August 11, 2010

Yoga and Buddhism?

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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