I had the good fortune many years ago to attend my first yoga class with Richard Freeman. One week later, I entered graduate school at a Buddhist university, where part of our curriculum was to maintain a daily meditation practice.
Many people—and many teachers—say you should focus on only one practice. And believe me: for years, I tried.
I could never choose.
I tried to give up Dharma. I became obsessed with yoga, compromised jobs and my social life to make time for daily practice. I went to Mysore and practiced intensively for a year; I studied yoga philosophy and led my life like a yogini. This allowed me to build a strong foundation, and had huge and beneficial impact on my life.
But then at a certain point, while I was busy teaching and running a yoga studio, I hit a plateau. Something was missing; I needed a vaster view. I needed a perspective or a context in which to place the yoga practices. As I got older and faced new challenges, I needed to know how the yoga practice fit into the larger context of my life.
I veered away from yoga for a while. I went to Bodhgaya and Kathmandu, studied and practiced with Dharma teachers. Prostrated under the Bodhi tree and counted mantras on my yak bone mala. I studied obscure Tibetan texts on the nature of mind describing how bodhicitta is the seed of enlightenment. This stuff is the water of life for me—integral for my wellbeing.
And yet, I notice that without a connection to the physical body, any meditative exercise risks becoming purely intellectual.
So, what is my solution? Now I allow space for both practices in my life. Once I accepted that both lineages were here to stay, it has become simple to see how they fit together, how the practices complement each other.
Keep the Practice Pure
That said, it has always felt important to me to keep each practice pure—not to mix them or blend them like coffee roasts. Focusing on one practice at a time is good for developing the skills. It’s like learning to play music or be an artist—you have to learn the basics, the building blocks before you can begin to improvise with any insight. At least at the beginning, when you are learning a new practice, it is very important to stick to the traditional instructions—and to consult with a master to be sure you understand the instructions. Later, when you have some experience, you can improvise a bit. But like any good artist, technique is required before you have the skill to play your heart out.
There are many different approaches to working with the mind. Yoga practice emphasizes steadying the breath by aligning the body—which will take you to awareness– and meditation practice emphasizes training awareness directly. Each practice can inform the other. In the end, however, the goal is not to perfect the form; the goal, if there is one, is to tune in to awareness that will lead you to wisdom, which is accessed through compassion. But you need the form as a sort of interim goal, a ruse to trick the mind into paying attention. The practice is just a tool. You can spend your life crafting the perfect sword, but unless you put that sword to good use, it is not very helpful.
Too often, I see people who have a lot of practice under their belts, and who can’t seem to get along with others or who become rigid in their approach. It makes me wonder why they continue to practice. If practice is serving only to turn you into an arrogant expert, or an obedient slave, dogmatically repeating the prescribed formula, then perhaps another approach is necessary. As Milarepa, Tibet’s great yogi observed, “The best signs of success [in practice] are a decrease in self-centeredness and the easing of mental afflictions.”
Body, Speech, and Mind
What seems important to me is to have a balanced approach to practice. Yoga asana is a wonderful practice to keep the body fit, and this is important to set the stage. It’s helpful to have a breath-based practice to help tame the mind, like pranayama or chanting. Meditation practice is necessary to tame the mind, but because it is difficult for some to immediately connect with meditation, following the breath is a wonderful and convenient way to begin. In order to keep perspective and intention pure, study is useful, either by reading sutras or meeting with a teacher. With these bases covered, chances are a balanced practice will evolve.
A Note on Fundamentalism
Once you fixate on a point of view, you’ve backed yourself into a corner and have then obliged yourself to defend your point of view. It’s important to keep questioning your relationship to practice, not the practice itself. You can make anything dogmatic, even attempts to go beyond dogmatism. More important than the practice itself is the intention behind the practice.
According to Shakyamuni Buddha, there are 84,000 paths to enlightenment. Different practices are appropriate for different people, and phases of life. If you need several practices to remind yourself to be aware throughout the span of your day—and your life—then use whatever helps you to tap into your innate source of wisdom.
While negotiating the spiritual path, what’s made most sense to me is to let go of the cultural trappings that clothe these practices from the East. I see rather two wisdom traditions that are applicable to the modern era, with all of its unique challenges. Rather than following a practice or tradition religiously, I try to rely instead on body, breath and awareness to return to the truth of the present moment– which is the only reality we can rely on. If you lose this freshness and attempt to rely on a trail someone else has broken, you might get lost. While it’s useful to develop relationships with and follow the examples of wise masters, ultimately, we all have to find our own way.