About Zen Yoga
For a more in-depth look at the background and influences of Zen yoga please see the write-up at the bottom of the page.
Zen Yoga Classes
There are many Zen yoga teachers in the US and in Europe. Shinkai and Julie lead Zen yoga classes at Everyday People Yoga in Eugene. Also check out the Zenways Zen yoga channel on YouTube. A couple of Zen taiso videos are embedded below.
Zenways Yoga Teacher Trainings
200-hour yoga teacher trainings run by Blue Cliff Zen Center in collaboration with Zenways. For more information please visit the Yoga Teacher Training Page.
Zen yoga: background and styles
This article was compiled and written by Julian Daizan Skinner, founder of Zenways Sangha in London – our sister sangha. We recognize, of course, that there are different takes on what Zen yoga practice is.
Zen yoga refers to a variety of physical and energetic practices that can be found within the Zen Buddhist tradition, and increasingly taught in the West. Some Zen temples include a taiso (exercise) period, often early in the morning, including yoga-like postures, quick repetitive exercises, and/or more flowing exercises reminiscent of Tai Chi. These exercises are designed to open and unblock the body in preparation for sitting meditation, develop a deeper awareness of the body, and as an opportunity to practice “becoming one” with what’s happening in the moment (expressed in Japanese through the terms narikiru – become one – or ima-koko – now-here).
- 1 History and origins
- 2 Principles
- 3 Practices/schools
- 4 References
- 5 External links
History and origins
Origins with the Buddha
The Buddha grew up around 500 B.C.E. in a time of great political and spiritual upheaval. The brahmanas, the spiritual orthodoxy, followed the teachings of the Vedas (written in the ninth century B.C.E.) and the Upanishads (compiled from around the seventh century B.C.E.). Ritual and offering were central to their beliefs, and these could only be performed by the spiritual caste, the Brahmins. The ritual act of making offerings was even, at times, venerated even more than the gods themselves, and as a consequence the Brahmins became very powerful and secretive.
A number of ‘radical’ spiritual schools and teachers emerged (the shramana schools) in reaction to this brahmana orthodoxy (sometimes called the “movement of the forest sages”), of which the Buddha was one. What the Buddha offered was a straightforward method to alleviate suffering and lead towards liberation, accessible to people of all castes. As opposed to some of the more extreme positions that appeared (emphasising severe austerities or sensual indulgence) he taught what he called the ‘middle way‘, emphasising moderation, calmness and non-forcing.
He taught that there are no absolute “things”, there are only processes in a constant state of change (annica); that there is no fixed or permanent essence or soul (annata); and that suffering is inherent to life (dukkha) (the Three Marks of Existence). In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha described four foundations (or bases) of mindfulness – mindfulness of the body, of sensations, of the mind, and of dharmas (i.e. phenomena, thoughts, arisings), and is recorded as saying, “There is one thing that leads to happiness in the present and liberation in the future; and what is this one thing? It is mindfulness of the body.” (Anguttara Nikaya, sutta I, 21.) Thus mindfulness of the body is the direct way to liberation and the end of suffering. Zen yoga practice is primarily concerned with the body and sensations, and observing life as a process in a constant state of change, so is in direct line with the Buddha’s method of awakening.
Again in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha says
Furthermore, when going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away… when bending & extending his limbs… when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe & his bowl… when eating, drinking, chewing, & savouring… when urinating & defecating… when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert. In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally… unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.
Hatha and Yantra Yoga
Hatha Yoga was followed by Natha Yogis and is traced to Shrimad Bhagwata Geeta, and was practiced much before Buddha, tracing its origins to the Yoga-sutras written by the sage Patañjali (from the 2nd century B.C.E.) and the Goraksha Samhita (written in the 11th century by yogi Gorakshanath). The word ‘hatha’ in Sanskrit literally means ‘force’, so Hatha Yoga is the “Discipline of Force”. It stresses mastery of the body as a way of attaining a state of spiritual perfection in which the mind is withdrawn from external objects. The Buddha once related his experiences with a Hatha Yoga-type breath-retention practice and found it had a great effect, but not conducive to awakening:
…I stopped the in-breaths & out-breaths in my nose & mouth. As I did so, there was a loud roaring of winds coming out my earholes, just like the loud roar of winds coming out of a smith’s bellows… So I stopped the in-breaths & out-breaths in my nose & mouth & ears. As I did so, extreme forces sliced through my head, just as if a strong man were slicing my head open with a sharp sword… Extreme pains arose in my head… There was an extreme burning in my body… And although tireless persistence was aroused in me, and unmuddled mindfulness established, my body was aroused & uncalm because of the painful exertion… But with this racking practice of austerities I haven’t attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to Awakening?
The word hatha can also be seen as a combination of two separate “Bīja mantras” or single syllables – “ha” representing the masculine or solar energy and “tha” as the feminine or lunar energy. Thus Hatha Yoga is the practice of bringing balance to the two opposing forces. The first occurrence of the term ‘hatha yoga’ is in fact found in the Buddhist Guhyasamāja tantra dating from the 8th century.
Yantra yoga (or Trul khor) is the Tibetan Buddhist parallel to the Hindu or Vedic Hatha yoga tradition. The discipline includes similar body postures (asanas) and pranayama practices, and includes mantra practice and visualisations. Originating with the mahasiddhas of India, it was brought to Tibet in the eighth century by the great master Padmasambhava and transmitted to the Tibetan Dzogchen master Vairochana. Its practice is nowadays found in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Evolution into China and Japan
With the revival of Hinduism around the turn of the first millennium C.E. and the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century C.E., Buddhism began to decline. However, yoga and Buddhism had already spread into neighbouring countries, including Tibet and China to the north. At around 500 C.E., an Indian monk called Bodhidharma arrived in southern China and taught practices centered on physical health and wellbeing, meditation and the direct mind-to-mind transmission teachings of the Lankavatara Sutra. According to Chinese legend, the physical practices he taught monks to prepare them for meditation included a series of external exercises called the Eighteen Arhat Hands (Shi-ba Lohan Shou) and an internal (energetic) practice called the Sinew Metamorphosis Classic. The Yijin Jing (“Muscle/Tendon Change Classic”) is also attributed to Bodhidharma. As these practices developed, they led to the creation of Shaolinquan school of Kung Fu.
As the Buddhism of Bodhidharma fused with the prevailing Chinese philosophies and practices of Confucianism and Taoism, it became Ch’an (from Sanskrit dhyāna, meaning “meditation” or “meditative state”). Over the centuries, Ch’an spread to Japan where it become known as Zen, taking with it the rich combination of physical and energetic practices known variously as yoga, Qigong, and Tao Yin.
Dating back to around the fourth century C.E., Yogācāra (literally “yoga practice”) is one of the two main philosophical systems that underlies Zen, and includes the Lankavatara Sutra mentioned above. It contains a sophisticated psychology of awakening and emphasises the practice of mindfulness. This mindfulness leads not to an experience but to a total shift in the way we relate to all experiences. This shift is referred to in the Yogācāra tradition as parāvṛtti, “turning around”.
Modern Zen yoga in Japan
Calligraphy brushed by Zen master Shinzan Miyamae Roshi, with the characters do-zen
There are three terms in contemporary Japan used to describe yoga-style movement work: do-in (from the Chinese Tao Yin), Zen taiso (literally Zen exercise), and Zen yoga (first coined by Zen master Masahiro Oki). See below for more information.
In modern times, Zen masters Hogen Daido Roshi and Harada Tangen Roshi, in particular, have advocated and taught yoga practices to complement their Zen training. One student of Hogen Daido Roshi recalls that he constantly imparted the importance of mixing moving Zen (do-zen) into Zen practice: “…there are four kinds of Zen: sitting, standing, lying, and moving. We should practise them all. Whatever we do, we must do it fully, mindfully, wholeheartedly, one thing at a time without being attached to or involved in it. When we practise moving Zen, the quality of our daily lives becomes very different.”
In Zen, the inseparability of the “body-mind” is often stressed, together with the need to retain our flexibility for life. Hogen Roshi taught that “By doing yoga and zazen, we can begin to appreciate the real state of our body and mind, both of which are stiff and unpeaceful. We should not hate them. Please, let them be as they are. Taste their special bitter taste”.
Zen practice in general, and Zen Yoga in particular, emphasize three intertwined areas – physical alignment, the flow of energy in the body and awareness or mindfulness (Japanese “nen” 念).
First of all, we must sit with the spine erect, not leaning left nor right, forward nor backward. The nose must be in a vertical line with the belly button and our ears are to be in level with our shoulders.
By practising Zen yoga we therefore prepare the body for prolonged upright sitting. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki teaches that we must then carry this alignment out into all activities of our daily life:
So try always to keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all your activities. Take the right posture when you are driving your car, and when you are reading. If you read in a slumped position, you cannot stay awake long. Try. You will discover how important it is to keep the right posture… The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is itself enlightenment.
One of the reasons why correct posture is so emphasised is because it powerfully influences both our mind-state and our energy. Underlying Zen is a conception of the human system as an energetic phenomenon. This energy or ki is seen as something that can be enhanced or depleted. Moreover, the courses of energy flow are not random but follow particular directions and routes called “myaku” (Jp.; or meridians). This energy has two basic dimensions – one that influences our health, wellbeing and emotional state, and one that takes us beyond any particular state to a condition of non-dual awareness.
We can characterise these two energetic dimensions as:
- Problem-solving – boosting our health & wellbeing, making life better, and feeling more alive.
- The condition in which we realise that there was never a problem in the first place.
Energy and consciousness are inextricably linked – when we change our energy, we change our consciousness and vice versa.
One of the traditional Japanese names for yoga is do-in (from the Chinese Tao Yin), which translates as “guiding and stretching”. Through the yoga practice we stretch the body and energy routes, and guide the energy in beneficial directions. Intention is ultimately the means through which this guiding happens. The manifestation of intention may be through the breath, through imagery or simply through focused attention.
Much modern yoga practice aims to open and energise our wellbeing energy circuits (energy channels that operate in the world of opposites – left, right, back, front, etc.) without touching on the non-dual areas. Although it is a worthwhile and noble aspiration to attain optimal health and wellbeing, the practitioner nevertheless remains in the world of duality – the world of this and that, of me and the universe. Zen is emphatic that within this worldview there is no happy ending to the story of life, no liberation from our fundamental suffering. However healthy and emotionally balanced we are, we remain in a condition of separation, where the Universe is seen as huge, threatening and ultimately indifferent.
This is just a worldview. It is possible to live in a place which is beyond this duality, which is the main aim of Zen practice.
The third aspect of Zen yoga is the application of awareness or mindfulness (Japanese, “nen” 念). As mentioned above, the Buddha is recorded as saying, “There is one thing that leads to happiness in the present and liberation in the future; and what is this one thing? It is mindfulness of the body.”
How do we find this happiness and liberation? Strangely enough it is through coming face-to-face with our unhappiness and reactivity – in this case as they manifest in the body. Makko-ho, a traditional Japanese sequence of stretches, literally means “the practice of facing things”. These are a set of curative exercises originally developed from temple prostration practice in the 1930s by the pioneering Japanese yoga teacher, Nagai Wataru, then taken up and extended by Shizuto Masunaga, populariser of shiatsu massage.
The most important Zen master in the last 500 years, Hakuin Zenji had a saying that “Buddhas are like water and ordinary people are like ice”. In Zen yoga practice, postures and movements are used to bring the body into focus so that we can notice any tightnesses or restrictions. The student is then directed to bring their non-judgemental attention to these blocked or closed areas, and it’s this simple awareness that causes the ice to begin to melt. All we need is an attitude of curiosity and non-judgemental kindness.
Zen master Julian Daizan Skinner Roshi, teacher of Zen yoga, says that “rather than causing our ice to melt into an inert puddle, this liberated water becomes more like a fountain; it has shape, dynamism and energy but nevertheless there’s an ungraspable quality.”
The Yogacara philosophy (one of the two main philosophical systems that underlies Zen) emphasises that, as the individual begins to open and become more free, flowing and dynamic, they come to inhabit a different world which takes on a similar quality.
As mentioned above, some Zen temples include a taiso (exercise) period somewhere within their daily (or if not, retreat) schedule. Taiso practice routines differ from popular modern yoga classes. Rather than focussing on “sun salutations”, “warrior poses” and muscular flexibility, the quality of mindfulness and honing in on releasing energy in the body’s meridian lines is deliberately emphasised.
According to the experience of one Zen monk who studied in a variety of contemporary Japanese and Korean Zen monasteries, both monks and laity practice a variety of yoga-like practices ranging from individual stretching (lunges, hip releases, and chest openers) to temple-wide taiso routines held every morning. He recalls “These routines focussed on consciously and mindfully relaxing areas of the body through stretching (in particular areas that needed extra care owing to long hours of sitting). The practice also worked directly with the body as one’s object of focus, and the corresponding awareness incorporated in the process, was viewed as extremely powerful.” Ultimately, the time spend doing temple yoga, both individually and as a group, was taught to be the ideal opportunity for attaining awakening (kensho) through mindfulness of the body.
In Japan, if the temple holds formal taiso sessions, they would often be held at the beginning of the day, say 4am each morning for 20-25 mins. See here for an example. At Bukkoku-ji (where Tangen Harada was the Roshi – see above), they took the form of a mixture of quick repetitive exercise (everyone counting together) with poses held for longer times. These poses were incorporated to isolate openings in for example, the stomach and spleen meridians for a back bend, the liver and gall bladder meridians for a wide-legged side bend, and so on. They were integrated with a specific purpose in mind and were to be done with awareness alongside breathing in the hara (belly).
Temple taiso routines, however, vary according to the temple and teacher. At the Weoljeong-sa temple in South Korea, for example, the monks spend an hour or more each morning doing taiso under the direction of the lead monk while on their 3-month winter retreat.
Oki-do yoga is a system originating with the Japanese teacher-healer-philosopher Masahiro Oki. It is a unique blend of traditional Indian hatha yoga with Zen meditation, dancing, physical games, martial arts, and chanting. The training method emphasizes balance between opposites: tension and relaxation, heat and cold, stillness and movement.
Masahiro Oki is credited as the first person to use the term “zen yoga”.
Daizan Roshi teaching a Zen yoga class at the ZenYoga studio in London
Zenways is an organisation set up by Zen master Julian Daizan Skinner Roshi in 2007 to promote and encourage activities and practices that enhance human wellbeing and awakening (satori or kensho). Zenways offers a 200hr Zen yoga teacher training course, together with meditation and mindfulness teacher training courses, workshops, retreats, meditation classes, and opportunities for zen study.
Over the years of his Zen training, Daizan Roshi studied yoga-style physical movement in Zen temples in Europe, USA and Japan. He synthesises his knowledge of these disciplines into a Zen yoga practice that combines physical challenge with mental and spiritual development. He teaches regularly at “Yugagyo Dojo” (ZenYoga), a Zen training place he established with his students in London. With more than 5000 hours of yoga teaching experience, Daizan Roshi offers a yoga teacher training programme to help teachers to find an expression that is authentically their own and will bring them success when they teach.
Zen yoga with Aaron Hoopes
Yoga teacher Aaron Hoopes founded a style of yoga he called Zen Yoga as a variation of traditional yoga that combines the different philosophies of various Eastern health and fitness traditions. He created this form to increase accessibility to people who are less athletic. The philosophies of shanti yoga, qigong, and tai-chi are combined to help increase flexibility, improve the flow of breathing, and open joints. The philosophy of Zen is incorporated through being mindfully aware of the present moment. The basic principle of Zen Yoga is that simple breathing, movement and stretching exercises are available to anyone regardless of age, fitness, or health.
Zen Yoga with Tatjana Mesar
Zen Yoga teacher and shiatsu therapist Tatjana Mesar created a contemporary fusion of holistic asana flow, mindfulness meditation and applied anatomy and physiology of postures, movement and breathing for the modern body. The central perspective of her Dynamic Mindfulness Yoga School emerges from Buddhist philosophy, ethics and methodology, specifically the Chan school of Buddhism.
Shosan Victoria Austin
Shosan Victoria Austin is a Soto Zen priest transmitted in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. She began practicing Zen and yoga in 1971, and trained as a yoga teacher in the 1980s to bring yoga to the Buddhist community in America. A senior Iyengar yoga teacher, she emphasizes the faithful transmission of each discipline using its own language and methods. In cross-disciplinary teaching, she emphasizes teachings common to both traditions, such as bare attention; alignment of posture, breathing and intention; universal and provisional truth; dedicating the daily practice; and transformation of the causal body through applying universal moral precepts and individual practices in daily life. Yoga and Zen
Non-profit organization dedicated to practice, study and teaching of Zenyoga with headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia. The group goes back to the mid-seventies and was founded by Zarko Andricevic, Chan master and one of the five Western Dharma-heirs of the late Chan master Shifu Sheng-yen, as an affiliate to Buddhist Centre in Zagreb.
Zenyoga, as taught by Zarko and other longtime teachers and mentors – Mira Punik, Mirjana Halsey, Ela Vukelja and Karmen Mihalinec – is an extension of threefold training within the Chan tradition of Buddhism – that is, it aims to bring the body, breath and mind in order or harmony. It rests on the notion that “meditation in movement” is a valuable companion to “meditation in stillness” of a more formal Chan practice, especially practice of Silent Illumination or mochao in Chinese tradition.
Since 2003 Association runs a two-year teachers’ training school consisting of over 650 contact hours, including a seven-day Chan meditation retreat. The school is registered on 500 level with Yoga Alliance since 2005.
Zenyoga is currently taught in a number of locations in Zagreb, in Pula, Rovinj, Samobor, Krk Island, Rijeka and Split. International affiliates include groups in Celje (Slovenia), Berlin (Germany) and Cape Cod (USA).
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