I began a Hatha yoga practice before my Zen practice and feel it is an invaluable contribution; the two work together perfectly. In many ways Buddhism is a yoga practice, one of my yoga books notes that the best know yoga practitioner the world over is the historical Buddha. Siddhartha was practicing yoga on his path on the Way.
One of my Zen teachers asked me one day what was the benefit of my yoga practice and here's what I came up with: Yoga teaches me to be patient and present in discomfort, staying with my breath. It teaches me to stay with the moment and in my body even when I'd rather just curl up under a blanket and hide.
Many yoga poses are not comfortable and my practice has one hold in poses, sometimes for many breaths, minutes. Holding and staying in an intense pose puts the mind no where else but the present moment. Oh it might take a moment to think about how it doesn't want to be there, that it wants to be elsewhere, however the sensations in the body will help keep the mind present. It is a part of the purpose of doing it, to empty the mind and be present. The poses teach us to do that while challenging ourselves. From that, we learn to quiet the mind when just sitting. We learn to do it in everyday moments too.
The sage Patanjali who is credited with writing the Yoga Sutras wrote in the second sutra that "The purpose of yoga is to calm the fluctuations of the mind" .
I remind my yoga students of this a lot. That the purpose is not to have a buff body or touch your toes, it is to settle the mind into silence. The poses do improve health over all and you learn deep practice with the breath, but they are also a very powerful tool in teaching one how to be quiet and present mentally. If as a side benefit you end up with a great backside, can touch your toes, or stand on your head, then be grateful your practice is so physically beneficial!
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