I have been practicing yoga for several years and in an effort to deepen my understanding of my own of my practice, I have begun exploring Zen and how it relates to the mind and the interconnectedness of all existence. Over the last few months, I believe I have begun to come to some understanding of the fundamental concepts of Zen and I have been looking into combining yoga and Zen practice through studying texts such as Zen Yoga, by Aaron Hoopes. Despite these efforts, it was not until a recent trip home to San Francisco, when I had the opportunity to attend a Satsang yoga practice and lecture by well known Bay Area Zen-yogi Adya Shanti that I really began thinking about the connections between yoga and Zen. At the Satsang, the combination of a light meditative yoga session and talk about silence and our perceptions of the Self and nature helped me realize that like yoga, Zen is not a religion as we consider it to be in the Western sense.
Rather, while both have some “religious” aspects, they are more closely associated with adjusting our world view, perceptions, and lifestyle rather than a formal pattern of worship. As a result, I was inspired to consider the relationship between Zen and yoga more deeply. Upon my return to Japan, I began to investigate Zen more thoroughly through talks with practitioners and readings on the fundamentals of Zen. These studies have helped me become more aware of the similarities and differences that exist between the two practices. Understanding the connections between Zen and yoga more thoroughly has helped me think about their complimentary nature and that incorporating a practice of both zazen and yoga into our daily life can create more balance in our yoga or meditation practice as well as achieving more harmony in our life in general.
In my studies I found that while “Buddhism is a yogic tradition; yoga is not a form of Buddhism” (Austin, P. 45) and though Zen Buddhism and yoga diverge, especially in terms of practice, both have similar roots, philosophies and goals. Both stem from Indian traditions of meditation, observation, philosophical inquiry, and both aim to follow a way to end suffering and to find the ultimate truth. With the goal of finding the Atman, or self beyond the ego, we can find an end to our suffering and eventually reach a state of Samadhi, which is intuitive enlightenment. In other words, through practice in either Buddhism or yoga we free ourselves from our misperceptions of the world around us and become transformed by overcoming ignorance about ourselves and the world. We do this by learning to understand and accept the differences between the Self, which is the eternal core or soul and the self, which is our transient being that perceives the world around us through the senses and, therefore, is changeable depending on our circumstances (Austin, P. 46). By understanding the two selves, we come to a pure form of consciousness, which is known as Atman in yoga and Kensho in Zen.
While both Buddhism and yoga provide a setting in which we can practice observation and transcend the notions of self, they follow different paths to attain this goal. In Zen Buddhism seated meditation, or zazen, is used to attain Samadhi because the idea is that “stillness of body engenders stillness of mind” (Sekida, P. 5). The idea is that when we sit, we are in a position in which our body can be still while our mind remains wakeful. In Zen, through the practice of seated meditation and abdominal breathing we are taught that stillness helps us train our powers of concentration, become aware of our energy, let go of our attachments, and let go of our thoughts. The ability to be still allows us to focus on clearing the mind through breathing and observation techniques that help us learn the art of nonattachment.
Most modern yoga practices, on the other hand, use asanas which Austin notes can be translated to “seated” or “postures” (P. 47) as well as breathing techniques to still the soul, develop awareness and attain the state of nonattachment. By concentrating on our breathing and the flow of energy within our bodies we learn meditative techniques and become more intuitive about what is occurring in the here and now. Whether we practice Zen or yoga, it is clear that both lead us to realize that once we attain Samadhi and begin to understand the differences between perception and sensation we can become more aware of the transient nature of the world and eventually achieve Mushin, the state of no mind or no ego, as we have learned to let go of our thoughts, desires and attachments. Since both Zen and yoga put a strong emphasis on posture, whether seated as in zazen or through asanas as in yoga, we build awareness of our bodies while allowing us a comfortable position in which to focus on our breathing and meditation practices.
It seems that though Zen practice is quite rigid and separate from other forms of meditation in Japan, more and more Western practioners find Zen and yoga practice complimentary to one another. The reasons for believing in their complimentary nature stem from both the physical aspects of yoga and Zen as well as from concepts related to mindfulness and concentration. On a physical level, many people who practice zazen find it difficult to sit in the prescribed lotus position for extended periods of time due to a lack of flexibility and body shape or size. As a result, they often experience knee, hip, or back pain which then affects their concentrative abilities in meditation practice. These people find the stretching aspects of yoga beneficial and complementary to zazen.
By doing a light yoga practice before and/or after meditation, people find their bodies suppler and more physically well aligned. A flexible body will free the mind of wandering to the physically painful areas in the body, thus allowing the mind to become empty during the long seated meditation sessions because a person will be able to sit more comfortably. On the other hand, many people who become engrossed in yoga become more interested in the meditative side of the practice after realizing that asanas and breathing keep our bodies in good physical shape in addition to helping us relax. As they begin to look deeper into yoga, they may focus more on the contemplative aspects and developing awareness as they begin to experience the world differently. Learning a proper seated meditation posture, such as that practiced in zazen, will enable yogins sit comfortably while focusing on breathing techniques that clear the mind or aid in developing an awareness of the energy state within the body.
On a concentrative or meditative level, zazen and yoga complement each other through the ways in which they teach us to develop mindfulness. Boccio notes that “Much of the “work” of meditation involves how we experience the body, particularly our reactivity to experience” (P. 144). Through practicing mindfulness in yoga, we focus on feeling or experience while using asanas as a vehicle in which we channel the experience. Bocci notes four types of mindfulness that can be incorporated into yoga practice: the “body within the body” in which we allow awareness to permeate the body beginning with the breath and moving on to become aware of the body’s movements, postures, and parts; “feelings within feelings,” meaning that we come to an awareness of how our moods feel; understanding the role of the mind in the world we create for ourselves and becoming aware of how our actions and attachments affect our experiences; and lastly mindfulness of the dharma in which we find an awareness of our experiences as they relate to important aspects of the Buddha’s teachings (Pp. 152-161).
Developing mindfulness in yoga practices can help with Zen meditation because the body and brain are trained to easily go into a meditative state while maintaining that state without wandering into other thoughts. This is because mindfulness yoga teaches us to develop a deep focus on what is happening in the here and now while moving from one asana to another. Likewise, zazen can help one develop mindfulness in yoga practice as it also relates to developing the four types of mindfulness or awareness. Sitting for meditation automatically puts the body into a steady state, ready for meditation, and breathing practices because one does not have to focus on posture. The concentrative nature of Zen which teaches the mind to become empty of outside thoughts is helpful for yogins because it develops concentration and insight into the ways emptiness can allow one to delve more deeply into mindfulness and the non-duality of existence.
When beginning to incorporate yoga into a Zen practice, it is important to consider the types of asanas and yoga that would be appropriate in a mindfulness yoga routine. If one is not used to doing yoga asanas, beginning with less strenuous poses that are held for longer times and using props to assist in correct posturing would work well. These types of asanas help us ground our energy and allow us to focus on how our bodies and muscle structures feel while doing the poses rather than concentrating on trying to achieve difficult postures, which could injure the body if it is not ready for such a level of practice. In fact, many people who develop a Zen and yoga system in their lives learn techniques of Iyengar-style yoga, which includes a strong focus on perfect posturing, the use of props to achieve perfect posture, and a gradual build up from easier postures toward more difficult ones as a person becomes stronger and more flexible. Someone more advanced in their yoga training might consider Anusara yoga, which was founded by John Friend, who is also an Iyengar master, and follows similar principles as Iyengar but eliminates the use of props for assistance in the asanas.
Iyengar and Anusara styles yoga also have a suitable relationship to Zen as they claim a more religious aspect than other types of yoga, namely that they “explore the yogic goal to integrate the different parts of the self (body, emotions, mind, and soul), the role that the yoga postures and breathing techniques play in our search for wholeness, the external and internal obstacles that keep us from progressing along the path, and how yoga can transform our lives and help us to live in harmony with the world around us” (The Official Website: B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga).
While Iyengar-style yoga does place a strong emphasis on perfect postures, it also believes that Raja, or meditative yoga is an integral part of practicing asanas. Iyengar-style yoga, with its focus on breathing as well as holding asanas for longer periods, creates a meditative state as we become aware of the effects of the poses, and teaches us concentration and awareness. Even though one might consider the lack of flow as an aspect suited to those who are less flexible and need to build strength, it also relates closely to the Zen concept that through stillness and perfect posture, a calm, meditative state is more readily achieved. If one used a more active vinasana flow type of yoga practice, he or she might focus more on the movements than on the physical state, thus having a more difficult time developing and achieving awareness.
In developing a Zen Yoga practice, it would be good to first develop a routine. In yoga, we often first practice pranayama breathing, move on to asana practice, then finish with some type of meditation. Whether these are done together or separately, one can make a combination of the three into a meditative or mindful yoga practice that would be useful either for a person practicing zazen or one focusing more on the yoga side. If one does not have time to do a complete practice all at one time, it can be divided into a routine of pranayama in the morning, asanas later in the day, and meditation to finish the day. Dividing the practice helps us prepare for the day, keep mindfulness throughout the day, and end the day with emptying the mind. It is important to consider the time of year and how our practice might change depending on the season.
Here in Japan it is more difficult to get going in the morning during winter months; therefore, one might want to do a light morning asana practice that warms and wakes the body up. In summer on the other hand it is terrifically hot, so it would be better to perform quiet meditation in the morning and asanas in the evening when it may become a bit cooler. In some places, it remains hot throughout the evening as well. In this situation, one might consider seated asanas that are less stressful and focus more on stretching movements. Incorporating the aspects of yoga and meditation into our daily routine and becoming mindful of what our bodies need depending on the time of year can help develop a practice of continual mindfulness over time, which then leads to the awareness of the here and now and to a more complete awareness of the differences between the two selves. It is important though to keep in mind that whether one decides to primarily focus on Zen or yoga, while they complement each other, yoga is yoga and Zen is Zen. In other words, one should remain aware of the differences in the two practices and practice zazen separately from yoga. Keeping practice separate will allow the mind to be aware the dichotomy between the two and help ease confusion which causes agitation and hinders the development and attainment of the empty mind and Self.
Anonymous. (2010). The Official Website: B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga. Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute. Retrieved October 30, 2010, from https://www.bksiyengar.com/modules/Referen/Books/book.htm
Austin, V. (2010). Zen or Yoga? A Teacher Responds. In M. Stone (Ed.), Freeing The Body Freeing The Mind (pp. 44-63). USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Boccio, F. (2010). Mindfulness Yoga. In M. Stone (Ed.), Freeing The Body Freeing The Mind (pp. 144-164). USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Sekida, K. (2003). A Guide to Zen: Lessons from a Modern Master. (M. Allen, Ed.). California: New World Library.
Wendy M. Gough is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in Nagoya, Japan.