Monday, November 9, 2015

teaching Bodhiyoga, taking my place in the lineage of the Buddha

In teaching Bodhiyoga, I am both taking my place in a lineage and becoming a pioneer. I draw on the yoga lineage, alive from the time of the Buddha and long before, of investigating and transforming the energy of the body and mind. More specifically, I draw on the modern yoga tradition; most of our familiar asanas (postures and movements) have only been practised since the early 20th Century. I also am part of the lineage of the Buddha and his explicit teachings of how to work with the mind. To bring these two traditions together, to keep the emphasis on spiritual enquiry, and to allow the practice to constantly change and flow is the work of a pioneer.

The Buddha taught that the Dharma (the path of truth he discovered) is ehi pahsiko: come and see for yourself. Bodhiyoga also encourages this experiential approach, both in my training as a teacher and in passing on teachings to my students. Bodhiyoga is not a style of yoga; our founders Sadhita and Sudaka do not claim to have created what they have taught us, nor have they copyrighted any movements or sequences. Instead, they’ve drawn on their substantial experience of yoga asana and their Buddhist practice to develop an approach to yoga. Bodhiyoga is founded on basic Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and principles of safety to encourage exploration. Often in training I would ask, ‘Am I doing this right?’ After ensuring I wasn’t in any danger of harming my body, they would respond with questions: ‘what is your purpose in the pose?’ or ‘what sensations are you experiencing?’ The emphasis on self-enquiry and on a critical exploration are hallmarks of their approach.

The three main concepts that infuse my teaching of Bodhiyoga are sati (mindfulness), metta (lovingkindness) and receptivity. We can hear a lot about ‘being mindful’, but often I think: what are we being mindful of? Again, the benefit from the Buddha’s clarity: he taught the satipatthana, the four foundations of mindfulness, which I often describe as ‘spheres of awareness’. First, we are mindful of kaya (the body): where are we placing our foot, our hip, our shoulder, our arm? Then, we are mindful of vedana (sensations in the body): is there pain, do we need to move? Is there discomfort to breathe through? Is there openness and groundedness? Next, we are mindful of citta, emotions and mood: are we contented, energised, critical, vulnerable, expansive? Finally, we are mindful of dhammas (thoughts): can we turn our distraction of what we’re doing later, when we’ll eat, who we’ll see to reflection on the impermanence of life? These reflections inform our asana and give clear instructions of how to investigate our felt experience, beyond an outward shape or posture.

The most transformative of the Buddha’s teachings is metta, lovingkindness. I often translate this term as appropriateness: becoming aware of and respecting the limits of our body on any given day. Quite simply, we practice metta when we don’t push ourselves and injure our body. But it goes deeper than the body, contacting each of the satipatthanas; metta infuses our being so that we can breathe through our sensations with gentleness, hold our emotions with kindness to ease critical voices, and observe our thoughts with curiosity bereft of judgement. So when we come into a difficult pose, we take care of the bend in our knee and the curve of the spine, breathe through the tense knot in our shoulder, acknowledge our frustration at being stiff whilst noticing our joy of balancing on one foot, and observe the thought of ‘am I doing this right?’ before letting it drop away.

Finally, receptivity allows us to open up to what our body and mind have to teach us, rather than telling them what we want them to do. Often we start with ideas of a posture or views of what we want it to look like, and we need these instructions to begin. But as our practice develops, we can open up to our experience and reverse the trajectory. We can allow the posture to affect the body and mind, and cultivate curiosity and openness as we investigate those effects.

Teaching Bodhiyoga synthesises the two lineages of the Buddha’s teachings and modern yoga asana. I teach at the Norwich Buddhist Centre, which allows a cohesiveness of approach, and I enjoy watching my students develop interest in meditation and Buddhism. Those who sign up for courses or attend drop-in meditation classes return to yoga with deeper understanding of their minds, which suffuses their posture practice with awareness and kindness. We finish each of my classes with a recitation, a dedication of our practice, and I’m humbled and happy to see students taking it to heart as they bring their yoga practice into the world: ‘May our mindfulness and our actions, both on and off the mat and cushion, benefit ourselves and all beings. May our actions be imbued with metta. May we meet our challenges with strength. May we all be well and happy.’

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