Combining Yoga with Buddhist Practice

Practicing modern styles of hatha yoga, such as Ashtanga vinyasa, Iyengar yoga, or indeed any other style that emphasizes asana practice, can provide great benefits for our Buddhist practice too:

  • Daily asana practice trains our discipline and makes it easier for us to start a regular meditation practice.
  • Our body become stronger and more flexible, which makes our seated meditation sessions easier. In shamatha practice where we aim to gain a stilled and settled state of mind, the posture is highly important and asana practice will aid in this.
  • If we can stay concentrated on our asana practice, it prepares our attention for introspection, like in pranayama practice focused on the breath.
  • Shavasana, or corpse posture, helps us to learn to relax – something crucial when training to develop shamatha.

Philosophically, the situation gets a little more complicated, because many key ideas within yoga and Buddhism are defined in very different ways. If we plan to practice both hatha yoga and Buddhism, it’s important not to mix the philosophical views of these two systems.

Similarities in the Philosophies of Yoga and Buddhism

There are certain similarities between the philosophical views of yoga and Buddhism:

  • Both traditions accept karma and rebirth and both of these are considered problematic.
  • Our habitual way of perceiving reality is distorted by avidya - our unawareness of how things really are. This is what drives karma and rebirth.
  • Our distorted view of reality gives rise to kleshas – disturbing emotions like anger, attachment and arrogance.
  • The way to stop this distorted view is through prajna – understanding of how reality truly is.
  • To allow the mind to settle in this understanding, we need samadhi – concentration.
  • To reach a state of samadhi, we first need to follow ethical discipline. In yoga this is called yama (universal ethics) and niyama (personal observance of ethics), while in Buddhism it’s called shila (ethical self-discipline).
  • By training our mind in this way, we achieve moksha – liberation from karma and rebirth.

These ideas are similar, but to generalize and think that they’re exactly the same will lead to huge misunderstandings.

Differences in the Philosophies of Yoga and Buddhism

While the steps above look similar, the basic beliefs underlying the practices differ greatly:

  • Yoga texts often say that reality is maya – an illusion that doesn’t exist. Buddhism doesn’t claim that reality doesn’t exist at all, but says our projections of reality are irrational, unrealistic, and problematic.
  • Yoga is a theistic system with belief in an atman – a soul, as well as Brahma – a creator God. Buddhism denies the existence of both of these.
  • The final state of liberation in yoga practice is often described as a union between our atman and the creator Brahma. In Buddhism, understanding reality and getting rid of negative tendencies has nothing to do with a soul or a higher being, but is solely about mastering our own mind.
  • Ahimsa – the principle of nonviolence, is shared by both systems. Other aspects of ethical behavior are understood in different ways, for instance:
  • The yogic path is often described as being an ascetic way (tapas), while Buddha placed a strong emphasis on following the middle way, without falling into the extremes of hedonism and asceticism.

Practicing modern styles of yoga can most definitely be beneficial to our Buddhist practice, as long as we’re mindful of the differences in the philosophical views of each system, are careful not to mix them, and practice the two in separate sessions.