Embracing change: a new perspective on the body

In today’s society, the emphasis on physical appearance is undeniable. We’re bombarded with messages about looking good, being fit, and striving for an ideal body image. This obsession with outer beauty has even permeated the world of yoga, as well. Magazines and brands portray the modern yogi as someone who is not only flexible and strong but also aesthetically pleasing in every way.

However, this fixation on the external aspects of the body couldn’t be further from the original teachings of yoga. In the early ascetic schools of yoga in India the body was viewed not as something to be sculpted and perfected but as an obstacle to spiritual growth. Rather than spending one’s days worrying about diet, protein intake, weight loss, muscle mass, and all the countless other metrics we are told to pay attention to today, the early yogis rejected body consciousness and dedicated themselves to transcending it.

The early ascetics: viewing the body as an obstacle

Why were those forest dwelling yogis of old so down on the body? Because they considered the sensual nature of the body impure. It chained the practitioner to the material world – the world of burning desire and aversion – and separated her from the eternal or the divine. The yogic goal was to transcend such a materialistic existence and to unite with the divine, the eternal and the pure.

The rise of Tantra: a shift in perception

As the cultural climate started to change in India, with the rise of the Tantric period of Indian history during the first millennium CE, the perception of the body became less negative and more positive. Rather than the cause of vice, degradation and naughtiness, the body became the temple of the divine. Practitioner sought to experience it within him or herself. As a vehicle for transformation, body needed to be purified, preserved and kept healthy.  The goal of such practice was moksha – the merging of the atman (individual soul) into the brahman (ultimate reality, the divine).

Both the earlier ascetic and later tantric times made a dualistic distinction between matter and spirit, relegating matter – prakriti – to a lower status. The body was seen as less important then the soul within. It needed to be mortified and purified in order to transcend it. The concept of purity is dualistic since purity and impurity exist only in opposition to one another.

The Buddhist perspective: seeing things as they are

What is Buddhist Yoga?

Buddhist teaching points beyond dualism of matter and spirit, of pure and impure. It states that the nature of the body and the mind are identical. By its nature, the body is neither pure nor impure, but simply “such”, the way it is – tathata. ( You can read more about suchness in this article.)

What we call “my body” is inherited (biologically, genetically and culturally). We are responsible for it, but we don’t own it. Our body is a consequence of a long chain of causes and conditions coming to fruition. To perceive the body as ‘mine’ is  a distorted view, which results in distorted treatment of the body. We treat the body as an object that needs to fulfil our expectations to look and perform a certain way. To achieve, to seduce, to always be “beautiful”.

Buddhist practice is concerned about seeing things as they are, not as we wish them to be. To help with this, the Buddhist tradition talks about right and wrong views; those understandings that are a closer approximation to reality and those that are completely off. Same goes regarding views of the body. Wrong views of the body include:

  • to perceive the body as pure (or impure)
  • to perceive the body as a source of contentment
  • to perceive the body as permanent
  • to perceive the body as self

So what is Buddhist Yoga?

An important difference between the yogic and Buddhist teaching is that Buddha questioned the existence of the eternal soul, or atman, and did not perceive the unification of atman and brahman as liberation. He understood that those deep states of union, no matter how special and ecstatic, are also transitory and impermanent. Therefore, Buddha turned towards one thing that everyone else was running away from – the impermanence itself. This was a revolutionary turn around that remains one of the main insights of Buddha’s teaching – that everything is impermanent. There is nothing to hold on to as fixed and eternal. Everything is constantly changing, arising and ceasing.

In Buddhist yoga, physical practice will help us to experience this directly. It brings the body into balance and deeply relaxes it so we can work with the mind through observation, or mindfulness, and eventually apprehend the true nature of the body, or its suchness. We are interconnected with the natural world, coming into existence due to numerous causes and conditions that wove together the fabric of our life. There is nothing fixed and separate. Buddhism calls this ‘emptiness’. A direct experience of this is the deeper outcome of Buddhist yoga practice.

“It is just within this ‘fathom long’ body
endowed with perception and cognition
that there is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world,
and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”

Rohitassasutta, SN 2.26

Mindfulness starts in the body

Mindfulness practice, coupled with ethics and study, leads towards a new perspective on life.

In the Satipatthana Sutta, or the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, generally regarded as the fullest instructions on the systematic cultivation of mindfulness, the first foundation of mindfulness is that of the body. The other three are feeling, mind and the objects of the mind.

Working with the body in the four postures discussed in the Satipatthana Sutta – sitting, standing, walking (moving) or lying down – is the foundation of Dynamic Mindfulness yoga.

Dynamic Mindfulness yoga: embracing awareness

Dynamic Mindfulness Yoga, rooted in Buddhist wisdom, offers a contemporary approach to yoga practice. It encourages practitioners to step away from superficial goals and instead focus on experiencing the body as a continuum of experiences, directly, from within the body. Asanas are not just physical forms to achieve but expressions of a deeper journey towards mindfulness and self-awareness.

What is Buddhist Yoga?

Holistic, biomechanically informed transitions enable one area to support another, intelligently moving from place to place and expressing mindfulness in motion.

Even though physical practice will make you strong, mobile and balanced, the purpose of mindfulness yoga practice is not to achieve different shapes with the body. It is rather a body based awareness practice that offers excellent benefits to your physical health, too.

You don’t need to be a Buddhist to practice or teach the Dynamic Mindfulness style of yoga or to benefit from the effects of this practice. Such a decision should come from a deep personal resonance with its teaching and path.

Moving beyond obsession: finding beauty in being present

The conclusion is that the body isn’t something we need to obsess over, discipline, reject or deny. It is what it is. And one of those things is an incredible vessel to take you to a deeper connection with the most beautiful and profound reality. A yoga practice informed by the richness of the Buddhist tradition isn’t concerned about “being sexy” or “looking absolutely amazing” – though you will feel amazing. It is focused on cultivating present moment awareness and seeing into the reality of things. And what a beautiful sight that is.