Buddhism And Yoga

From downward dog to the dharma

Anne Cushman

Mindfulness Yoga:
The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind

Frank Jude Boccio
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004
341 pp.; illustrated; $19.95 (paper)

Yoga Body, Buddha Mind
Cyndi Lee
New York: Riverhead Books, August 2004
320 pp.; illustrated; $15.00 (paper)

The Tibetan Book of Yoga: Ancient
Buddhist Teachings on the Philosophy
and Practice of Yoga

Michael Roach
New York: Doubleday, 2004
114 pp.; illustrated; $15.95 (cloth)

Sneaking Hatha Yoga into a Buddhist practice used to be a guilty pleasure, like nibbling a secret stash of chocolate during a meditation retreat. In recent years, however, that attitude has begun to melt away, as these two practices—long separated by geography and sectarianism—cross-pollinate in the Western spiritual landscape.

Historically and philosophically, Buddhism and yoga have common roots stretching back thousands of years to ancient India. In fact, yoga—a Sanskrit term that refers to both the union of the self with the Absolute and the vast array of techniques for achieving it—embraces all the great Indian-born spiritual systems, including Buddha-dharma. Nonetheless, Buddhism and hatha yoga, which uses physical postures and breath work as tools for awakening, evolved distinctly different methods for pursuing their common goal of liberation. For centuries, Buddhist masters warned that hatha yoga’s emphasis on physical practices encouraged a dangerous obsession with the body, which, like all things, is impermanent and destined to decay. To some modern teachers, yoga’s popularity only compounds the problem: how seriously can you take a spiritual practice featured in a “Buns of Steel” workout tape?

All that is changing, however, as hatha yoga regularly shows up as an integral part of the schedule at Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhist retreats. Buddhist meditators are starting to acknowledge what hatha yogis have long known: that the state of the body profoundly affects the state of the mind and heart. Indeed, body, mind, and heart are not separate entities but one interpenetrating, unified system.

Several new books explore the fusion of Buddhism and yoga. The most philosophically comprehensive is Frank Jude Boccio’s Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind. Boccio—a yoga teacher, interfaith minister, and student of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh—solidly locates hatha yoga practice in Buddhist history and philosophy, emphasizing the mindfulness techniques laid out in the Anapanasati Sutta and Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourses on breath awareness and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which offer some of his most explicit instructions on meditation practice.

Boccio traces the development of yogic practices in India from their rudimentary beginnings in pre-Vedic civilization throughthe mystical flowerings of the Upanishads. (It’s worth noting that Boccio’s version of early Indian history is that of his teacher, the prolific yoga author Georg Feuerstein, who wrote the book’s foreword. Feuerstein discounts the prevailing belief that Indian culture was shaped by an Aryan invasion from the steppes of northern Europe and places the roots of Vedic culture firmly within India.) Boccio’s account culminates in the life story of the Buddha—himself a wandering yogi who studied with the greatest masters of his day before forging his own version of the yogic path.

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