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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Buddhism in the World Today > Advice on Combining Yoga with Buddhist Practice > Advice on Combining Yoga with Buddhist Practice

Advice on Combining Yoga with Buddhist Practice

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, June 2010

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Some people wonder whether it’s possible to combine yoga practice together with their Buddhist practice. If we speak specifically about hatha yoga with its various asanas, its postures and so on, we find something similar to that as well, in some minor traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not main stream, but there are things like that. But it’s not found in most of the Tibetan traditions. But you have to realize that there are many, many things which are shared in common between Buddhism and Hinduism, what we can call pan-Indic things, things that you can find in all, almost all Indian systems of philosophy and religion. So, things like all the methods for achieving concentration, to achieve shamata, the still, settled state of mind, you find that in both Hindu and Buddhist systems. Nothing especially Buddhist about that. Even methods for achieving vipassana, the exceptionally perceptive state of mind, we find that in Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s not specifically Buddhist. And there are many other examples. I don’t have to list more, I think.

So what makes these practices a Buddhist one or a Hindu one would be first of all the motivation. And motivation has a very specific meaning in Buddhism. Remember, we discussed it in mental factors. Motivation has an aim or a goal. So there’s an intention to achieve a goal and then there is some sort of what we would call an emotion, which can either be a constructive one or a destructive one, which is moving us to achieve that goal. So Buddhist practices are aiming at liberation or enlightenment. And also you can say for improving rebirths.

Now, other religions also have practices for improving future lives, being born in heaven for example. And Hinduism certainly aims at achieving what they call “liberation,” moksha. But what they consider liberation, Buddhism would not consider liberation. So the liberation that Buddhism is aiming for is a different type of liberation, not the same. When we talk about liberation from samsara, and they use these terms, uncontrollably recurring rebirth; but what was special about Buddha, he identified what the true suffering, what the true problem is in this samsaric rebirth and what the true cause of it was. And he indicated what a true stopping of it would be: what liberation would be – different from what the other Indian philosophies said. That was what was unique about Buddha.

So concentration, exceptionally perceptive state of mind, shamatha, vipassana, all of these are tools that can bring you to many different goals. And part of reaching the goals, which all of the Indian systems say, is to overcome ignorance or unawareness about reality. But, Buddha identified the true cause of samsara, which was the specific type of unawareness or ignorance or confusion that really is the deepest. That’s unique. So the other systems also taught you have to develop wisdom, understanding, to overcome this confusion or ignorance. But the understanding that they taught, from a Buddhist point of view was not correct. Like for instance, we are all one with Brahma. From a Buddhist point of view, that’s not correct. We have our individuality.

And what also is unique in Buddhism is the goal of enlightenment, become a Buddha. So we can use shamatha and vipassana to attain enlightenment, with a correct understanding. And the motivation and emotion that’s behind here with that goal is love and compassion and bodhichitta; to achieve that goal so that we can best help others. So other traditions have love and compassion. It’s not unique to Buddhism. But what’s unique is taking this exceptional resolve that “I am going to bring happiness and relieve suffering for all beings; lead them to liberation and enlightenment; and the best way to do that, the only way to do that, is if I become a Buddha.” So bodhichitta, this is unique. So, we have these tools, shamatha, vipassana; we can use it for achieving a spiritual goal from Hinduism, you can use it for achieving the spiritual goals of Buddhism. You can use it for achieving worldly goals: to be a better university professor or to be a better dictator.

So hatha yoga, or martial arts for that matter, any of the martial arts would be in the same category as shamatha and vipassana. It’s a tool as we have these changeable mental factors: it could be used for something constructive, something destructive. And constructive: it can be a Hindu thing or a Buddhist thing or a worldly thing. You can use it just as a sport for better health, a worldly purpose, which is constructive, fine; but it’s not spiritual. Or you can use it to be a better soldier so you can kill people better – destructive. So most of these yogas are in that category: a tool that is like a changeable factor. It could be used for many different purposes. But we have to be clear when we use these things. Are we using it is as part of a non Buddhist spiritual path? Are we using it for a worldly purpose or are we using it for a Buddhist spiritual path? And that has to do with the goal and the emotion that’s behind it. Hatha yoga by itself is neutral.

Now, there are some yogas that are involved in working with the subtle energy systems of the body: the chakras, the channels, the winds, etc. This is slightly different. And it’s also a tool. We find it in many systems, not only Buddhist, but Hindu systems as well. But here the problem is that it can be very dangerous. It can be used like shamatha or vipashyana or hatha yoga for constructive purposes, for destructive purposes, and within constructive, for a Hindu goal or a Buddhist goal. It can be for some worldly purpose, just as a sport for fun. Or it can be used for gaining special powers so you can hurt other people – black magic type of stuff.

But, the problem with working with the energy systems is that if you don’t do it correctly, and you don’t have a fully qualified teacher, and you don’t follow the teacher properly, you can really, really damage the energies in your body and get very, very sick. So you get completely out of balance. Your mind isn’t able to concentrate on anything. You feel great tension; you are spaced out, your head in the clouds. You can’t really focus on anything and you can get very severe pains in the chest area and the back area. There are a lot of physical problems that you can get by working with these energies in an improper way, especially if it’s combined with a diet that just will make it worse.

So one has to be really, really careful with these type of practices. And in Buddhism, they are very, very advanced. You don’t even think to begin working with these unless you have really, really very highly developed concentration. So although it’s a tool, a neutral tool by itself, working with these energies and channels and chakras; it is a potentially dangerous and harmful one; unlike hatha yoga. I mean hatha yoga obviously, you could get a muscle cramp and you could break your back, so that also you need a skilled teacher. But it’s, I think, a slightly different category of what can go wrong.

So any of these practices, you really need a good teacher, qualified. Not good to try it by yourself, including shamatha. If you really work very, very intensely on trying to get single pointed concentration, you could also push too hard and really throw your energies into imbalance as well. So that really needs proper guidance and instruction. But if we are practicing the Buddhist path and we want to add to it the physical side of hatha yoga, or martial arts or these sort of things, there’s nothing contradictory there, using it just as a tool and as part of our general motivation: that we want to use this to help me on a physical level to reach enlightenment more quickly so that I can benefit others the best.