“Improving” Zazen with Yoga

Sit either in the full lotus or half lotus position. In the full lotus, first place your right foot on your left thigh. Then place your left foot on your right thigh. In the half lotus, simply place your left foot on your right thigh.

Zen Master Dogen (Fukanzazengi or “Universal Instructions for Zazen”)

Until I started practicing Yoga, it never occurred to me that I could improve the way I meditated, other than to sit upright without slouching.  It took me a while to come to yoga, though, because I thought it was only for women.  But when I witnessed a woman standing on her head, I must admit, I was impressed and inspired.  After practicing and experiencing its challenges myself, I revised my previous bias.  Because it made me feel better in my body I began to care less about what other people thought about me, or how I looked.

Anyone who meditates long enough will run up against obstacles.  The five basic hindrances to our meditation practice, according to the Yoga Sutras, include ignorance to the nature of reality, egoism, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, and clinging to bodily life.  However, if we practice Yoga postures to stretch the muscles that need to be stretched and to strengthen the muscles that need to be strengthened, then the five hindrances will not be greatly minimized.

I first began sitting zazen in “Burmese” style with my legs parallel to each other, both feet on the floor.  I experienced a little pain in my body sitting Burmese, but it was bearable for short periods of 30-40 minutes of meditation.  It was good enough for me, but my practice began to drift into complacency after a while.  My teacher noticed this, and asked, “Why aren’t you sitting full lotus?  Or at least half lotus?”  Full lotus is where you place your left foot on your right thigh and your right foot on your left thigh.  I tried doing this once or twice, but it was so excruciating that I never tried again, until my teacher encouraged me to do it.

 

 

Burmese Style with legs parallel

Until that time, I had no awareness things could be improved more than what I was already doing with my back, as full lotus was out of reach, or so I thought.  I immediately started practicing Yoga, however, when my teacher suggested I do full lotus.  My sole purpose in practicing Yoga was so that I could sit in full or half lotus posture.  There are specific muscles, especially those around the hips, that when elongated, make sitting in lotus posture possible.

Dai-En Roshi, my teacher, would often say, “working on posture is like trying to carve an ice sculpture with a butter knife.”  It’s impossible to do, but we must put effort into it anyway and never give up hope that we can improve ourselves and the way we sit.  While there is a saying in Zen, “you are perfect just as you are,” that’s only half of the equation.  The other half is, “there is plenty of room for improvement.”

So how do we sit in a way that addresses our tendency towards complacency, but also doesn’t create unnecessary suffering?  The answer, for me anyway, has been to do a daily yoga practice.

Yoga is an ancient practice that originally had nothing to do with the popular notions of modern times.  The word “Yoga” first appears in the Upanishads, Hindu scriptures, probably over two thousand years ago.  Yoga was traditionally about meditation and how to work with the mind, like what Buddhist meditation is today.  In fact, the Yoga Sutras, some scholars believe, were inspired by the emerging Buddhist tradition in India. 

But Yogi’s (those who detached themselves from worldly affairs to seek the end of suffering), like the Buddha, evolved the practice in India about a thousand years ago to include postures that make the body both more supple and strong, with the aim to prepare one to sit still and meditate with relative comfort.  Roughly two to three hundred years ago the British colonized India and brought with them English calisthenics, which then further influenced the evolving Yoga tradition, creating Yoga as we know it today in the West. 

Integral Yoga is the school of Yoga that I am certified to teach in.  I studied over a six-month period and did so because the drug and alcohol treatment center where I was teaching Zen meditation at the time asked if I would also teach Yoga.  Once I completed the Yoga training program at Integral Yoga, I began teaching it with great success at the rehab.  The practice of Integral Yoga helped visibly improved the lives of those wanting to end their addiction.  The Buddha taught that there is suffering and an end to suffering.  Yoga is one path where we can really experience the end of suffering, even if it’s for a short time, and there is a very vibrant meditational component within Integral Yoga that works seamlessly with the practice of zazen.

An article of this length does not do justice to the deep traditions zazen and Yoga are embedded in.  However, we don’t need to be experts on these traditions to find real benefits in the practice of zazen and Yoga.  While Zen does teach that we are perfect the way we are, our zazen can be improved, and one of the ways to do so is to begin a regular Yoga practice.  I recommend doing Yoga as well as meditation with a qualified teacher who can help navigate and integrate these two practices.  Ideally, Yoga should be done prior to seated meditation, if possible.  In that way the body is primed to sit still with greater physical ease and mental concentration.  But the reverse is also true.  Meditation before Yoga also has great value.  The benefits of doing a Yoga practice for improving meditation will become self-evident with further practice and study.

 

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field

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