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Mindfulness Yoga: Hatha Yoga and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Hatha Yoga, Integral Yoga Teachings   |   February 21, 2014  |   by Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio  ~Yogaville

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 the essential aspect of authentic Yoga practice. The word Yoga comes from the root yuj, meaning to “yoke or to harness” and signifies both spiritual endeavor, especially the disciplining of the mind and the senses, and the state of integration. Yoga includes the various philosophies and practices Georg Feurstein calls “the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India.” Its purpose is to liberate the practitioner from the existential human situation of duhkha, variously translated as suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction. Buddhism, a bona fide child of the Yoga Tradition offers a complete and coherent model of Yogic theory and practice and, like all authentic Yoga, it is moksha-shastra, a liberation teaching designed to free us from duhkha.

In an early discourse, the Buddha is asked if it is possible 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, it is 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.” 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.

While the Buddha taught many 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‘remember’ is 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 (Awareness of Breathing), and the Satipatthana Suttas (The Foundation of Mindfulness), the Buddha instructs us to observe the breath, gradually extending our awareness to include the whole body. He instructs us to be aware of the movements and positions of the body, while standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, while bending over, or stretching our 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.

The relevance of this teaching for practicing Hatha Yoga is 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?

With the Four Foundations, asana practice becomes a fully authentic mindfulness practice, in essence no different than sitting or walking meditation. This is the practice of Mindfulness Yoga; the cultivation of mindfulness using 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.

First Foundation

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is “the body within the body.” 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.

We’re encouraged to simply know an in-breath as an in-breath, an out-breath as an out-breath. 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. 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 when attention is fully absorbed in the body, there is a fully integrated sense of presence.

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? Contemplating the Five Great Elements (earth, water, fire, air and space), the yogi begins to understand that life is not isolated in her own body; that there is no “self” separate from the elements. The First Mindfulness Training of ahimsa or non-harming reminds us to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. As our bodies cannot exist without these minerals, we begin to see that the distinction between organic and inorganic is ultimately conceptual – there is no real separation.

The final practice of the First Foundation is contemplating 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. The effect of this meditation can be liberating as we let go of all the effort we make in attempting to deny the only thing we know for certain – that we will die!

Second Foundation

Practicing “Feelings within the Feelings,” we deepen our intimacy with experience by bringing mindfulness to feelings – not as a disassociated observer, but from within the feelings themselves. Feelings are not emotions but the “feeling tone” or “felt sense” of experience.

To see for yourself what is meant here, take a moment to close your eyes and just sit, with your hands resting on your lap, palms down. Settle yourself into the experience, noting how it feels to sit here – physically and energetically. You may note such feelings as “heavy,” “grounded,” “stable,” or “dull.” Then, maintaining your attention, turn your palms upward and note if there’s a change in the feeling tone. You may find yourself feeling “light,” “open,” “receptive” or “vulnerable,” among other possible feelings.

Feelings are a primal experience that precedes any reaction or emotion. The importance of bringing mindfulness to such feelings cannot be over-estimated. It is at the junction between feeling and reactivity that mindfulness provides the possibility of freely choosing how to respond to any given situation.

The Buddha noted that feelings condition our whole world. We spend huge amounts of energy trying to create and prolong pleasant feelings while attempting to avoid unpleasant feelings, and we become confused, bored or simply “checked-out” when experiencing neutral feelings. This grasping, aversion and ignorance, called the “three poisons,” are the roots of duhkha, poisoning the experience of life. If mindfulness is not present, feelings quickly give rise to moods, emotions, perceptions, ideas and whole stories and identities that cause duhkha for us and for those with whom we interact.

Hatha Yoga practice can either help us grow in awareness and insight, or create duhkha, depending on whether mindfulness is present or not. For example, when practicing an asana you enjoy, or experience, the psychological pleasure of the “successful” performance of a challenging posture, if you are not mindful, you can get caught in craving and clinging, seeking to prolong or repeat the feeling as soon as it wanes (as it most assuredly will since all phenomena are impermanent). While it is a pleasure to accomplish a challenging posture, without mindfulness, as the Gherandha-Samhita warns, asana practice becomes an obstacle to liberation because the ego-gratification is clung to, and identification with ego and the body becomes more rigid and solid. We get caught in pride and our identity as someone who can do “advanced postures.” When conditions change (through illness, injury or age) and we can no longer do what we used to do, we can become discouraged and even suffer despair.

Mindfulness shows us how quickly the mind seeks to push the unpleasant away, to eliminate it. Such aversion creates tension that is often more painful than the original sensation. The Buddha referred to this added anguish as “the second arrow.” Bringing awareness to neutral feelings cultivates greater clarity about our experience. In fact, most of our experience is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Because this is so, we spend much of our time seeking intensity of feeling, or falling into boredom. Through greater awareness of the neutral aspect of experience, we remain present to experience and cultivate greater ease, enjoying the calm of neutrality.

In opening ourselves to felt experience, we allow ourselves to live life fully, not caught in patterned habits of reactivity.Rather than conditionally reacting to experience, we can choose to respond creatively. The key to this freedom is in bringing mindfulness to our feelings before they condition our reactivity.

Third Foundation

The Dhammapada’s opening lines point to the importance of mind in creating the lived experience of our world:

Our life is shaped by our mind;
all actions are led by mind;
created by mind.
Duhkha follows an unskillful thought
as the wheels of a cart follows the oxen that draw it.
Suhkha follows a skillful thought
as surely as one’s shadow.

The Buddha taught that actions are preceded by volitions that create wholesome or unwholesome consequences. This is the teaching of karma; there are consequences to our actions. Rather than blaming external conditions for duhkha, we realize that the ultimate cause of duhkha is found in the mind – the same place liberation is found.

In turning attention to the activity of the mind, all psychological phenomena are included: emotions, perceptions, conceptualization, imagination, and discrimination – the citta-samskara or “mental formations.” Citta or mind is the totality of these ever-changing psychological phenomena, not a thing, or unchanging subject.

With mindfulness of the mental formations, we attempt to “know” a mental formation as a mental formation. When not mindful of mental formations, we believe and identify with them. When we recognize a mental formation as a mental formation, it loses much – or all – of its power over us. When mindfulness is there, the mental formation has already been transformed. While practicing asana, mindfulness of the mental formations provides a wonderful opportunity to observe and recognize our mental patternings and how they condition our habitual tendencies. Noticing how quickly the mind categorizes experience into “good” and “bad” can free us from believing these potentially limiting notions.

Discomfort may arise during asana practice. Much discomfort is really just a reaction to novelty, and much pain is the pain of change. Such pain can provide an opportunity to grow in mindfulness. Truly injurious or excessive pain should be honored, but the truth is, most of the pain that one experiences in asana practice is merely discomfort and not injurious. With discomfort, it is fruitful to drop out of your aversive reactivity and bring a gently embracing quality of mindfulness to the discomfort. When we do this, we see for ourselves that there really is a difference between pain and suffering. This is an important insight with real benefit to life off the mat. Working with mindfulness of the mind means that when the inevitable losses of life occur, you can just feel the pain and not add suffering as well.

Mindfulness shows how one creates a sense of self through reactivity, belief patterns, and dramatizing story lines; what Patanjali calls asmita. The more attached we are to our stories of self, the more tension and suffering we create, but it’s not until we really see this for ourselves that any opening can occur.

Fourth Foundation

Mindfulness of the dharmas, provides the context of bringing mindfulness to specific mental qualities, and analyzing experience into categories that constitute core aspects of the Buddha’s Dharma (or teaching). These classifications are points of reference to be applied during contemplation to whatever experiences arise while practicing and include the Five Hindrances, the Seven Factors of Awakening, and the Four Noble Truths. While one can contemplate these dharmas while practicing asanas, a more accessible practice is to bring mindfulness to the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Contemplation of impermanence is a “dharma gate” opening to the understanding of the interdependent, conditioned, and selfless nature of all that exists.

Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence. From day to day, the body feels and moves differently each time we come to practice. We know things change, yet we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so! This is avidya, “not-seeing” as a kind of willful denial. But ignoring or denying the truth of impermanence perpetuates suffering and misery, and opening to the reality of change liberates that energy.

In Genjo Koan Zen Master Dogen writes, “If you examine myriad things with a confused body-mind, you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.” If “self” is understood as an entity that is autonomous, independent, and persistent over time, then insight into impermanence leads inevitably to the clear view that all things lack such an unchanging self. Even the consciousness of self that we take such pains to protect and bolster is not an autonomous, independent, persistent thing or entity; it is a process that is in constant flux, conditioned by everything else that is in constant change.

Because we are “empty” of a separate self, we inter-are with everything else. This is the Buddha’s unique contribution to the Yoga tradition: Dependent Co-origination, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” Reading these words on the page, can you see the tree from which the paper comes? The tree’s ancestors? The earth, the nutriments, the rain, the sun? For this page of paper to exist all those conditions and many more are needed, including the loggers, the processors, truckers, printers etc.

The Buddha said that when we enter through the door of impermanence, we touch nirvana, here and now. Nirvana is the extinction of our notions and ideas about reality so that we may perceive reality as it is. Our grasping and aversion, our greed, anger and delusion are extinguished. Also extinguished is our attachment and bondage to concepts such as birth and death, existent and non-existent, increasing and decreasing, pure and impure.

Through penetrating the reality of impermanence, our grasping after ephemeral phenomena weakens. With this insight comes nirodha (cessation). This is the Third Noble Truth of the Buddha, often used as a synonym for nirvana, and also Patanjali’s definition of Yoga. Practicing asana, we may notice many small cessations. We may experience a pleasant sensation and the arising of a mental formation. With mindfulness, we see attachment, and based upon an awareness of impermanence, the attachment fades away. It happens once, and then again and again. Over time, the fading away continues until that particular attachment ceases. This is a small, but potentially profound taste of liberation.

Finally comes letting go and the insight that it is not you that lets go. Throughout practice, there was that vestige of self-consciousness that could take credit for the insight into impermanence, and cessation. The final thing to let go is the idea of a separate enduring self. The irony is that this is a letting go of what was never there! Letting go means to see through all that keeps us (falsely) separated from reality as it is. The supposed boundary between “self” and “other,” is seen as not real. Nothing needs to be removed or added or joined together! Enlightenment and liberation comes not in turning away from our human condition, but within it, and as its fulfillment.

Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio, a certified Yoga Teacher and ordained Zen Buddhist Teacher, is also an Interfaith Minister and a lay brother in the Tiep Hien Order established by Thich Nhat Hanh. His eclectic approach is influenced by his study of a variety of Yoga approaches as well as his many years of Dharma practice. His book, Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind, is the only full-length treatment applying the Buddha’s Mindfulness Meditation teachings on The Four Establishments of Mindfulness to Yoga asana practice.

(by Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio, from the August, 2009 IYTA Newsletter)

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