Sit with Less Pain - Foreword

Gentle Yoga for Meditators and Everyone Else

I find it heartening that the postures and movements of hatha yoga are finally being accepted and celebrated by many Buddhist practitioners and teachers. It was not always this way; while today there are Insight Meditation centers—and even Zen centers—offering yoga during their retreats, some younger folk might not be aware that such body-centered practice was often frowned upon or even actively discouraged. In the 1970s, when I began Zen practice, my teacher told me to stop practicing yoga, adding, “Zazen is all you need to practice.”

As Jean Erlbaum, who began her practice in 1965, shares, “Yoga was seen as a serious detour from practice.” And like her, I found ways to sneak my practice in during retreats: slipping into the woods around the monastery, or doing a couple of standing postures in the bathroom during breaks. Why? Because it works! It helped me then, and it continues to support me now in my sitting practice.

The irony, of course, is that for millennia yoga was simply the practice of yoking body, breath, and mind (the original meaning of the word yoga, coming from the Sanskrit root yuj, means “to yoke”), which was just what we were attempting while sitting on our zafus. Hardly any of our teachers and fellow practitioners seemed to remember that the buddha was a yogi!

Nowadays, yoga has become mainstreamed and commodified, with an estimated twenty million Americans or more practicing it. The word yoga has become synonymous with the postures (asana) and movements of hatha yoga, a relatively recent form of yoga, which as contemporarily practiced goes back only to the turn of the nineteenth century, and it has often been divorced from its mental component. Generally, when someone says they practice yoga, what they mean is that they practice postural yoga: the physical forms. But it’s helpful to keep in mind that all authentic yoga involves the meditative awareness we cultivate in sitting meditation. When this is understood, the postural practice, as Erlbaum teaches it, “is not separate from meditation practice—it becomes the practice.”

I was very happy to see that this is her approach, as it is also mine. In fact, the reason I refer to my practice of hatha yoga as “mindfulness yoga” and not “mindful yoga” is because the emphasis is on the practice of the postures as a vehicle to cultivate greater embodied awareness. The important thing isn’t so much that a posture is done mindfully, as that mindfulness is cultivated and brought to the practice of the posture. Similarly, Erlbaum writes, “By fully sinking into the specific sensations of each pose, we create the possibility of relinquishing the usual busyness of mind and expanding beyond the usual constrictions of the body, beyond the boundary of ‘this self.’”

All this is not to deny or underplay the many well-known physical benefits of hatha yoga for meditation practitioners: from stress reduction and the increasing of the efficiency of the immune system to the relief of muscle and joint pain and increasing circulatory and respiratory health. Who among us practitioners of sitting meditation hasn’t experienced sore, stiff, and painful necks, shoulders, or backs? How many of us are free of hip or knee pain or of loss of circulation in our hands or feet? Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra, speaks about preventing the pain that hasn’t yet arisen. The practice of hatha yoga can both relieve us from current pain, and with a consistent, well-balanced practice, it can prevent future pain.

In this comprehensive practice manual, Erlbaum offers practical, easily accessible practices, including valuable instruction on proper breathing technique and detailed instruction on a vast variety of stretches and postures that can be practiced on a yoga mat or in a chair. She helpfully presents the exercises grouped for specific areas of the body from the upper body (including exercises for eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders, and upper back) through the middle body, and down to legs, knees, ankles, and feet. I am also happy to see her emphasis on the importance of relaxation as a practice. Too many students fail to understand that relaxation indeed requires active cultivation and the time to do so.

In the second half of the book, Erlbaum offers suggested pose sequences of varying lengths—with poses for both mat or chair practice. The sequences are for relaxing or energizing, as well as for targeting specific body “hot spots” of tension, discomfort, and pain. And throughout, she speaks with the compassionate and confident voice of the truly experienced teacher/practitioner who understands the life demands of a contemporary householder. I smiled when she shares having “memories of squeezing yoga sessions into my children’s nap times,” as I too am finding myself having to continually adapt my practice to my toddler daughter’s agenda!

Dogen Zenji refers to zazen as the “Dharma gate of great ease and joy.” Too often, for many practitioners, it seems like anything but! This book offers a wonderful resource for yogis who practice sitting meditation and wish to experience greater bodily ease and the joy that arises with it. It is also valuable for yogis with a hatha yoga practice who wish to cultivate sitting meditation; it presents a clear and concise manual on how to create a strong foundation for sitting by using the practices with which they are already familiar. I am appreciative and grateful to Jean Erlbaum for writing this book, and to Wisdom Publications for making it available. May it bring great ease and joy to many!

Frank Jude Boccio

 

How to cite this document:
© Jean Erlbaum, Sit with Less Pain (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

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