I know I’m not the only yogi who has spent the first few days of a meditation retreat quietly planning her escape—preferably to a yoga retreat. Cranky knees, a whining back, tight hips, and the chorus of bodily sensations that take center stage after time on the cushion can become a roadblock for any aspiring meditator.
Fortunately, styles of yoga that incorporate aspects of vipassana meditation are popping up everywhere, so now a student can soothe her aching body with asana and quiet her busy mind with meditation during the same retreat.
Two Paths, One Goal
It’s no surprise that yoga and vipassana meditation—also known as insight or mindfulness meditation—are emerging as partner practices. Even though vipassana developed from a Buddhist tradition and yoga has roots in Hinduism, they both arose out of the same spiritual culture of ancient India and share a common goal: freedom from suffering.
Most commonly taught during 10-day, silent retreats with instructions on mindfulness and alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, vipassana focuses on self-transformation through self-observation. By watching the fluid nature of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and judgments, vipassana teaches us to accept the ups and downs that life brings. This acceptance enables us to experience our inherent freedom and ease. While vipassana is often considered a mind practice, the Buddha taught that the physical body, with its ever-changing flood of sensations, is a potent doorway to understanding the true nature of our selves and of the world.
Likewise, although modern yoga has become equated with asana, the physical postures are only a small part of the larger contemplative tradition of classical yoga as put forth in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The ancient texts expounding on the yoga postures, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Siva Samhita, emphasize that hatha yoga be taught within the context of meditation as a complete path to liberation.
Sarah Powers, who teaches Insight Yoga—an integration of long-held yin poses, dynamic yang sequences, and vipassana meditation—helps students develop a relationship between the two. She teaches asana as a means to heighten awareness by bringing the focus on physical sensation. With unique contemplative practices present in both traditions, however, might students become confused by attempting to combine them?
According to Powers, “There is a difference between the samadhi (concentration) practices that come out of the Yoga Sutra and the insight practices that come out of the Buddha-dharma. With concentration practices, you don’t necessarily know the essence of your object of concentration; and with vipassana (insight) practice, you are not just staying with the object, you are actually investigating its nature.”
Yet, as dharma teacher and yoga practitioner Phillip Moffitt points out, concentration and insight practices are not mutually exclusive. Developing concentration allows us to focus and train our attention for extended periods, which cultivates the conditions for insight to arise. When these conditions are right, Moffitt says, “insight comes like fruit dropping from a tree.”
While there are some philosophical differences between yoga and vipassana, most teachers combining them do not draw strict divisions between the two. As yoga and vipassana teacher Anne Cushman points out, vipassana as a technique is not exclusive to Buddhist meditation. “The practice of mindfulness, of being aware of what is going on in each moment, is a basic, nonsectarian practice. It is one of the tools in the toolbox of meditative awareness.”
Frank Boccio, who wrote Mindfulness Yoga, agrees. “Patanjali talks about asana as stability and ease,” he points out, “and when that happens, there is the dissolution of the sense of separation, an overcoming of the pairs of opposites. That’s the whole practice right there: People feel more able to sit with whatever is arising.”
The question, then, is how to put these conditions into practice.
Set the Intention
Introducing a mindfulness-related theme at the start of the class and developing it throughout allows students to go deeper into the meditation. Begin by sharing a story or quote on compassion (karuna) and then teach heart-opening postures, such as backbends, while encouraging self-acceptance for where we are, as we are. This helps students cultivate a quality of care and attention for themselves and others.
Powers gives a dharma talk while students are in the long-held yin postures, focusing on topics such as compassion or equanimity. “I learned that we can listen and apply the teachings in an embodied way, kinesthetically, while in the pose,” she says. “Then, coming to sitting, we can integrate the principles immediately.”
Incorporating Vipassana in Asana Sequences
When combining vipassana with physical yoga, begin with asana to open the body, followed by Pranayama to balance the energy system, and then move into seated meditation. This powerful method will allow for observation of the mind. Within this framework, the content can be adapted to reflect the needs of the practitioner. Some days students wake up feeling dull and will need more dynamic movement to energize. Other times they may feel overstimulated, in need of less active postures and lengthened exhalations to quiet the mind and soothe the nervous system. When emphasizing mindfulness throughout, these practices become seamless. As Boccio says, “Meditation is the yoga sequencing—they feed each other.”
Breath as the Bridge
Give students a focal point to return to when their minds wander by reminding them to turn their attention to their breath periodically throughout the class. Rather than manipulating or controlling the breath, as we sometimes do in pranayama practice, the emphasis is simply on observing it. Ask, “Do you tend to hold the breath in this pose?” or “What happens to the breath when you stay in the pose longer?” Practicing in this way can often reveal our habitual patterns, and the breath becomes the link between the body and the mind, guiding us back to the direct experience of the moment.
Staying With It
Encourage your students to notice the changing nature of their physical, mental, and emotional experiences in the postures, rather than focusing on end results. This technique is mindfulness in action. “In every asana, I keep reminding them to pay attention to what sensations are going on, what reactivity is arising, and just seeing that without having to judge or change anything,” Boccio says.
Directing our attention in a balanced way takes practice—too much and we become rigid; not enough and we space out. Reminding students to cultivate an attitude of curiosity can allow for a balance of focused attention and relaxed awareness.
Bring It Home
We could spend a lifetime studying the philosophies of both asana and vipassana. The proof, however, is in the practice. The best way to pass on the practices to your students is to take the time to learn about and practice them yourself.