Iyengar Yoga and Soto Zen: A Response to Constance Braden

Dear Constance,

Thank you for asking why I require my ordination candidates to have a body-centered practice in addition to zazen. I will briefly contextualize Soto Zen, then discuss some of the theory behind the Iyengar-based “Yoga For Sitters” programs I teach in Buddhist venues. I hope this response is helpful. 

Soto Zen is a Japanese lineage of Mahayana Buddhist religious practice whose methods include the practices of seated formless meditation (zazen), Bodhisattva precepts, and work (samu). In contrast to other forms of Zen, which apply koan study (verbal “public cases”) to discursive thinking to purify and transcend itself, Soto Zen tends to emphasize genjokoan, the koan that arises moment-by-moment through the nature of everyday life, and thus sokushinzebutsu, “this very mind is Buddha.” This school often uses discursive methods as description rather than prescription. As in all forms of Buddhism, the aim of Soto Zen is to end suffering and realize happiness, by actualizing and developing wisdom and compassion. 

Buddhism came to America in waves, entering popular culture via forms as diverse as Transcendentalism, the Twelve Steps, garden design, and brand names. One such wave in the 1950s and 1960s produced most of the Zen Centers in America today, including my home temple, San Francisco Zen Center, which began as a zazen-centered offshoot of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s more traditional temple, Sokoji. 

Though Suzuki Roshi’s own practice was highly integrated and mature, the first generations of young American Zen trainees were slow to understand his physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual skills. After his death in 1971, many seekers got hurt when they practiced too intensely or mildly to meet their own needs. They tended to gravitate toward Suzuki Roshi’s teachings about insight, at the expense of his humbler work. Their culture had emphasized meditation and monastic practice, and could not yet meet their varying abilities and histories. 

At the time, I was practicing Iyengar Yoga, and had already begun to feel its benefits in my sitting. I did not, and do not, wish to mix the two forms; though the component practice steps in each discipline are different, the baseline practices seemed highly compatible. 

Introducing a lecture-demonstration on yoga as universal foundation of religion, Guruji once said, “…yoga is the union of the individual soul with the Universal Soul or God. In simple terms, yoga is the art and science of removing the polarities between body and consciousness and consciousness and Self. It cultures the mind of the sadhaka in order that they experience the state of Universality within themselves.” —B.K.S. Iyengar, “Yoga – A Fount for All Spiritual Paths,” in Astadala Yogamala, vol. 1, p. 113

Zen work practice (samu) is uniquely helped by Iyengar Yoga’s emphasis on right action through alignment. Iyengar Yoga teaches right effort, the sixth pada of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Through asana we learn to avoid pains that have not yet arisen, to overcome those that have arisen, to develop concentration and one-pointed concentration in motion and action, and to maintain the active concentrated state through change.

The precepts are also conveyed by B.K.S. Iyengar’s example of yama and niyama as demonstrated in asana and pranayama. To observe Guruji’s practice in the hall is to learn an integrated, universal approach to truths, including Zen truths. For instance, one day Guruji was doing Dwipada Viparita Dandasana, and his pose struck home for Zen:

Refuge in Buddha I could see Guruji going deeper and deeper towards his own, and the universal, light

Refuge in Dharma – I could see the alignment in Guruji’s use of his body to express the pose, rather than the other way around

Avoiding evil – Guruji’s yoga was clean and responsive

Doing good – Guruji performed each action in a way that gave life

Living and being lived for the benefit of all beings – Guruji proved via his actions that his practice was to be shared for everyone’s benefit

Not harming – Guruji used props to develop the poses evenly and peacefully

Not stealing – Guruji stayed in the present, not taking more than was given 

Not lying – Guruji’s adjustments addressed the actual problems at hand

Non-intoxication – Guruji stayed responsive—the grounded yet bright expression of his body and face, didn’t emotionally or physically overreach

The term “zazen” actually means “seated dhyana.” What better preparation could there be, for seated dhyana, than Iyengar Yoga, in which the building of a firm foundation expresses all stages of sadhana?

Another ancient term for zazen is shikan, the union of meditative stability (samatha) and meditative insight (vipassana). Soto Zen emphasizes that “this very mind is Buddha” and also, that “practice and realization are one.” Both the form and the pliancy of body, mind and breath are to be maintained, so that emptiness and form can express their truth moment after moment, unhindered.

Because as a culture we focus on objects and results, samatha is uniquely difficult for Westerners. But Iyengar Yoga re-establishes the balance to produce a seated asana and attitude that grows from concentration into pliancy. Iyengar Yoga cultivates a body that is wide enough, deep enough, and integrated enough, to hold and develop the content of insight that arises moment after moment, on each breath. Through cultivating meditative awareness and life-giving action in a variety of poses, the practitioner can search out hindrances, and can settle them for good. As Guruji says, “Meditation is the fruit of consistent practice of ethical, physical, vital and intellectual disciplines of yoga. Meditation is the act of bringing the complex citta to a state of simplicity without any sign of arrogance.” —“Yoga – A Fount for All Spiritual Paths,” p. 117

Geeta Iyengar, too, has compared the body in asana to a classroom, in which some of the children always rush to raise their hands, others answer occasionally, and still others sit with their arms crossed, hanging back, silent, or confused. She suggests that we be like the skillful teacher, who unites our internal children to awaken and develop.

In my first 10 years of zazen practice, I did not know how to sit without strain. The different parts of body and mind kept straying, fighting, complaining or withdrawing. Though insights would arise, I could not maintain or develop them well. 

This issue grew in my mind as ordination approached. I would represent the teaching. I would be wearing robes. It was urgent that I make myself into as good an example as I could, of our teachings.

In 1983 I left the monastery to begin Iyengar teacher training with Manouso Manos, and soon went to Pune to study with the Iyengars. That decision helped to form me into someone who could hear and understand more of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings, and be truer to the practice of Zen.

Today as a priest, every day I use skills learned in Iyengar Yoga to meet people’s needs: 

  • To teach foundational skills for meditation to the student who feels they’ll never be able to sit in full lotus 
  • To make zazen accessible to the student who feels any part of the discipline is too hard to practice, and asks what to do 
  • To train safety and self-trust in students: “Is this pain helping me or hurting me?” 
  • To train students according to their condition 
  • To help people who are sick or dying find a way to do what they need most to do 

This is why I require my ordination candidates to practice a discipline that integrates body, speech and mind through many postures—one which uses motion as well as action. For me, that discipline is Iyengar Yoga. 

Thank you so much for a wonderful and transformative question. — Victoria 

Rev. Shosan Victoria Austin is a Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, who began to study meditation and yoga as separate subjects on the same day in 1971. Ordained in 1982, she is currently a Dharma teacher at San Francisco Zen Center, an international dissemination priest of the Soto School, and an Iyengar Yoga teacher certified at Intermediate Junior III. She teaches at the Abode of Iyengar Yoga and serves on the faculty of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco Teacher Training Program. Victoria acknowledges with gratitude the assistance of her sister Jackie Austin in the editing of this article.