Where do the paths of Buddhism and yoga intersect? Words of a “Bendy Buddhist” – Buddhistdoor Global
“Bendy Buddhist” is how Ellen Johannesen jokingly describes herself. And “flexible Buddhism” is a wonderful metaphor for the intersection between Buddhism and yoga.
Ellen was born in Norway and has been teaching yoga for over 20 years. She discovered Ashtanga yoga in 1994 and has been practicing ever since. In 2002 Ellen co-founded Ashtanga’s first studio in Oslo, Ashtanga Yoga Oslo, where she was the lead teacher responsible for the Mysore program.
Ellen’s interest in Buddhism first brought her to Bylakuppe in southern India, where she spent three years in a Tibetan monastery. She then moved to Kathmandu, where, after training as a Tibetan translator, she obtained a master’s degree in Buddhist studies and Himalayan languages from the University of Kathmandu.
BDG had the privilege of interviewing Ellen and talking about her experiences with Buddhism and yoga.
BDG: Where is the intersection between Ashtanga yoga and the Buddhist way in your personal practice?
Ellen Johannsen: I have worked with the body all my life: I have practiced Ashtanga for over 27 years and before that I was a professional dancer. At first, this work was about discipline. I didn’t dance or practice yoga because I liked it, but because I needed some sense of centering and alignment in what was for me a chaotic world.
I went from a rather harsh and authoritative ballet/modern dance training in London to studying more conceptual and somatic dance techniques in the Netherlands. This last approach concerns access to the body without imposing aesthetic models. You want to work with the forces that move the body: gravity, lightness, speed and momentum. This often took the form of an improvised dance, which is a bit like high-speed meditation: you not only have to feel inside, but also make choices about when react and move with impulses, and when not to. In this way, it teaches your mind to separate awareness and content.
As movement was my path to consciousness, I initially rejected Buddhism as a method. I thought, like many people, that Buddhism was about sitting in meditation, while yoga was about moving.
Then, one year, I met an American Buddhist nun in Mysore and started studying Sutra of the Diamond Cutter with her. I immediately felt that it corresponded so well to my way of perceiving the world. Moreover, Buddhism has so many practical methods to offer: it seems to work on the heart and the emotions, offering very direct pathways to cut through our habitual likes and dislikes. I loved that Buddhism was so ‘radical’ – almost like an artistic endeavor: having a view of the world where you act out of selflessness and not selfishness was really like swimming upstream and acting against the norm .
This made me want to go and live at Namdroling Monastery* for three years. It meant experiencing what life could be like when an entire group of people live by the vision of Buddhism and choose to engage in its practices. The most memorable experience, in my opinion, was the death of the monastery’s abbot, Penor Rinpoche.** For almost a week, he sat in deep meditation, without any physical vital signs. There was an incredible atmosphere that permeated the whole monastery.
After beginning the academic study of Buddhism, I began to wonder why Buddhism and yoga were traditionally considered separate traditions when they clearly had so much in common: yoga in the philosophical sense darshanawhich holds Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (5th century) as a founding text, is interested in the methods of training the mind. It has many borrowings (or shared notions) from Buddhism Abhidharma of the same period, speaking of dhyana (meditation), and various stages of realization. The characteristic of both systems is that insight comes direct perception through the cultivation of our senses.
Yoga in the sense of Hatha yoga/tantra (from the eighth century) takes the body into account, using the winds and channels of the subtle body to transcend mundane experience. This is widely practiced in Tantric Buddhism as it is found in the Tibetan tradition.
The techniques of Patanjali yoga and Hatha yoga are both shared between Buddhist and Hindu traditions. One researcher has described “yoga” as “free software” that has been shared between many traditions: Buddhist, Brahmanic, Muslim and Jain. The difference lies in how and for what purpose these schools engage in these practices. In Buddhism, this was done with the intention of freeing all beings from suffering. There can be no Tantric Buddhist practice without bodhicitta*** as a foundation.
BDG: Which Buddhist teachers have had the strongest influence on your spiritual path?
I : The Buddhist teachers with whom I feel most closely connected are those who emphasize the subtle body and also dare to criticize their own tradition: Dhammadipa, who has always practiced several Buddhist paths – Theravada, Yogacara and Zen – also emphasizes the importance of cultivating body awareness, admitting that excessive sitting was harmful to one’s body. He therefore teaches qi gong and yoga during his retreats. It represents for me a key to understand several traditions, but also to go beyond them. My other teacher is Dolpo Tulku Rinpoche, who although a brilliant scholar, is very interested in Indian Hatha yoga and pranayama, which he also teaches in his retreats. I recently connected with researcher-practitioner Ian Baker, who is also a faculty member of my in-depth course. Her great contribution to my course is her ability to cut through the cultural and hierarchical scaffolding of Tibetan Buddhist practices, which can make them seem alien to us, and present them as effective ways to transform our bodies and minds.
BDG: Can you tell us a bit about your in-depth background and the place of Buddhist practice within it?
I : In my two-year in-depth course, I try to “bridge the gap” between Buddhism and yoga. I think it’s time to see yoga in a broader sense as an ever-evolving transnational tradition. These days, more yoga teachers than I include Buddhist practices in their teaching as they have been shown to be effective and beneficial. One of the core practices of my course is sustainable compassion meditation. In this practice we build a foundation for meditation by seeing ourselves as relational beings surrounded by our network of care and support (friends, family, pets, mentors, etc.). This visualization calms the nervous system, allows us to be comfortable in our body and at ease with our mind, before trying to “meditate”.
BDG: What is the most important message you want to convey to your students?
I : What I want my students to understand is that we become who we are through processes, consciously or unconsciously. Most of the time, we develop unconscious patterns through cultural and social conditioning. Yoga is precisely the way to overcome this conditioning, mental and physical: it teaches you to direct your process of becoming towards the most optimal goal. For this we need a deep understanding of the potential of our body-mind and the practices with which to actualize them!
* Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery (“Thegchog Namdrol Shedrub Dargye Ling”) is the largest teaching center of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. It is located in Bylakuppe, Mysuru district, in the Indian state of Karnataka.
** Kyabje Drubwang Padma Norbu Rinpoche (1932–2009), was the 11th throne holder of the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma school.
*** In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhicitta (Skt. bodhisattva) is the compassionate aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, and the quality of a bodhisattva.
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