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Practicing in the Body: Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation

An Interview with Anne Cushman, Will Kabat-Zinn and Phillip Moffitt

Q: Can you describe your own yoga and meditation practice for us?
Anne Cushman: For me, yoga asanas and seated meditation are two aspects of the same practice-- waking up moment by moment to the mystery of embodied human life. They’ve gone together for me for over 30 years. I do asana practice, pranayama (breath) practice, and sitting practice daily. Whether I do more sitting practice or more asana practice varies depending on the needs of my body and mind and energy systems on that particular day.

Will Kabat-Zinn: I have had an off and on yoga practice since my early 20’s which coincided with the beginning of my more serious engagement with meditation.  I have also been a student of martial arts since childhood, external arts initially, moving in later years towards the internal arts, Tai Chi, qi gong etc.  When I started practicing meditation I sensed intuitively that it needed to be an embodied practice. For me there is not a fundamental distinction between physical and spiritual practice. The body and mind and the subtle energies form a whole and all must be included in a complete practice. How we work with, cultivate, and balance the body, mind, and the subtle energies is the work of meditation and the Yogic arts.

Phillip Moffitt: My primary practice is Theravada meditation. This includes vipassana mindfulness meditation, as well as the other concentration meditations that are part of the tradition, known as the jhana absorptions. For the last thirty-eight years I have had a hatha yoga practice, and at various times I have done other movement practices, including aikido and awareness through­ movement practices. I encourage everybody I teach to have a movement practice and a sitting practice, because I think they supplement each other so well.

Q: We normally think of spiritual practice as working primarily with the mind or soul or spirit. Why is it helpful to have a movement or posture practice as well?
AC: In my experience, the state of my mind and heart is profoundly influenced by and intertwined with the state of my body and energy system. They are a continuum of experience that can't be neatly broken down into units - here is the mind and here is the body. I find that working with the body can be the doorway to a kind of spacious, calm, and steady awareness that is harder for me to access if my body and nervous system are stressed. By doing yoga practice I can dissolve some of the barriers to awareness that might take me a long time to deal with through sitting practice alone.

We live in a time when our bodies and nervous systems are being battered by a level of stimulation, agitation, speed, and information that is unprecedented in the history of the human organism. The hatha yoga practices of working with the body, breath, and energy system can calm down and rebalance that extra agitation so we can come back to a more natural and balanced state of being. It's a question of undoing, rather than doing. We're doing the yoga practice to return to a more natural and calm state, in which we can rest in seated meditation more easily.

PM: If you're actually going to take Dharma into daily life, awareness of the body is the single most useful thing you can have, because the body is always there. Lots of times you can't remember to do the other practices. You may not remember, ‘Oh, these are my values, or this is what I want to be paying attention to, or this is how I want to act;’ because you get caught up in emotional reactivity. But in my experience, almost everybody can develop a ground of awareness through awareness of the body in this moment. They can get used to coming back and resting in an awareness of the body ­ whether they're sitting in a meeting or working at their computer, they can still be aware of their body. They don't have to lose themselves.

AC: I can observe in my own practice that thoughts have an immediate impact on the body, which is sometimes quite dramatic, and that working with the body has an immediate effect on what we would call the mind. In the traditional yoga model, the body is seen as increasingly subtle layers, or sheaths, that interpenetrate each other, so that the mind and the physical body are actually interpenetrating layers of reality rather than separate entities.

PM: The most detailed explanation that the Buddha gave of how to practice meditation is the Satipatthana Sutra, in which he describes four fundamental ways of developing insight into the true nature of oneself and of the world. They're called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and the very first foundation is awareness of body. He describes this as awareness of the body in the body. You're not observing the body from some distant place - you're actually feeling all the aspects of the body, whether it's the ouch of the body, the pleasure of the body, or the way the body is always changing. The Buddha says there are four basic postures in which we develop awareness of the body: sitting, lying down, walking, and standing. This is the kind of awareness of the body that can come through hatha yoga. Also, insight can arise while you're doing yoga. You can watch the mind while you are doing your asana; every asana is an opportunity to watch the mind.

WKZ: Insight that is not embodied is not complete. Having a home for awareness in the physical and energetic bodies allows for a stability of presence that gives insight a chance to manifest in one’s life and behavior. On the flip side, physical cultivation does not necessarily lead to insight or realization. Both must be cultivated simultaneously and together.

Q: It's clear that a lot of people doing yoga want more than just fitness. They're looking for a spiritual practice. Given that yoga itself is an authentic spiritual practice, why should they turn to Buddhism, as many are doing?
PM: The mindfulness-awareness practice offers a direct experience for students who want to deepen their understanding. It does not require that they embrace any kind of philosophy or theological system. So that inclusiveness is the first thing that Buddhism offers. Second, Buddhism offers a systematic approach to learning about and working with the mind, and that's empowering. It's not like surrendering to someone else's authority. You're gaining your own understanding, your own techniques. That's very useful. Third, Buddhism is good at deconstructing experience. Therefore it allows you to see all your life's experiences more clearly, including your practice. Because you deconstruct your experiences, you cease to be hypnotized by what's pleasant and unpleasant about them.

WKZ: Yoga is  a powerful meditative discipline with its own rich tradition of meditative practice. However with its newfound popularity in the west that meditative dimension can sometimes be lost or underemphasized. I think there is a yearning in the yoga community to bring back the meditative side of the art. Another reason may be that here in the West we have found a language and method for teaching mindfulness, the “heart of Buddhist meditation”, in a way that is both accessible and effective for people regardless of tradition. I think many yoga teachers and practitioners see a richness and immediacy in mindfulness practice that they can use to deepen and enliven their own practice and teaching.

Q: Turning the question around, Buddhism has its own body practices. Many are advanced practices, but the sitting posture itself is a form of asana. So why are many Buddhists doing hatha yoga?
AC: If you look at the ancient texts, you see that hatha yoga—the branch of yoga that works directly with the body as a tool for awakening-- was explicitly designed to support and accompany the path of meditation. Historically, these kinds of yogic practices emerged in Buddhist meditative traditions as well as Hindu ones as part of the tantric movement—which honors the body as an important part of the spiritual path. For various reasons, most of the hatha yogic practices that became popular in the West were brought here through Hindu lineages—but it’s important to realize that many of these practices are closely related both historically and practically to practices that have been done for centuries in Buddhist traditions as well. They represent a vast toolkit of powerful, precise, and subtle techniques for influencing the state of the heart and mind through the body and breath. They stabilize the body and open the energy systems, so that there's more energy and alertness available for meditation. In addition, many of the forms of yoga that are currently practiced in the West have incorporated elements of the modern understanding of anatomy, physiology, and somatic psychology that make them more accessible to contemporary practitioners.

In my own sitting practice, I've found that asana and pranayama can be skillful means for working with the different hindrances that arise, such as lethargy, agitation, or anxiety. Not as a way of eliminating these, but as a way of balancing  my energy body so I can look more clearly at the roots of these obstacles without getting stuck in their surface manifestations.

WKZ: Just as the yogic traditions can benefit and be enriched by the Buddhist meditative practice, meditators can and should make use of asana and other energetic practices which are more physical/movement based doorways into presence and awakening. I see the potential for a mutually enriching dialogue between traditions that can help us all deepen in our respective practices while filling out the less developed areas of our traditions. Perhaps our MYMT program represents a step in this direction.

Q: Are there issues about the qualifications of yoga instructors teaching Buddhist practice, as well as Buddhist centers offering yoga?
PM: One of the things that has been of concern to me is that teachers get a little bit of exposure to one of the traditions and then they bring it into the other without really understanding it. That was part of Spirit Rock's motivation in offering a mindfulness meditation program for yoga teachers. We know by word of mouth that a lot of yoga teachers are doing short mindfulness meditation periods at the end of their yoga classes, and they are using the language of mindfulness in teaching asana. They may have learned mindfulness practice on a retreat or something, but have not really had any instruction or anyone helping them incorporate it into their yoga teaching. Our idea was to offer the traditions side by side, making the overlaps clear but not mushing the two together.

AC: The Spirit Rock program is designed to offer to the hatha yoga community an opportunity to go deeply into the meditation dimensions of yoga practice in a way that's not normally taught in your average yoga class, or even in your average yoga teacher training. The program offers in-depth training in meditation practice for people coming from the yoga world, and it offers the Buddhist community an opportunity to explore more deeply all of the sophisticated practices of hatha yoga as a support for meditation practice. All of the yoga teachers are experienced in Buddhist meditation and all of the meditation teachers have some experience with hatha yoga. In between the retreats, there's a comprehensive curriculum of reading and practice to develop a solid home practice that integrates asana, pranayama, and meditation, while continuing to deepen the practitioner's understanding of the philosophy and history of the two traditions.

Interview of Anne Cushman and Phillip Moffitt reprinted with permission from "Sharing the Mat," published in Shambala Sun, March 2007 and adapted in part. Will Kabat-Zinn interview by Spirit Rock Communication Staff, August 2013.

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