Breath and the Body

Seven yoga postures to invigorate the meditative mind from Frank Jude Boccio.

Frank Jude Boccio; Illustrations Timothy Collins

Things have changed since the mid-1970s, when I began to study and practice both hatha yoga and Zen Buddhism. Back then, it was common to be told by Zen teachers that all one needed to do was to sit. Zazen was the be-all and end-all of practice, and if one practiced assiduously enough, nothing else was needed—not therapy, not text study, and most certainly not yoga! Despite the ruin of many a good knee, most teachers were pretty firm in this blanket condemnation. To many at the zendo where I practiced, yogis were bliss-heads, caught in denial of dukkha—the existence of suffering—and they looked askance at my dedication to my twice-weekly hatha yoga classes.

Meanwhile, at the ashram where I took yoga classes, I was repeatedly told that yoga was a complete spiritual discipline, and that the practice of asana (postures) was preparatory to meditation practice. But we never seemed to get to actually meditating in class. As for my interest in Zen Buddhism, as far as those yogis were concerned, there could be a no more dour, joyless, miserable lot than Zen students, sitting stock-still in the severe and colorless zendo, all obsessed with suffering.

Yet right from the start I intuitively knew—and confirmed from my own experience—that these two practices had much to offer each other. And, in fact, over the past three decades, many Buddhist meditators (including Zen students) have been drawn to hatha yoga for the ease and strength it can bring to the body, while many yoga students have turned to Buddhist meditation for the deepening of awareness, insight, and equanimity it can cultivate.

While this complementary approach has much to offer, I have found that a deeper, more integrated, comprehensive approach is possible—and may even be necessary —if one truly wishes to practice yoga holistically. The complementary approach still looks at yoga and Buddhism as different, with the difference being that yoga is understood to be about the body, and Buddhism (and meditation in general) about the mind. A deeper investigation of just what is happening when we practice will quickly reveal the inaccuracy of such a view. When we sit in meditation, much of the “work” is related to how we experience the body, and how we react to that experience. And when we are practicing the asanas of hatha yoga, our minds tend to constantly run commentary, react with story lines and judgments, wander from what we are doing, lean toward the future and away from the past, grasp the pleasant and push away the unpleasant—just exactly what they do when we sit in meditation!

So while things have changed since the seventies, it seems to me they haven’t changed enough. The primary cause of the false distinction between yoga and Buddha-dharma is the historical anomaly that it was the physical aspect of hatha yoga, the asanas, that first caught the attention of Western students. For many people, the great diversity of the yoga tradition was reduced to the mere physical performance of the postures and movements of hatha yoga. But the Sanskrit word yoga, meaning “union,” derives from a verbal root, yuj, “to yoke,” as we do when we restrain our attention from wandering when we sit in meditation. From the very beginning, the prime activity of the yogi was to sit in meditation. The posture one takes in sitting meditation is the fundamental asana, and is described by the sage Patanjali (second century B.C.E)—in his Yoga Sutra, the foundational text of classical yoga—as that posture which is both stable and easeful.

While the asanas of hatha yoga are what most Westerners are familiar with as yoga, the truth is that such postures were developed rather late in the history of the yogic tradition. For most of yoga’s history, meditation, chanting, selfless service, and study were the main practices of yogis and yoginis. As I tell the retreatants at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, where I teach asana, this broader understanding of yoga and asana makes it clear that whenever one takes her seat in the zendo, she is practicing yoga.

The word yoga as “union” refers to the integration of body, breath, and mind, and to the dissolution of the sense of separation between the “self ” as subject of experience and the “other” as object of experience. Whenever this state of embodied integration manifests—whether one is sitting, walking, cutting carrots, or changing diapers—there is yoga.

The Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is a model of yogic theory and practice. The Buddha was a consummate yogi, and while he may have refuted the mainstream metaphysics of Vedic-based yoga teachings, his own teachings and practice are firmly rooted in the broader yoga tradition, which predates both Buddhism and Hinduism. While the Buddha taught a variety of methods of practice, mindfulness is an essential aspect shared by them all.

The Sanskrit word smriti, most often translated in Buddhist contexts as “mindfulness” or “awareness,” literally means “what has been remembered.” To “re-member” is to “re-collect,” to bring back together all the seemingly disparate aspects of our experience into an integrated whole. In this way, remembering is synonymous with the definition of yoga itself. Whenever we see that our mind has wandered from the intimate, immediate, spontaneous, and obvious experience at hand, we remember to come back—to just this, right here and now, using the breath as the yoke.

In the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, the Buddha taught, “Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom,” a teaching that echoes Patanjali’s definition of asana as “stable and easeful.” In both the Anapanasati Sutta (Awareness of Breathing) and the Satipatthana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha tells us to observe the breath and then extend our awareness out to include the whole body. He says that the practitioner should be aware of the movements and positions of the body, “bending down, or standing, walking, sitting, or lying down.”

The applicability of this teaching to asana practice is obvious. When we combine awareness of breathing with asana practice, we can look to see how movement affects the breath, and how the breath moves the body. We can become aware of habitual patterns of reactivity. For instance, do you hold your breath when you reach out with your arms into a deep stretch? Do you unnecessarily tense muscles not involved with the movement you are making? Do you compare one side of the body with the other when doing asymmetrical postures? When you repeat a movement, do you find your mind wandering in boredom? As you maintain a posture, can you observe the constantly changing phenomena, or do you solidify the experience, conceptualizing and then relating to the phenomena as a “thing,” and either resist or grasp at it, depending on whether you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

Continuing to look deeply, we can begin to see our conditioned aversion to and grasping at different aspects of our experience. The four foundations of mindfulness taught by the Buddha include body, feelings (sensations), mental formations (mind), and phenomena that arise as objects of mind. When practicing asana, we can devote our practice to any one of these, or work through them sequentially.

In the following short sequence, I have chosen several asanas that provide an example of how we can approach the practice of asana as a vehicle of mindfulness and insight. They also function as postures and stretches that can strengthen our capacity for sitting meditation. As you move through them, please go slowly; explore with an investigative, nonjudgmental mind, just as you would in sitting practice. Honor your body’s present limitations, while letting go of any mental reactivity that may arise.

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