Thursday, October 7, 2010
Can Yoga and Buddhist Meditation Mix? Part 1
The Physiology of Meditation
It has been a widely held belief among traditional Theravada Buddhists that the practice of Yoga and Buddhism do not or should not be mixed. Yoga comes out of the Vedas and Hindu tradition with its central belief in the “Atman” or “Supreme Self,” which appears to be diametrically opposite to the Buddha’s teaching of “Anatta” or “No-Self.” In addition to that is the stigma of the Buddha having practiced self-mortification (associated with ancient yogic practices) and ultimately rejected it being as futile. And it doesn’t help that, outside of India, Yoga is perceived and practiced mainly as a system of physical exercises for health, energy, relaxation, not to mention a good figure.
At some vipassana meditation centers there are rules against doing yoga exercises while undergoing intensive retreat; they are considered to be a distraction from the pure inward mental focus or an escape from dealing with the physical pain of long motionless sitting or from boredom. I have experienced these disapproving attitudes myself (from others) during my initial training in Asia, and when starting to teach vipassana retreats in Sri Lanka. I included some yogic breathing and exercises during these retreats. There may be a degree of truth that certain yoga postures and pranayama may not be compatible during intensive samatha/vipassana retreats. However, it doesn’t mean that we have to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The Buddha, in the opening segments of some prominent Pali suttas, recommended sitting cross-legged ( the full lotus yoga posture) and keeping the spine erect to begin sitting meditation. But little else concerning specific physical conditioning, besides good health and walking meditation, is mentioned in the Pali texts, the oldest of he Buddha’s teachings. In the Ningyma School of Tibetan Buddhism, a system of physical awareness exercises called Kum Nye has been developed and taught to Western practitioners. Many Chinese Buddhist practice Tai Chi, Qi Gong or other martial arts. Other than this, physical exercise as an aid to meditative/spiritual development has been largely neglected among Buddhists, besides sometimes being frowned upon. This has resulted in some earnest Buddhist meditators resorting to being “closet yogis,” not wanting to be seen doing yoga.
However, the recognition and popularity of Hatha Yoga practice among Western Buddhist meditators is increasing. Even some prominent Western Dhamma teachers have recently “come out” to more or less endorse it. A well-known Yoga magazine has done a feature article on Yoga practice for Buddhist meditators. This current Western Yoga practice is confined primarily to the notion of Yoga being a system of beneficial body and breathing exercises to promote health, cure physical problems, increase physical energy, etc….all of which are beneficial for meditation. Long-time meditators, as well as beginners, who have suffered through stiff, sluggish, or sick bodies, and restless or drowsy minds have experienced noticeable, sometimes dramatic, improvements in their meditation after practicing Yoga exercises even for just a short time.
To be fair, Yoga is an ancient spiritual science of body and mind that also has as its goals, “Enlightenment” and “Moksha” (liberation from “Samsara,” the repeated rounds of birth and death), as does Buddhism. And, like Buddhism, Yoga has its own version of the “Eight-fold Path;” “Ashtanga Yoga” (Eight-Limbed Yoga”). “Asana” and “pranayama” (posture and breath control), which comprise current popular Yoga, are the third and fourth steps of that eightfold path. They precede the higher “inner practices” of concentration and meditation. Under the Yogic system, purifying, strengthening, and balancing the respiration, circulation, glandular, and nervous systems are seen as necessary prerequisites for deeper meditation to progress steadily toward the goals of “Realization” and “Enlightenment.” Whether the Hindu/Yoga goal of “self-Realization” and “Moksha” is equivalent to the Buddha’s “Enlightenment” and “Liberation” is beyond the scope of this article, and could be a testy debate among scholars.
What would probably not be a testy debate is the connection between the body and mind, at least on the relative level where most of us live and meditate most of the time. The body affects the mind and the mind affects the body. When one is sick, in chronic pain, or weak in energy, one finds it difficult to put forth the effort to meditate. If the body is stiff with poor blood and life force circulation, if one cannot keep the spine erect and sitting is uncomfortable, then meditation is less enjoyable, painful, discouraging and of slow progress. Only those who have already attained a high level of meditative development could perhaps transcend the body/mind connection. Physical pain and drowsiness are two main obstacles that hinder the beginner in meditation. A regular practice of Hatha Yoga can help correct and alleviate some of the physical and energy blocks that make meditation more difficult than it needs to be. And this holds true for other body/energy based disciplines like Tai Chi and Qi Gong, both of which are also gaining a modest following among Buddhist meditators in Western countries.
The main purpose or effect of Hatha Yoga is to purify and condition the body/mind nervous system so that it becomes a fit vehicle for the practice of meditation. Meditation happens through the nervous system. The mind is affected by the state of the nervous system. Purifying and strengthening the body allows you to progress in meditation without undue physical hindrances such as poor circulation, inability to keep the back straight, pain due to stiff joints or tense, tight muscles, low energy, or poor health. Hatha Yoga deals with generating and circulating generous amount of vital life force called prana (Chi in Chinese) throughout the entire body/brain nervous system. You can think of prana as the invisible cosmic electricity which pervades the Universe and which sustain all life forms, animate and inanimate. If you believe in Astronomy, then each star is a sun and all of their energy combined pervades the entire solar system. Since there are millions of suns throughout the Universe, it is not hard to imagine and/or sympathize with this concept of prana. We all know what happens when exposure to sunlight is cut off for too long. Similarly, prana is not oxygen, hydrogen, or nitrogen, but it is what gives life to these essential elements which keeps our cells alive. Prana is referred to in Yoga as the “cosmic plasma.”
This body, any material body, is made up of billions of cells. Prana life force must pass through each cell to keep it charged up. This is similar to how a battery is kept charged by the steady current flowing from the positive to negative post. If the flow of the current is interrupted then the battery loses its power and the battery becomes dead. Sickness, disease, undue aches and pains, and even mental problems arise when not enough life force is available and/or is not circulating properly to maintain the body’s defenses and other vital functions. The breathing and physical exercises in Hatha Yoga are designed to keep this prana life force flowing through the body in a harmonious way and in perfect balance. (See fig1.)
The body receives most of the prana through the breathing process. Smaller amounts come in through the food eat and the water we drink. Prana circulates through the body along innumerable invisible etheric channels called nadis, which allow the life force to reach all areas/cells of the body. In yoga anatomy, these nadis pass through major nerve plexi (such as solar plexus) and those located along the spine. These nerve plexi are associated with centers called chakras that have specific emotional and psychic characteristics associated with them. The circulation of prana can become inadequate and inhibited due to poor shallow breathing, slouching posture, stiffness and inflexibility of muscle tissue and joints, and even by negative emotions such as anger, lust, stress, anxiety and fear. When the flow of prana is inadequate, disturbed or blocked, pain and many other physical and psychological problems can ensue. Restoring the adequate and free flow of the vital force is most important for the overall health of the body/mind system. This is all the more true and pertinent for people who are beginning to meditate or who have been meditating but find that their progress is stagnating or degenerating; they are meditating more but enjoying it less.
The ABCs or foundation of yogic breathing is learning how to breathe into the three main sections of the lungs. (See fig.2) This is called three-part breathing or complete breathing, (vibhaga pranayama). The lungs have three main lobe/sections; the lower or abdominal lobes, the middle or intercostal lobes and the upper clavicle lobes. Each of these lobes affects the flow of prana life force to a specific part of the body, Air in the lower lobes affect the flow of prana to the pelvis, hips and legs; mid-lobe breathing affects the whole trunk section of the body and the vital organs therein; upper lobe breathing sends prana up to the neck, head/brain and arms. If we do not breathe sufficiently into these three lobes, then those corresponding body areas do not receive enough vital force to maintain optimum correct functioning; therefore, many associated problems may arise. It is a fact that most people under normal conditions breathe only about one tenth of the lung’s capacity, usually only a small amount into the lower or middle lobes. Rarely does air reach up to the high lobes unless one is doing some heavy exertion. Nature made the lungs the shape and size they are for a good reason—to use fully! But, because of slouching postures, modern stress, neuroses and other negative emotional states, breathing in most people is short, quick and shallow. Because of short, shallow breathing, the body must breathe quickly in order to get more oxygen to keep the cells alive.
From a yoga point of view this is unhealthy. Healthier breathing is slower, deeper, complete breathing that evenly bathes the whole body, including the brain, with gentle waves of cosmic electricity. An ideal rate of breathing involves taking between four to eight seconds to breathe into all three lobes, holding the breath for three or four seconds (to allow for the complete absorption of the oxygen into the blood), allowing four to eight seconds for breathing out, and pausing one or two seconds before breathing in again. Training one to breathe like this, even just for three to five minutes several times a day, allows more oxygen and life force to be brought in and evenly distributed throughout the whole body in a relaxing mellow way so respiration rate and heart rate may go down. This is one of the main reasons why Yogis practice pranayama breathing; to regulate, purify and slow their respiration in order to facilitate the practice of deeper meditation. Breathing in this regulated way also helps as an initial concentration technique to draw attention inside and get the mind off the external world and out of our thoughts.
In addition to three-part breathing, the body itself needs to be strong and flexible so that it can handle and distribute the vital life force in the most effective way, especially in terms of aiding meditation. Asana (literally, firm seat) is the third step of the Yogic Eightfold Path. Traditionally this seat is one of the various cross-legged sitting positions; generally, the padma asana or lotus posture. In order to develop deep concentration (Samadhi) the body should be held still for long periods of time (one to three hours) with the spine erect so that the breath and prana energy can flow freely, allowing the mind to become calm, concentrated and focused. If the joints and muscle tissue are stiff and inflexible, then blood and life force has difficulty penetrating them. Numbness, discomfort, and pain easily arise to disturb the mind, hindering concentration. This is where yoga exercises come in.
There are two main ways of doing yoga exercises. Postures can be held for varying periods of time—thirty seconds to three minutes. Or, they can be done as rhythmic movements in coordination with deep slow breathing. In this latter method, one goes into a position with a slow (4-6 seconds) in-breath, holds the position with the breath a few moments, then returns to the starting position or opposite direction on a slow (4-6 seconds) out-breath. One pauses a moment or two and repeats the sequence two more times for a total of three repetitions. Then, one takes a longer pause to relax and feel the subtle body sensations before going on to different exercises done in the same flowing, mindful way.
It is this style of doing yoga exercises, coupled with deep slow breathing, which I have found to be of the greatest benefit especially for practicing body-based vipassana meditation. Awareness of the breathing is the first foundation of mindfulness. Coordinating slow, even breathing with the repetition of fairly simple bending and stretching movements generates a powerful but soothing current of life-force sensation which can be noticeably felt. It tranquilizes the nervous system naturally and helps the mind become calm and concentrated. If done just before sitting in meditation it allows for a nice light breathing/body awareness and one feels nicely grounded, hitting the cushion already meditating or having created the space for deeper mediation.
In yoga, the body is regarded as a temple that needs to be fit enough to sustain the development of spiritual awareness. The mind has to function through the body/brain nervous system to accurately experience and understand the conditioned world in its three characteristics, “Anicca,” “Dukkha,” and “Anatta” (impermanence, suffering, and “not-self”), in order to transcend attachment/clinging to experience the spiritual dimensions. If respiration and circulation are faulty, this disturbs the nervous system and other vital organs that, in turn, give rise to many disturbances in the mind/body. This makes it all the more difficult to develop mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.
In brief, this is the physiology of meditation. This outlines the benefits of yoga on meditation practice and demonstrates how it is appropriate for vipassana and other Buddhist meditators.