Yoga and Buddhism?

Via on Aug 11, 2010

Not so fast.

Let’s examine this wonderful union in some depth, first.

It seems that everywhere I go these days—be it my studio in Berkeley, Richard Freeman’s “Yoga Workshop” in Boulder, or the Telluride Yoga Festival—everyone is talking about the connection between yoga and Buddhism.

Yoga and Buddhism? How natural is this (un-?)holy union that is becoming such a popular talking point, particularly in the yoga world? The yogis—and, to be sure, the Yoga Sutras themselves—have emphasized that yoga is a powerful and perhaps even a necessary support for any genuine religious or spiritual practice. Yet, my own sense is actually that the Buddhist teachings on emptiness or “no-self” are particularly well positioned to be a powerful support for a skillful yoga practice, which might begin to explain the surge of interest in Buddhism amongst yogis.

The question of self might be the deepest fault-line between yoga and Buddhism. While yoga traditionally aims for the union of the yogi’s soul with a Universal Soul, Buddhism insists that nothing in reality has a soul, an essence, self-nature or even meaning—outside of its interdependence with all aspects of reality itself.

Of course, we could take a Universalist position and argue that this interdependence of all aspects of reality is equivalent to the yogic notion of union with the Divine; but in our achievement-oriented world of performative asana in $100 pants, it might be worthwhile to seriously consider Buddhism’s “No Self” on its own terms. We might consider the possibility that, no matter how good my ass looks in prAna, I am ultimately nothing other than a single perspective of an infinitely interpretable experience. To practice yoga with some insight into the teachings of Buddhism means more than stretching with mindfulness and compassion; it might mean nothing less than taking every breath and performing every gesture while seriously doubting that someone is doing something—let alone that this someone is I, rather than, say, you.

Like (probably, almost) everyone, I can mindlessly push myself when I take yoga classes with my own teachers, and I sometimes do revel in the way that my yoga pants look and feel. As a teacher, however, I have a much easier time remembering and re-minding that the motivations behind such concerns are empty, in every sense of the word. Sometimes, in less loving moments, this makes me think it’s true that those who can’t do, teach… but more and more often I find the wisdom and compassion to consider that this is in fact the very meeting point of yoga and Buddhism. When it is so much easier to give to others what we ourselves need most, it is perhaps indeed time to seriously doubt that I am not you. When the benefits of the practice shine through the body, breath and speech of a student, the teacher might actually learn something from the deeply fulfilling experience of observing it. Perhaps it is just so that the teacher’s soul comes into union with the Universal Essence of No Essence.

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About Shy Sayar

Yoga Therapist Shy Sayar teaches classical Hatha yoga, underwritten by yoga's ancient scripture as well as by contemporary science. Shy believes in teaching people, not poses - as the practices of yoga are infinitely adaptable to fit the stages of a practitioner's development, and there is no need to push the body into arbitrary shapes. In his teaching, Shy tries to refrain from overstating esoterics, but his methods of training the body aim to recall classical yoga's stated end of freeing the practitioner from the illusion of identification with anything that was born and will die - the experience of immortality and unity with all of being. As such, he emphasizes the ease of the breath, the serenity of the musculature at work, and the peace of the mind over the postures of the body. At his Yoga One studios in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, CA, Shy teaches classes, trains yoga teachers and sees Yoga Therapy patients. He also teaches literature courses at the University of California at Berkeley, including coursework on the classical literature of India. He holds a degree in music and will at times chant for students in savasana. Shy is revered and admired by two wonderful (albeit unreasonable) cats. He loves practicing yoga on his living room carpet while his cats jump on his back to provide added resistance. He also delights in writing bios in the third person. Lastly, he prides himself on being nobody's guru.


19 Responses to “Yoga and Buddhism?”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Lama Pema Dorje Rinpoche…disciple of Dudjom Rinpoche, Serta Rinpoche, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche teaches Lujong, a Tibetan form of yoga which is accessible to all and extremely calming, gives more flexibility, and longevity. He is in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  2. Hi, Shy. I'm really busy right now, so I don't have time to give your blog the attention it deserves. All I'll say for now is that I am intensely interested in this subject, and would like to get back to you on it later.

    When I first came to Elephant there weren't too many Yoga writers, so I hung out with all the Buddhists. I started asking very aggressive questions, as is my wont. Instead of riding me out of town on a cyber rail, these Buddhist writers welcomed me and engaged me in conversation and even debate. I will always remember how they exhibited their Buddhist ideals in the way they treated me.

    We had many great discussions, but for now I'll just link you to this blog, which is kind of a culmination of all the others. I plan to rework and republish this soon, without the goofy title:

    How Do You Get 48 Comments on a Light-Hearted Article Featuring Rod Steward Singing “If You Think I’m Sexy”?

    I look forward to having more time to get into this Yoga/Buddhism thing with you in the future.

    Thanks for writing.

    Bob Weisenberg

    P.S. Enjoyed your bio.

  3. integralhack says:


    Simply and eloquently stated. I've noticed that some yogis freak out when confronted with the concepts of no-self (sometimes referred to as "non-self" or "not-self") and emptiness. I think it is sometimes helpful to start out with "impermanence" as a realistic but subtle reminder that we and our yoga pants (and looking good in our yoga pants) will not be around forever–so appreciate them now while realizing that this form-fitting relationship won't last forever!

    I love also that you have touched on "interdependence" which I find to be a more useful and positive-sounding synonym for emptiness or sunyata. No doubt some Buddhists will freak at that equation too, but it comes with a good pedigree as Thich Nhat Hanh and other "eminent" Buddhists are comfortable with it.

    I think it might also be useful to note that the Buddha was something of a yogi himself and was trained (in both negative and positive ways) by yogis. One might consider Buddhism as an evolutionary development (or "fork" if that makes one more comfortable) for yoga philosophy–Patanjali's Yoga Sutras provide evidence of this influence.

    Thanks again!


  4. Padma Kadag says:

    I am aware of the author's intent in writing this article and agree that this should be talked about and applied. There is no question that the Buddha, and any other practitioner's who follow the path of the Buddha whether men or women, are yogi's. They are yogi's if they have taken refuge in the Three Jewels; Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and are practicing Guru Yoga…devotion to one's teacher, Lama, Guru. Naljor is the Tibetan for yoga…the practice of using body,speech, and mind to attain the awakened state. The form of Buddhism referred to as "Tibetan Buddhism" is fully equipped with a Sutric and Tantric path. The Tantric is the path of being a yogi , Naljorpa or Ngakpa. Without going into detail the Yoga here is using the body, speech and mind. The path for the individual is traditionally prescribed by the Guru or Lama for the individual's karma,acumen, awareness, and even potential obstacles to one's life or dharma practice. We should not forget that there will be very little or no result if the yogas are not done for the benefit of all mother sentient beings.

  5. Jenny says:

    As a yoga teacher, I think it's important to know the history behind what I'm teaching. After all, if you don't know where things came from you are just as ignorant as your students. One of the most influential authorities on Yoga history is Georg Feuerstein. I regularly reference his books for historical information to share with my students. In one of his summaries on the history of Yoga, Feuerstein writes, ". . .[Yoga] originated in India 5,000 or more years ago. Until recently, many Western scholars thought that Yoga originated much later, maybe around 500 B.C., which is the time of Gautama the Buddha, the illustrious founder of Buddhism."

    The further we look back into history, the more connections are made. The practice of Yoga is not something new, it's simply a modification of the original. Our practice in America is basically a copy of a copy of a copy, etc. The practice of Yoga is old (over 5,000 years old) and holds within it the beliefs of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and more and vice-verse.

    When I come to the mat, interact in public, sit down to meditate or even do the dishes I am reminded of the sameness that is found behind my Christian upbringing and my current Yoga practice. Shy's point is well made. Your practice on the mat will not improve with a pair of expensive pants or a sexy top. What will improve your practice is the integration of all the aspects of Yoga. The practice is more than Asana and to realize that we are not what we own is a difficult aspect of the practice. In the end, the beliefs of Buddhism and Yoga are not all that different, it's just a matter of which copy you've decided to use.

    • Beautifully put, Jenny. One of the many things I love about the Bhagavad Gita is that it expresses exactly the same idea as you have expressed above, only 2500 years ago:

      However men try to reach me,
      I return their love with my love;
      whatever path they may travel,
      it leads to me in the end. (BG 4.11)

      Thanks for writing this.

      Bob Weisenberg

    • Shy Sayar says:

      Thank you, Jenny – I think your point is well made as well, and "not all that different" seems about right… but it's fun and interesting to explore the differences, nonetheless. Buddhism, in my opinion, QUA a much late development than yoga, does offer some innovation to the yogic perspective that is worth examining.

      Where do you teach?

  6. emc says:

    Very thoughtful quandary, Shy!

    I am leaning toward the thought that interdependence of all aspects of reality is equivalent to the yogic notion of union with the Divine. Also, that empty is both a positive and a negative, and students are our greatest teachers. Teachers are blessed to have so many students to show them their way.

    Beautifully written as a philosopher and yet boisterously fun. Great Elephant Journal debut, congratulations and keep it up.:)

  7. YogiOne says:

    Is it not possible to do Buddhistly yoga in $100 pants? What is this hang up people have lately about what kind of clothes people wear when doing yoga, and why the condescending attitudes about it? Are we like everyone else who need a poison container for our own darkside and unconsciously agree with each other who the target de jour is? Will we all just explode when there is no one left to hate?

    • Shy Sayar says:

      Don't get me wrong – I love my $100 pants, but thank God I get them for free because the advertisers deem me a popular enough teacher. The suffering arises from the subtle self-loathing of identifying one's worth with them.

      Rest assured, my friend – when there is no one else left to hate, there will always be yourself.

      • YogiOne says:

        In American culture, we are taught to ignore self-loathing so it gets projected onto others. This in itself can be uncomfortable if the target of the projection is too close. Child abuse is sometimes a result if a family member serves as poison container. Thus, as a culture, we also create a poison container – an acceptable target for our projected self loathing. In fact, some of our politicians make a living by pointing the country at new targets to hate. When the poison container we used for so long (ethnic minorities) became untenable we turned to Gays and as that option fades, we are being herded into other options such as the political opposition and in the case of Yoga, lately, it has been Yogis who appear to make/have money, and thus own studios or wear expensive clothes. I am thinking the Yogic community needs to be more aware of and responsible for our poison containers.

        • Shy Sayar says:

          Fairly and eloquently put. Again, as someone who makes a nice income from teaching yoga, I do not think there is an ounce of hate in my article. I do acknowledge the temptation towards self-loathing ("in less loving moments, this makes me think it’s true that those who can’t do, teach…") but recognize it as unreasonable. Thus I accept myself – performative and insecure as I can sometimes be – and I accept others tenfold more easily and completely. With no hate, I urge us all to ask – whence do we derive our sense of self-worth? Who are we, really?


          • YogiOne says:


            To be fair, this issue is not something that arose (only) from your article. It is a thread in many recent posts at EJ. I see disparaging yoga studio owners, certain clothing manufacturers and expensive clothing as common targets within the yoga community. My take on this zeitgeist can be seen in more depth at my own blog at if you are interested. One way we derive a sense of self worth is to reject those things about ourselves that we see as negative. This is probably the same thing you describe as self-loathing. While you may not be aware of any conscious hatred, that self-loathing isn't just a static lump within your psyche either. If you don't project it like most of us do, what is it doing in there? What does Buddhism have to say about acknowledging and discharging such emotions?

  8. Robert Allen says:

    I like your writing style and ideas and would love to see more. A great article.

  9. Monica says:

    I am back in berkeley. Barely beginning my semester this Thursday and I am super excited for a new beginning. :) Do you still do RSF classes? I saw the recent photos of your retreat and it looked amazing! Congrats on everything.



  10. I saw this on another post and it made me smile

    Today’s children would be less spoiled if we could spank grandparents! :)

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