BG 220: Connections Between Yoga & Buddhism

Episode Description:

We’re joined this week by Yoga and Buddhist meditation teacher Michael Stone. We begin by finding out how Michael got into spiritual practice, which happened to be at an early age through a profoundly spiritual uncle who suffered from schizophrenia. During his time in the asylum, visiting his uncle, he learned to meditate, to contemplative the words of great masters from the past, and to develop his own ideas regarding the spiritual path. This early exposure and interaction informed Michael’s future journey, when he ended up practiced deeply in both the yogic and Buddhist traditions.

We finish our conversation by exploring some of the overlaps and deep connections between these wisdom schools, paying particular attention to the similarities between Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the early sutras of Siddhartha Buddha. We also speak about the body practices of yoga and what they may have to offer to the mind practices of Buddhism, noticing that both schools are ultimately both mind and body practices.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, No System Exists in a Vacuum.

Episode Links:


Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn. And I’m joined today over Skype with a special guest, Michael Stone. Michael, thanks again for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks. I was really overjoyed to find out you’re a long time Buddhist Geeks listener. So it’s great to have you on the show as a presenter as well.

Michael: Oh, it’s good to be here.

Vincent: I’m really happy to speak with you today and we’re going to be covering a topic that I’m pretty sure we haven’t explored in depth on Buddhist Geeks which is the relationship between yoga and Buddhism and you’ve got a fantastic background in this regard.

You’ve of course been a practicing yogi and a Buddhist meditator for many years and then in addition you run a center there in Toronto where you live on the east coast of Canada called The Centre of Gravity Sangha which is such a fantastic name. And in addition to that you’ve put out several books, two that I wanted to mention because they’re on this topic. One just came through Shambhala last year. It’s called “Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections between Yoga and Buddhism” and this is one that you edited and also contributed to. And then, your most recent book which is more a collection of your Dharma teachings and yoga teaching over the last several years transcribed and then put into a book called “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.” Anyway, we’ll get into all of that. But I thought first to start, it might be helpful to hear a little about how you got into these two traditions which of course have really deeply connected routes.

Michael: Yeah. Well, to begin with, when I was a kid, maybe about seven years old, I had an uncle who was the closest person to me just in terms of our ability to relate. And he was schizophrenic and he lived in a mental institution which back then people still called an asylum.

And every day after school about three days a week, I used to take the bus to go visit him. And he would have me meditating and then after we would meditate he would take out the Dhammapada or the Bhagavad Gita and we would read together and he would go through the stories and the teachings and even some of the suttas and he would ask me what I thought and how these teachings were relevant in my life.

And to be eight years old and to have somebody ask you what you think and challenge you to reflect on your life and also somebody who’s interested in your original ideas, this was a real gift to me. So I think from a young age I couldn’t separate psychology, mental health, looking at society through the lens of this mental institution, the teachings of yoga and the teachings of Buddhism.

They were all right there and interconnected as I still think they are. Much later when I graduated high school I was very depressed. I had been offered a job that I left. I had quit university after my first year. I really needed some practices to help me get stable and really, to save my life in a way. So I went back to, you know, these teachings my uncle offered and found places where I could begin practicing.

So I simultaneously started practicing in the Krishnamacharya lineage of yoga. I started studying psychoanalysis at the University of Toronto. And then I also began studying the Dharma with retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and also in the Tibetan lineages as well at the beginning. And so for me, I have never been able to look at these different paths as separate although their techniques are often very different. For me the heart of all those practices are interconnected.

Vincent: So from the time that you were sort of receiving those different teachings from your uncle from the Bhagavad Gita in the one hand and then the Dhammapada. It’s beautiful. And then you’ve sort of always practiced them, it sounds like in an intertwined way.

Michael: Yeah. We used to go into the ward. And everybody used to smoke cigarettes. And once in a while they would let him burn incense. And what he used to do is they had a stereo with a record player and he would put on the Beatles White album.

The White album is recorded in stereo. Soon the one side you get vocals and lead guitar and on the other speaker you get drums and bass. And we would sit in front of the speaker, on either the right side or the left side of the room. And he would put his cigarette in an ashtray on top of the speaker or sometimes on a good day, incense. And we would listen to the record and we would meditate on the shape of the smoke as it rose up from the ashtray on top of the speaker. And he wanted me to focus on how the smoke made shape out of the music. And so we would meditate on the shape of the smoke coming off the cigarette. And then we would switch to the other side of the room and listen to the vocal track and meditate on the shape of the smoke on that side. And this was really – it kind of sounds esoteric and it was, but he had me concentrated and he had 20 people in the schizophrenic world completely still.

Vincent: Wow.

Michael: And then he would basically give a Dharma talk. Of course he wouldn’t have known what a Dharma talk was, but he would ask me to imagine myself in the situation of Ashoka or Arjuna or all of these characters in this rich mythological background and ask me what I would do if I was in their situation.

Vincent: That’s incredible. How fortunate.

Michael: Yeah. It was really fortunate and for me it was actually a really safe place. On the flipside of it too, though, was when I started meditating, when I was around 19 or 20, I was worried actually. I thought once I started going on retreats that I actually might become crazy. So there was the flipside of it too, where I thought or maybe I would end up schizophrenic if I really went deeply into my own mind. And that’s where the studying of psychology really helped me is to be able to kind of learn about this envelope of the mind that we’re looking at in meditation from different perspectives.

Vincent: Here’s kind of an interesting question. I hadn’t planned on asking this because I didn’t know about your uncle but in retrospect now, having really trained deeply in Yoga Tradition and the Buddhist Tradition, also studying therapy and being a therapist yourself, how are you looking back now at for instance, your uncle, who is schizophrenic and also clearly had this deeply profound spiritual life? How are you making sense of that now given the distance and the experience you now have?

Michael: Yeah, I mean that’s a really good question. I’m always thinking about him and thinking about that. For one, a lot of people who have a mental illness, they are categorized as having a certain disorder. For example somebody is schizophrenic.

But one of the teachings of the Buddha around the self is that the self is contingent and it’s impermanent, meaning that nobody is always schizophrenic, nobody is always depressed. There are times and certain conditions where somebody experiences psychosis. But it’s not eternal. So there are times where someone’s invested or identified with unhelpful patterns in their mind which happened to him all the time.

But at the same time I don’t think schizophrenia is an underlying situation for someone or site in the personality. I think it’s something that arises in certain conditions and passes away and I really saw that with my uncle. When I was studying psychology, when we think of depression or we think of schizophrenia, we think it’s something someone has, something someone’s stuck with.

Even though it’s transformable, I don’t think we think about it in terms of conditionality or impermanence in the way we do as Buddhists. I mean, anybody who sits still and starts watching their mind knows that we have such a vast array or possible emotions and feelings that we can experience in a day, in an hour, in ten minutes.

And I think for somebody who experiences psychosis, which I don’t and haven’t but which my uncle certainly did, I think meditation allowed him to kind of look at that experience from a wider perspective to be able to see how sometimes he was schizophrenic and sometimes he was not.

Vincent: Cool. Thank you for sharing some of your reflections with that. It’s not everyone who has that kind of experience with loved ones or close people.

So, shifting gears, I think just a little bit because part of what we wanted to explore is this connection between Yoga and Buddhism, which we often think of separate domains and separate spheres. And particularly in the Western world, I think everyone who lives in an urban area and even those that live in rural areas yoga has become so incredibly popular over the last decade or so and it’s so not uncommon to walk down the street and see someone carrying a yoga mat on their way to or from a yoga class.

And it’s pretty commonly understood especially in spiritual circles that the type of yoga that’s being often practiced in different yoga studios is not the same really as the original yoga that was being practiced in the forests of India. It’s a modified version. And I was wondering if you could talk about your experience of what yoga is and kind of what its essential characteristics are?

Michael: I think certainly for the people listening to your podcasts, most people associate yoga to be a body practice and the BuddhaDharma to be a mind practice. But anybody who’s done either knows that this is certainly not the case. And on the ground level to be able to sit still in any kind of meditation posture is a real physical experience.

And even the Buddhist’s first teachings in the Satipatthana Sutta suggest that if we want to establish mindfulness the first place to begin is the body. Also, working with the body, we realize it’s hard to work with the body without also working with the mind. To begin, both yoga and Buddhism are both body and mind practices. They’re psychosomatic practices.

And certainly, as one starts to practice yoga postures, we start entering with our awareness into levels of feeling and sensation as we wake up the body or different patterns in the nervous system that we don’t encounter as easily in sitting meditation.

And so the sequences of yoga poses are actually in a way, concentration practices where we’re asked to open up physically and psychologically to the different layers of holding patterns which we call samskaras which are the psychological, physical and even cultural holding patterns in the body and mind. So the yoga tradition doesn’t really separate physical and psychological experience. I mean, certainly I don’t think the Buddhist teachings do either.

So, the practice of yoga postures is actually about moving into deeper and more subtle states of our physical experience to be able to work also with our mind. And certainly the way yoga’s taught nowadays it seems to be a little more superficial in a sense that we learn in a yoga class where to put our foot or where to put your hand or where to spin your femur bone. But often we’re not learning what to do with your mind. And I don’t think really traditionally that’s ever been separated. So I think that’s the piece that been – that’s under-articulated.

Vincent: That makes perfect sense. So in that sense, looking at yoga as originally being both a body practice and then also a mind practice simply cannot separate the psychological from the somatic. You said these are psychosomatic practices.

That’s really fascinating. And I’m wondering too because it seems like not emphasizing the mind so much is maybe in part of the reason that yoga has become so accessible or so popular because there’s some way in which it fits in almost with the kind of cultural norm or assumption about what’s important. Could you say a little bit about that?

Michael: Sure. I’m sympathetic to the person who goes to the yoga class to feel good because we all need to have an experience of the body we can trust the body and we can trust breathing and we can enjoy the pleasure of having a body that is alive and vital. I think this is fantastic.

However, as we start to learn more about the practice, as we enter into postures more deeply, we start entering into the whole body of breathing. And in the yoga tradition, the breath, which we call Prana, and our attention span which we call Citta are considered like two fish that swim in tandem.

When the breath is agitated, our attention’s agitated. And so instead of working with your mind, to quiet the mind and create spaciousness, we just go to the other side of the stick which is the body and the breath. And as you work with the breath to get the breath fine and calm, then simultaneously you’re working with your mind.

And we all know this, right? Your mind is busy and you try to analyze it and it doesn’t get any better. [Laughter.] So we turn to the breath to being. And in yoga, there’s a term for this that’s popular and often misunderstood called Mula Bandha. Mula means root and Bandha means bond. And at the end of your exhale, when you finish your exhale there’s a pause. And that pause creates sensation in the core of the body. And it’s said that if we can yoke our attention to the end of the exhale then we can find a place of stillness at the exhale which unites the body and the mind.

In neuropsychology this is called ‘reciprocal inhibition,’ which means that you can’t actually feel the end of your exhale and be caught up in stories and images at the same time. So when the yoga postures were really working on these pauses at the end of the exhale and the pause at the top of the in – breath, and that’s what takes us deeper into the body even underneath the realm of language.

Vincent: I wanted to see too if we could a little bit about the kind of historical connections between Buddhism and yoga. If you’ve ever heard of or read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as I had the great fortunate doing when I was at Naropa studying religion.

It was amazing to me how similar the language was, the structure was, the teachings were too, for instance the early suttas in Buddhism. They were – to me like they were almost the same thing for my untrained perspective. They were incredibly similar. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit about your understanding of the kind of historical and ancient connections between these what we now consider different wisdom traditions?

Michael: I started reading the Buddhist text before I found the Yoga Sutra. The Yoga Sutra was written by or compiled by a mysterious person we know nothing about named Patanjali. And maybe between 400 and 600 years after the death of the Buddha, it’s hard to say exactly when that happened because it was an oral tradition.

And Patanjali drew on Sankhya Yoga which is the dominant philosophy in yoga at that time and equally drew on the teachings of the Buddha. So there are all kinds of places in the Yoga Sutra where we find what seems like a direct lift from the Pali Canon and I could go through those sections. But I think the most important is that one of the core teachings in the history of yoga before the Buddha was this notion of Moksha or enlightenment that when one has an awakening, they awaken to the eternal, to the soul, the Atman or to God, Brahman.

And Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra follows the Buddha in omitting these terms. So Patanjali does not use the term enlightenment, Moksha or liberation. He doesn’t use the term Atman which means the soul or Brahman which is God. Instead, he suggests that through bringing our attention to our moment-to-moment experience we begin to notice not only impermanence but pure awareness.

And then he says that pure awareness is svarupa-shunya. In other words, pure awareness is empty of form. So the word emptiness shows up all over the Yoga Sutra. And he uses the term emptiness much like the Buddha did which is to see that everything is empty of an inherent essence or an eternal thingness.

And so I think this is what’s most radical both about the Buddha and Patanjali. It’s this real distrust of having grand stories. In post modern terms, you know, grand narratives that kind of explain everything and instead direct us not so much towards the eternal but towards the here and now of impermanent and conditioned existence. And I think this is what really unites both the Buddha and Patanjali.

And the other thing that unites them is that the path begins with ethics. It begins with non violence, with honesty, with not stealing, with using energy wisely. And you could say that both traditions begin by suggesting that if you really want to wake up in your life, you begin by looking at the quality of your relationships, your ethical existence in the world.

Vincent: Nice. Thank you. And as you’re describing that I couldn’t help think that in many Buddhist circles that I’ve been a part of there’s often a common sentiment which is that, or an understanding of the history of Buddhism which is that the Buddha kind of in some ways had a break with the traditions at the time that he was a part of. He saw something unique or special.

And then it’s funny because that understanding then gets sort of concretized throughout time as if to say that Hinduism sort of stopped evolving at that point and didn’t itself go through many different changes and beautiful expressions of deep wisdom.

I was wondering if you could say a little about that especially as it has to do with our understanding of Hinduism or the understanding of the yoga traditions. Sometimes we can have a little bit of a blind spot or even a little bit of chauvinism around thinking that Buddhism is superior in some way.

Michael: The first time I ever read the Yoga Sutra that Patanjali compiled, it was a translation – a terrible translation. The only one I had at that time by Christopher Isherwood. And the title of the book was ‘How to Know God’. Then I thought, “OK. I’m going to read this, you know, how to know God.” [Laughter.] I want to know God.

And at the same time I had a distrust of that language. I grew up Jewish and at that time I was sort of running away from that tradition and the language, that kind of theistic language. And then I noticed that this term god appeared in the commentaries of the Yoga Sutra. Not actually in the text. And most of the translations into English of the Yoga Sutra have been from a vedantic perspective where they’ve reintroduced through the back door, you could say.

This notion of an eternal god that we’re trying to wake up to which actually de-radicalizes Putanjali’s teaching. And I think the same might be true and this is a controversial issue but I think the same might be true with the Buddha that it seems what’s unique about the Buddha’s teachings that’s different from previous teachings is his sensitivity to language and his ability to use language in a way where he avoids talking in terms of theism, in term of essentialism.

And in doing so he sets up this vocabulary where he brings the experience back to the moment – moment to moment awareness rather than a kind of belief system. I think it’s human nature and history shows this in the Buddhist tradition and the yoga tradition to have a hard time having our language poked at [Laughter] so I think every tradition has tried to – in the Buddhist lineage I think de-radicalized some of the Buddhist teachings by reintroducing a kind of eternal undying notion in the Buddhist teachings whether it’s called relative truth or Buddha nature or what have you. Does that make sense?

Vincent: Yeah, it does. In some ways I was thinking of the arc of history being at least in Buddhism seeming to move from one side to the other almost is a kind of cycling or spiraling motion. And if you look at the history of Buddhism, it seems just naturally take things a little too far and concretize them and then something comes around that sort of tries to break that apart like the Buddha was trying to do. Seems like you’re describing the danger of getting too solid around a particular notion like an eternal God, for instance.

Michael: Yeah. I mean, even etymologically the Buddha uses this term Anatman which means not self, nothing belongs to me or mine. And that always gets translated as no self. And Buddha never said for example that there is no self. That would be kind of preposterous. The Buddha suggests that nothing belongs to a self.

You could say that’s semantics but it’s the semantic that really counts. And I think it’s really interesting to explore especially for people who are meditators. The language that we use to talk to ourselves about our meditation experiences kind of creates a feedback loop then determines the way we look at those experiences.

And I think what’s so profound about mindfulness practice or concentration practices is that there are techniques in the system to drop underneath language to have experiences underneath what we want to see. And I think that if you look at Buddhism or yoga as a practitioner, you can start to understand why there are traditions that are so sensitive in the way they use language. It’s because there’s this distrust of language that reifies our experience.

Vincent: And sort of rounding out this conversation about the connection between yoga and Buddhism and I know these are broad to say yoga, and to say Buddhism. We’re talking about very broad complex things here…

Michael: It’s like saying men or women.

Vincent: It is. In some ways we’re having to use those terms because it’s a good starting point but at the same time it’s difficult. That said, could we talk about the differences as you see them between the major features of these traditions? Because having studied in a Theravada Buddhist tradition which you mentioned, the Insight Meditation Society.

And when I read back through the history of this tradition, it’s very clear to me that while there is an emphasis on the body, for instance mindfulness of the body, there is also a way in which historically the body has been treated as a kind of second class citizen at times. Even by very enlightened people.

And so it’s interesting to me that the yoga tradition may also have that but I really don’t know and I was wondering if you could say a little bit about maybe some of the differences or how they actually go in different directions?

Michael: I remember one time I was in Boulder and I was at a studio there at the end of the class where we were exploring Pranayama practices. So theses are practices where you bring great awareness to the inhale and exhale patterns and to what’s going on on the root of the palate and in the pelvic floor and in the diaphragms and the head.

And Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was there in the class. There was a time where he was very interested in yoga practices. And he said that “In another class, you know these things that you are talking about like Mula Bandha or Chakras, these are very advanced poses in the Tibetan tradition and we would never talk about these things I public. And yet I seen nothing different about what you’re exploring here and some of the highest tantra practices.” And I found that really quite fascinating that the language was the same. And the Buddhist teachings not only move east and go to Pakistan and Afghanistan and eventually China and Japan and so on. They also move north and gotten mixed up with Hindu tantric traditions which basically explored the ways that all of the suttas or the sutras can be experienced in one’s body.

So the middle path becomes the middle channel that runs in the center of the body and everything that we explore psychologically becomes found within our physical experience. And so in the meditation practices that we find in yoga including the yoga postures, we set our mind to experience not only tactile sensation like we do in sitting meditation but we activate the breathing. We activate muscles. And we use those patterns to wake up not only our awareness but also the body itself which is considered of real value.

You know, in sitting meditations we just watch sensations come and go. But in the Yoga Asana practice we actually get mixed up with them and we explore what’s possible within that domain. And I think it’s important to be able to do both.


Michael Stone

Michael Stone is a respected Buddhist teacher who draws on his background as a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, author and activist to bring the practice of mindfulness into conversation with contemporary culture. He developed the acclaimed Leading Edge Mindfulness for Clinicians Course in Toronto and has educated over one thousand medical professionals about the intersection of mindfulness and clinical practice. Michael has the distinction of being the youngest Buddhist teacher in Canada and maintains a busy travel schedule, teaching workshops and retreats throughout North America and Europe. He is the founder of Centre of Gravity: a thriving community of yoga and Buddhist practitioners exploring the convergence of traditional contemplative practices and modern urban life. He makes his home in downtown Toronto.

Website: Centre of Gravity
Twitter: @C_of_Gravity