A complete spiritual practice—or even just a healthy, satisfying life—requires working with both body and mind. Cyndi Lee and David Nichtern explain why yoga practice and Buddhist meditation is the perfect mind-body combination.
Sitting on our veranda at Strawberry Hill, a mountaintop retreat in Jamaica where we are teaching a workshop, it’s easy to feel spacious and alive, vast and open, connected to sky and earth. This feeling comes naturally here but just as easily dissolves when we’re confronted with the “too many people, too little time, too much to do” syndrome of everyday life back in Manhattan. Maybe if we lived here all the time we’d always feel boundless and accessible…ahhh…that’s a trap. All of us tend to look outside of ourselves for the source of contentment, and that’s exactly how we create our own discomfort. We forget that what we need to find this kind of well-being is completely available to us all the time. It’s our own body and mind.
Strength, stability, and clarity of mind are said to be the fruits of mindfulness meditation. That sounds good, but if your back is sore, your digestion is sluggish, and your nerves are fried, it’s tough to stabilize any kind of mental wakefulness or confidence. Yoga is a path to these same fruits, but when your mind is jumpy, sleepy, or full of angry thoughts, your body will reflect that with a tight jaw, saggy shoulders, or a knot in your belly.
The body and mind need to work together in order to fully experience clarity of mind and radiant health. That’s the recipe for experiencing confidence, interest, and friendliness in our lives. “Yoga Body Buddha Mind” is a workshop that we have been teaching around the world for the last six years. It began organically as a synthesis of Cyndi’s Tibetan Buddhist practice with the hatha yoga tradition that she has studied and taught for over twenty-five years. Then we synched it up with David’s training in the Shambhala and Buddhist teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
One of the wonderful aspects of Buddhism is that there is a whole range of meaning to the most basic teachings. The most profound instructions are often concealed in the introductory teachings. Our program on Yoga Body, Buddha Mind breaks the practice into four main sections:
* making friends with yourself (an introduction to mindfulness practice)
* dynamic equilibrium (cultivating balance in mind and body)
* obstacles as path (working with obstacles and resistance)
* opening your heart (developing kindness and compassion)
In our workshops, David presents the basic theme of each section, as well as how it applies to formal and in-the-field meditation practices. Cyndi follows this with a yoga session in which she weaves these ideas into how we work with our body, and elaborates on how to explore these principles in the movements and relationships of our daily lives. We will follow that structure in this article.
1. Making friends with yourself: mindfulness meditation
We start with our mind, because doesn’t everything really start there? It seems strange but many of us don’t know our own mind. Often, without even realizing it, we avoid getting to know ourselves because we think we might not like what we find. Mindfulness provides a way to take a gentle and friendly look at oneself.
Meditation practice teaches us to recognize when our mind and body are dis-integrated: the body is right here but the mind may be far away. We practice bringing mind and body together to develop a more harmonious, efficient, and creative relationship with ourselves and our world.
Since this process involves uncovering layers of discursive thoughts and habitual patterns, an important ingredient is to take an open and nonjudgmental attitude toward whatever we discover. Then that approach can be extended into our yoga practice, where the yogi is encouraged to work with her/his present situation without adding stress and ambition. Whatever body we have, whatever mind we have, we look at it with an open heart and a spirit of exploration.
David: Taking a look at our mind begins with our body—taking a strong and stable seat on our meditation cushion. Generally we take a cross-legged posture, but this can be done in a variety of ways, based on our flexibility and comfort level. One can also take a kneeling posture or even sit upright in a chair, with feet flat on the floor and the back upright and unsupported by the back of the chair. We can simply rest our hands palms down on our knees or on our thighs just above the knees.
Now we can pay attention to the position of our spine, stacking the vertebra one on top of the other so that we have a good upright posture without straining. Our back is strong and stable and our front is soft and open. We can feel uplifted and dignified by sitting this way.
Our chin is tucked in slightly. There is a sense of containment and relaxation at the same time. The jaw is relaxed. The eyes remain open in a soft, downward gaze, focusing three to four feet in front. There is a feeling of relaxed awareness: we are seeing without looking too hard. We are awake and alert, but in a very peaceful and open way.
Having established our posture, we simply continue to breathe normally. There is no attempt made to manipulate the breath. Then we place our attention on our breathing in a very light and uncomplicated way. When our attention wanders, we simply bring it back to the breathing, time and time again. It’s like taking a fresh start over and over again.
Rather than creating an idealized or dreamy state of mind, we start with what we actually have, working with our thoughts and emotions as they arise and accepting the situation as it is. This is why we talk about making friends with ourselves. We start by accepting ourselves as we are, and gradually and peacefully bring our attention and breath together. This practice naturally creates more focus, clarity, and stability in our state of mind.
Cyndi: Yoga is an ideal bridge practice between formal meditation sessions and the rest of our life, when we move through the world, interacting with others. So much of what we fear, love, crave, push away, and ignore is stored in our physical body. Practicing yoga with a sense of alertness and curiosity can offer a complete program for getting familiar with our habits, creating space between stimuli and response, cultivating skillful means such as patience, and doing all this in an environment that includes other people.
But my observation is that this process does not automatically unfold through yoga practice. Without infusing friendly mindfulness into yoga practice, it is typical for overachievers to bring their aggression to the mat, while chronic underachievers wither from the required exertion. Both extremes are framed by a goal-oriented mentality focused on endpoints such as toe-touching. But once these postures are achieved, then what?
The Sanskrit word for posture is asana, which can be translated as “seat” or “to sit with what comes up.” When yogis are invited to relax their agenda and open to the vibrancy of their immediate experience—lively sensations in hamstrings, inhalations massaging the low back, the shifting textures of the mind—they are finally practicing asana.
Getting curious about our personal experience (and practice isn’t really practice unless it’s personal), we begin to notice aspects of our process. Am I holding my breath and grasping? Or through full breathing, open eyes, and patient heart, could I slow down and wake up enough to create the conditions for fingers to touch toes? Whatever we notice is fodder for further exploration, both on the mat and after class.
This exploration offers us a non-judgmental method of communication within our most primary relationship—that of our own mind and our own body. Just as we place our attention on our breath in meditation practice, we can do the same thing in yoga. Of course, when we’re turning upside down and inside out, our breath shifts, but it shifts in life too, whenever we are challenged, excited, bored, sad. This is how yoga practice becomes fertile ground for cultivating a friendly attitude as we move through our day.
2. Dynamic equilibrium: not too tight, not too loose
“It seems so easy—just sit and watch my breath. So why am I still having so many thoughts?” “I’ve been doing yoga for six months and even though I’m trying so hard, I still can’t do a full backbend!” “I had a really good meditation—my mind was finally clear!” “I can’t do that pose. Never, no way!”
These are all examples of how we can over-exert or under-apply ourselves in these practices. In order to have a balanced approach towards our effort, we need to recognize that equilibrium is dynamic and fluid, not at all a static process.
As we go deeper with our practice, we can begin to let go of what we think we are supposed to experience. Many students can do a full backbend after six months, but others—perfectly happy people—never do a backbend. Every meditation session is going to be different. The key is to cultivate discipline and exertion, and at the same relax our agenda.
David: Once we have started on the path of meditation, there are further refinements to the practice as we go along. In general, the teachings are like a roadmap or guidebook to a journey we have to undertake ourselves.
Beyond making friends with ourselves, we can develop greater stability and equilibrium in our state of being. In many cases our tendency is to think that we can achieve a particular state of mind (or body for that matter) and hold it. I think this is the most common confusion that many meditators experience—that there is some absolute right way to do it, some ideal state of mind that we can achieve and sustain.
Actually, our situation is changing from moment to moment, and there is really nothing to hold on to at all. Impermanence is a fundamental fact of our existence. Whatever we experience seems to morph constantly, and it seems like every event, every perception, every thought, every situation is slipping away just as soon as we feel we are getting a handle on it. Our meditation practice is really a way to attune ourselves to this ever-changing experience of the present moment. It is training in the art of living as our life unfolds from moment to moment, like developing balance while standing on one leg on a windy cliff.
This approach is summed up by the slogan “Not too tight and not too loose.” As we pay attention to our breathing, we use a light touch of awareness rather than a riveted and stiff kind of effort. On the other hand, if our effort is too loose, we simply wander around in a distracted state of mind, without developing any insight or clarity about how our mind works.
Developing equilibrium means that we ride the energy of our mind like a surfer rides the waves. If the surfer holds too tight, she will fall. If she hangs too loose, she will fall. Sometimes she needs to hang ten, sometimes none at all. Likewise, riding the energy of our mind is a dynamic and ongoing process.
Cyndi: Everybody gets “too tight” or “too loose” all the time. This is natural and normal. The yogic approach to balance integrates oppositional forces, the most basic elements being active and receptive. This is what distinguishes yoga as more than a mere exercise program and makes it a natural training ground for cultivating mindfulness.
When I begin teaching students how to do a handstand most can’t do it at all. In addition to the fear factor, they simply don’t have the strength, coordination, and concentration required. They practice a few inch-high kicks up and leave it at that, a nice balance of reasonable physical effort and then mentally letting it go.
But intermediate yogis, who easily do handstands against the wall, start to crave balancing off the wall. They will jump up and fall back so many times they get in a bad mood. Here’s what I say to them to help them shift their process: “If you hear a big boom when your feet hit the wall, you are using too much effort! Find out what is too little. Kick up, but don’t touch the wall. Get familiar with the feeling of less. When you learn what is too much and what is too little, you can find just enough.”
This is a revelation! When they were beginners they needed to kick hard to get even slightly airborne. With more strength and courage, their balance will come from tighter mental focus and looser physical effort. Things have changed!
Without waking up to what is happening right now, yogis will literally continue to bang themselves against the wall. With the discovery of a middle path the practice really begins, because that sweet spot of stability is elusive—it won’t be the same tomorrow.
It is tempting to want to establish a permanent balance point. But a reliable point of stability, or the amount of effort required to hold a handstand, or fairly manage your employees, or consistently discipline your children, will be different every day. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanajali advises us, “The asanas should be practiced with steadiness and ease.” Doesn’t that sound like a good recipe for life?
3. Obstacles as path: touch and go
Actually, from one point of view there is no such thing as a path. We may have the feeling we are making some kind of journey and that it has shape and direction. We are going from here to there, with some specific idea of where we have been and where we are going. But this approach is based on an idealized version of our experience. In reality, our journey is unfolding as we go along.
Learning to bring our full attention to that journey could be called “path.” So, as many dharma teachers have pointed out, “the path is the goal.” That means that what we experience as “obstacles” along the way is usually just a sense of our own expectations falling apart. These same obstacles can be viewed differently, as the basis for re-engaging our attention and working through whatever arises, whether it is a sense of purpose and satisfaction, or boredom, resistance, or a feeling of futility. Work with whatever arises.
David: Going further on our path, sometimes we will experience resistance to the practice itself. We may encounter strongly entrenched habitual patterns and it might feel difficult to move beyond them. Depression, resentment, anxiety, laziness, frivolity—to name a few—can make us feel there is no point in continuing to cultivate mindfulness and awareness.
A revolutionary approach we can take is to see that the obstacles can actually become the stepping stones of the path. Our irritation, boredom, emotional upheavals, and wandering mind are the basis of the meditation practice itself. Without them, there is no meditation practice, just some kind of gooey, vague, and highly suspicious sense of well-being that lacks any real strength or foundation. We are just trying to pacify our mind in a superficial way, without not working with ourselves as we really are—emotional, speedy, tired, anxious, spaced out, or whatever arises.
By touching in on these difficult aspects of our experience—really tasting them, and then allowing them to exist without judgment or manipulation—we are tuning into a new kind of spaciousness that is refreshing and creative.
Here we can think of another slogan: “Touch and go.” When we are trying to pay attention to our breathing and notice we are off in a daydream, nightmare, or drama of some kind, we simply label that “thinking” and come back to the breath.
There is no need to judge or evaluate the thoughts further. We simply let go, which is actually very profound. We do not need to repress or ignore the thought—that is the touch part. We can touch in on our thoughts and emotions and become more familiar with the patterns and movements of our mind. This exploration will of course include the ripples of “negative” thoughts and emotions that can sometimes grow into a tidal wave of resistance to the practice itself. Whenever our resistance solidifies like this, it can be helpful to remember why we started with the practice in the first place, and simply lean again into our effort.
Cyndi: People are always telling me that they don’t do yoga because they are too stiff. No problem! Stiff bodies are perfect candidates for yoga, as is every other kind of body. No matter who you are or what yoga class you take, you’ll find that some postures come naturally and some are beyond the realm of your current capacity or comprehension.
Typically, when we hit a yoga glitch, we try to identify an external reason: My arms are too long or too short; I’m too fat, too weak, too old, too short, too tall. Yet somehow those same arms are just the right size for that other easier pose. Hmmm…perhaps these obstacles aren’t so solid after all.
I help students explore this through a pose called Utkatasana, nicknamed Awkward Pose. A “perfect” Utkatasana requires quadricep strength, strong, loose shoulders and lower back, long, stretchy Achilles tendons, and cardiovascular stamina. But you don’t need all that to work your way into it. You just need an open mind.
The first time in Utkatasana is fine—for a moment. But when I make the yogis stay longer than they expect, the resistance sparks start flying. Some students try an out-of-body experience—anything to ignore the intensity of this challenging pose. I bring them back with “What are you thinking? Where is your breath?”
Finally, I move them into a flowing sequence where Utkatasana becomes a happily forgotten memory, until I take them right back there again. This time I invite them to find their own way to make this pose workable. “What would it take for you to find ease? Perhaps you could widen your arms, bend your legs less, use less effort, observe your feelings changing.”
Of course, the third time they come back to the pose they are ready and somehow it’s not so bad. I tell them that utkata means “powerful,” and ask them to figure out for themselves how they can feel power without being effort-full.
This goes on, and with each Utkatasana I can feel their attitude shift. The dreaded feeling of physical struggle transforms from a eyes-rolling-here-we-go-again feeling, to a sense of possibility, to I-can’t-believe-she’s-doing-this-again, into laughing out loud! What would have happened if we’d only done one miserable Utkatasana?
4. Opening your heart: Maitri practice
Our hearts are always fundamentally open. They’re just covered up sometimes by doubt, hesitation, fear, anxiety, and all kinds of self-protective habitual patterns.
The practice of opening the heart is based on exploring and reversing some of these patterns. We cultivate openness while noting and dissolving the habits that obscure our natural sympathy and compassion for others.
At the physical and energetic level, we have an actual heart and surrounding area that can feel shut down and blocked up. So we can work on opening that area, bringing more prana and blood flow and breaking through the constriction and tightness that may have become normal for us.
David: Even though we might feel quite alone in our life and our practice, in the bigger picture we live in an interconnected web with others. The measure of success in our meditation practice is not how much we can transcend the pain and confusion of our own existence, but how much we can truly connect with our lives, and with the others who share it.
After creating a proper ground by training our mind, it is a natural evolution of our practice to develop care and consideration for others. In fact, there are many meditation practices that are intended to develop kindness and compassion toward others as well as ourselves.
One such practice is called maitri. Maitri means loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. It can be a natural outgrowth of mindfulness and awareness, but it is also a further step into overcoming and transforming our habitual patterns of selfishness and aggression. Maitri is a contemplative practice that encourages us to use our thoughts and imagination creatively. We actually use the thinking mind to help us develop sympathy toward others.
In some sense, we have already trained ourselves to be self-centered, uptight, jealous, and short-tempered. We can also train ourselves to be expansive, open, generous, and patient, because our thoughts are not as solid as we have made them out to be. They actually come and go in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with a tendency to repeat certain patterns that have become comfortable and familiar. It is entirely possible to step out of these patterns altogether, and through contemplation develop more positive habits that benefit of oneself and others.
In maitri practice, we start by tuning into somebody we love and wish well. Then, through the power of directing our thoughts and intentions, we try our best to extend that loving feeling toward our indifferent group, then even to our enemies, and then gradually to all beings everywhere. We recognize that none of these categories of friend, enemy, and don’t-care is really solid anyhow. They are all changing year to year, day by day, and even moment to moment.
The traditional form that our good wishes takes is contained in these four slogans:
May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at ease.
We bring our loved one to mind, then ourselves, then the neutral person, and then the “enemy” or irritating person. In each case we simply repeat these slogans or contemplate their meaning. In this way we can deliberately cultivate and direct our goodwill and positive intentions toward ourselves and others.
Cyndi: There’s good news right off the bat here for yogis, because just the fact that you’ve come to yoga class is an act of kindness toward yourself. Asana practice is an unparalleled method for removing energetic obstructions that make it tough to feel good or to have energy for yourself and others.
In yoga the primary activity of the arms is to support the function of the heart and lungs, the heavenly internal organs associated with feelings, vision, and the primary channels of life-force, or prana. When our breath and blood are circulating freely, we feel fully alive and more available to ourselves and others.
Circulate is what we want our emotions to do, too. A sunken chest, slumped shoulders, and drooping chin inhibit energy flow and wholesome feelings. They’re depressing. The opposite is equally true—if your chest, back, and heart muscles are supported, spacious, and mobile, you will breath better and feel cheerful.
Loving-kindness asana practice focuses on heart-opening poses. We rotate our shoulders, open our ribs, and do backbends that release chest muscles and unlock sensation in the heart center. Some of these poses are challenging, but they can be done with curiosity and gentleness. One way I try to make them fun is by creating community.
Partnering exercises such as supported backbends or holding shoulders in a group tree pose teaches us how to support and be supported by others. When everybody falls over we laugh! It’s a clear example that if something doesn’t work for everybody, it doesn’t work. It’s an immediate reminder that our minds and hearts truly extend past the apparent boundary of our body. The sense of “other” starts to dissolve. We can experience interdependence right there on the yoga mat.
Traditional yoga theory emphasizes ahimsa, or non-harming. By applying maitri to how we work with relationships in yoga class, we grow the seed of ahimsa into an active blossoming of seeing others and consciously connecting to them. This shows up in our class etiquette: Can I move my mat over to make more space for a latecomer? Can I pass you a tissue? Yoga class becomes a safe haven for practicing kindness with like-minded seekers and gives us the skills to handle what we meet when we walk out the door.
When we started teaching “Yoga Body Buddha Mind” six years ago, it appeared to be a somewhat unique offering among both the yoga and Buddhist communities. In general, the yoga community in the West was not familiar with Buddhist practice and Buddhists were not particularly interested in hatha yoga practice.
But although yoga is a wonderful method for getting a strong and fluid body, it can also be a way to solidify habits of attachment and aversion. And even though you might be able to sit on your meditation cushion for a month, when you try to get up after thirty days—or thirty minutes—it might take just as long for your legs to start working again. That’s why we find that the practices of yoga and Buddhism complement each other so well.
Yoga and meditation are not ends in and of themselves. You may not ever put your leg behind your head, but you might find yourself having more patience with your children. You may only have ten minutes a day to practice mindfulness meditation, but you might find that wakeful energy and compassionate outlook creeping into your staff meetings at work.
No matter what your job is, who your family is, what country you live in, or what planet you live on, your body and mind will always be with you. Our identities are all tightly linked with how we feel about our body and our mind—Am I fat? Am I smart? Perhaps this integration of meditation and yoga will inspire you to get to know your body and mind better—maybe not the body you had when you were twenty or the mind you had when you got that high score on your SAT—but the good body and mind you have right now.