Hatha Yoga is enjoying unprecedented growth globally and is being used as a tool for physical fitness, physical therapy, and spiritual development. Modern practice is derived from ancient Tantric exercises, but less well known are the systems of Buddhist Yoga, which share a common lineage with the ancient discipline.
History of Buddhist Yoga
“Yoga exists in the world because everything is linked”
References to Hatha Yoga predate the Buddhist period (6th century B.C.) by many centuries. It was originally developed as an integral part of the Spiritual Path, and as preparation for higher meditative practices. With the birth of Buddha in the 6th Century BC and subsequent popularity of the Buddha’s teachings meditation became one of the main expression of Spiritual Practice along with exercises designed to still the mind towards this state.
More than 500 years after the Buddha’s death, two great centres of Buddhist ideas were established in India. Nalanda became the centre of the Hinayana – Narrow Path Buddhism and Mingar became the centre for Mahayana – Great Path Buddhism.
The Narrow Path Buddhism claimed orthodoxy, whilst the Greater Path adopted a more liberal view of the teachings of the Buddha and also incorporated some practices not directly touched upon by the Buddha during his life. This included some indigenous Tantric practices, including Hatha Yoga Exercises.
The Buddha and Yoga
“This calm steadiness of the senses is called yoga.
Then one should become watchful, becomes yoga comes and go.”
It is thought that an Indian disciple of the Buddha, Batuo transmitted Zen from India to China in the early 6th century C.E. and most modern Zen lineages trace their past directly to this monk and the Shaolin Monastery where he taught.
According to tradition, it was said he found the monks at Shaolin too weak to make satisfactory progress on their Spiritual Paths. So Batuo secluded himself in a cave for nine years, emerging with a solution (including Yoga) to the health problems of the Shaolin Monks and powerful practises to assist their spiritual development.
These practices became a set of Yogic exercises.
Before the arrival of the Batuo, meditation was the primary method used by Chinese Buddhists for seeking enlightenment. Yoga methods used in India had not been passed to the Chinese Monks
Buddhism, Meditation and Yoga
“Yoga is bodily gospel.”
Early Buddhism incorporated meditation into its practice. In fact the oldest expression of Yoga is found in the early sermons of the Buddha. An innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditation should be combined with the practice of mindfulness with which Yoga could assist the practitioner to this end.
So the difference between the Buddha’s teaching and the yoga presented in other early Indian texts is striking. Meditation alone is not an end, according to the Buddha, and even the highest meditative state is not liberating.
Instead of attaining a nothingness, the Buddha taught that some sort of mental activity must take place: based on the practice of mindful awareness.
The Yogic thoughts of the Buddha also departed from other traditional thoughts and the essence was that their point of reference became the sage who is liberated in life.
Buddhism and Yoga: Where the Paths Cross
“Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind.”
In the forests of Vedic India, students followed teachers who taught them in the path of liberation called yoga, which means “union.” Three centuries after the life of the Buddha his teachings of yoga were compiled by Patanjali as the Yoga Sutras, and another two thousand years later, the teachings of both Buddha and Patanjali have found a new home in the West.
Buddha advocated training the physical body as well as the mind. “He knows himself through internal wisdom and takes care of his body through external discipline”
A healthy body made Spiritual Cultivation less difficult, and the same yoga exercises that could strengthen the physical body could also be used to prepare the mind for liberation.”
Yoga Channels and Chakras
“Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are.”
Buddhist and Yoga practitioners use three energy channels and seven chakras in their working model of major energetic/spiritual structures.
The channels that Buddhist and Yoga Practitioners use are the central channel (Sushumna) which runs up the middle of the body, the left channel (Ida) which runs on the left side of the spine and the right channel (Pingala) which runs on the spine’s right side. These channels begin at the base of the spine and end at the Brow Chakra.
The left side channel is considered negative (Yin) and the right side channel is considered positive (Yang). The middle channel is thought to be neutral.
Buddhist Yoga Exercises
“Yoga accepts. Yoga gives.”
It is thought that the Buddha taught three different sets of Buddhist Yoga exercises. These Yoga exercises met with stiff resistance from many in the established Buddhist community with this Yoga eventually becoming “secret” practices, passing to only a few disciples in each generation. It is thought that this secret Yoga tradition will lead to a healthy body and an integrated emotional life.
18 Buddha Hands Yoga
“Yoga is difficult for the one whose mind is not subdued.”
This is one set of yoga exercises that traces its origin right back to the Buddha. One system used today contains 18 chapters of from one to three exercises each. Additionally there is a standing yoga position following each chapter to allow energy that has been mobilized during the exercise to return to balance.
Like Hatha Yoga, this technique is directed at regulating body, breath, and mind. The purpose of this Yoga exercise is to increase the quantity and quality of energy in the body and to facilitate a smooth balanced flow of energy, remove any obstacles, thus calming the mind, and nourishing the spirit.
Thus Yoga exercises contribute to a healthy, vitally alive body and balanced mind and assist in positive spiritual growth.
As a system, 18 Buddha Hands Yoga is unique in several ways. The 18 Buddha Hands Yoga system uses both moving and standing postures. This Yoga system thus helps to develops stillness in movement, and movement in stillness.
The Middle Way is an apt description of the functions of 18 Buddha Hands Yoga systems. On the physical level, the Yoga practitioner gently exercises the whole body, opening and balancing the acupuncture meridians. On a deeper level, the 18 Buddha Hands Yoga system is designed to energize and balance the two side channels, thereby opening the central channel leading towards perfect stillness and a precursor to higher conscious states.
Although the 18 Buddha Hands Yoga system was originally an integral part of Zen Buddhism, it remains a valuable tool for anyone interested in using Yoga for physical well being, mental harmony, and consequential spiritual growth