Last week I completed a short retreat at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe New Mexico with my primary teachers Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, as well as the leader of Upaya, Roshi Joan Halifax. The retreat was conducted in silence, excepting for questions during the dharma talks, and its focus was the way in which the Heart Sutra, one of the most fundamentally important texts in any Buddhist tradition, parallels in meaning the second chapter, called Sadhana Pada, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Without the Sutras of Patanjali there would be no yogic eight limbed path, and probably no modern Western yoga, at least in the manner in which it is practiced today (for better or worse).
Comparing and teasing out overlapping meanings of these two texts is to implicitly state that Buddhism and Yoga are more alike than different, and may indeed be close to the same practice. This of course would be news to the ardent Buddhists and Hindus in India, and would also meet with much resistance to some practitioners in the West. But the Buddha was a yogi just as Jesus was Jewish; he simply interpreted, brought to the fore and added to philosophies already deeply established within cultural and spiritual practices in a brilliant and innovative way.
Philosophical, spiritual, and linguistic patterns are rarely truly “new,” and hardly ever utterly unique. That humans migrate is simply a historical fact, and with our migrations over many thousands of years cultural seeds, habits, and beliefs are established that interweave and overlap one another across both time and geographic space. Only the most closed minded Christian would disallow the fact that much of Christian imagery and philosophy came at least in part from the ancient Greeks, just as no one would deny that the Anglican Church is twined irretrievably to the great historical web of Catholicism. They might be different branches, but the tree is the same.
I thought about these ideas a lot on my retreat. The proposition that almost all the roots of spiritual practice have reflecting, mirroring, sometimes identical parallels is both a relief – ahh, we really are the same, after all – and a discomfiture. After all, the human ego is as domineering as it is fragile, and it needs to know that Truth is available, attainable, and superior to other systems of belief. Believing in a practice or a philosophy that contains within it the borders of exclusion and judgment delivers a safe and satisfying pleasure to the ego: one can have both the certainty of “knowing,” and also the equal certainty that others playing at different games are wrong, or condemned, or thoughtless, or misguided, or maybe should just be decapitated altogether.
It is so easy to condemn extreme forms of this human habit. No sane human would see the wisdom of the murderous practices of the Boko Haram, or the terrifying and systematic genocidal tendencies of the Islamic State. But rarely do we look closer at our own closed minds, our own exclusionary habits, which really are the same patterns that in their most exaggerated form lead to the violence we are now witnessing in Syria, Nigeria, Iraq, and on and on.
And so it was in my own small, personal way I began looking, yet again, at the tensions found within differing forms of yoga practices. When one practices yoga in a relatively casual manner for exercise or stress relief or to spend time away from one’s children (all, of course, totally legitimate reasons to practice), it is difficult to imagine the roiling, emotional, and heartfelt arguments that go on within (supposedly) different systems of practice. It is only when one commits to yoga as a delivery to spiritual growth, realization, and release from the prison of the ego that these differing practices and the arguments between them become meaningful and clarified.
It is, in fact, amusing to think what someone who practices in a general vinyasa or power yoga class once a week to augment his marathon training might think of the distaste an Iyengar practitioner has for the “shortened” downward facing dog of the Ashtangi, or the sometimes sneering contempt the Ashtangi has for “power” yoga. The marathon trainer might think to himself, “What in the Hell are these people going on about, and who on Earth cares?” Such is the grace granted to one who is non-attached.
Alas, I am attached, and yoga is the vehicle I have chosen, or chose me, to guide me toward some kind of deliverance and evolution away from suffering and the small mind of the small self. For reasons complex and not always good for me, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has become my heart, my practice, my faith (as much as I can cultivate the latter; it has always been difficult for me to “believe”). I love the systematic unfolding of the practice, its studied and intelligent vigor, its heat and then its letting go. It possesses great beauty and demands incredible mental and physical strength, as well as a motivation that comes entirely from deep inside the practitioner; there is no music or happy voice that will spur one on. The practice demands of one that it is the practice itself that offers insight into suffering, and that one must reach as honestly as possible within the heart, the body, the mind to find release.
One of my best friends, who was raised Catholic, has often said that the repetitive and strict nature of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system reminds her very much of the Catholic faith, particularly the repetition of the rosary. In a similar manner it reflects perfectly to me my ongoing ballet training: the beginning is always the same, the ending is always the same, and the struggle between, well, it’s always the same too. It is a beautiful and closed world, and it demands consistency and devotion.
All well and good. It is a grace that I can practice Ashtanga yoga: I have health, I have flexibility, I am not poor, and therefore working three jobs and unable to get to a studio; I have a decent enough mind to grasp at least some of the philosophy that is the true root of practice (asana, the postures, being, after all, only one of eight limbs of the practice, something we forget in the West).
However…. however… there is besides the beauty, the lineage, the effulgent completion of Ashtanga an unsettling shadow side. And to me that shadow is what one might call dogma. It lingers, constantly, and it often makes me question if this is a club to which I really want to belong. Because truly I don’t want to belong anywhere, or be beholden to anyone’s final declaration on any subject, whether it be an arcane philosophical point or whether or not to do Hanumanasana (splits) during my practice. I want to find out for myself. I want my students to find out for themselves.
I have always studied Iyengar yoga as a complement to my Ashtanga practice. To me, they are the same practice: intelligent, intense Hatha yoga, developed by teachers who were both the students of the same man, Krishnamacharya. The understanding of alignment in Iyengar yoga has brought countless gifts and insights to my own practice, and has made me a far more open and thoughtful teacher. Indeed, I could not imagine teaching without the study of Iyengar yoga. It feels like a necessary responsibility to my students.
So I try to coast between these two worlds, which are really one world, but to many practitioners on either “side” they cling to the notion of superiority and separateness.
Why? Isn’t it openness we are attempting to cultivate? Openness and curiosity and love and acceptance? These are not just words on coffee mugs; they are real (as much as anything is real) concepts, and the primary reason people in all faiths engage in authentic practice.
Lately I have been thinking much of the great composer Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen was a passionate, traditional Catholic. He was the organist at one of the more important cathedrals in Paris his entire adult life. To him, the suffering of Christ was real, and the Catholic Church reflected truth to him. Messiaen, however, also studied the music of Indonesia, Japan, ancient Greece, and was particularly enamored of the rhythms found in classical Hindu music. One can find all these influences, as well as birdsong from the natural world, in almost all his compositions.
Messiaen was a believer. But it was his pluralism and curiosity that fed his genius.