Yoga and Buddhism

Like Buddhism, the classical yoga system described in ancient texts such as the Yoga sutras of Patanjali (probably 2nd century CE), and the (lesser know, but equally important) Yoga Yajnavalkya is an eight fold spiritual path (in yoga, the Sanscrit word "anga" is translated as limbs, while in Buddhism, the Pali word anga is translated as fold in this context, but both words imply parts of whole ).

The first two limbs of yoga deal with ethics (yamas) and discipline (niyamas), the third is postures (asana), the fourth yogic breathing (pranayama) and the remaining four limbs all deal with increasingly advanced meditation practices, and interestingly, both the Buddhist and the yogic path have Samadhi as their eighth limb /fold.

Of the 195 sutras (aphorisms) of Patanjali's book, only two pertain to asanas, a few more to pranayama, while most of the book deals with meditative and ethical practices. Of the twelve chapters of Yajnavalkya book, only one is devoted to asana practice, listing a total of eight asanas, while three deal primarily with pranayama. While the Buddha emphasized ethics and meditation, he did not include in his teaching the physical preparatory practices of hatha yoga. In his famous Satipatanasa sutta (the discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness), Sakyamuni Buddha lists mindfulness of the body as the first foundation of mindfulness, but offers very few physical practices to achieve this. In the Anapana Sati Sutta (the discourse on mindfulness with breathing), he devotes only 4 verses to it, hardly enough for what could easily be, for most of us, a lifetime of practice.

In the 10th century, Gorakshanath, author of the first treatise on hatha yoga, taught that the body first had to be purified through physical practices, before success in meditation could be attained. This is also the view of Swatmara, who in the 16th century, wrote the famous Hatha yoga pradipika. Indeed, the Buddha himself did extreme ascetic practices before attaining liberation. Both Gorakshanath and Swatmara reduced the emphasis on ethics and described a six limbs system starting with asanas and pranayama, and only introduced ethics and discipline after these physical practices have made the mind sufficiently stable and balanced. Both however acknowledged that Hatha yoga cannot succeed without the meditative practices of Raja yoga.

Modern hatha yoga teachers, although they often claim to be the spiritual heirs of classical yoga, took things even further, mostly reducing yoga to asana practice. And while some of them include basic pranayama or meditation techniques in their classes, the yamas and niyamas are rarely, if ever, given any attention, and the view generally held in modern hatha yoga circles is that Samadhi, the eighth limb of yoga, simply can't be taught. Yet some Buddhist meditation masters teach Samadhi to advanced students.

With its extreme emphasis on physical practice, modern Hatha yoga as taught in the West is only a fraction of what is meant to be a complete system. Victim of the overly analytical Western mind who would like to see body and mind as separate, it has become a very unbalanced practice, which, while it may help city dwellers to reconnect with their own body and animal nature, is not conductive in the long run to to self development or spiritual progress.

Buddhism and yoga both originate from an age old Indian spiritual tradition (the Buddha himself said that he had seen the ancient way and followed it), but they have stood guardians of different aspects of this tradition. Modern yoga has mostly lost sight of the practice goals and has mostly forgotten the advanced meditation techniques and the ethical practices needed to support them, while Buddhism has neglected the important preliminary physical practices (which, as the time it was developed, weren't nearly as necessary as they are now), but has retain the ethical and meditative practices of ancient yoga. For this reason, modern hatha yoga and Western Buddhism have much to learn from one another, and it is no surprise that many Western truth seekers who have chosen the path of yoga end up on Buddhist meditation retreats and that many serious Buddhist meditators also practice hatha yoga. For the Buddha, as for any form of yoga, freedom can only be gained through one's own efforts, because it is by practice alone that one can gain a direct, experiential understanding of the truth.

And as the goals of both Buddhism and of classical yoga, liberation from craving, aversion and ignorance, are the same, the two practices complement and enrich one another and can be combined in a integrated practice far closer to the true spirit of yoga than modern hatha yoga is.
This is what we aim to do with Sati yoga.