Yoga Teacher Training: What is Zen Yoga?

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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).

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).

  • Alignment: In Zen physical alignment and awareness of our posture is highly emphasised. In seated meditation we seek to establish an erect spine and the “nose in a vertical line with the belly button and our ears in level with our shoulders”. Correct, appropriate posture is then carried out into all activities, including yoga.
  • Flow of energy: One of the reasons why correct posture is so emphasized 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. Zen is based squarely in the East Asian conception of these energy routes (Japanese “myaku“). 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.
  • The character "nen" meaning mindfulness

    The Japanese character “nen” meaning mindfulness.

    Mindfulness: In yogacara philosophy there are four bases of mindfulness – mindfulness of the body, of sensations, of the mind and dharmas – phenomena. With yoga practice we are primarily concerned with the body and sensations. The application of sustained non-judgemental awareness to the human body has a profound effect. The Buddha himself 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. It is a truism in psychotherapy that “the issues are in the tissues”. Bringing attention to areas of tightness, resistance and closure tends to unblock them. 17th Century Zen master Hakuin said that “Buddhas are like water where ordinary people are like ice”. Our mindfulness can be the sunlight that melts our frozen or blocked areas on the physical, mental, emotional or any other level.

In a sense, the “Zen” in Zen Yoga refers to the “why”. It’s what is under the bonnet. What sits over this – the “how” – can vary a great deal from teacher to teacher, depending on their background and experience.

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