Editors' Pick
August 2, 2005

Body and Breath

Journalist Karen Macklin spoke with four yoga teachers who have incorporated meditation techniques into their yoga practice (and vice-versa).

WHEN CALIFORNIA BASED yoga teacher Sarah Powers became more interested in the psychological and contemplative dimensions of her practice, she discovered that in-depth teachings of that sort were scarce in the yoga community. “We didn’t have the opportunity for extended periods of stillness practice in most of the yoga intensives I was participating in,” she says. “I would only read about them or have them alluded to in class.”

Powers turned to an investigation into Buddhist meditation, which became, over the years, a devotion. Eventually, her respect for both traditions inspired her to develop a practice that combined them. She calls it Insight Yoga.

“I find that many Buddhists could be greatly enhanced in their practice by investigating the realms of the physical and energetic,” she says, “and many yogis can really be enhanced by the teachings that highlight how to be open to not just concentration, but levels of ongoing awareness and insight.”

Powers says she bases her model for teaching on the Tibetan vision of every practice having three essential pieces, or “three excellences.” Thus, her classes consist of three parts: setting a conscious intention, doing a mindful main practice, and dedicating the fruits of that practice to one’s teachers and to the benefit of all beings. The main practice is a combination of yin (long hold) yoga asana, yang (flow) yoga asana, pranayama (breathing), energetic visualization, and meditation.

Powers mainly teaches extended workshops and retreats. A day on retreat might include a four-hour practice in the morning and a two-hour practice in the afternoon, with half-hour seated meditation sessions interspersed throughout the day. She sees elongated practices as a key to going deeper. “It’s more like a Buddhist retreat with lots of yoga in it,” she says.

So is it yoga or is it Buddhism?

“Ultimately,” says Powers, “we need to move beyond the classification of certain dogmatic definitions that are held by any school, and evaporate the understanding into our unique freedom that isn’t defined by what we call it. It’s really an investigation into how we suffer and the potential for living free.”

IN RECENT YEARS, Vipassana teacher and lifelong yoga practitioner Phillip Moffit started incorporating elements of hatha yoga asana into his meditation teachings in order to help students have more comfort in their seated practice. Now Moffit—along with Vipassana teacher Mark Coleman and Tricycle editor and yoga teacher Anne Cushman—is planning a groundbreaking program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center to train yoga teachers in the art of insight meditation.

Moffitt finds an overwhelming amount of overlap between the Buddha’s teachings and the work of the sage Patanjali (second century B.C.E), who first systematized classical yoga philosophy in his Yoga Sutra. “For instance, Patanjali and the Buddha say that everything is suffering,” says Moffit (who stresses that he is speaking as a practitioner, not a scholar). “It’s quite radical that they’re both saying that pleasure is suffering. That was one of the profound things about the Buddha’s teachings and here, a few centuries later, Patanjali is saying the same thing.

“Likewise,” he adds, “Patanjali’s sutras list the same qualities as the brahma-viharas, or divine abodes—lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. They name the same four types of karma—good karma, bad karma, good and bad karma, and, for one who’s enlightened, neither good nor bad karma. In Buddhism, there are five spiritual faculties; Patanjali refers to the same five faculties in sutra 1.20: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. This is a core Buddhist teaching, and here you are centuries later with Patanjali coming up with it.” Moffit is not sure why there is such overlap, but adds, “It would seem to me that he either got exposed to some of the Buddha’s teachings or he came to amazingly similar realizations, or some combination of the two.

“Patanjali and the Buddha both pointed to the same manner of liberation,” he continues. “They both start out with the necessity of finding an ethical base—a way to have the mind be purified. Neither tradition says that you’re supposed to have been born perfect, but to start now and go forward. And they both say that practice is essential for liberation.”

Moffit acknowledges that some view yoga and Buddhism as conflicting practices, but he doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s about the direct experience,” he says. “Are you creating suffering, or are you not? If one gets all fixated on allegiances to skillful means as opposed to utilizing the skillful means, that’s off the path. The profound approach, for me, is to realize that this is another chance to come into the moment.”

JILL SATTERFIELD realized the power of practicing asana and Buddhist meditation together many years ago; she had been suffering from a chronic illness and, through asana and deep concentration, was able to eventually heal herself. Since then, the New York-based teacher has developed Vajra Yoga, a practice influenced by the Vajrayana and Therevadan traditions of Buddhism. Vajra Yoga, says Satterfield, is about seeing the body as a vehicle for reflection.

“A lot of Vajra Yoga is visualizing,” she says. “Visualizing is a way to start seeing where you live in your body and where you don’t … yet.” Satterfield’s classes all begin with a body scan, and she uses different ones to speak to different students. The most straightforward start from the feet and move up and inside, drawing awareness to each organ and gland. Others are more metaphoric.

“One body scan I use is to picture that your body is your house,” she says. “Where’s the brightest part? Where do your parents’ live? Where do you go to feel safe? Where’s the darkest area that you know exists but you never go to? Where would you bring a handyman, and what would you ask him to do?

“I also use a stream or a river as a metaphor for the central channel: Where is it clogged up? Where is it wide and where is it narrow? Where do the beavers get in to make a little dam? I’m always trying to come up with new ways so that eventually everybody has some sort of an idea of what it’s like inside.”

Vajra Yoga also focuses on slow and deliberate movement, alignment, and breath. Satterfield contends that, for meditation practitioners, the body can ground a practice so that it isn’t all conceptual.

“When you’re always in your mind, you can forget what goes on down below the neck, “ she says. “The Vajra Yoga practice is basically to bring your mind into the body. Understand your body, understand your mind?because the two are reflective. Then, all sorts of healing can happen.”

WHEN VICTORIA AUSTIN started her meditation practice, she worked very hard. Perhaps too hard.
“I started practicing Zen in 1971,” says Austin, now the president of the San Francisco Zen Center. “By 1983, I had seriously hurt myself.” Too much concentration practice too soon, says Austin, adversely affected her nervous system, which she believes led to a host of problems, including tremors, sciatica, poor digestion, irritability, and headaches. She says she owes the problem, in part, to giving up her seven-year Hatha yoga asana practice when she began studying to be ordained as a priest in the late ‘70s, because her teacher at the monastery saw it as “spiritual shopping.”

While she says the extent of her symptoms is rare, it is indicative of a broader danger for meditators: not paying attention to the physical body. Asana, she adds, is meditation in action, and can prevent this kind of problem.

Now recovered, Austin passes down the teachings of both Iyengar yoga and zazen to her students. She also teaches various courses and workshops that address the whole body in the context of Zen teaching. And she always encourages her serious students to have a physical practice.

“I’m not talking about physical in the sense of exercising,” she says. “I’m talking about physical in the sense of developing a firm foundation for a sitting practice. It doesn’t have to be Iyengar yoga, but it should be a practice that allows students to address our Western cultural habits of separating body and mind.

“The Buddha was someone who woke up in every possible way. Every cell of his body was a weight and he was able to understand conventional truth—the function of the body—and ultimate truth at the same time.”