Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice has revolutionized and sustained my Zen practice for nearly ten years now. I took up the practice after spending nearly two decades doing intensive sitting retreats in Zen temples in Asia. Seeing the effect on my body of so many thousands of hours of sitting (some of it positively Olympic in length), I was fortunate to have been introduced to Ashtanga by a friend in Hong Kong at just the right time, in my early 40s, at an age when so many Zen monks start manifesting the adverse effects of continuous situation in one static stillness posture for so many days of retreats. At the very first session I attended, at Pure Yoga in Causeway Bay, HK, it was clear that this was potent stuff. One of the reasons which finalized the decision to leave Korea and begin living in the West was this realization that further life in a Korean temple in the mountains was not going to give an adequate chance to learn this practice from some qualified teachers of the method, especially while I was still young and energetic enough to handle the demands of this truly challenging practice.
Ashtanga has enabled me to continue sitting long retreats long past time when most Zen monks in Korea are physically able to. And for that, I am very grateful.
Since I started the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in earnest, at the beginning of 2011, I have been in close contact with yoga practitioners and teachers, especially in Europe. This has happened with constancy both in retreats where I teach Zen throughout the world, and in the Zen Center Regensburg, where we established a program in Ashtanga from the very first day when we opened our doors in 2016. As a result, it is impossible not to encounter and practice or teach with so many individuals in the yoga world whose concepts of “spiritual practice” have been strongly shaped and sustained by the yoga culture we find in the West today.
And as many around me know, it is impossible to resist expressing fairly withering criticism of the common mindset, among the mass of yoga practitioners, that the rigours of their practice is somehow equated with a spiritual practice, any more than a rigorous jogging regimen or CrossFit regimen or aerobics regimen. In all of these things, the self-discipline required for constant, sustained practice may borrow some of our understandings of the “spiritual”: overcoming laziness, excessive desire, practicing moderation in eating and careful of speech, all leading to states of calm that we cannot find so easily in our myriad other activities during the day.
But in the Westernized, commodified form of yoga that is available today — the kind of yoga practiced by most people you will meet — you would be hard pressed to find much of any true depth or substance in the way of true and abiding self-transcendence that abides by ethical guidelines for breaking down the wall of Self and Other.
This has been my experience. And I was really quite ready (to the frustration of not a few of my yoga fellow-travellers), until I encountered this quote one day on the Internet:
These are the best truest words about the meditative dimension in yoga that I have ever heard from a modern (Western) yoga teacher, certainly a “famous” one like this (who often have much more of a commercialized aura). I never heard of this person, Maty Ezraty, until news reports exactly one year ago this month, that she had died suddenly while teaching in Japan, at the age of 55. Just one day, on social media, there was this flood of pictures of her and loving memorials and testimonials from all over the world. I felt something resonating about her, something qualitatively different from many of the teachers you see out there.
And then this photo and simple, direct, uncompromising teaching appeared. It struck me with force. I remember feeling, “She gets it. She gets it completely. She gets it like no other yoga teacher I have heard.” I love the soft absolutism of her statement: it feels very much like the directness of Zen. These are, in fact, words that I have used many times, especially when encountering yoga practitioners who think of their asana-only practice as somehow giving them a spiritual insight or experience. So it was surprising to hear such an eminent yoga teacher utter this, too — the point of yoga is to train you to SIT. But though I may have said this to yoga practitioners and even a few prominent yoga teachers, it has not been expressed with this brevity and beauty and her obvious authority to be making such a claim from the standpoint of an established, respected yoga teacher. (By saying this very same thing through my eyes as a Zen practitioner/teacher, there might seem to be obvious bias, this emphasis I give, this same absolutism.) All this yoga stuff is not about postures or exercise or the cult of well-being: it’s about getting the tools to sit, to sit in your beautiful nature, to return to your True Nature. Asana practice has one meaning, and that meaning is just true meditation on True Self, so often associated through its direct path through sitting meditation. Everything else in yoga that is not rooted in the sitting experience is, I have said many times, an endorphin-induced pseudo-bliss masquerading as true spiritual experience.
But why must I talk about this at all?
Sometimes, I am asked by practitioners of Zen or yoga to comment on the possible spiritual benefits of yoga. Or I am faced with situations where yoga teachers make claims regarding the meditative properties of yoga. I am by no means an authority. But when comment or insight is required, or might be helpful for practitioners to discern better, then I might make a statement. And it can be felt to be somewhat harsh. Sometimes I express things too strongly, with an edge. I have sometimes offended people with something that comes across as a Zen arrogance when I critique the entire culture of yoga for its claims (on the one hand) to be promoting some kind of path to spiritual practice (which it does, but in a very very limited and incomplete sense), while not truly putting its pedagogical emphasis on the central role of having sustained sitting meditation strongly built in to the way this practice is taught to students. It is entirely possible to learn yoga and practice yoga without ever developing a strong sitting practice. It is possible to pass through most yoga studios in this world and never encounter a yoga teacher who actually understands, themself, what is the true work of meditation. The endorphin-rush of a great asana-workout has clearly convinced the mass of yoga practitioners that this feeling — lighter, more positive, energetic, etc. — is the nature of true and substantial spiritual work that helps the self and truly helps others.
I am no scholar or academic or expert, in anything. I have trained only in Zen meditation. For 30 years, it has been the daily focus of my life, really to the exclusion of all else. And the strange thing is, I have not even read many books on Buddhist teachings or Zen — at most 10, maybe 15 books total: I could probably list all of them in lest than 3 minutes of recollection, if asked. It is not much word-study. I just lived in temples, did lots of crazy long retreats, attended the Q&A sessions with Dae Soen Sa Nim and the bang-up sessions with old Bong Cheol Sunim at his eagle’s nest deep in the rocky crevice of So Baek Sahn Mountain: that’s about it. (Oh, and some years of kong-an interviews with Dae Soen Sa Nim.)
So, when I comment on the claims of yoga to provide training in meditation, I don’t come at it from the standpoint of some affected expertise or authoritativeness. I come strongly from the standpoint of the Buddha, who is said to have estimated about the yogic teachings of his day: “One cannot break through the wall of the Self through these practices.”
(When I speak the term “yoga,” of course, we must be aware that we are usually talking about a bastardized mutt of various Western athletic and commercial cultures, upwardly-mobile social classes with excess leisure time to pursue an exercise regimen that is linked to a multi-billion dollar economy of goods and services, workshops in exotic locales, spas and special superfood-fetishes, etc. So, I try always to be aware that the critique of “yoga” is, itself, totally fraught with a whole package of things not considered in the ancient texts or even the traditional methods taught by many eminent living teachers in our own day.)
In an interview less than one year before her untimely passing, Ezraty had this to say, and it really blew my mind:
We don’t have the kinds of leaders in the yoga world that they have in the meditation world. We don’t have a Jack Kornfield. We don’t have a Joseph Goldstein. We don’t have all the monks who are teaching incredibly good, solid philosophy. The meditation world has been able to take the philosophy and bring it down to everyday life, and I don’t think many of us in the yoga world have managed to do that with our texts, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
The meditation world is rooted in the Four Noble Truths and the teachings of the Buddha, whereas yoga is rooted in asana—and that’s a problem. We are losing a lot of people in yoga because we’re in the fitness realm now. My gut tells me there is enormous attrition at yoga studios because moving from one pose to another with rock-and-roll music is not really everyone’s idea of learning about themselves. The meditation world is also less competitive; more about community. I remember first going to Spirit Rock six or seven years ago. Someone asked about where else to go to meditate, and they were free in giving so many other options. It was such a lesson for me. I thought, Wow, this is generosity, and I don’t know if I’ve always been there. This is what we need to be doing in yoga.“Master Teacher Maty Ezraty on the State of Yoga Right Now,” Yoga Journal, Dec. 22, 2018
So, when I speak critically of things that yoga claims to be offering spiritually to people, I feel I am on stronger ground, after reading about Maty Ezraty. I only speak this way when I detect that the modern, Westernized forms of yoga popular in the world today make claims to provide the tools for as authentic a spiritual insight as are self-evident in the practice of sitting meditation — maybe Zen, maybe Vipassana, maybe Dzogchen. In other words, if someone is “not keeping in their lane,” and making claims outside this commercialized technology’s ability to provide, I sometimes open my mouth. I really should not. Or else, if something must be said, it should be said with the softness and beauty of this great soul.