In our culture there is a major split between mind and body. Generally speaking, the body gets treated one way and the mind another. We go to a gym to develop our body. We go to a classroom to develop our mind. The body is considered physical: muscle, bones, ligaments, organs. The mind is generally located in the head, associated with thoughts, and considered superior to the body. But these two things – mind and body – are not separate, and treating them that way has created a dislocation between our thoughts and reality.
Breath brings body and mind back together so our thoughts are more in alignment with reality. We can learn a lot about the body and mind from Zen Buddhism. In Buddhism, breath is referred to as the royal road connecting mind and body. According to Zen, there is no body separate from mind, and mind is not located only in the head. When someone from Japan says, “I’m thinking,” they point to their heart. So where is our mind?
One perspective – the teachings of Totality as found in the Flower Ornament Sutra – states that mind is in every cell of the body. Every cell of your body carries memory. This is why therapy that is based only on changing thinking patterns is often not enough for trauma patients or victims of abuse and violence. The violence to which a person is exposed is carried in the muscles in addition to his or her thoughts and consciousness. Asanas are powerful because they can, if done with compassion, help someone learn ways to gently hold the pain they are experiencing, rather than repressing it in a self-destructive way, or expressing it in an other-destructive way.
Filling the body with breath and then releasing the breath through asana practice is a way to touch the pain within us and to acknowledge its presence in a loving way. It does not guarantee the ending of or releasing of that pain, though much of the pain we hold on to is not caused by the pain itself but by the very fear of having or experiencing that pain. So in touching the pain with our awareness we greatly reduce its intensity.
In Buddhism we are admonished to practice the Dharma for the sake of the Dharma. In other words, practice without looking for the benefits – just practice. Asana practice is also like this. Just do the asanas without hoping for anything at all. At the same time, I have found it inspiring to know the great benefits that come from meditating and yoga – reducing stress and chronic pain, boosting the immune system, coping with painful life events, working with negative emotions, improving concentration, etc – and they help me to keep at it.
In Zen practice we first use the breath to regulate mind and body. We calm the body and mind with the breath. This is the first half of the practice. Once calm, we can begin looking into how everything is connected to everything else. This is the second half of the practice. The breath is used to calm us down so that we can gain insight into Buddhist teachings on emptiness, the teaching that there is no separate self that exists apart from anything else.