This summer I led yoga on a month-long Buddhist meditation retreat in The Santa Cruz mountains, and when I returned home to the city this book, “Freeing the Body Freeing the Mind” was in my mailbox. It appeared like a welcome-home gift and a tool for reflecting more deeply on my own joyful exploration of Hatha Yoga and Buddhist mediation as one practice.
I had been pondering the relationship between the two traditions and how the two practices support one another, and this book is a deep reflection of these very themes. In a compilation of 13 essays from a variety of perspectives, the authors of this book explore this intersection and how Hatha Yoga and Buddhist meditation can inform and inspire one another.
Title: Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga and Buddhism
Author: Michael Stone (ed.)
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.uk.
Michael Stone, in his essay “Practice Maps of the Great Yogis”, asks practitioners to ponder where the mind ends and the body begins, and where the body ends and the world begins. In “Zen Body”, Eido Shimano Roshi writes that studying “the way with the body” means to study the way with our own bodies, directly and with curiosity. And Frank Jude Boccio, in “Mindfulness Yoga”, reminds us that, according to the Buddha, in our exploration of bodily experience we can find discomfort, pain and suffering, but also peace and liberation.
“In order to meditate,” writes Eido Shimano Roshi, “we need our body. We also need our breath.” In his eloquent description of the Ch’an spatial breathing practice, Ming Qing Sifu, in “The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata”, writes of a “great circulation of breath”. “The breath, in a free space,” he writes, “will accomplish the absence of limits”.
“Just stop, look up, breathe in and breathe out,” advises Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, in “Body and Mind Dropped Away”. “Breathing is an experience of prana,” writes Chip Hartranft in “Awakening to Prana”, the body being “energetic by nature”, what the Buddha called “a body within the body”. “The yogi abides,” Hartranft says, “observing the body within the body.” He continues that “the yogi’s vision is yoked to the moment of unfolding, of arising and passing away.”
We enter into yoga postures not to complete some perfected image or gesture, but rather to wake up the intelligent union of mind, body and heart. (from Michael Stone’s essay “Practice Maps of the Great Yogis”)
Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, in “Joining with Naturalness”, say that “Buddhist yoga is ideally suited to being practiced right within our daily activities.” and invite practicioners to “arouse the mind of bodhicitta before every practice”, infusing “our whole practice with compassion’s power”. O’Hara quotes the Vimalakirti, urging us to “let go of every shred of self-clinging, to drop all notions of a separate self, all ideas of reality, of body and mind, let it all drop away.” “What is left,” he teaches, “is the ceremony of daily life.”
Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, in “Joining with Naturalness”, say that “Buddhist Yoga is ideally suited to being practiced right within our daily activities”, and they invite practitioners to “arouse the mind of bodhicitta before every practice”, to “infuse the whole practice with compassion’s power”. O’Hara quotes the Vimalakirti, urging us to “let go of every shred of self-clinging, to drop all notions of a separate self, all ideas of reality, of body and mind, let it all drop away.” Then “what is left,” he teaches, “is the ceremony of daily life.”
Several of the book’s authors challenge the dualistic view of the mind and body as separate, as well as the popular misconception that yoga is for the body and Buddhism for the mind. In “The Body of Truth”, Ajahn Amaro Bikkhu says that “the Buddha encouraged the kinds of practices that would keep the mind full of the body”, while Shosan Victoria Austin, in “Zen or Yoga” reminds us that “mind is not in the brain: mind permeates the whole.” And Sarah Powers, in “Mind and Body at Ease”, describes a practice of “receptive attention”, becoming “fluid, flexible and adaptable” and “coming home to our bodies in a dignified way”.
The deepest yoga makes us realize that the infinite space of our heart is free of any form and is all forms at the same time. (Ming Qing Sifu, in “The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata: Spatial Breathing in Ch’an)
In “Brahma Vihara, Emptiness and Ethics” Christopher Key Chapple explores three points of contact between Buddhism and classical yoga; the practice of the Brahma Viharas of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity; an understanding of emptiness as described in The Heart Sutra; and the practice of ethics, compiled as the yamas and niyamas. Many of the essays relate Hatha Yoga practice to the Buddha’s instructions on The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, as well as practice instructions which focus on the body and the breath, in The Anapanati and Satipattana Suttas.
Michael Stone explains that “what Yogic and Buddhist teachings share is a radical challenge to the way we conceive spirituality.” New to me were the ways Patanjali, the author of “The Yoga Sutras” was influenced by the Buddha, and the counter culture roots of both the Buddhist and Hatha Yoga traditions. Both Shakyamuni Buddha and Patanjali questioned Brahminical orthodoxy and the rituals of the Vedic tradition.
Chip Hartranft describes how both the Buddhist path and Patanjali’s Hatha Yoga path rely on “direct seeing”, in a practice centered in the present moment.
What struck me as I finished the book was the depth of the commitment to practice of each of the authors, and their clarity in sharing their wisdom. I read the essays out of order, depending on my mood each day, and when I finished the last one I felt like I had been on an intensive Buddhist Yoga Retreat, led by the authors of these 13 beautiful essays. This book itself was an experience and, for me, the reading of it became a daily practice. I recommend this book as a valuable resource and encourage taking time to savor it.