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Does Buddhism Belong in Yoga?

By on April 1st, 2011 — Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

I recently wrote an article for a yoga magazine where I inadvertently used a Buddhist term to describe what I thought was a yogic concept.  The editor pointed this out to me (and said we couldn’t use the word or the concept in the article).  At first, I was a bit embarrassed: How could I have gotten my traditions confused? But it also got me thinking about how often Buddhist terms do find their way into yoga classrooms these days, and how much our yoga path has become influenced by Buddhism. 

Both yoga and Buddhism developed in India, and they have a lot of overlap. They both utilize contemplative practices as a way of being present and reducing suffering, and offer meditation as a primary tool for cultivating awareness. And the Buddhas that we see in the beautiful statues at the temples even sit in padmasana (lotus pose)!  Buddhism, of course, is seen as one of the world’s main religions, whereas yoga is considered a spiritual discipline and not a religion (though many often link it to Hinduism).  The traditions have many differing attributes—this is true. But despite that, they have certainly been merging here in the US.

Many silent Buddhist meditation retreats offer hatha yoga classes these days, and the practice of mindfulness, which is a main tenant of Buddhism, is frequently taught in the asana classroom. Yoga teacher training courses are offering sections on Buddhist meditation and places like Spirit Rock (the Vipassana meditation center over here in the Bay Area) have training courses for yoga teachers who want to learn how to teach yoga with Buddhist principles. Yoga teachers like Sarah Powers, Jill Satterfield, Sean Feit, and Cyndi Lee regularly combine Buddhist principles and practices in their teachings. (Read this month’s Sacred Cow interview with Sarah Powers, in which she speaks about utilizing Buddhist techniques in yoga practice.)

So, the question is, is this hybridization good? Or does it dilute the traditions? I started as a yoga practitioner, but I’ll admit that I’ve gotten a lot out of going on long Vipassanana meditation retreats and sitting in silence. My Buddhist meditation practice has even helped me become more present in my yoga practice, and I know that certain Buddhist teachings come through when I teach my own yoga classes. But there are many who believe that combining spiritual traditions doesn’t work because it sacrifices the purity of the original traditions.

What’s your feeling on the subject? Should we keep yoga and Buddhism separate? Should we blend them more than we already do? Write in and tell us what you think!

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16 Reader Comments

  1. Posted By: Daniel 4/2/2011 @ 10:08 pm

    The teachings of Buddhist meditation and Hindu meditation as described in the yoga sutras of Patanjali do have some overlap. Mindfulness in Buddhism will lead to a realisation of momentariness (anicca) and emptiness (shunyata) while mindfullness according the Hindu traditions will lead to a realisation of brahman (ultimate reality) or atman (self). The concepts are opposite of each other, but the meditative practices have a lot in common.

    The deeper teachings of (hatha) yoga are Hindu in nature, although a lot of the practices can be appropiated by Buddhists without problem. Similarly, a lot of what is thought as vipassana can easily be adopted by Hindus, although if the practice goes on a deeper level it will be Buddhist in nature. One reason a lot of people go to Buddhism to learn meditation is because in Hinduism meditative techniques are not often made public. Sadly a lot of the vedic teachings on meditation have gone lost, but some of it is preserved by Buddhist traditions like dzogchen.

    I am not a scholar in these subjects, but these are interesting things to take in consideration.

    • Posted By: Dh Sadhita 5/15/2012 @ 12:22 pm

      Some very interesting thoughts and this is not especially related just to the comment above but to all on this page. Buddhism and yoga (If we want to relate yoga to Hinduism especially) grew out of a similar spiritual climate in India. However, to not clarify and distiguish the difference between these two traditions is frankly potentially mis-leading and the result of sloppy thinking. Whilst naturally there will be some overlap, as these traditions did exchange ideas along the way, the Buddha’s teaching differes in many ways from that of either classical hatha yoga or post vedanta hindu teaching. We cannot say that they are the same. If we want to say, what does it matter, they are all the same, we are simply taking a relatavistic position and showing wishful thinking…” All is one”! This is not the case.

      I would like to see both practitioners of yoga and Buddhists being doctrinally clear and based firmly in the traditions that they are teaching from. What are my credentials? I have been practicing the Buddha Dharma and am now ordained. I have also practiced Hatha yoga for around 20 years. I now run a yoga school based upon Buddhist principles. Note that I use the word principles. This topic is too long and complex for a short comment space, but I think that we need to be really careful that we don’t start confusing one thing for another and then teaching it!!

      However there is clearly some interesting development going on and I welcome the dialogue.

  2. Posted By: Rabbit Roo 4/3/2011 @ 10:15 am

    Does any of this really matter? I frequently desribe myself as a Yogist Buddic but I am also huglely influenced by the teachings of Jesus and a devotee of St Whyt who in todays terminology would best be described as a white witch. Does this make me a spiritual tart or just a reasonably well rounded person who embraces all approaches to the ultimate goal…whatever floats your boat honey, you sound like you’re doing fine and have nothing to be embarassed about to my (untrained but increasingly enlightened) mind….best wishes

    • Posted By: Karen (author) 4/3/2011 @ 9:40 pm

      Haha! Love it! Thanks for the reassurance. I, too, have always felt good about blending traditions, but curious about other people’s thoughts. I’d say you’re more likely a well rounded person than a spiritual tart (though I kind of have a fondness now for the term “spiritual tart”). Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Posted By: J. Brown 4/6/2011 @ 8:50 am

    My personal inquiry has led me to the view that the origins of Yoga predate both Hinduism and Buddhism (see “Archaic Yoga” by Georg Feuerstein.) The philosophy and practice of Yoga have always been open to wide interpretation and assertion. Just look at Vedanta. Are you a non-dualist, a qualified non-dualist, a radical non-dualist or a dualist? They are all interpreting the Vedas based on their own inclinations. I have five different translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s on my shelf. Depending on which one I pick up, I get a totally different idea about what Yoga is.

    I have heard it suggested that at the heart of all religion is Yoga. In a sense, to be a Yogi is to be all religions (minus dogma perhaps.) Whatever it is that makes us feel better about ourselves and life and facilitates this manifesting in our thoughts and actions is good.

    If bringing Buddhism into your Yoga is working for you then, I say, rock on with yourself. There is no external authority for Yoga. Ultimately, we each come to our own determinations.

    • Posted By: Karen (author) 4/6/2011 @ 5:53 pm

      Beautifully stated.

      • Posted By: Daniel 4/7/2011 @ 12:37 pm

        Actually, the interpretation of the yoga sutras cannot be compared to the different traditions of vedanta. The classical commentaries on the yoga sutras are fairly consistent in their view and the arguments between different commentators is on minor aspects, whereas in vedanta there are different views on reality. Many modern commentators impose their own ideas on the sutras of patanjali, reading their writings is not always a good way to get a clear understanding of the classical philosophy. To get a good understanding of the yoga sutras, one needs to study the commentaries in Sanskrit by Vyasa and the subcommentaries by Bhoja and Vacaspati Misra under the guidance of a bonafide guru. Relying only on later works in English will make you more confused.

        I would also say that if you want to do yoga from a Buddhist perspective, keep doing so, but do it in a conscious way understanding the similarities and differences of principles of yoga and of Buddhism. This will require some study, but the alternative is to pretend it’s all the same which in itself is not a bad thing to believe for people who are less serious about the philosophy of the practice and are just looking to chill out.

  4. Posted By: Gary Ward 4/7/2011 @ 3:26 am

    I practice asana, pranayama and the vippasana meditation technique.
    Whilst on the vippasana course I was pleasantly surprised with the philosophies similarity with the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.
    Since then it has come to my understanding that Buddisum or rather the Buddha’s teaching are an extension of the Yoga Sutra.
    In the Yoga Sutra it is all there, the development of compassion, equanimity, not clinging to spiritual or material promises, to be present and not to cling to what arises. The buddha simply elaborates on certain versus and lesser men turn what is a philosophy into a religion and call it Buddhism, but that’s another story.

  5. Posted By: Gary Ward 4/7/2011 @ 3:36 am

    Personally I think it is difficult to bring ‘religious’ elements into yoga, as the last thing we want to do is alienate others, i.e. Muslims, Christians, Jews etc. Philosophical elements is something different and the Yoga Sutra is the tool we can use to support that.
    Finally it is important to recognise the foundation of Yoga and yoga itself is not religious but a matter of staying with ‘the view'; by this I mean staying present whilst everything around you is changing.

  6. Posted By: Paul Harvey 4/9/2011 @ 1:12 pm

    A couple of offerings to the Y-B dialogue:
    Emile Senart wrote in 1900 in his work Buddhism and Yoga.
    “It was on the terrain of Yoga that the Buddha arose; whatever innovations he was able to introduce into it, the mold of Yoga was that on which his thought was formed.”

    Mircea Eliade in his seminal work Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, 1958; page 162, notes that:
    “Śākyamuni had come to know both the doctrines os Sāṃkhya and the practices of Yoga.
    Arāḍa Kālāma taught (him) a sort of preclassic Sāṃkhya at Vaiśālī, and Udraka Rāmaputra expounded the bases and goals of Yoga.”

    Finally from an Indian Philosophical perspective from within Vedānta, Buddhism is grouped along with Sāṃkhya and Yoga and rejected as it is a Nāstika or heterodox teaching in that it does not pay allegiance to the notion of a creator God.

    It is the common goals of Sāṃkhya, Yoga and Buddhism in understanding the origins of Duḥkha that unites them whilst dividing them from the tenets of orthodox (Astika) Hinduism.

    • Posted By: Daniel 4/9/2011 @ 11:54 pm

      Buddhism is often put in the same category as Jainism and Charvaka, all classified as nastika. Traditionally sankhya and yoga are considered astika schools, but some say that certain schools of Buddhism in certain aspects are more astika, astika meaning closer to the vedic teachings and not necessarily theistic, than some of the classical darshanas that are traditionally considered astika. Some Buddhists sects in Tibet that came close in their ideology to the concept of Brahman have even been wiped out completely. But it’s correct that sankhya had a lot of influence on Buddhism. Another influence of Buddhism was the atheist school of Charvaka. This is where the teachings of momentariness and non-self are comming from. These teachings have become quite popular in today’s spiritual environment and almost every yoga teacher will repeat them, especially the teaching of momentariness.

  7. Posted By: Daniel 4/10/2011 @ 11:19 pm

    Great article by Vamadeva Shastri (Dr. David Frawley) on the subject of Yoga and Buddhism:
    http://www.vedanet.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=104

  8. Posted By: Chris McKenna 4/26/2011 @ 7:41 pm

    This is a funny one.

    Part of me thinks that we need to give ourselves more credit for developing a uniquely american spiritual tradition. Basically, we’re taking some swedish gymnastics, a few seed asanas from older texts, and vipassana (which as a movement owes a great deal to Colonial Europeans expressing interest in the meditative side of the Thervadan tradiion in Sri Lanka in the early 1900s. A tradition which was basically dead at that point. See Gil Fronsdal’s lectures on the history of modern vipassana) and fusing them altogether to form something uniquely our own.

    To ask if this is wrong to me is besides the point; this is what happens! Traditions and lineages when closely analyzed are all basically dirty and messy. The history of many asiatic spiritual traditions is basically one phat lesson in appropriation. A bunch of top-notted kashmiri’s doing hindu tantra becomes the vajrayana tradition after a few centuries?! Everyone is stealing the good shit from everyone else.

    On the physical asana side of things DO NOT KNOW what people were doing, mostly. We have some ayurvedic diagnostic texts, almost nothing on asanas, and a lot of philosophy. The best evidence of movement material comes from classical Indian dance and martial arts (almost none of which made it into the modern systems with exception of Shandor’s stuff). And even with that material scholars are hotly debating origins (one theory says kalari comes from chinese pirates who stopped in kerala with some shaolin training. South Indian Dance and Martial arts added all the work on the edges of the feet to basically deal with fighting with big shields and weapons on sandy beaches).

    So what are we doing there? We’re doing what everyone before us has done – taking seed ideas and combining them with our inspiration. Who cares if my triangle pose comes from 19th century swedish gymnatics manual that someone left at the mysore palace? I think it goes really well with my thich nhat hanh book and obviously so do a lot of other people.

  9. Posted By: Daniel 4/27/2011 @ 2:31 am

    “Part of me thinks that we need to give ourselves more credit for developing a uniquely american spiritual tradition.”

    I fail to see how something that has been synchronised in 18th century India has to be credited to the Americans.

    • Posted By: Chris McKenna 4/27/2011 @ 12:54 pm

      Daniel: I agree the americans don’t get the credit for the original synthesis that became the modern asana movement. But I do think it is fair to say that we are in the process of re-interpreting and re-shaping that tradition (as it is shaping us). I would submit that “american yoga” is at this point is its own tradition – we have created it based on a variety of physical, cultural and religious practices.