Still Mind, Moving Body

Andrea Miller profiles five teachers who combine hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation. Is this the perfect mind–body practice?

Andrea Miller
1 July 2008
Photo by Dave Conretras

Cyndi Lee: Yoga Body, Buddha Mind

“On the first day of a teacher training program at my studio, I tell people that teaching yoga is a bodhisattva path,” says Cyndi Lee, author of the best-selling OM Yoga in a Box series and director of OM yoga in New York City. “To have the notion that you’re sharing yoga to help people is a good thing when somebody comes into your class who resists you, or has BO, or is talking on their cell phone. Instead of your usual ‘I’m gonna kick that person out,’ or whatever dark thought you might have, you go back to your intention and you get creative.”

Lee regularly teaches a workshop called “Yoga Body, Buddha Mind,” and she has a book out of the same title. That said, Lee doesn’t consider herself a teacher of Buddhism. “I’m not a guru,” she says. “Things I learn from my teachers come out in my yoga classes because they’ve been helpful to me, but I’m not trying to turn people into Buddhists. When I teach yoga, I might talk about ‘not too tight, not too loose,’ or about loving-kindness. Yet if people ask me about dharma, I direct them to books and teachers. My teacher has authorized me to teach certain things, but I would never teach anything without asking my teacher.”

Lee’s teacher is Gehlek Rinpoche, and he has given her a daily Buddhist practice that includes mantras and visualizations. “As far as sitting meditation,” she says, “I do it sometimes either before or after other practice, but mostly I do it after yoga, because yoga takes me to a place where I feel content to sit still.”

Lee becomes content to sit still, she explains, because the physical and emotional benefits of yoga give her grounding and clarity. “We think of exercise as strengthening muscles and bones, and yoga does that. But it does a lot of things that exercise doesn’t do. It works with your spinal fluid and your internal organs and systems—cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, you name it. A lot of toxins and obstacles get processed while you do yoga.”

Lee’s yoga and meditation practices, however, are not really separate. “If you’re a meditator,” she says, “every activity is imbued with mindfulness, whether you’re washing lettuce or doing an asana.

“I now feel happy and—dare I say—a bit mature about my relationship with yoga. For a long time I was influenced by other people’s ideas about it—ideas like you need to practice every single day for at least an hour and a half, and you need to include one thing or another. I struggled to do all that and felt guilty when I didn’t. I’m older now and I’ve had a couple of injuries, so finally I’ve taken my own advice: practice isn’t practice until its personal. It doesn’t matter what it looks like or what anybody else thinks.

“So every day I get on the mat and see what I’m feeling. What is my breath like? What is my energy like? Where am I tight? Where am I loose? And who is this ‘me’ anyway, and who’s asking and who cares? All of that goes onto the mat.

Sarah Powers: Different Doorways

When she was in her early twenties, Sarah Powers earned a graduate degree in transpersonal psychology that required her to learn a physical discipline with spiritual roots. Deciding to study yoga, she felt defeated throughout most of the first class. Powers, who is cofounder of Metta Journeys, which offers yoga retreats to women and children in developing countries, explains, “Being young, healthy, and athletic, I had assumed the practice wouldn’t be a problem, but I was brought down to my blood, sweat, and tears nature, and halfway through I decided yoga wasn’t for me.”

Something changed for her, however, when at the end she laid down for shavasana (the motionless “corpse pose” that concludes most yoga sessions). She experienced a distinct and unusual peace that until that moment she’d only read about. “I pinpointed it as an absence of longing,” she says. “There was clarity underneath that joy. I thought, I have to come back. It’s going to be hard but hard doesn’t mean bad—just like easy doesn’t mean right.”

Powers was also introduced to Buddhist philosophy through her graduate studies. “I read Jack Kornfield’s and Frances Vaughn’s work, and I felt they were so articulate about their own psychology—both the beautiful, insightful sides and the broken aspects. The psychological training they’d had in university gave them language and helped them to help other people, but the practices forged the pathways.”

As for her own path of discovery, Powers says that bringing yoga as a physical discipline together with her more metaphysical readings seemed like an easier combination to start with than just sitting down and facing her mind. “While doing asana and pranayama (yogic breathing) practice,” she continues, “I was readying myself for meditation.”

Then, when she was ready, Powers sought out a Buddhist meditation teacher, and now—decades later—her yoga and Buddhism are integrated, as described in her upcoming book, Insight Yoga: Integrating Yin/Yang Yoga and Buddhist Meditation. “Buddhists are yogis,” she says. “They may or may not be interested in moving their bodies in certain patterns to unleash pranic flow, but if they are, it accelerates their discovery and insight.” On the other hand, says Powers, the yoga world may be too interested in feeling vibrant in the body and not interested enough in freeing the mind. Yet, she adds, “Yoga focused only on shape serves a purpose for a certain level of development. Down the line, it will tend to change someone who doesn’t even know they’re being changed.

“Coming through the doorway of the body, people eventually realize they have a mind that needs attention and, coming through the doorway of the mind, they eventually realize they have a body that is going to be either an obstacle or a support. Both directions point to their opposite, but more people become freer with just mind-based practices than become freer with just body-based practices. There are more pitfalls for body-based people. There’s a tendency to do body practices to stay thin, have tight buns, and get attention for doing certain postures—egocentric motivations stemming from not knowing oneself truly. Eventually, as a yoga community we tap into deeper truths, but it’s slower if they’re not in the yoga room to start with. And they need to be there, because it’s not really yoga if it doesn’t involve the heart and mind.”

Frank Jude Boccio: Mindfulness Yoga

Frank Jude Boccio was bending down, looking for something on a lower shelf in a crowded bookstore in New York City, when suddenly—and seemingly on its own steam—Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind fell from above and hit him on the head. Because he had been interested in Buddhism since high school, Boccio took this whack like he would have taken a whack from a Zen master wielding a keisaku stick; it was an opportunity to wake up. Buying the book, Boccio decided to check out his local dharma center.

That happened in 1976, at a point when Boccio had been practicing yoga for about six months and was already starting to feel like something was missing. “We were told that our practice was in the service of meditation,” he says, “but there was no real meditation happening in class.”

True yoga is a comprehensive practice, yet here in the West most yoga classes could more accurately be called asana classes, claims Boccio, who is now a yoga teacher, a lay brother in the Tiep Hien Order established by Thich Nhat Hanh, and a dharma teacher ordained by Korean Zen master Samu Sunim. “Asana has lots of benefits,” he says, “but it’s not yoga if it’s not practiced within the full context of yoga.”

These days Boccio compares the integration of his yoga and Buddhist meditation to the oneness of walking and sitting meditation. “At a vipassana retreat,” he says, “you alternate evenly between forty-five minutes of walking and forty-five minutes of sitting. While sitting is in many ways central, you don’t go walking just to prepare for it. Walking is another way of practicing mindfulness. Likewise for me, asana practice is not really a complement or a preliminary to sitting. It’s another way of practicing mindfulness.”

That’s why, he explains, he called his book Mindfulness Yoga and not Mindful Yoga. “You can say, ‘We’re practicing triangle posture mindfully,’ or you can say, ‘We’re practicing mindfulness through triangle posture.’ The latter is my approach now.”

Taking note of the many people who are currently blending yoga and Buddhism, Boccio thinks this is an exciting time for both traditions. But, he quickly adds, it’s not the first time such an exchange has taken place. “Before Buddhism died out in India, there was tremendous diversity at schools like Nalanda. Yogis, Buddhists, and non-Buddhists would gather, debate each other, and practice together. Now, a little over a thousand years later, we’re going back to that conversation.”

And it’s a conversation we need to have. “If everybody thinks like you,” Boccio says, “you tend not to question, and that’s what you often see in very insular communities. When you engage with other people, on the other hand, you become clearer about your true beliefs; you stop taking things on faith. I definitely feel much more enriched by the conversation.”

Jill Satterfield: Meditation in Motion

After twelve years suffering chronic pain, Jill Satterfield was told that all the symptoms were in her head. “My first smart-aleck response was, well, if the pain is in my mind, then how do we work with my mind? But the doctors didn’t respond to that question.”

Seeking her own cure, Satterfield, who is now on the faculty of Spirit Rock’s first Yoga and Buddhism teacher-training program and Kripalu Institute’s integrative leadership program, turned to yoga and meditation. “I kind of shopped around until I found out about Buddhism,” she says. “As an artist and a self-motivator, I don’t readily accept whatever anybody asks me to do, and that’s why the minute I heard that the Buddha taught his students not to believe what he said unless they’d experienced it, I thought, that’s my guy. The Buddha’s teachings are about knowing our own minds.

“When I first started using Buddhist view in my yoga practice,” she continues, “I meditated for long periods of time in simple postures. Then I added more advanced poses, which I did with the same intention of working internally in the subtle body, as opposed to the physical body.”

It took seven years, claims Satterfield, but eventually she healed herself by retraining her nervous system. Because of that experience and because of what she has seen her students go through, Satterfield now says that meditating in the body is one of the most helpful ways for people to understand themselves—mentally, physically, and spiritually. It’s effective, she says, “because we all know the body exists. It’s something we can feel. It’s something we carry around.”

Mind-body work, she believes, is particularly useful for people living in the West because so many of us here are badly in need of physical grounding. “Our society is based on information. We’re removed from the earth—we’re not working the earth, we’re not sitting on the ground. Often our awareness and our breath are up in the head region because that’s what we’re using more.”

To ground people, Satterfield usually begins a class with seated meditation. Then students meditate in various asanas, do standing meditation and, sometimes, do walking meditation. She ends the class with seated meditation. “I don’t teach your typical hatha yoga class,” she says. “I don’t put music on. I don’t get people to move very quickly. My classes are extremely mindful.”

One key way Satterfield has of guiding students to mindfulness is teaching them about alignment, which keeps the mind in the body. “Awareness of alignment gives us something to do,” she explains. “If you’re thinking about what your foot or hand is doing, you’re not thinking about what you’re going to do after class or what you did before class.” Her hope is that classes blending yoga and Buddhism will give students an hour-and-a-half experience of meditation in motion.

Phillip Moffitt: Mind at the Center of Posture

“I was doing a shoulder stand on a wooden deck,” says Phillip Moffitt, recalling an experience he had after studying yoga for three years. “It was very uncomfortable, but as I was holding it, I realized the pose could become a form of meditation if, instead of focusing on getting my body exactly right, I made my mind the center of the posture. This was a yogic yoking of the mind, and to me it was revolutionary. It changed the way I did yoga.”

Commenting on the relationship between body and mind, Moffitt, who writes regularly for Yoga Journal and teaches Vipassana meditation at retreat centers across the United States, says that in terms of ordinary reality, body and mind are separable, but in terms of ultimate reality, they are empty of anything lasting.

“Both ordinary mind and the body are characterized primarily by arising and passing,” he explains. “They exist this moment. They’re gone the next. Your body isn’t like it was. There is nothing to cling to because it’s a different body. As for the mind, it’s a stream—that stream you can never put your foot in twice. This is not a philosophy. It’s the observable nature of ordinary reality.”

According to Moffitt, when one understands impermanence, the mind’s tendency to grab on to things of the past, present, or future is radically altered. No matter how difficult the past was, for example, or how much you miss it because it was wonderful, or how much you wish it had been different, gradually the clinging subsides. “Imagine you used to be able to do a great headstand,” Moffitt says. “But you’ve got this injury and now you can’t do a headstand at all. Ordinary ego mind goes, ‘Oh no, I want to be able to do the headstand.’ Yet once you realize that everything is arising and passing, you might say, ‘I wish I could do a headstand but I can’t,’ and that’s the end. You still have the preference, but you don’t have the suffering. That’s liberation of insight, and you can find that liberation through studying the body or studying the mind.”

Moffitt’s primary teacher is the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, yet he also studies yoga with a swami in India. Neither Moffitt nor his teachers see any conflict. Yoga and Buddhism overlap, Moffitt explains. Both practices seek freedom of mind; they just have different frameworks. To give an example, he asks us to imagine a problem at work: “You’ve got this deadline and a person isn’t giving you the information you need. So you’re stuck and it’s frustrating. From a yoga point of view, that’s a stretch. It’s another asana. How can you be stretched this way and yet not have your mind fluctuate? From a mindfulness point of view, on the other hand, this is a lesson in learning to be responsible to meet your deadline but not be attached to it.”

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.