Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Mindfulness: The Essence of Yoga (Part1) - Opening Up

"In focusing on the breath when we meditate, we are learning right from the start to get comfortable with change. We see that we will have to be flexible." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p49.
Shaolin Monk ShiFu YanLei demonstrating his flexibility.
It seems our modern use of the word 'yoga' most often brings up images of classical Indian calisthenics - stretching the body, cultivating subtle energies, and seeking a meditative mind-body connection. What appears to separate yoga from mere physical stretching of the body is the mindful or energetic component taught within the various poses. As the author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) states, p47-48:
"...“poses” are just one component of the traditional path of classical yoga, which includes breath control and meditation. [...] The practitioner of classical yoga aims to withdraw from the material world, which is considered illusory, and merge with the formless but ultimate reality of consciousness. After preparing the body with asanas (the familiar hatha yoga poses), cultivating refined energy states through various breathing practices, and excluding all external distractions, the yogi focuses on an intermediate object, such as a mantra (repetition of a meaningful word or phrase) or a sacred symbol, and then on consciousness itself. Finally, the yogi arrives at a state known as samadhi, where all traces of separation dissolve and the yogi blissfully unites with consciousness. Compiled and codified by Patanjali (a sage of the second century A.D.), the philosophy and practices of classical yoga gave rise to numerous and, at times, competing schools over the centuries. Most of the yogis and swamis who have taught in the West trace their lineage to classical yoga."
As a philosophical concept, the word 'yoga' means unifying the body and mind. MBSR founder Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn writes of the Sanskrit meaning in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p101:
"Yoga is a Sanskrit word that literally means "yoke." The practice of yoga is the practice of yoking together or unifying body and mind, which really means penetrating into the experience of them not being separate in the first place. You can also think of it as experiencing the unity or connectedness between the individual and the universe as a whole. The word has other specialized meanings... but the basic thrust is always the same: realizing connectedness, realizing wholeness through disciplined practice."


Dr. Kabat-Zinn's mindfulness practice, originating in East-Asian Zen (see Coming To Our Senses (2006), p38), was the result of Indian religion (and thus Indian practices and concepts) passing into China. The Chinese people, having their own indigenous spiritual, philosophical, and mind-body calisthenics traditions (i.e. Daoism), used their existing perspectives to interpret the Indian ideas and practices filtering into their culture from the West.

Mahayana Buddhism was one such tradition enthusiastically embraced by the Chinese, and some of the schools within Mahayana Buddhism were deeply concerned with what they referred to as 'yoga' relative to the practice of being/becoming a Bodhisattva (a person wishing to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings). Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes of Chinese 'Buddhist yoga' practices in his book Understanding Our Mind (2001), p1:
"Both Vijñanavada and Yogachara were early Mahayana Buddhist schools based on the study of the nature of consciousness. Vijñana means literally “mind” or “consciousness.” [...] Yogachara means “application of yoga” or meditation, particularly the meditative practices of the perfections (paramita), the essential qualities of a bodhisattva." 
A graphic at the beginning of the Buddha Nature Treatise (佛性論).
The Buddhist text called the Buddha Nature Treatise (佛性論), of which only extant Chinese copies remain, attributed to the translator Paramartha (of Indian origin, living in China in the 6th Century AD), refers to the Buddhadharma (basic Buddhist teachings) as being yoga. Buddhist scholar Sallie B. King, in her book Buddha Nature (1991), presents a translation of a passage thus, p66: 
"This Dharma is the Tathagata's asrayaparavrtti. That is why it is named the end of dharani; it is also called yoga."
She writes of this passage as follows, p67:
"At the end of the passage, nirvana is directly identified with practice, specifically with yoga, with asrayaparavrtti (which, as we saw earlier, is the foundation of the Buddhist path, the destruction of defilements, the fruit of mature contemplation and the attainment of Thusness) and with dharani (recollection, meditation, and wisdom)."
A Buddhist monk sat in Lotus Posture - a yoga pose.
With regards to understanding the Yogaracara school of Mahayana Buddhism in ancient China, King says the Buddha Nature Treatise is of serious value, p27:
"The text is remarkably useful today as an introduction to the Yogacara-related foundations of Chinese Buddhist philosophy. Many of the views articulated in the text, and especially the overall standpoint from which the author speaks, are very much in harmony with widespread ideas in Chinese Buddhist thought as they are expressed in the various indigenous Chinese Buddhist schools. This is especially true of Chan [Chinese Zen]..."
Around the same time as the translator Paramartha was in China, the First Patriarch of Zen and the legendary founder of Shaolin KungFu, Bodhidharma, was apparently teaching yoga to Buddhist monks, as I outlined in my posts: YiQuan: 'Mind Fist' / Chinese Visualisation Yoga and Mindful 'Tai Chi' and YiQuan's Shì lì 試力 and Mócā bù 摩擦步 Exercises - Moving with the Air.

The famous Shaolin Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic (Yìjīnjīng 易筋经) is said to be part of the yoga taught by Bodhidharma. The Chinese YiQuan Martial Art Master Wang XiangZhai (1885 - 1963), who linked YiQuan to Bodhidharma's original practice, gave instructions in his book, The Right Path of YiQuan (Translation, 2001), for the practice of his art which are not unlike instructions from a modern yoga teacher, p11:
"When exercising, you must let nature lead the course of all the joints of the whole body, do not have even the slightest sluggish place. The bones must be agile, the muscles and tendons must stretch, the flesh must be at ease, and the blood must flow freely like a spring that brings the water to a well. Only in this way can one learn the way of the whole body and the all-pervading strength..."
A Classical Indian dancer and the author's YiQuan teacher (Cui Rui Bin) in similar stances.
Even though the shapes assumed by one's body during YiQuan may not be the same as Classical Indian yoga at times, the essence of the teaching appears to be identical, and therefore it seems the term 'yoga' could be broadened to include such meditative calisthenic arts as YiQuan. Thich Nhat Hanh appears to embrace this potential broadness when he talks of 'mouth yoga' in his book The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), p70:
"There are more than three hundred muscles in our face, and when we know how to breath in and smile, these muscles can relax. This is "mouth yoga." We smile and we are able to release all of our feelings and emotions."
Kabat-Zinn also supports this view, although reserving the explicit term 'yoga' for Hatha Yoga as part of his MBSR - probably not to confuse readers. In his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), in the chapter titled: 'YOGA IS MEDITATION', he states, p95:
"There are many different ways to practice being in your body. All enhance growth and change and healing, especially if they are done with meditative awareness."
Ancient Daoist Yoga postures.
The physical benefits of yoga are well documented - apparently more famous than any psychological benefits, since the subtle dimensions to the Indian yoga has often utilised references to mystical energy such as prana (an elusive substance acting beyond what we consider standard psychological patterns of behaviour). In exploring the physical body with open and focused awareness, one of the most obvious physical benefits is that one becomes more aware of one's physical limits. Kabat-Zinn, in Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), writes of this feature of yoga as follows, p157:
"Yoga folds movement and stillness into one another. It is a wonderfully nourishing practice. As in the other forms of mindfulness practice, you are not trying to get anywhere. But you are purposefully moving right up to the very limits of your body in this moment." 
Knowledge of one's limits allows one to access more of one's potential, and remain flexible when situations could be overwhelming. Kabat-Zinn outlines this feature in Full Catastrophe Living, p304:
"...you will be able to catch things as they change and be flexible enough to modify what you are doing when necessary to accommodate your changing situation."

A Chinese Daoist BaguaZhang practitioner holding a pose. BaguaZhang is famous for embracing constant change.
This state of being open to change - accepting everything as it comes, and reacting with sensitivity and fluidity requires kindness and love to be directed towards oneself and others. This approach spans both the mental and physical dimensions of yoga practice, and it is in this way that the approach to opening the body for physical health can be also seen to be parallel to opening the mind for mental wellbeing. Kabat-Zinn makes this explicit comparison in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p167:
"Love and kindness are here all the time, somewhere, in fact, everywhere. Usually our ability to touch them and be touched by them lies buried below our own fears and hurts, below our greed and our hatreds, below our desperate clinging to the illusion that we are truly separate and alone. By invoking such feelings in our practice, we are stretching against the edges of our own ignorance, just as in the yoga we stretch against the resistance of muscle, ligament, and tendon, and as in that and all other forms of meditation, against the boundaries and ignorance of our own minds and hearts. And in the stretching, painful as it sometimes is, we expand, we grow, we change ourselves, we change the world"
Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki also emphasises the need to stretch and open oneself during meditation practice, in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p43:
"You must stretch out your arms and legs as wide as they will go. Form is form. You must be true to your own way until at last you actually come to the point where you see it is necessary to forget all about yourself. Until you come to this point, it is completely mistaken to think that whatever you do is Zen or that it does not matter whether you practice or not."

Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi sat in zazen meditation posture.
In Coming To Our Senses, Kabat-Zinn further extends the definition of yoga to the way we approach our normal, everyday life, p91:
"Taking up the challenge of waking up to our lives and being transmuted by wakefulness itself is its own form of yoga, the yoga of everyday life, applicable in any and every moment; at work, in our relationships, in raising children if we are parents, in our relationships with our own parents, whether they are living or dead, in our relationship with our own thoughts about the past and the future, in our relationship to our own bodies. We can bring awareness to whatever is happening, to moments of conflict and to moments of harmony, and to moments so neutral we might not notice them at all."
This "yoga of everyday life" which wakes us up; opens our eyes to new understanding and a broader concept of mind and body, is referred to by Shunryu Suzuki, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, with reference to 'small mind' and 'big mind', p33:
"Zen practice is to open up our small mind. So concentrating is just an aid to help you realize "big mind," or the mind that is everything. If you want to discover the true meaning of Zen in your everyday life, you have to understand the meaning of keeping your mind on your breathing and your body in the right posture in zazen. You should follow the rules of practice and your study should become more subtle and careful. Only in this way can you experience the vital freedom of Zen."
And on p115:
"Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as they are. When our thinking is soft, it is called imperturbable thinking. This kind of thinking is always stable. It is called mindfulness."
Zen calligraphy by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
Since our mind and body are intimately related - existentially related, emotional manifestations and physical manifestations are not separate from one another. The same method of working with pain, stiffness, tension, etc., in a yoga studio can be applied to our negative emotions. Here is Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living, p319:
"The key is to be willing to inquire into your suffering, to observe it, to open up to it consciously, in the present, and work with it just as you would with a symptom, with physical pain, or with a thought that surfaces repeatedly."
He goes deeper into this 'opening up to pain' in the same book on page 295:
"In some moments when you go into your pain and face it openly, it may seem as if you are locked in hand-to-hand combat with it or as if you are undergoing torture. It is helpful to recognize that these are just thoughts. It helps to remind yourself that the work of mindfulness is not meant to be a battle between you and your pain and it won't be unless you make it into one. If you do make it a struggle, it will only make for greater tension and therefore more pain. Mindfulness involves a determined effort to observe and accept your physical discomfort and your agitated emotions, moment by moment"
If we can do the above, then, as Kabat-Zinn teaches, we can obtain levels of health and wisdom never experienced before, p179:
"To bring calmness to the mind and body requires that at a certain point we be willing to let go of wanting anything at all to happen and just accept things as they are and ourselves as we are with an open, receptive heart. This inner peace and acceptance lie at the heart of both health and wisdom ."
The role of working with the physical relationship between mind and body is looked into more deeply in Part 2: Releasing Tension

The author playing in a waterfall on Hainan Island, China, 2008.

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