Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: The First Foundation

First Foundation
Mindfulness of “the body within the body” is the First Foundation of Mindfulness. This phrasing reminds us that we are not distant observers of the body, with awareness located in our heads observing our body as an object, but rather awareness permeates the whole body, like a sponge saturated with water.
The Buddha’s first instruction is to bring mindfulness to breathing. We’re encouraged to simply know an in-breath as an in-breath, an out-breath as an out-breath, free of all manipulation. We become intimately familiar with the experience of breathing, noticing the various and varying qualities such as deep or shallow, fast or slow, rough or smooth, even or uneven, long or short. As mindfulness is a friendly, non-judgmental, fully accepting kind of attention, we are already cultivating a transcendence of the pairs of opposites.
Take some time to establish a meditation practice with this simple exercise:
Sitting comfortably, eyes slightly open or closed, jaw relaxed with some space between upper and lower teeth, and the tongue relaxed, it's tip just lightly touching above the front teeth. 
Take a few deep breaths, noticing where you experience the movement of the breath. Many people feel it as the rising and falling of the belly or chest; others feel it at the nostril and upper lip as the breath moves in and out. Once you note where you feel the breath's movement, just rest your attention there free from strain -- as a butterfly rests on a flower -- and let the breath be natural.
Every time you notice that the mind has wandered away from the breath, just bring it back. That's all there is to it. If you'd like, you can use the technique of "noting" where you mentally "whisper" to yourself: "Rising; Falling" if that's what you're feeling or "In; Out" if that's your experience.
Then, expanding our awareness to include the whole body including its posture, and movement, we deepen our sense of embodiment. The body and breath do not get lost in the future or the past, so if attention is fully absorbed in the body, there is a fully integrated sense of presence. The body and breath keep us anchored to now. Only when we become entangled and identified with thinking can we feel distant from life.
 When practicing postures, we stay fully present through mindfulness of the breath. When noticing the mind leaning away from our experience of an asana, we can remember to come back to the breath. In this way, the breath becomes the sutra – the thread – upon which we weave our practice. We see for ourselves how the posture and movement of the body “conditions” the breath. The qualities of the breath are conditioned by whether we are in a forward bend, a backbend or a twist. While maintaining a posture, we will see a change in the breath. We can also see how the breath conditions the body, affecting both movement and posture. All this points to a core teaching of the Buddha: as all phenomena are conditioned, there is no real autonomous “thing” to speak of! We say “breath” or “posture” as if these were things separate from the flow of experience, but through this practice we see they are processes caused and conditioned, selfless and constantly changing.
Bringing attention to the parts of the body, we become cognizant of any reactivity to the various parts; which parts do we like; which parts do we dislike? We may feel revulsion contemplating our earwax, bowels or lymph and prefer to contemplate our hair or our eyes. Yet those eyes free from their sockets might provoke revulsion and fear; that hair clogged in our shower drain may seem disgusting. All reactivity is conditioned.
An exercise based upon the parts of the body has the practitioner systematically bringing attention to various parts of the body, giving equal attention to each part and noticing if there is any reactivity that arises as one does this exercise:
Hair on the head; Eyes; Nose; Ears; lips; teeth; arms; hands; torso; genitalia; legs; feet; brains; heart; lungs; liver; kidneys; bladder; skeleton; circulatory system; lymphatic system; muscles; fatty tissue; blood; mucus; urine; feces etc.
Another exercise on the First Foundation is the Contemplation on the Five Great Elements (earth, water, fire, air and space):
We bring attention to the solidity of the body; its composition of various elements such as carbon – the very same carbon that gives us coal and diamonds. The liquid element, manifesting as blood, interstitial fluid, and other bodily fluids, is not separate from the water flowing in our rivers and streams. Our bodies generate heat, and we subsist upon the solar energy captured in the vegetables and flesh of animals we consume. The air we breathe sustains our life, and all experience arises and passes away in space. 
Through contemplating the elements of the body the yogi begins to understand that life is not isolated in her own body; that there is no “self” separate from the the elements. The First Mindfulness Training[i] of ahimsa or non-harming reminds us to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. As our bodies and our life cannot exist without these minerals, we begin to see that the distinction between organic and inorganic is ultimately conceptual – there is no real separation. In protecting the elements from degradation we protect ourselves. Before you “throw away” your garbage, ask yourself, “Where is away?”
The final practice of the First Foundation is contemplating the decomposition of the body, the existential truth that this body is of the nature to die. Looking deeply into the impermanent nature of the body, we are motivated not to take life for granted, not to lose our life in distraction and dispersion. For those ready for this practice, the effect of this meditation is liberating, understandable in light of all the effort we make, the tension and strain we create, in attempting to deny the only thing we know for certain – that we will die!

[i] For A Future To Be Possible by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press: Berkeley, CA, 1993) p. 3

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: Hatha-Yoga and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Part One

For the vast majority of practitioners and non-practitioners alike, Yoga has become reduced to, and synonymous with, the postures and movements of hatha-yoga. Yet for most of its history, meditation has been an essential aspect of "authentic" yoga practice. Much of the “work” of meditation involves how we experience the body; particularly our reactivity to experience. And when practicing postures, we learn to deal with the mind’s commentary, its leaning toward the future or the past, grasping after the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant -- exactly what we do in meditation!

The word yoga comes from the root yuj, meaning to “yoke or to harness,” and has come to signify both spiritual endeavor, especially the disciplining of the mind and the senses, and the state of integration. As such, yoga is the generic name for the various Indian philosophies and practices Georg Feurstein calls “the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India,”[i] the purpose of which is to liberate the practitioner from the existential human situation of duhkha, variously translated as suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction. Given this context, Buddhism is a bona fide child of the Yoga Tradition completely yogic in purpose, intent and methodology. The four noble truths and eightfold path offer a complete and coherent model of yogic theory and practice. Like all authentic yoga, it is moksha-shastra, a liberation teaching designed to free us from duhkha.
     Hatha-yoga refers to the relatively recent form of yogic practice utilizing the familiar postures (asanas) as well as breathing practices (pranayama). This form of yoga practice has its roots in the tantric movement that influenced both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. While the asanas of hatha-yoga are what most westerners are familiar with as "yoga," such postures were developed rather late in the history of the yoga tradition. In fact, the contemporary practices of yoga-asana pretty much date back to little over 100 years!

       Many Buddhist meditators have been drawn to hatha-yoga for the ease and strength it can bring to the body, while many hatha-yogis have turned to Buddhist meditation for the deepening of awareness, insight and equanimity it can cultivate. While this ‘complementary’ approach has much to offer, a deeper, more integrated, comprehensive approach is possible

In an early discourse, the Buddha is asked if it is possible, by traveling, to know, see, or to reach the end of the world, where one does not suffer. He responds that it is not possible to reach such a place of peace by traveling, “However, I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end to suffering. It is, friend, in just this fathom-high body endowed with perception and mind that I make known the world, its arising and cessation, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”[ii]  The Buddha could not have more clearly stated that it is with the exploration of our bodily experience, where we so often find discomfort, pain, and suffering, that we can also find peace and liberation.

The proper and natural posture of the body in sitting meditation is called asana, defined by the second-century Indian sage Patanjali in the Yoga-Sutra, the foundational text of classical yoga, as that posture which is both “stable and easeful,”[iii] accompanied by “the relaxation of effort and the revealing of the body and the infinite universe as indivisible.”[iv] When this state is attained, “one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites.”[v] Whenever this state of embodied integration manifests -- whether one is sitting, walking, cutting carrots or changing diapers -- there is yoga.

While the Buddha taught a variety of practices, perhaps it’s his emphasis on mindfulness that has had the greatest impact. The Pali word ‘sati’ (Sanskrit. smriti), most often translated as mindfulness, is related to the word for remembering. To ‘re-member’ is to ‘re-collect,’ to bring together all the seemingly disparate aspects of our experience into an integrated whole. In this way, remembering is synonymous with the definition of Yoga. Whenever we see our mind wandering from the intimate, immediate, spontaneous and obvious experience at hand, we remember to come back -- to just this, right here, right now, using the breath as the yoke.

In both the Anapanasati-Sutta (Awareness of Breathing), and the Satipatthana Sutta (The Foundation of Mindfulness), the Buddha instructs in observing the breath, gradually extending our awareness to include the whole body. He says the practitioner should be aware of the movements and positions of the body, while standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, while bending over, or stretching one’s limbs and notes that nothing is excluded from mindfulness, including such activities as eating, drinking, dressing, urinating, and defecating. No aspect of our lived experience lies outside of practice. This is not practice as preparation, but practice as vocation.

The applicability of this teaching for practicing hatha-yoga should be obvious. When we combine awareness of breathing with asana practice, we can observe how movement and posture affects the breath and how the breath affects the body. We become aware of habitual patterns of reactivity. For instance, do you hold your breath when reaching out with your arms into a deep stretch? Do you unnecessarily tense muscles not involved with the movement you are making? Do you compare one side of the body with the other? When engaged in repetitive movements, does your mind wander? In maintaining a posture, can you see the constant changing phenomena, or do you concretize the experience, reifying the changing phenomena into a static entity that you then either grasp after or resist, depending on whether you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

Following the four foundations of mindfulness, the practice of postures becomes much more than merely preparatory to meditation. With the four foundations, asana practice becomes a fully integrated mindfulness practice, in essence no different than sitting or walking meditation. Asana practice need not be conceptualized as a complement or preliminary to sitting. It’s simply another way to practice mindfulness. This is the practice of mindfulness yoga. The priority here is the cultivation of mindfulness with asana as the vehicle for such cultivation. The practice of mindfulness, the Buddha assures us, “gives rise to understanding and liberation of the mind.”

The four foundations of mindfulness include body, feelings, mind and dharmas. Each foundation includes a variety of objects, meditations, and contemplations. When practicing asana, we can choose to devote our practice to any one of these, or work through them sequentially.

[i] The Yoga Tradition: It’s History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein (Hohm Press: Prescott, AZ, 1998) p. 7
[ii] The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2000) p. 157 - 158
[iii] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary by Georg Feuerstein (Inner Traditions: Rochester, NY, 1989) Book 2; Sutra 46
[iv] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft (Shambhala: Boston, MA, 2003) Book 2; Sutra 47
[v] ibid., Book 2; Sutra 48