Yoga to touch the toes, Buddhism to touch the mind?
It seems to me that there is a common notion that you go to Yoga to work the body and to Buddhism or Mindfulness to meditate.
I can see where this idea has come from – the proliferation of photographs on social media of scantily clad ladies contorting into Yoga postures. The rise of gym based yoga classes, see Yoga shredding and the like. Talk of the elusive “yoga body”, and Yoga as a multi-million pound market, hijacked by advertisers selling us a sexy, slimmed down version of Yoga. Whereas meditation is almost always pictured as a formal seated practice, usually with a Buddha statue and candle nearby, in some Zen-like minimalist room photographed in soft focus.
Yet the reality is that Yoga is meditation.
The goal of Yoga is Samadhi or oneness. Yes, the same Samadhi that the Buddhists, Jains, Taoists and all the other schools (but, crucially, not Mindfulness) are working towards.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is widely considered to be the authoritative text on Yoga compiled prior to 400CE. Patanjali outlines the Eight Limbs of Yoga – Yamas, moral imperatives (such as nonviolence, truthfulness and not stealing); Niyamas, virtuous habits ( such as purity, contentment, and persistence); Asana, Yoga Postures; Pranayama, Breathing Practices; Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses inward; Dharana, focusing the mind (eg using mantra or breath etc); Dhyana, complete focus of the mind on mantra / breath etc uninterrupted by other thoughts; Samadhi; oneness with the focus of meditation where the mind loses the sense of its own identity.
Modern Yoga has mostly just become limb three – Asana, Yoga Postures.
I remember being on a training course talking to a couple of other teachers who admitted that they no longer taught Pranayama or breathing techniques in their classes because it wasn’t popular among students. Gyms by and large don’t want yoga lifestyle or philosophy taught, or breathing or meditation. Yoga then for a lot of people has just become about the pursuit of arm balances, impressive flexibility, and a tight butt. What a lot of people don’t know is that this Westernised Yoga is quite far removed from the original Yoga – even the original Yoga postures were mostly seated and designed to prepare the body for meditation. Sun Salutes, Downward Facing Dog and the majority of the standing poses grew out of a marriage between yoga, Swedish gymnastics and military fitness in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Don’t want to join a monastery or go live in a cave?
What drew me to Yoga originally was the completeness of the practice; it is a comprehensive blueprint for attaining Samadhi or union whilst living in the real world. Last year I undertook a ten day silent Vipassana retreat and one of the things I learned is about the nature of mind – the less input, the less electrical activity, and the less electrical activity, the easier it is to meditate. In other words if you live in a monastery, meditation is going to be a hell of a lot easier. But most of us don’t have a spare 10 days to go and sit in silence. Most of us don’t have the recommended 2 hours a day to practice Vipassana meditation.
Yoga as a path to enlightenment in the day-to-day.
Yoga provides an alternative for householders – those holding down a job, raising a family, having to deal with the stresses of life, the noise, the constant bombardment of advertising images, news, other people. Patanjali told us – live a virtuous life, doing nothing to trouble your mind; develop virtuous habits, pure in mind, body & spirit; use special postures to keep the body easy, healthy & pain-free; learn to control the breath so you can control your mind – and then sit in meditation, following the last four limbs of the practice.
It comes as little surprise to me that people find it difficult to just sit and meditate. If the body isn’t ready to sit for any length of time then the discomfort will overwhelm any attempt to focus on mantra or breath. If the body is awash with stress hormones then there is little hope of stilling anything. If the breath is shallow, the mind reeling from hours of emails and Facebook swiping, the body toxic from poor diet then, unfortunately, attaining Enlightenment is highly unlikely.
Yoga taught according to the Eight Limbs, helps to prepare and then deliver a meditative experience – move, stretch, relax and settle the body so it can sit in meditation; purify, balance the hormones, master the breath, lead an appropriate lifestyle, develop self-awareness and mental focus, control your energy. It’s all there – all of the bases covered in the pursuit of Samadhi.
The Buddha was a Yogi
And don’t forget that before the Buddha sat under the banyan tree in Bodh Gaya and became the Enlightened One, he was a yogi, a mystic wanderer, a Shaiva Tantric. He would have been very familiar with Tantric practices such as mantra meditation, kundalini awakening, asana practice, fasting etc. Tantra, Yoga, Buddhism, Jainism and other schools all come from the same roots and utilise the same techniques. At The Wellcome Trust’s exhibition, Tibet’s Secret Temple, the extent of tantric / yogic practices employed by Tibetan Buddhists to achieve enlightenment was shown in all its body dropping, Sufi grinding brilliance. Quite simply if you want to experience the deep states of meditation you have 2 options – remove yourself from day to day life for an extended period of time or prepare & train your body, mind & spirit for meditation.
Modern Yoga; the perils of sanitisation
At a recent training I attended the meditation teacher leading the class bemoaned that in the US it is now almost impossible to get insurance to teach meditation due to the philosophical and spiritual connotations. Big business and corporate interests are demanding Mindfulness instead; a small, sanitised part of meditation teaching, stripped of any context, philosophy and liberating aspirations. It has been packaged as a coping tool, to enable people to better deal with the stresses and strains of modern life. It seems to me that Yoga is in danger of going the same way – stripped of its actual purpose it is becoming no more than a set of physical exercises with maybe a bit of relaxation thrown in. A socialising tool, a money making enterprise, a heavily regulated practice – those teaching yoga in line with Patanjali’s Eight Limbs are becoming increasingly marginalised and so much is being lost as a result.
Yoga is designed to free you, to help you see things as they are, to reclaim happiness as your birth-right – my hope is that Yoga, in time, will redefine itself in its true image and that people will start to understand what it is, it’s power and it’s Truth.