Taking up where I left last post, Austin responds to the following question, “How did Yoga become a word for a physical tradition?” by quoting B.K.S. Iyengar. However, the quote speaks of “merging the individual soul … with the Universal Soul” and while this may be one way of speaking of Vedanta, it makes absolutely no sense in Patanjali’s model, which elsewhere Austin says Iyengar teaches. This is one of the more tenacious misunderstandings rife in the western hatha-yoga community!
In fact, I don’t think Austin ever really answers the question. A more straight-forward response would acknowledge the historical and cultural conditions that led to the emphasis on physical practice when Yoga was brought to the west over the last century or so. Ironically, Vivekananda, often seen as the first Indian yogi to introduce Yoga to the west spoke at the Chicago Congress of Religion at the end of the 19th century, but never mentioned the word “yoga,” and shied away from asana practice because he thought Americans would find it ‘strange!’
In the following question, as to whether Yoga and Zen, as both ways of uniting body and mind aren’t after all the same path, Ausin offers a really good response. Undeniably, both offer practices designed to unite body and mind, and both speak about suffering, its causes, and how to ameliorate it, but they offer dramatically distinct rationales. So, they offer distinct paths, while being ‘universal’ to some degree.
Sadly, I think Austin falls far short in her response to the following question, “Why would someone study both Zen and Yoga.” After her clear and concise introduction, in her response to this question, she falls back into equating Yoga with the physical practice of asana and Zen with meditation!!!! I find this frustrating. The second half of her response does indeed call this a “false duality,” but the whole first half speaks in terms of Yoga providing a way to ‘search out obstacles of body and mind that otherwise may block the Zen practitioner from taking real refuge” because they may have “great difficulty sitting.” And Zen, she says, with its “teachings of sitting, precepts, and work can be a revelation for the Yoga practitioner who has lost contact with any of the eight limbs of Yoga” by providing “a wider view.”
What Austin is describing here is the way things are when we speak of the situation in the majority of Hatha-Yoga studios, where it is all physical and little or no teachings of the ethics and meditation. BUT, it would have been clearer had she spoken of Hatha-Yoga and Zen, rather than Yoga and Zen.
I think her response to the last question I’ll take up here, “How is Buddhism yogic?” is excellent. I am delighted that she even says something I often mention in my History and Philosophy lectures: the Buddha’s teachings are the “first sustained expression and development of yogic ideas.” So many contemporary yoga practitioners, because of their limited understanding of Yoga as the physical practice of asana, are confused and surprised when I make similar comments. Yogic ideas permeated the Upanishads (some of which appeared before the Buddha) and the epic poems (including the Mahabharata and it’s Bhagavad Gita), but nowhere before the Buddha do we find such a coherent path laid out. And we don’t really see it again until Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra.
I hope to file my final posting on this chapter of Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind by the end of this week, but meanwhile, I look forward to your comments.