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by Aaron Hoopes
What is Zen?
Well, Zen is… Sorry, it’s not that easy. As anyone who has looked into Zen knows, attempting to define Zen is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. It immediately wriggles between your fingers and slips away. The more you seek it, the harder it is to find. To say Zen is freedom, fluidity or perfection is a start. However, to say Zen is the reflection of the moon in a mountain stream just leaves us scratching our heads. Zen is right here, right now. Zen is this moment of existence. It is action without thought. It is thought and action as one. It is action before reaction. Zen is Zen…though I know that’s not helpful.
The roots of Zen are based in ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese word for Zen is ch’an. In Sanscrit, the ancient language of India, it is dhyana, which can be roughly translated as pure human spirit. It can be imagined as the integration of the disparate aspects of the self into one complete and divine being. Zen was eventually brought to Japan where it was elaborated and “perfected” by the Japanese samurai. It is the foundation of the Bushido code, the way of the warrior. The samurai, who lived their lives at the edge of a sword and could die at any moment, were taught to concentrate on and immerse themselves in the here and now in order to connect with the fundamental core of their being. It helped them develop the powers of concentration, self-control, awareness and tranquility. If they approached each battle as if it were their last, they would be able to have every part of their being at their disposal.
Zen itself has no theory. It is not meditation. It is not thinking. It is not not-thinking. It is not something you learn. It is simply something you are. To practice Zen is to live fully and completely, not in the past or the future, but right here and right now. Zen is, in fact, the reflection of the moon in a mountain stream. It does not move, only the water flows by. Zen implies a contemplative, mystical element to the process of self-discovery. Zen allows, and indeed encourages, a deeper exploration into the individual self.
So let us turn now to Yoga. What is Yoga?
Yoga originated in India. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root yug meaning to join together and direct one’s attention. It is the union of the body and mind with our spiritual nature. It is also the union of the individual with the Universal Spirit. It is both the goal and the path to realize that goal. At its most basic, yoga is any practice that can turn its practitioners inward to find and experience their spiritual essence. By doing this, they are able to impact more than just themselves. When one is able to bring their own body, mind and spirit into health and harmony, then they can bring health and harmony to those around them and even to the world as a whole.
In the West, yoga is often considered a purely physical practice. But, in truth, it is much deeper than that. At times, in the study of yoga, the body has been likened to a temple. Yoga teaches the way to treat the body with reverence in order to give the spirit or soul a special place to reside and flourish. While this description is quite true, it is woefully inadequate. Yoga is a complete philosophy of living. It is mental as well as physical, psychological as well as spiritual. It teaches ethical discipline and the proper way of interacting within a society. It also teaches a way to turn inward and explore the inner core of being. There are many different methods of practicing yoga. Some deal mainly with dynamic physical postures, while others concentrate primarily on breathing exercises. In still others, yoga methods are devoted to chanting, reading or worshiping. Finally, some methods focus on deep meditation to help bring a sense of peace and serenity to daily life.
The underlying philosophy of yoga is that of wholeness, wholeness within the individual and wholeness in the individual’s connection to the world. When there is coordination between the body, mind and spirit, wholeness becomes holy: not “holy” in a conventional religious sense, but more of a connection to the divine part of us that exists within. The traditional yoga greeting namas te literally means “the divine within me greets the divine within you.” Very simply, yoga is about harnessing all the various aspects of individual existence and creating unity within. On a grander scale, any spiritual practice or discipline that helps individuals awaken and realize their connection to something larger and more profound than their individual existence can be considered a type of yoga practice.
So that brings us to Zen Yoga. Zen Yoga is a holistic system that unites all aspects of the human self by meeting the fundamental needs of physical health, mental clarity and spiritual peace. It is a spiritual discipline that is vast and profound.
It is Zen and it is Yoga.
The basis of Zen Yoga is peaceful stretching and breathing exercises of Indian Yogic traditions. It encourages going at your own pace and only doing what is right for you. Everyone is different. We come in all shapes and sizes. Learning how your own body functions is of the utmost importance. Zen Yoga is also based on the energized breathing and moving philosophy of Chinese Qigong (sometimes written Chi Kung) and Tai Chi. Qigong is the ancient Chinese practice of breathing exercises that fills the body with oxygen-rich blood and energy. Tai Chi can be described as moving meditation. Its graceful, flowing movements encourage the circulation of energy. Zen Yoga also incorporates the mental serenity achieved through Zen meditation. Learning to calm the myriad thoughts that are continuously vying for attention within the mind allows us to think more clearly and with greater insight. But, most assuredly, Zen Yoga is much more than a set of physical exercises. Through the integration of body, mind and spirit, Zen Yoga creates flexibility, health, vitality and peace of mind.
The pace of modern life is characterized by hectic social and economic activity. We generate stress in our daily lives as our concentration is fractured and our energy is sapped. Exercise is put on the back burner because we are so caught up in all of the other things that are demanding our attention. Zen Yoga seeks to reverse this flow.
Its benefits include:
Even more important, by bringing into balance proper and effective breathing, movement, and deep relaxation practices, we can become aware of and learn to access the natural energy of the universe, called Chi or Prana.
Practicing Zen Yoga is not meant to be an aggressive or rigorous physical workout. Instead, it seeks to challenge you to realize your own potential by stretching, moving and breathing at your own pace. There are no comparisons with how well other people can do the exercises. If you are doing your best, that is the best way of doing it. It is not a competition. It is not a contest. It is simply a way to feel better and better, to be happy and healthy, and to enjoy life to the fullest. Deep within each of us lies the potential for perfection. This potential is spiritual in nature and is often blocked or displaced by the difficulties we face in life. Zen Yoga offers the opportunity to become aware of that spiritual essence and give it the nourishment it needs to grow and flourish. Zen Yoga is not about what you can’t do. It has been designed to be accessible to anyone regardless of his or her level of fitness or spiritual development. The most important challenge comes from within. Most of us are seeking more from life. Unfortunately, life itself often gets in the way of our search. Zen Yoga offers an opportunity to get to know the self…to feel happy, healthy and alive.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Aaron Hoopes
Aaron Hoopes is a native of Vermont and the founder of Zen Yoga. He is the author of: Zen Yoga: A Path to Enlightenment through Breathing, Movement and Meditation, Breathe Smart, and Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit. He has studied the martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and alternative medicine in the United States, Australia, and Japan for over twenty-five years. He has a degree in Asian History and Japanese Culture from Tulane University and spent a number of years in Japan studying under Masatoshi Nakayama, the chief instructor at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association, until his death in 1987. He holds a third degree black belt in Japanese Shotokan Karate and is a certified instructor and one of the Hoitsugan Instructors. He is also certified as an instructor of Shanti Yoga and Meditation as well as Tamashii Tai Chi. He is trained in Chinese Qigong (Chi Kung) Energy Healing and studied Shiatsu Finger Pressure Therapy under Hitoshi Koeda in Japan. In addition, he has extensive knowledge of Iyengar Yoga, White Crane Qigong, Okinawan Karate, Shorinji Kenpo, Wing Chun Kung Fu and Zen Meditation.