is it going to be a significant development in Western spirituality or just a fad?
Phillip Moffitt: If we look at the history over the last 2,500 years, there’s never an end. It always loops around! At the great Indian university of Nalanda, the scholars were there and the practitioners were there. It all gets meshed together in various ways and it’s always changing. So I don’t have some big vision of how the meeting of Buddhism and yoga is supposed to be or how it’s going to turn out. To me, taking people deeper and with more clarity is the goal, and then we just let it evolve.
Anne Cushman: I’ll go out on a limb and predict that there are going to be more and more Buddhist retreats that incorporate hatha yoga as a significant part of the practice. I think that’s going to happen everywhere in the Buddhist world because these techniques are so powerful in terms of supporting Buddhist meditation practices.
Richard Freeman: I don’t think there’s going to be a single synthesis arising in which all of the yoga schools and all of the Buddhist schools understand their essential interpenetration and become one big, monolithic, happy family. But I have a feeling that communication is really opening up, and that people are no longer afraid to consider other traditions, to consider that maybe other schools have a least a couple of good points to make. This more open attitude is going to generate a lot more practice and insight, because in the past people have not wanted to even look at a book from another tradition. But the world is getting smaller as we communicate more and more, and we may find that what we think are fundamental differences aren’t that solid and important. I think there’s going to be a lot of life coming out of this exchange.