Ashtanga and zazen

Yesterday’s practice included my Shuffle and headphones and a Coldplay soundtrack. I needed something to distract me from all the stuff my mind was telling me I should be doing instead. A little music helped. Also raised the question: does Chris Martin make perfect music for Ashtanga practice because he is an Ashtangi?

Today was back to quiet. And a familiar question: Ashtanga practice and zazen. Are they the same or different? The answer is to practice. But my mind likes to pick at the question. I don’t know much about where Hinduism and Buddhism intersect historically. I have always assumed that Buddha’s experiments with asceticism probably meant he had some yogi friends. And the cultivation of the eight limbs of yoga certainly parallel the effects of zazen practice. I just am curious about whether Guruji (and Krishnamacharya, by extension) saw asana practice — and specifically vinyasa practice — as meditation in the same way that zazen is meditation.

In the Kwan Um school, there is actually a practice for people who have particularly busy minds: it’s called bowing practice. It involves full prostrations, over and over, for counts of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of prostrations. Quite similar to surya namaskara. I always adored the full prostrations.

Anyhow, that’s my question for today: Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and zazen, same or different?

Today: practice.
Tomorrow: practice.


14 Responses

  1. oh, you know the answer…

  2. I don’t think that Ashtanga is synonymous with Hinduism the way zazen (zen?) is synonymous with Budhism. There are Ashtangis that are not Hindus and not even interested in Hinduism, but zen is a form of Buddhism, so you can’t be a zen without being at least INTERESTED in Buddhism. Right?

    Same or different is the question you asked, right? Well, I can’t really answer that because I don’t know much about zen practice. But I will throw this out there – there is no physical aspect to zen, the way there is a physical workout involved in the Ashtanga practice. Right? And there are people who would not practice Ashtanga if it weren’t for the physical workout. That they end up getting a spiritual/psychological/mental benefit is sort of an accident in that case. But the same cannot be said at all for those who practice zen. No one comes to zen practice for a workout. Right? Again, I ask “right” because I don’t really “know”. I am just making assumptions,

    My conclusions are based on my assumptions…

    Hope I at least gave you food for thought…


  3. Hi Lauren,

    I guess I have some suppositions underlying my question: that the primary purpose for both the Ashtangi and the zazen practitioner would be spiritual inquiry. I understand that that’s not always the case in real life — but that was my unspoken premise in this case. Sorry for not spelling that out more clearly.

    So I’m assuming spiritual inquiry as the basis for both practices. I’m always surprised at the similarities — both suggest a path that includes pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Zen sitting practice (zazen) was developed to support a meditative inquiry. I am curious about whether Guruji or Krishnamacharya imagined a similar purpose for Ashtanga vinyasa yoga.

    And yes, you offered food for thought. Now I’m wondering whether if you took away names like “Ashtanga,” “Hindu,” Buddhism,” “Zen,” you’d end up with the same impulse to meditate on the nature of the absolute.

  4. same same but different. ashtanga is a moving meditation, and zazen is the total opposite, both encourage practice only to come to the light. i had the question posed to me which is more difficult recently…which indeed, both are incredibly challenging in again opposite ways, yet striving for the same goal. but then it would make sense as the countries that spawned both traditions could also be said to be complete opposites. same same but manfistations of different cultures….

  5. Same in that they’re both very easy. Same in that they’re both very difficult. 🙂

    Love the pictures on your blog, Esther!

  6. Hi Karen
    Hope your serratus anterior is better. How sweet of the Cop to help adjust you. This is a nice inquiry you have here. I’m in vacation mode, so I don’t know what will come out of my brain, but let me give it a try. I would like to pose the question to my teacher C., because she has both a meditation practice and an ashtanga practice.

    First, your question on whether Guruji might think that ashtanga practice is meditation such as zazen is meditation. Well, the closest I’ve come to a discussion on the matter was when my first Mysore teacher, R., asked Sharath if he did meditation daily. I think he asked him this or he asked him if he did pranayama daily, but I think the question was aimed at the subject of meditation. If I remember correctly, his response was that his pranayama (and meditation) was in the breath of his daily yoga practice. That should be comforting to those of us who are dedicated to a daily ashtanga practice but can’t sit zazen daily. I tend to sit zazen on weekends, or on days during the week when I might not be able to do the ashtanga practice.

    You ask about the relationship of Hinduism to Buddhism. I’m more familiar with the relationship chronologically between the Buddhism and Christianity, because I believe that Shakyamuni Buddha was born 500 years before Christ. Hinduism must have preceded Buddhism. I’m not a scholar and have not studied Hinduism sufficiently to know the answer. I do know that some Indian sects such as Jainism and others draw from Buddhism, from the Four Noble truths. Even in the 4 main branches of Buddhism, Zen, Chinese Buddhism, Mahayana and Teravadan, the Four Noble truths are common to all, despite the apparent outward differences of the practices. (Some rely on sutra recitations, some on sitting in silent meditation, etc.) Buddhism started in India, so it may have had its roots in Hinduism. Then it spread to China, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere.

    Zen involves devotion to sitting in meditation. Mahayana was popular in the US in the 60s when people where frustrated with the Vietnam war. People were told, “here, recited these sutras, even if you don’t understand their meaning.” It had the effect of calming their minds. Reciting the Lotus Sutra is big in that tradition. If people are worried and disoriented, give them something to do and they will feel better, is what that tradition seems to say.

    Now that I’ve read other’s comments, I would agree that what we’re talking about is different expressions of trying to achieve the same. In ashtanga we do a moving meditation, not unlike reciting sutras in some buddhist traditions, and in zen, we do some sutra recitations and a lot of sitting in silent meditation.

    Regarding the prostration practice, again, that is a outward practice with the aim of possibly achieving the same. I met a teacher in SF, Benjamin. He and another guy are an order of two people. They made their own orange robes. He committed last year to do a prostration practice. He said he would start counting, and if he lost his place in counts, he would start from one again. I asked him 6 months later how he was doing, and he told me he had to stop because he was hurting his knees and his back, that he really wanted to do it, but it was tough physically. He’s a slender man aged about 52. So, it may sound interesting, but may not be feasible for most of us.

  7. My favorite is when you blog about zen.

    A friend is a Vajrayana monastic in Crestone. Eventually she’ll have to do some huge number of prostrations (like, over a million if I am not mistaken) in order to move “to the next level” in the order. She’ll have a couple of years to do them–practicing a set number each day. And she’ll have gear for it: special gloves to slide across the floor to the altar, knee pads.

    I often think of how the first series is like that. Somewhere SKPJ’s quoted saying you should do it 1,000 times before you move on. That is a lot of prostrations (forward bends) over the course of 2-3 years.

  8. Hmmm, so at 22 practices a month, that adds up to almost 4 years of primary…

    Oh, Crestone, eh? Over by Annie Pace. I want to schedule a week there, perhaps next fall…

  9. Uh oh…. I pretty much go to Colorado every September…

    The idea of you having a relationship with Annie Pace as a teacher seems like a very good one.

  10. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and zazen, same or different?

    Imagined entity doing imagined moving meditation (ashtanga yoga). The same entity doing imagined sitting meditation (so called zazen). Is this a same or different imagination?

    Get rid off all imagination (especialy of one that you’re doing something) and you will find that this question is irrelevant.

  11. conceptually, they’re the same thing, as in, self inquiry through consistent practice.

    historically, I think they’re the same thing, as in, krishna’s kriya yoga + sakyamuni’s original teachings = patanjali’s ashtanga yoga.

    I can’t help but think that the buddha was a yogic populist/reformer – he took the “power” away from the brahmins and gave it back to the people. concepts changed, terminology evolved, but in the end it’s all yoga.

    have you read chip hartranft’s translation of the yoga sutras? he perfectly synthesizes the two systems. you can google him – he’s got a free version online.

    happy new year! go pats!

  12. Hi Zee. Nice to hear from you! Yes, here I am, slogging away in Imaginationland. Silly me.

    Cody, I have the Hartranft version printed out and use it to compare to other translations. I find his version always helps “translate” what the other translations are saying. 😉

    And yes, I always imagine (sorry, Zee!) Buddha starving himself for a while with the other yogis, and then saying, “Geez, you guys! Let’s chillax a bit and re-think this path to enlightment.”

  13. Aha, I see now while Buddha switched from zazen to ashtanga. He probably heard that zen saying “If you see Buddha, kill the mother fucker”. He was afraid to “just sit”, he started the moving meditation. 🙂

    My dear Karen, I am sorry if you always imagine. Let me suggest you making a new year resolution to stop that habit. Start smoking. It is much healthier.

    I’ll give you something for the next year:… While you dreaming, the dream is so real, the dream world does not give you possibility or opportunity to doubt it. While you dreaming, you have forgottent yourself (as you are now). Only when you wake up, you do remember your dream. The question for you to solve in 2008 is: Have you fogottent something now, in this waking dream?

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