One of my early teachers was Shivananda Saraswati, who was about 85 years old when I first met him. He was traveling on the Greyhound bus, and I was so impressed that I became his traveling companion. He was a Vedandin monk, and told me that Vedantins were often great scholars who practiced a kind of awareness called ‘witnessing,’ but who could also be condescending about bodily care, seeing it as a burden and obstacle to liberation. However, Shivananda observed that his fellow monks were frequently ill, and lacking in energy. So he trained himself in yogic postures, breathing, diet, cleansing practices; but intensive meditation practice remained primary.
What I learnt from him was to care for my body as an integral part of dharma practice. During our travels together, I slept in the same room with him. No matter what time he went to sleep, he’d pop up at two or three in the morning, and just go right into meditation. He wouldn’t even shower—he’d just sit for three or four hours or more, and then wash up and tend to what had to be done during the day. He told me that if I paid attention, I could learn to understand the needs of the body, and possibly have a relatively painless old age. There are no guarantees in life, he said, but it was possible.
He went even further, saying that his deepest spiritual breakthroughs came after the age of seventy. And that’s because, he said, he still had a good deal of energy because of his yogic living; and a lot of small-mindedness that sometimes accompanied his younger days had fallen away. So when he saw that I was interested in meditation, he encouraged me to do yoga practice as well, since for him there was no split between the two. When Shivananda returned to India I took training in different hatha yoga schools, but found serious meditation practice to be lacking.
My love for meditation was finally fulfilled first in Zen and then in vipassanā. I noticed a tendency for the hatha yogis to be primarily “body people” and the vipassanā yogis to be “mind people.” I saw the limitations when such fragmentation is carried to an extreme. You can get cut off from wisdom where there is an infatuation with the qualities that care of the body can produce: youthfulness, energy, health, attractiveness, and lots of compliments. Perhaps this is where Western hatha yoga has sometimes gone astray, a kind of “spandex yoga,” quite alien to classical yoga’s comprehensive and deeply meditative approach to liberation.
When we turn to vipassanā practice, there is tremendous emphasis on mindfulness of the body, much of it designed to weaken and eliminate any tendency we might have to get lost in our identifications with the body. There are contemplations on the 32 parts of the body, which is like an ancient manual of anatomy. Sometimes it’s called “contemplations on the unloveliness of the body.” This practice is not training in aversion, but rather is an antidote designed to counteract or balance off strong infatuation and identification with the body. Most of the time this practice is used by celibate monks, but it can also be helpful for laypeople.
Other contemplations that are similar have to do with seeing the body as just composed of the elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and the teaching of maraṇa-sati, the contemplation of death and the decomposition of the body. The yogi uses visualizations, or if possible, actually practices in front of a real corpse. One of my teachers and I spent a whole evening with a decomposing corpse. Sitting there, mindfully aware of what it aroused in me and reporting these reactions back to my teacher, was very helpful. It was frightening at first, but not so much after a while. It became very clear that I was of course looking at the fate of my own body as well.
Many suttas taught by Buddha include reflections on aging, sickness and death. The point of these teachings is to reflect on the fact that this body must age; that we are not going to be youthful forever; the body must grow ill; no one remains healthy forever; and the body also must die. We are all destined to die; none of us are exempt from this lawfulness. Such observations can be useful reminders that help balance our attitudes if there is vanity and pride in youth. Many foolish things are done out of such pride and attachment; unskillful actions can easily grow out of an ignorant relationship to our body.
Sometimes we do things in our youth, and we pay for it for the rest of our lives. We wind up in prison, or make harmful decisions that are irreversible. The same with illness. There can also be a vanity and attachment to vitality and health. Good luck! No matter how many organic foods and supplements we funnel into our body, there will still be sickness from time to time. These reflections help put the body in perspective. They are not designed to get us depressed, but rather to wake us up!
Can we simply see that there is this body: not that it’s “my body” or that “I am this body.” The Buddha offers many teachings and practices which help us weaken and uproot these identifications, which cause so much unnecessary suffering. If you take up hatha yoga or other forms of body training, keep these teachings in mind to protect you from getting lost in the allure of a healthy, energetic, attractive body.
My first teacher, J. Krishnamurti, took vigorous walks, did yoga everyday, had a very careful diet, and obviously was also devoted to a life of awareness. He had a wonderful image to help us maintaining balance. He would say, “In a profound way, you are not your body. But having a body is like being a cavalry officer. If you go into battle on a horse, you had better have a strong healthy horse. You are not the horse, but the horse is very, very important. Your life depends on it.”
Our challenge is to appreciate, respect, care for the body, enjoy the well-being of it, but not to make a self out of its condition. Can we avoid turning our yoga practice into a sporting event or a beauty contest? There is a way of doing yoga where we appreciate the body’s intrinsic dignity. Almost any posture, when executed with care and respect, is dignified. In vipassanā practice, on the other hand, I have observed that it’s possible to really enter into the body and develop strong and deep insights, to clearly see the impermanent and empty nature of the body, to experience all the great liberating energy and vitality that comes from that seeing, but at the same time know very little about how to take care of the very same body. Perhaps some of the loss of health, energy, and vitality that comes with aging can be minimized if we can use mindfulness to learn about our bodies’ need for food, water, rest, movement.
I found that in my vipassanā training, my own background in yoga practice was invaluable. The same mindfulness that can help you see impermanence and insubstantiality can also help you see that you’re eating harmful foods. Shivananda Saraswati used to put a lot of emphasis on food. Remember, if you’re a meditator, you’re in the mind business. There are many things that support a bright, alert mind. One of them is diet. Certain foods incline the mind to be more agitated, more jumpy; other foods make you heavy and sleepy. Food can also help the mind be light, calm, energetic—qualities so helpful for vipassanā yogis. A bit of attention can help you learn which foods, and how much of it, are beneficial for meditation practice.
You see where I’m going with all this. We have a mind and a body, and we need to take care of the body in such a way that it becomes an asset to dharma practice. Can we do hatha yoga (or any other form of bodily training) with the same wisdom that guides vipassanā practice? Can bodily care become an element in our dharma practice? If so, such yoga could help us have more health and vitality, and enable us to do extended periods of sitting meditation with more comfort and ease.
A specific example from my own practice and teaching: I do viniyoga, which emphasizes constant awareness of the conditioned movement of the body and breathing in all postures. This helps bring about a more vivid quality to the breath sensations, making breath awareness meditation more accessible. This is an asset for yogis engaged in ānāpāna-sati [mindfulness of breathing], especially for those with faulty breathing habits, which can incline the mind to distraction. If the postures were practiced with the same deliberate mindfulness used, for example, in walking meditation, such conscious breathing and movement would not only facilitate meditation practice—it would be meditation itself. Someone once asked Kapleau Roshi, the well- known American teacher of Zen who used to do yoga as well, “Isn’t there a conflict between your Zen practice and your yoga practice?” And Kapleau Roshi said, “No, I just do yoga in the spirit of Zen.”
That’s just it. It’s not about chakras or kundalini rising, as valuable as this approach may be. It’s just that when I do yoga, I do vipassanā.