Buddhism and physical practices
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 Sanskrit 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 chapters of the book 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 does not offer physical practices to achieve this. only meditation practices. In the Anapana Sati Sutta (the discourse on mindfulness with breathing), he devotes 4 verses to mindfulness of the body, hardly enough for what could easily be, for most of us, a lifetime of practice.
Hatha yoga and the birth of modern yoga
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 in which he details a number of hatha yoga practicees: asasnas, kryas an mudras, and gives advice on diet before introducing meditation practices. 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 probably 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 self development and 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 largely lost sight of the practice goals and has mostly forgotten the advanced meditation techniques and the ethical practices needed to support them,. Buddhism on the other hand has neglected the important preliminary physical practices (which probably weren’t nearly as necessary at the time it was developed, as they are now), but has retained 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.
Since 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 an 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.
Elements of Sati yoga
In all Sati yoga practices, one of the main aim is to develop mindfulness of body and breath.
In asana practice, we are mindful of the body, and particularly of the joints and muscles that are involved in the posture we are working with.
We first simply bring our awareness to these, exploring the sensations created by the posture with a focused, receptive attention.
Later on, we learn to actively use this focused attention to create softness or firmness as required.
In asana practice, we are also mindful of the breath. This constant awareness of the breath in asana work fosters an understanding of the relationship between the breath and the body. As this understanding deepens and we learn to work with the breath to affect the body and with the body to affect the breath, asana practice and pranayama practice support and enrich one another.
The practice of Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) is an most usefull tool to do this, and this one of the main reasons why this practice is taught very early on in the Sati yoga approach. Through the practice of Surya Namaskar, students develop an understanding of the relationship between breath, body and movement (Vinyasa)
Mindfulness of the breath is also developed in sitting meditation and therefore, Anapana sati practice is taught early, as it is by observing it patiently and consistently that we gain insight into the working of our own breath.
Later on, through the practice of Pranayama (controlled breathing), we (re)train the breath, freeing it up by undoing unhelpful patterns of breathing and learning new, more efficient ones.
Another crucial element in Sati yoga practice is the importance of balance.
Balance (the middle way) is making sure that no aspect of the practice is developed to the detriment of others. For example, in Sati yoga, asana practice always seeks to develop strength (stability) and flexibility (ease) together. Without flexibility and ease, strength easily becomes tension, while without stability and strength, flexibility can turn into dullness or heaviness. So keeping these two opposites in balance is essential to continue progressing in our practice.
In asana work, this is achieved through a balanced mix of poses and counter poses. In Pranayama, we seek a balance between heating and cooling practices, calming and energising Pranayama, while taking into account the season and the general condition of the practitioner.
Balance is also a concern when devising and developing a practice. All limbs of yoga must be developed together, as practising only a portion of what is meant to be a complete system leads to an unbalanced practice. This is one of the reason why ethical, meditative and breathing practices are introduced early on alongside asanas and kryas.