Thursday, 18 December 2014

Emptiness in a Christmas bauble

What's in a Christmas bauble?

Probably not much!

Christmas tree baubles are usually empty (unless you've got one of those edible ones filled with chocolately niceness!). But what does "empty" mean? It's not really completely empty – it's filled with vibrating air molecules zipping about bouncing off the walls of the bauble. But even if we were to empty it of air (assuming the bauble would be strong enough to stay up against the vacuum), would it really be empty? No, the vacuum would still be full of electromagnetic radiation (granted there would be no visible light, but there would be plenty of radio waves). The emptiness is really a living, vibrant emptiness full of change and potential. What it's truly empty of is anything fixed or permanent.

Now being, going to nothing

If you've got an old metal bauble, then you might begin to notice some rusting or discolouration from age. If it's glass then it might be a little more hardy, but (sorry to be pessimistic) chances are one day it's going to get smashed... Plastic ones are perhaps the hardiest of all, but even those will be slowly changing and degrading (due to heat, light, or chemicals such as acids or alkalis from your skin).

The point is no matter how strong or well-made it is, it's always going to be changing. As a Zen teacher of mine likes to say "now being, going to nothing" – given a long enough time, there will be absolutely nothing left of the thing we now call the "bauble". Really, the bauble is better thought of as a process rather than a thing.

Your bauble contains the entire Universe

If you've got one of those shiny baubles, then it'll reflect everything around it. And if your tree is covered in shiny baubles, then they'll all be reflecting each other. The whole of your living room will be there in each bauble, and each bauble in each other bauble! This is kind of how reality is. The whole is present in even the tiniest little part.

In a single grain of salt you might rub into your Christmas turkey there are millions of sodium and chlorine atoms bonded together, each atom made of energy in the form of protons, neutrons and electrons – just like every other atom in the entire Universe. And those sodium and chlorine atoms were most likely formed inside a star aeons ago, and wouldn't ever have come into existence if it wasn't for the precise conditions of the early Universe.

So the Universe is made up of a vast interconnected web, or, in the words of the great physicist Heisenberg, "a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine." William Blake knew this when he wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Which is very similar to a verse from the Avatamsaka Sutra (pointed out by Mattieu Riccard in his book The Quantum and the Lotus)
As in one atom,
So in all atoms,
All worlds enter therein—
So inconceivable is it.

Enso - the symbol of Zen

Hanging up in the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell where I teach is a large painting of a circle. In Japanese it's called an enso, and is one of the most distinct symbols of Zen. In a way, it's very much like our bauble: vibrantly empty, slowly disintegrating, and containing the entire Universe.

The enso hanging in the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell

Śūnyatā is the Sanskrit/Buddhist word for emptiness (śūnya means zero or nothing), and is studied at great length in the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy, which was developed around a few hundred CE. To them, sunyata represents the flow of dynamic processes in the Universe, ordered by the laws of nature and by past actions (karma), where everything is interconnected, interrelated, and interpenetrating.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

How many more nuggets of wisdom can you find on your Christmas tree? I'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

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Thursday, 11 December 2014

Transforming our ego the Yogacara way

Not so long ago a friend of mind had just gone through a difficult breakup and was in need of someone to talk to. We met up for a cup of tea and chatted. She was really hurting, so I did my best to listen patiently and sensitively.

At some point she mentioned how she'd like to go away for a short break to get away from it all. For some reason I took this as an opportunity to mention I'd been to Japan back in the summer, and proceeded to wax lyrical about the trip. Ten minutes later I realised this wasn't helping...!

On reflection I saw I'd been boasting. I had taken this utterly inappropriate moment to talk about myself and how wonderful my life is (bit like I'm doing now...), and had forgotten about my friend and her pain.

To understand why I did this (insensitive bugger that I am) – and why we all have a tendency to do this – let's take another look at the philosophical system I was discussing last week: Yogacara.

Remember, Yogacara is about a 1500 year-old Buddhist philosophy that describes a structure of the mind to rival any modern psychology (beautifully laid out in Thich Nhat Hanh's book "Understanding our Mind"). Yogacara says we have a total of eight types of consciousness:
  • The 5 sense-consciousnesses associated with seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling
  • Mind consciousness (meaning how the mind perceives the information gathered by our senses). These 6 consciousnesses we discussed last week.
  • Manas (which can be translated as something like self-consciousness)
  • Storehouse-consciousness
Storehouse consciousness - our seed bank
The primary function of the storehouse-consciousness is to store and preserve all of what in Yogacara are called our "seeds". Seeds are our perceptions, memories, experiences, and habits, but also our potentials, possibilities, and plans. They are things that have the capacity to manifest, and can have positive or negative qualities (like compassion, joy, hope, sorrow, fear, or anger). Our thoughts, words and actions all plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness, and what these seeds generate, so Yogacara says, become the substance of our life.


Manas is our coordinating function – a bit like the air traffic control desk at a busy airport. It's there trying to make sense of all this data flooding in from our senses and perceptions, and all these potentials, plans and memories arising from our store consciousness.

As we grow up, develop, and begin to take responsibility for ourselves, Yogacara would say manas falls in love with a part of the store consciousness. It sees it as a separate entity, a "self" and grasps onto it firmly, a bit like how a small child would cling to her parent's leg! Manas is more or less equivalent to Freud's term "ego".

Because it becomes attached to the idea of self, it always acts to preserve the self. It is our survival instinct, and for this we have to be very grateful. It's what keeps us alive. If someone tries to hit us, we avoid it – that self-protective response is manas.

The problem is manas is blind. It can easily take us in the wrong direction in its blind pursuit of protecting the self. We can end up throwing the baby out with the bath water, destroying ourselves in order to make the other person suffer.
"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the only one who ends up getting burned" – Some Wise Person
So in my example, I digressed into harping on about my own fantastic holiday. My deluded manas sensed an opportunity to reassure me that I'm ok, that my life is better than my friend's, etc, etc., and to generally bolster my ego.

So it was my manas's fault...

But it would be short-sighted to see manas (ego) as the enemy that must be fought until completely destroyed. Without it, who would be controlling all the take-offs and landings at our busy airport? Instead, we should work on transforming manas.

Transforming manas

Problems come when we end up clinging to things we learn or feel as the absolute truth. I feel angry turns into "I am an angry person", or I want some love turns into "I am an unloved person". Like water that freezes and prevents flow, these beliefs become obstacles. Like climbing a ladder, the more we cling to our current knowledge, our current rung, the harder it gets to climb to the next rung.

Through our meditation and yoga practice we begin to realise that, first, these obstacles exist, and that our belief in them creates them. Slowly, slowly we begin to let go of these beliefs and thus the obstacles begin to melt or transform. In our practice we investigate the true nature of the things that manifest from our seeds and start seeing them not as real entities (i.e. things that we cling to and fix into 'absolute truths') but simply as concepts, notions, metaphors, or labels. Eventually (through a lot of practice) our deep-seated belief in a separate "self" is completely released.

Before, manas was the energy of grasping and discriminating. Now it becomes a wisdom that can perceive the true interrelated and interconnected nature of things. As Thich Nhat Hanh says "the capacity to live according to this nature of no discrimination between self and non-self is the wisdom of equality."

I am a member of the Zenways sangha and teach meditation and mindfulness in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Have you had problems with your ego recently? Do you see it as the enemy or just as a frightened, blind little animal that needs the right guidance? I'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

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Thursday, 4 December 2014

Rainbows, consciousness and yogacara

What is a rainbow? Have you ever wondered that?

Scientifically speaking, rainbows are caused by light being refracted (bent) upon entering a droplet of water, reflected on the back of the droplet, and refracted upon leaving the droplet. This double refraction splits up the light since red light is refracted less than blue light.

So for a rainbow to exist we need sunshine and raindrops... but we need one more very crucial thing – a spectator. Unless someone is present at just the right spot, then there's no such thing as a rainbow. It's just light rays hitting the earth – business as usual! Rainbows are therefore phenomena that require an instrument of sense perception – like a person with an eye, or a camera.

Radical externalism

So what is a rainbow? It's not just sunshine or just raindrops, or indeed the combination of sunshine and raindrops. And it's not sunshine, raindrops and a person – because what if that person was looking the other way...?

In this fantastic article, writer Tim Parks interviews Riccardo Manzotti, an Italian psychology teacher who has a very interesting view on what a rainbow is. Parks describes Manzotti as a "radical externalist" – someone who believes "consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake, we [call] subject and object."

So in his view, a rainbow is what happens when a person perceives light being refracted and reflected like this. Of this event of perception, he says "consciousness is spread between the sunlight, the raindrops, and the visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole – the rainbow experience."

This is what makes him an "externalist" – he sees consciousness as being something that transcends the brain, being shared between the things being perceived (object) and the perceiver (subject). This is in contrast to what might be seen as a more orthodox view, where consciousness is seen as being confined within the brain.


It turns out there's a Buddhist philosophical and psychological system called Yogacara that might help us understand this a little more. Although it's a philosophy, the system comes out of actual practice – people doing yoga meditation over a period of centuries ("cara" means practice).

Everyone knows we have five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, and in order to have these senses we need our sense organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin.

Yogacara says that the combination of, for example, our eyes and looking at a rainbow, creates "eye-consciousness" (and the same thing for the other senses). Sound familiar? Yogacara also says we have "mind-consciousness", which is what comes about when the mind perceives something external (so in this example, perceiving the rainbow), or starts thinking and imagining.

So our guy Manzotti, without knowing it, is really a yogacarain. He's re-discovered a philosophy that has been around for about 1500 years! But I'm not sure he would be too happy with this since when asked by Parks if he was aware of Buddhist principles he got irritated, saying he tries "to avoid like the plague being mixed up with anything that smells New Age."! New age... pah!

According to Yogacara, consciousness is what arises when we bring the subject and object of perception together. These are really just two aspects of same reality, and, of course, both subject to constant change. Let's think about this for a moment... the subject (that's you, the perceiver) is subject to constant change. We're not (as my Zen teacher likes to say) solid snooker balls bouncing across the table of life. As Manzotti rightly points out, by thinking consciousness is not just confined to the brain, then we see that we are not separate from the world around us. We are subject to constant change. Our consciousness cannot be separate from the world and cannot survive outside the world.

The Buddha is reputed to have said (something like) "Your life is the creation of your mind."
Yogacara (sometimes called the "mind-only" school) gives us a structure to see how we create our life and how we create our sense of who we are.

Next week I'll continue on this theme and talk about how yogacara sees our ego and our (false) sense of self.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha and teach meditation and mindfulness in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Are you a radical externalist? Do you agree with our consciousness being something created in partnership with what we perceive? I'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

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Thursday, 27 November 2014

The rational mind should really be just an advisor to the king

After writing my article a couple of weeks ago on intention and gut feeling, I've been thinking some more about how our rational, thinking mind interacts with our emotional, feeling mind. Do you ever catch yourself in a situation where it seems these two sides seem at odds with each other? I do.

Let's say it's raining and I'm trying to decide whether to cycle into town or take the bus. Rationally it would make sense to cycle – it's free, much quicker, and the exercise is good for me. However, I'm a bit tired and I know it's raining and cold, so the bus makes for a very attractive option!

It's very easy to fall into the trap of seeing this as a battle. Do I side with my feelings or my calculations? Which option is best?

My Zen teacher, Daizan Roshi, likes to say the rational mind is like an advisor to the king. If we're not careful, this advisor can easily have delusions of grandeur and assume the role of leader. And I think this position is encouraged somewhat by our society.

In nursery and primary school our education focusses on our whole bodies – we dance, do drama, and paint with our hands and feet. By secondary school, we're only being educated from the waist up (with occasional classes of PE), and by university we're focussed solely on head-learning. We train the mind to gather and process information – facts, figures, critical thinking, logic, reason – and we test these abilities (and these alone) via incessant exams. The people best at this are ones admired and rewarded most highly in our society: scientists, lawyers, doctors (because western medicine is essentially all reductionist), bankers, computer programmers, etc. On the whole our Western society is skewed towards the rational over the emotional. Einstein knew this when he said
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
― Albert Einstein 
The problem is the rational mind is not a good leader. It's too cold and calculating. But it is an excellent advisor. When we let the intuition, the true king/leader, assume its rightful place then logic and reason becomes only one source of information among many. By the same account, emotions and feelings are also just another source of information. In the end I decided to take the bus not cycle!

To take another example, back when I was deciding whether or not to quit my job as an astronomer, my rational mind was screaming "Why quit? You're well-paid, an expert at what you do, and have put in years of training." But it could also calculate how difficult it would be to get a job in the UK and what impact that would have on my relationship. This was all excellent advice. I also knew I wasn't enjoying the day-to-day aspects of my job, feeling quite isolated and frustrated with my colleagues, and I wanted to work more with people in an everyday, grounded sense. All of these things informed my eventual decision, which I feel almost bubbled up out of the muddy quagmire of swirling thoughts and opinions.

I guess you would call that my intuition...

I am part of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner, and we meet twice a week at our dojo in Camberwell, London. For more info see


I'd love to hear from you

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

The benefits of mindfulness on your health & wellbeing

Many of life’s demands can cause stress, particularly work, relationships and money problems. When we feel fearful or anxious, our body's hard-wired response, evolved over millennia of dangerous encounters in wild, is the "fight or flight" reaction. The problem is that these days, probably the two worst things we could do when faced with, for example, an impending deadline, or an overbearing relative is (1) punch them/someone or (2) run away...


Practising meditation and/or yoga, particularly with an emphasis on awareness and mindfulness, has been shown to be an incredibly effective way of stress-proofing ourselves. It does this in two ways: firstly by providing us with a little oasis of quiet in amongst the business of the day (some me-time); and secondly by teaching us how to see things clearly. There's a huge difference between conscious and unconscious stress. The great Zen master Hakuin compared people who were conscious and aware to water whereas ordinary people are like ice. Our mindfulness is like the warm sunlight that can melt away the perceived stress. It's our relationship to the feeling that changes.

Science has been making some great progress in understanding the why exactly lowering our stress levels boosts our health and wellbeing. Let me talk about just a few of the recent discoveries.

Tell me about telomers

Telomers: chromosome caps
Why of course... Telomers are a repeating DNA pattern that act as a kind of protective cap on our chromosomes, shielding their ends from potential damage each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied. In the 1980s an enzyme called telomerase was discovered that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Even so, our telomeres dwindle over time, and when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a phenomenon that is now recognised as a key process in ageing. The discovery of telomers won Elizabeth Blackburn the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As detailed in this lovely article, Blackburn and her group began a study back in 2000 to test the effect of stress on telomer length (at the time genes were seen as being the most important factor, so at the time this idea was highly controversial). The results from their pilot study showed that the more stressed the participants were the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase. Scientists are always marvelled when they manage to connect real lives and experiences to things happening on the molecular level, and in this study they'd done it! Feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health – it literally ages us!

Researchers have since linked perceived stress to shorter telomeres in Alzheimer’s caregivers, victims of domestic abuse and early life trauma, and people with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How does it work? The presence of the stress hormone cortisol seems to reduce the activity of telomerase, while oxidative reactions and inflammation (all physiological effects of the stress response) appear to erode telomeres directly. Age-related conditions from osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke have all been linked to short telomeres.

In one follow-up project, Blackburn and her colleagues sent participants on a three-month meditation retreat, and found that afterwards they had higher levels of telomerase than the control group. A study in 2013 of dementia caregivers found that, after practising 12 minutes of meditation a day for eight weeks, they had significantly higher telomerase activity than a control group. And in another study in 2012 Epel et al. measured the association between telomere length and peoples' natural level of mindfulness. They found those who reported high mind wandering (i.e. lower mindfulness) had shorter telomeres, even after adjusting for stress.

So stress and ageing are clearly very related. No wonder Wallace et al. back in 1982 found that people who'd been practising meditation for five years were physiologically (as shown by their blood pressure, vision, hearing, and skin elasticity) up to 12 years younger than their non-meditating counterparts! For more on that, see this article showing some photographic evidence, or just look at any photo of a prime minister or president – in just a few years they go from looking fresh and vibrant to grey, haggard, and worn out!

New genes, new neurons

In another study, a group based in Massachusetts took blood samples from a group of 19 people who had regular meditation practice, and 19 others who never meditated, and ran genomic analyses (identification of genomic features such as DNA sequence, gene expression, etc) of the blood. They found that the meditating group had suppressed more than twice the number of stress-related genes than the non-meditating group. This is an incredible result, since the more these stress-related genes are expressed, the more the body will have a stress response. This study is in the field of epigenetics, which I've written about before.

Lastly, I just wanted to mention this article detailing some work done here in London that found that increased levels of cortisol seems to decrease neurogenesis (the ability of the brain to produce new brain cells) in adults. Studies have shown that these adult-born neurons appear to have a role in the regulation of stress by possibly augmenting the role of the hippocampus in controlling the stress reaction and/or inhibiting the amygdala (the region of brain responsible for the fear reaction). Neurogenesis has also been linked to brain plasticity.

So, it's never too late to start practising mindfulness and meditation, and slowing down – possibly even reversing – the ageing process!

My next 8-week course in Mindfulness for Health & Wellbeing will start on Friday 16th January, and I'm now taking bookings. See my website for further details.


I'd love to hear from you

If you've noticed that, like me, your mindfulness practice is leaving you looking younger and more radiant, your skin is shiny and there's more of a healthy glow about you, I'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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Thursday, 13 November 2014

Intuition and gut feeling

In Zen practice we purposefully cultivate attention in our hara, our belly, our gut. We emphasise turning off our discriminating, thought dominated mind, and develop a kind of knowing that is beyond this’s and that’s, right or wrongs – essentially beyond language itself.

One word in English that we often use to point to this direct knowing is “intuition”. Intuition is defined as an "almost immediate situation understanding” – a kind of direct, immediate knowing. “How do you know that?” someone asks, and you reply “I don’t know, I just do”. This is intuition speaking. Like a hunch or a feeling. You arrive at a conclusion through processes that typically remain mostly unknown to your conscious mind.

The word intuition comes from the Latin intuir, which means ‘knowledge from within.’ In the last few centuries intuition has been kinda poo-pooed because it’s not rational - it's “just a feeling”. With the rise of science in the West, rational thought has rather taken superiority.

Second brain

Recently there’s been quite a bit of discussion about what people call our "2nd brain” down in our gut. This 2nd brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of our gut – intestines, stomach, etc. – about 100 million of them in total. That's more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system (but a good deal fewer than in our 1st brain!). The feelings from these gut-nerves influence, to quite a large degree, our emotions, so you could say our second brain very much informs our state of mind. One obvious example is when we feel butterflies in the stomach. The butterflies sensation arises as blood is redirected out of our digestive system as part of our flight or flight response, and it signals to us we’re feeling nervous or anxious. As it says here, a lot of the information that the gut sends to the (head) brain is about well-being, which is understandable since eating and digestion are fraught with danger! Like the skin, the gut must stop potentially dangerous invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, from getting inside the body.

Intuition is a very undervalued and underused skill in most people. But interestingly, people with certain types of brain-damage who can’t form emotional intuitions can take hours to decide between two kinds of cereal! They’re caught trying to reason out whether they want Frosties or Coco Pops, and ultimately it’s not a rational decision (any rational person would choose muesli...).

In research, you’ll often start solving a problem by going with a hunch – it’s what sends you off in one particular avenue of enquiry over all the others you could go with. Einstein knew:
The workings of intuition transcend those of the intellect, and as is well known, innovation is often a triumph of intuition over logic. – Albert Einstein

How does intuition arise?

Obviously intuition doesn’t just arise out of nothing. The more experience you have, the better your intuition. Intuition arises out of a rich array of, what you might call, patterns of experience – memories, understanding, learning, observations, that all become integrated into your being. 
As Massimo Pigliucci explores in his book, "these days cognitive scientists think of intuition as a set of nonconscious cognitive and affective processes; the outcome of these processes is often difficult to articulate and is not based on deliberate thinking". In his famous book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman notes that "thoughts come to mind in one of two ways: either by “orderly computation,” which involves a series of stages of remembering rules and then applying them, or by perception, an evolutionary function that allows us to predict outcomes based on what we’re perceiving. It is the latter mode that precipitates intuition."

So let's say you're a company executive conducting interviews for a job. You've been at it all morning and none of the candidates have been any good. On paper, the next two candidates have everything and you're excited. The first one interviews very well, comes across confident, gives well thought-out answers, and has great body language. The second one also answers well, is inquisitive, quick, and well-presented.

So who do you choose? From a rational point-of-view, both are equally good, but you just get a feeling that the first one hasn't got what it takes. The feeling arises from your gut (what in Japanese they call the 'hara'), and informs the decision made by your brain.

Intuition in Zen

In Zen, however, we're moving to a place of intuition that's not based on memory, experience, or discrimination. By going beyond just knowing about things to actually perceiving things directly, we come to understand our true nature and in doing so literally become the whole Universe. And if we are the whole Universe, then there's no finding out – we know. We enter the flow of the Universe so fully that the 'knowing' is no longer ours, but an obvious, immediate response of the Universe.

As a teacher, this is a very valuable tool. The more sensitive you are, the more you can enter this flow, and the less our feelings are coloured by our own desires, wishes or judgements, then the more truthfully we can 'intuit' how another is feeling.
Years of training, repetition, beds experience into being,
And from the gut arises direct knowing, a felt sense.
So easily coloured by desires,
Train hard and make discernment clear.

I am part of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner, and we meet twice a week at our dojo in Camberwell, London. For more info see


I'd love to hear from you

If you've read any of the booked I mentioned, or have any other comments about intuition, I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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Thursday, 6 November 2014

Feeling sad, being depressed and how mindfulness helps

We all feel sad, lonely, or depressed at times. Feeling depressed now and then is normal, perhaps we feel a little lonely, we're grieving a loss, maybe lacking in sleep and exercise, or work is being particularly difficult. Depression is a continuum of feeling. For some of us, though, we end up edging towards the dark end, and that's when these feelings can become overwhelming, begin to involve physical symptoms, and last for longer periods of time.

Depression is when we feel sad and low for weeks or months on end. It's not just a passing blue mood. The exact symptoms of depression can be complex and vary widely between people, but it's often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, a lack of energy, and taking little or no pleasure in things that you once enjoyed. Sadly, anxiety and depression are the most common mental issues in Britain, and between 8-12% of the population experience depression in any year.

Many people come to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with them, but that isn't the case at all. Often it can be to do with lifestyle and external factors, like isolation, grief, or stress.

Happily, mindfulness, either practised in stillness or through yoga, has been shown to be incredibly effective in helping people deal with depression. In this interview with leading mindfulness and depression expert John Teasdale, he explains that depression is often fuelled by streams of negative thoughts going through the mind. This replaying of negative or unhelpful thoughts is termed "ruminating".

Even if you don't suffer from depression, we can all connect with what it means to ruminate, to dwell on negative events, or (more technically) to compulsively focus your attention on the symptoms of your distress. I found myself doing this the other day when I broke a dish in the kitchen...

Replaying of negative or unhelpful thoughts is termed "ruminating". In mindfulness, we gently redirect our attention away from these ruminations to what's happening in the present right now, thereby breaking the cycle.

In mindfulness, we practice bringing our awareness to what's happening or we’re doing right now, gently redirecting our attention away from these ruminations as and when they arise. As John Teasdale describes, by doing this we 'starve' the thought streams of the attention they need to keep going.

By bringing our attention back to the here and now each time we wander off into a thought stream, we learn to live more in the reality of the present moment and less in our heads, going over and over things that happened in the past, or worrying about the future.

But it's important as we practice, as we notice the "magnetic pull” of the negative thoughts and feelings that we apply an attitude of kindness, acceptance, and non-judgement. It only adds suffering to suffering to add criticism and judgements to what we find. It may be that, up to now, these negative thoughts formed a big part of who we perceive ourselves to be, so it's even more important to be gentle, patient, and forgiving of ourselves.

My next 8-week course in Mindfulness for Health & Wellbeing will start on Friday 16th January, and I'm now taking bookings. See my website for further details.


I'd love to hear from you

If you've found mindfulness or yoga to help with negative feelings or moods, I'd love to hear your experience. Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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For more on the clinical research into the effectiveness of mindfulness on depression see here

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Releasing tension and stiffness helps us feel more

Tension and stiffness in the body create numbness. They create a barrier to awareness and the full experience of life. If we can’t relax, then life becomes dulled; the extra tension is tiring to hold and inevitably produces an undercurrent of fatigue. Look around you when you walk through the streets of the city and you'll see tension is a chronic condition. Happily through, yoga and meditation practice teaches us how to begin releasing all these tensions, better align and balance ourselves, and brings us to a new appreciation of the incredible vibrancy of life.

Perhaps one of the first things we notice when we start with our yoga and/or mindfulness work are these areas of stiffness or tension – and for some of us discomfort or even pain. They come about for a number of reasons, and can affect us on various levels: from the superficial to the deep. Causes include:
  • our genetics (for example weak joints mean the muscles have to work harder, or scoliosis causes asymmetries in the spine muscles)
  • past accidents (e.g. a broken toe meant you avoided putting weight on that foot and now the other leg feels overworked)
  • past traumatic experiences (the body mirrors the mind in wanting to protect our soft vulnerable parts so often we end up hunching over)
  • our occupation (e.g. sitting at a desk for long hours with bad posture)
  • our hobbies (e.g. playing or doing an asymmetric sport like tennis or shooting)

So you can see that the reasons our body might be tight or stiff are intimately connected to our past, our upbringing, and our life choices.

I can see now that when I started my own journey into the world of yoga and self-exploration, I was pretty numb, desensitised, and tense! There were many blockages and tight areas, and I was nowhere near being able to feel the subtleties I'm now able to tune into. In the words of a good friend of mind, I was a brut... An insensitive, lumbering vertebrate with his heads in the clouds and a body that, if on a map, would be labelled “here be dragons”!

When we experience unpleasant sensations in our life, one of our strategies for blocking these out (after all no-one wants to feel unpleasantness!) is to tense up, because tension causes numbness. The body learnt that a long time ago!

Releasing the tension

For many years I understood in my head that yoga could help us release the tensions, blockages and imbalances, but I struggled to relate it to any actuality in my body. I could see my weight changing, muscles developing, and stamina improving, but had no sense of my body coming into better alignment or flow.

It took a sustained level of awareness and the keen eyes of my Zen teacher Daizan Roshi and yoga teacher Jonathan Monks to show me, on a physical body level, that this was actually happening. Through my yoga and meditation practice (and to some degree through my years of psychotherapy), I'd begun to let go of my body’s patterns of tension. Slowly, I’d begun to dismantle the layers of holding and blockages built up over years and years. With alignment, mindfulness and relaxation I suddenly found I could feel finer and subtler sensations in the body that I’d never noticed before.

One of the keys to releasing tension and encouraging relaxation is bringing the body into correct alignment. By aligning ourselves with the vertical, with our innate sense of “up” and “down”, then the force of gravity will support us instead of weigh us down. Right now try leaning to one side. It takes work! So aligning of the physical body with gravity allows us to relax and shed unnecessary tension. This is why in meditation sitting up straight is so important, and why in yoga we learn to move with gravity, not against it.

In the words of Will Johnson (from his lovely book Alignment, Relaxation, Resilience), I've started tuning in to the "fine, shimmering currents of sensation that constantly flow through the body”. As I described in this previous post, these are the shimmering currents of our subtle bioelectromagnetic field.

Spiritual energy by Alex Grey

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Meditation is not about clearing your mind!

One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it’s all about clearing your mind. And sadly this idea seems pretty pervasive. Most people I talk to who've never done much meditation before say something like "oh I can't do meditation, I can't clear my mind".

I'm not surprised! Clearing the mind is nigh-on impossible! Even for someone like a Zen master with decades of meditation experience. But perversely it's often this clear, calm, unaffected mind-state that brings people to meditation in the first place. We all want to find some respite from the whirlwind of thoughts and worries in our heads.

Then when you try it and find your mind is anything but clear, it can be very frustrating!

I think one very useful way of thinking about the brain is like any other organ. The function of the heart is to pump blood; the function of the stomach and intestines is to secrete enzymes and digest food; the thyroid to secrete hormones; and likewise, the function of the brain is to secrete thoughts. Thoughts are a natural product of the brain. Why would we want to stop them?

It's not the thoughts themselves that are the problem, it's how we engage with them. So often we unconsciously end up following trains of thought, and, more often than not, these end up going down a negative route, leading us into worries and anxieties.

Mindfulness is all about developing our awareness of how things are in this moment, without trying to change it, or judging it to be good or bad. So when we come to practising our mindfulness meditation, our first job is to notice just how busy the mind is. Some days it might be as busy as the M25 at rush-hour, and other days like a quiet country road... Either way, that's fine. One of the most wonderful effects of observing the mind as it is right now without trying to manipulate it in any way is that it automatically begins to calm down. The less we try, the more it responds.

One helpful analogy to how our mind and thoughts work is the following. Imagine yourself walking deep in the countryside and you come to a river. You take a rest and come to sit on the river bank. In this analogy your thoughts are like the water in the river, flowing naturally downstream. Let's say you find a few large logs and attempt to dam up the river – you try to "clear your mind". Firstly, this takes a great deal of effort. You might succeed in creating a dam, but sitting back to admire your work you see that the water level is gradually rising behind the dam. At some point it either flows over or around the dam, or the dam breaks...  It's much easier just to let the water flow.

The other trap we get into is jumping into the river and grabbing hold of the various thought forms that flow down this river. Let’s say you see something awful on the news. Immediately your mind is flooded by a whole range of negative thoughts and emotions like anger, sadness, fear, revenge. Before you know it, your mind is grabbing similar thoughts from its memory banks, and new thoughts come in followed by more emotions. The next thing you know, you're totally consumed by these thoughts, wondering about the safety of those you saw on the news, of you, your family, friends, what to do about it, how to stay safe, etc.

So instead of engaging with these thoughts as they arise, in our mindfulness meditation we practise simply observing the thoughts – sitting by the riverside, seeing the flow of thoughts for what they are. Not trying to block them, but also not grabbing hold of them. We practise making the choice not to engage with the thoughts as they arise, so we have that choice in every part of our life. Sometimes it's imperative that we do engage with our thoughts, but sometimes it's more healthy not to.

I teach 8-week courses in Mindfulness for Health & Wellbeing regularly through the year in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

If you've found mindfulness or yoga to help with negative feelings or moods, I'd love to hear your experience. Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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Monday, 22 September 2014

Ki energy and intention

In this last few week's I've been thinking a lot about what people in the yoga and martial art world call energy, or prana, chi, qi, ki. In the first of these series of articles I was talking about my understanding of the ki energy phenomenon from a yoga and Zen practitioner's point-of-view, as well as my (ex)scientist's point-of-view. 

My main motivation was to understand the experiences I've been getting of waves or rushes, sometimes jolts, of pleasurable sensations in my body when doing certain yoga or meditation practices. I concluded that these sensations are the result of my body's bioelectromagnetic (hereafter bio-EM) field coming into coherence.

In the last article, I was thinking about how this makes sense when it comes to feeling and drawing on ki energy that originates from outside our system – like in plants and trees, and in the Earth. Since plants too have electrically charged cells, and also take in electromagnetic energy (in the form of sunlight) as part of their nutrition, I thought that the fact they could excite a response in your own bioEM field didn’t sound so far-fetched.

So why is it that not everyone feels these kinds of sensations? Or to put it another way, why haven't I always felt these kinds of sensations?

I think when I started my journey into the world of yoga and meditation, I was just too numb, desensitised, and tense to feel anything of this sort. In the words of a good friend of mind, I was a brute! An insensitive, lumbering vertebrate with his heads in the clouds and a body that, if on a map, would be labelled “here be dragons”!

If we’re too tense, out of alignment, or imbalanced then there are too many blockages, frozen areas, and too little sensitivity. In this state, I would think, there's no way our bioelectromagnetic fields can ever come into coherence! So one of the primary aims of yoga and meditation practice, particularly at the beginning, is to start unblocking and relaxing the body, and getting you to develop more sensitivity to your sensations.

Next question: now I can feel these pulses or shimmers of sensation, why don't I feel them all the time?

Thinking back to my experiences, I can see that just opening, aligning and balancing the body wasn't enough. It seems like a certain intention (i.e. directed mind energy or focus), often coupled with a physiological action, is also needed.

Let's take 'intention' to start with. What kind of intention? I think there can be many, starting with an intention just to feel something. Then there might be an intention to draw inwards, to follow the movement of the breath, to let go, to reach out. For any intention to be effective, it would make sense that we need to stay with it without getting distracted. Thus another central skill we learn in our yoga and meditation practice is concentration or focus. Most people are generally pretty bad at it... Our mind wanders like a drunk from memories to fantasies, from fleeting thoughts to emotions, and whenever we ask it to stay put on something it rebelliously does the opposite... Slowly, we can learn to regulate this concentration and sustain it for longer and longer periods.

So we've got an open and aligned body, and our intention is set. Sometimes this is enough. I've felt strong energetic pulses and jolts during sitting meditation when I've set my mind on letting go down into the floor. The physical reaction is then a response (muscle twitching, pelvic floor lifting, eyes crossing).

But sometimes, particularly in yoga, the intention is coupled with a physical action, and together this precipitates pulses or movements of ki energy. One example of a physiological action might be a muscular lift (contraction) of the pelvic floor muscles. If we're soft and sensitive enough in that area, this can have the effect of exciting a much softer inner "suck" that seems to be very effective at bringing the bioEM field into coherence. In yoga this is called engaging mulabandha (mula meaning "root", and bandha being translated variously as lock, or gateway; see my article here).
As I see it in all of this ki energy work, you have to want, or intend, for something to happen before it can happen. Far from being imagined or "all in the mind", the feeling and movement of ki energy seems to very much need this direction of the mind. I guess this is why my teachers have often said "energy follows intention" and "energy follows awareness".

Thursday, 11 September 2014

How I understand ki energy from outside myself

In my last article I was looking at my understanding of the phenomenon of energy (in the eastern chi/ki sense) and how I've come to see it as an (ex)scientist. I described my experiences of feeling waves or rushes, sometimes jolts, of pleasurable sensations travelling through my body during certain yoga or meditation practices, and concluded that these body-felt sensations are what I feel when the electromagnetic field in my body generated by the movement of electric current within my nerves and other cells comes into coherence. The reason why we don't all feel these is due to blockages and restrictions that have built up in our bodies over time (tight muscles, imbalances, etc), and a general lack of sensitivity.

I've been told for many years by various yoga and meditation teachers that it's not only possible to feel this ki energy moving within us, but it’s also possible to feel and even receive ki energy from sources outside yourself. As I said in the previous article, both in traditional Chinese medicine and modern physics, everything can be seen as a form of energy – but things being energy, and being able to receive that energy are two different things. So does this make sense?

Let's consider the chairs we're sitting on right now (assuming you are sitting on one!). The chair is made of solid matter (wood, metal, etc), which, as Einstein showed us, is just a form of energy (remember E=mc^2). Can I feel that energy? Sure I can – just by the mere fact that I'm still sitting on the chair and haven't passed straight through it means that my body is experiencing the physical energetic forces that make the chair solid. But does the fact my chair is really just energy mean there can be an exchange of that energy with me, or that I can feel that energy at a distance?

Well, I don’t have an answer about chairs yet, but as I've been tuning in to these shimmering, pulsing sensations in my body, my teachers have been encouraging me to see whether I can feel ki energy from other things – particularly organic things like people and plants, but also places.

And as crazy as it sounds, I can actually feel something! Trees have been a big source of these sensations.
London Plane tree

At first I would be in the park here in London and I'd try feeling a tree... Being acutely aware of how weird I might appear(!), I would would try approaching a tree surreptitiously when no one was looking and lightly touch the bark. Sure enough, whooff, waves of tingling, pulsing sensations would often (not always) ripple through my body. Some trees do it more than others (generally big old ones are best!). Now, when I really tune in, I can feel these familiar tingling sensations when I just come near a tree, or even stand under its branches – just being in its presence. I can't feel it every time, just when I'm trying to tune in, and I'm feeling particularly open. It happened pretty powerfully a week or two ago when I was standing between four very fine beech trees, and for the first time the other day with just a house plant!

Taoist masters throughout the centuries have observed that trees are tremendously powerful plants. Taoist master Mantak Chia explains how, in the Taoist view, trees are seen to be constantly in meditation and are natural processors of ki energy. The best trees for healing, they say, are big trees, especially pines and those growing near running water. But again, all this is ideas and beliefs. How do you explain it?

It turns out that, like animals, plants too have electrically charged cells (so-called cell action potentials) and use them to rapidly send signals through the plant. This came as a surprise to me. So plants generate their own electromagnetic field as well… (Apparently by attaching electrodes to the leaf and root they be made to sing.) When you think about it, we all know that plants depend on light, which is just electromagnetic energy, for their nourishment. We learn that at school. They photosynthesise the carbon monoxide in the air together with water that they draw up from the earth and the energy from sunlight into sugars and proteins – and oxygen which they expel.

So sensing the bioelectromagnetic field (or ki energy) of a plant doesn’t sound so weird, even when it’s at a distance. And the fact that plants can excite a response in your own bioelectromagnetic field also doesn’t sound so strange. I think of it like a form of induction, like how your electric toothbrush charges or how an induction hob works. Changes in the field of one object influences the field of the other.

My teachers also say that one can feel and receive ki energy from the Earth. In fact one of the first times I felt these strong energy pulses I've mentioned was when doing what my yoga teacher Jonathan Monks calls the root meditation. As he describes it, this is about opening your root (the energetic centre in your pelvic floor) so that you can connect with and receive the energy of the Earth. The sensation was clear enough, but energy in the Earth...?

It's known that the Earth's magnetic field is generated by electric currents moving through the highly conductive layer of molten iron alloys in the planet’s outer core. The currents are formed as the molten iron moves around due to convection. But how this relates to potential ki energy at the surface of our planet is much harder to understand. Some people talk about ley lines being paths of energy in the ground, some people about feng shui and the harmonisation of ki in the wind, water, stars, and earth.

Personally I haven’t found a way of understanding Earth energy yet. I feel it in my root (pelvic floor), in the soles of my feet on the ground, and in my hands when they’re on the ground, but that’s all I can say.

As always, your comments are very welcome - here on the blog, on FB or by e-mail. More on this in the weeks to come...!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

As a scientist, this is how I've come to understand energy (chi)

Over the last few years I’ve had many experiences of sensations that people would call "energy" (or chi/qi in Chinese, ki in Japanese). The sensations are absolutely undeniable. Often they take the form of pleasurable waves or pulses travelling through the body, sometimes more like jolts.

As a scientist, many people have asked me how I’ve come to explain these and how I understand this "energy". It's taken me a while to come up with a decent answer...

Energy in Physics

According to the dictionary, “energy” simply means a capacity to do “work”. It's surprisingly vague isn’t it! In physics, “work” is defined as the energy expended in applying a force to an object to move it over a certain distance. One joule is the energy needed to apply one newton of force through a distance of one metre.

Energy can, however, take many other forms such as kinetic (moving), chemical, electric, nuclear, potential, etc, and has the ability to be converted from one form to another. For example, a ball held out over your balcony has gravitational potential energy, and when you let go, this energy transforms into kinetic energy as it falls. A burning candle is converting chemical potential energy into heat (kinetic energy at the molecular level) and light (electromagnetic energy).

In his theory of special relativity, Einstein derived his famous equation E=mc^2; meaning energy is equivalent to mass, or put another way, mass is simply a manifestation of energy. This blows my mind every time I think of it! According to this, every thing is just a manifestation of energy. This is what the Chinese have been saying for centuries! In traditional Chinese medicine, they say when a child is conceived and develops, chi condenses to form a material being. In one sense this is obvious – the energy that formed the egg in the woman and animates the sperm in the man, when brought together causes the formation of a foetus, and the energy within the woman’s body goes into growing that foetus into a baby.

But how does this go anywhere to explain the waves of sensation that I've been experiencing?


Cascade of electrical signals through nerves
It has long been known that the activities of cells and tissues within the body generate electrical fields that can be detected on the skin surface. All the cells in your body naturally generate a slight imbalance between negatively charged potassium ions on the inside and the positively charged sodium ions on the outside. "Excitable cells", like neurons, have a much larger imbalance than others. When the body needs to send a message from one place to another, it uses these excitable cells to create a cascade of electrical signals. It opens a “gate” on the first cell's wall and the negative potassium ions rush outside attracted towards the positive charge, and the positive sodium ions equally rush inside. This switch of charge triggers the gate on the next cell to open, creating another electrical impulse, and so on. Nerves are simply long strings of excitable neuron cells that carry these electrical pulses of information.

These currents of electricity generate a corresponding magnetic field in the surrounding space; electricity and magnetism are really just two faces of the same coin. However, because the electric pulses in the body are so weak, the magnetic fields associated with them have been very difficult to detect. In recent years, scientists have started to detect and measure the tiny magnetic fields associated with physiological activities in the bodies of animals and humans. This has been possible with the invention of what is known as a SQUID or "superconducting quantum interference device” in the 1960s.

However clever we think we are with our modern SQUIDs though, there are a few animals that got there way before us! Some migratory birds have been shown to be sensitive to the magnetic field of the Earth via particular magnetically sensitive chemicals or photosensitive proteins in their retinas. This is how they're thought to navigate over such long distances. Also, some types of sharks, rays, and sturgeon have an array of special sensing organs called electroreceptors on their undersides that help the fish sense electric fields generated by other creatures in the water and hence locate prey. Cool huh!

Since our nervous system is based entirely on electrical impulses generated and triggered by our cells, it’s not a huge leap to think that the body could produce large-scale coherent alignments or patterns of electromagnetic energy that could be felt as tactile sensations.

This is the way I have come to see the pleasurable rushes of energy I often experience in yoga and meditation. They are coherent pulses of bioelectromagnetic energy moving through the body. I'll talk more about these coherent pulses next week.

The inevitable conclusion is that we must be fully capable of cultivating and controlling the bioelectricity we generate in our own bodies.

Other aspects to energy

Teachers and texts claim that this energy travels along distinct pathways in the body called meridians (Sanskrit "nadi", Japanese "myaku"), and concentrates in certain energy centres (called "chakras" in the yoga tradition or in Chinese "dan tien", Japanese "tanden").

The meridian system of the body
In these last few years I have begun to experience what it means for the energy to build-up in my hara (belly) area. I feel sensations of solidity, tingling, glowing. When you first start doing Zen meditation it's one of the main energetic practices – make your hara the focal point for your attention and draw your energy there. "Tanden" translates as something like "field of elexir", where elixir is another way of saying energy. In Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts, the tanden is seen as the main reservoir of ki energy – akin to your body's battery pack.

I can't say, though, I've really been able to discern energy flowing in in my body through any particular pathways that you might call meridians. With the strong pulses/waves I mention above, they often have a general up or down the body quality to them. With certain yoga sequences and practices, I can feel sensations moving up or down the front and back of my body (what might be called the "microcosmic orbit").

So I think it's all about slowly tuning in more and more. As your sensitivity to the body and sensations increases, then your aerial becomes finer and finer tuned and these very subtle phenomena start to become noticeable.

Next I'll discuss energy from sources outside ourselves, and it's relation to intention.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

History of zen yoga

Here's a part of an article I've been writing on Zen Yoga for wikipedia. This is the history and origins section. Previously I wrote an article putting Zen yoga in context with all the other main styles out there - read it here.

Origins with the Buddha

The first mention of the word "yoga" seems to have been in in the Rig Veda, written around 1500 B.C.E, together with a description of the hierarchy of mind-body constituents—the senses, mind, intellect, etc. – and ways to control them. 

From the very earliest city-states in the region now known as Iraq, people spread in all directions, including the East. One group, that some call the Aryans, emerged on the steppes of Eurasia about 4000 yrs ago. In Sanskrit they were the “Aryas” (“Aryans”). The root of this word served as the foundation of the name of the conquered Persian territories, “Iran”. The Aryans first entered India around 1500 BC and drove the native Harappa-Mohenjodaro people southwards

The class division of the Aryans and the conquered darker-skinned native people into nobility and tribesmen was gradually expanded to become the caste system of India. The Sanskrit word for caste, “varna", also means colour. By the ninth century B.C.E., the religion of the Aryans was codified in the Vedas. Ritual and offering were central to their beliefs, and these could only be performed by the spiritual caste, the Brahmins. The ritual act of making offerings was even, at times, venerated even more than the gods themselves, and as a consequence the Brahmins became very powerful and secretive.

The concept of yoga appears again in one of the key pieces of literature that evolved from the Vedas called the Mahabharata. This great story, including a section known as the Bhagavad Gita, became seminal for the development of later Hinduism and Yoga.

The Buddha grew up in a time of great political and spiritual upheaval. In Northern India at around 500 B.C.E., the merchant class was on the rise. The separate kingdoms emphasis on wealth accumulation and the use of violent force, caused an increasing restriction in peoples' freedom and their suffering become increasingly greater. Spiritual practice, which offered ways to alleviate this suffering, had become increasingly ritualised and restricted only to the Brahmin caste. As a result, a number of ‘radical’ spiritual schools and teachers emerged (the ''shamana'' schools) in reaction to the established orthodoxy (sometimes called the “movement of the forest sages”). Common to them all was the rejection of a supreme god, such as Brahma, or any other form of a creator, and they all offered ways to alleviate suffering and paths to liberation to people of all castes.

The Buddha trod the middle path between some of the more extremes that appeared, accepting as parts of the path to liberation the use of logic and reasoning, ethical behaviour, and the direct “knowing” gained through insight and meditation. He taught that there are no absolute “things”, there are only processes in a constant state of change (''annica''); that there is no fixed or permanent essence or soul (''annata''); and that suffering is inherent to life (''dukkha'') (the Three Marks of Existence). His way of liberation was the end to suffering.

The Buddha described four foundations (or bases) of mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta – mindfulness of the body, of sensations, of the mind, and of dharmas (i.e. phenomena, thoughts, arisings), and is recorded as saying, 
“There is one thing that leads to happiness in the present and liberation in the future; and what is this one thing? It is mindfulness of the body.” (Anguttara Nikaya, sutta I, 21). 
Thus mindfulness of the body is the direct way to liberation and the end of suffering. Zen yoga practice is primarily concerned with the body and sensations, and observing life as a process in a constant state of change, so is in direct line with the Buddha's method of awakening.

Again in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha says

"Furthermore, when going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away... when bending & extending his limbs... when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe & his bowl... when eating, drinking, chewing, & savouring... when urinating & defecating... when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert.
"In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally... unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself."

Evolution into China and Japan

With the revival of the brahmana and caste system around the turn of the first millennium C.E. and the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century C.E., Buddhism began to decline. However, yoga and Buddhism had already spread into neighbouring countries, including Tibet and China to the north. In fact, descriptions of yoga-type exercises were discovered in a number of silk and bamboo books in Mawangdui Han tomb in Hunan Province dating from way back to the early West Han Dynasty (around 400 B.C.E.), so perhaps it was more like a re-spreading or merging

At around 500 C.E., an Indian monk called Bodhidharma arrived in southern China and taught practices centered on meditation and the direct mind-to-mind transmission teachings of the Lankavatara Sutra. According to Chinese legend, he also taught a number of practices to monks to prepare them for meditation. These include a series of external exercises called the Eighteen Arhat Hands (Shi-ba Lohan Shou) and an internal practice called the Sinew Metamorphosis Classic. The Yijin Jing ("Muscle/Tendon Change Classic”) is also attributed to Bodhidharma. As these practices developed, they led to the creation of Shaolinquan school of Kung Fu.

As the Buddhism of Bodhidharma fused with the prevailing Chinese philosophies and practices of Confucianism and Taoism, it became Ch’an (from Sanskrit "dhyāna", meaning meditation or "meditative state"). Over the centuries, Ch'an spread to Japan where it become known as Zen, taking with it the rich combination of practices known variously as yoga, Qigong, Tao Yin, etc.

Dating back to around the fourth century C.E., Yogācāra (literally yoga practice) is one of the two main philosophical systems that underlies Zen. It contains a sophisticated psychology of awakening and emphasises the practice of mindfulness. This mindfulness leads not to an experience but to a total shift in the way we relate to all experiences. This shift is referred to in the Yogācāra tradition as parāvṛtti, "turning around”.

Hatha and Yantra Yoga

Hatha Yoga emerged as a discipline in the centuries following the Buddha, tracing its origins to the Yoga-sutras written by the sage Patañjali (from the 2nd century B.C.E.) and the Goraksha Samhita (written in the 11th-century by yogi Gorakshanath). The word 'hatha' in Sanskrit literally means 'force', so Hatha Yoga is the “Discipline of Force”. It stresses mastery of the body as a way of attaining a state of spiritual perfection in which the mind is withdrawn from external objects. The Buddha once related his experiences with a Hatha Yoga-stype breath-retention practice and found it had a great effect, but not conducive to awakening:

"...I stopped the in-breaths & out-breaths in my nose & mouth. As I did so, there was a loud roaring of winds coming out my earholes, just like the loud roar of winds coming out of a smith's bellows... So I stopped the in-breaths & out-breaths in my nose & mouth & ears. As I did so, extreme forces sliced through my head, just as if a strong man were slicing my head open with a sharp sword... Extreme pains arose in my head... There was an extreme burning in my body... And although tireless persistence was aroused in me, and unmuddled mindfulness established, my body was aroused & uncalm because of the painful exertion... But with this racking practice of austerities I haven't attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to Awakening?"
The word hatha can also be seen as a combination of two separate "Bīja mantras" or single syllables – "ha" representing the masculine or solar energy and "tha" as the feminine or lunar energy. Thus Hatha Yoga is the practice of bringing balance to the two opposing forces[4]. The first occurrence of the term 'hatha yoga' is in fact found in the Buddhist Guhyasamāja tantra dating from the 8th century[5].

Yantra yoga (or Trul khor) is a the Tibetan Buddhist parallel to the Hindu or Vedic Hatha yoga tradition. The discipline includes similar body postures (asanas) and pranayama practices, and includes mantra practice and visualisations. Originating with the mahasiddhas of India, it was brought to Tibet in the eighth century by the great master Padmasambhava and transmitted to the Tibetan Dzogchen master Vairochana. Its practice is nowadays found in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Modern Zen yoga in Japan

In modern times, Zen masters Hogen Daido Roshi and Harada Tangen Roshi, in particular, have advocated and taught yoga practices to compliment their Zen training. In an article published in the Buddhist Society's Middle Way magazine in May 2014, a student of Hogen Daido Roshi recalls that he constantly imparted the importance of mixing moving Zen (do-zen) into Zen practice: 
"...there are four kinds of Zen: sitting, standing, lying, and moving. We should practise them all. Whatever we do, we must do it fully, mindfully, wholeheartedly, one thing at a time without being attached to or involved in it. When we practise moving Zen, the quality of our daily lives becomes very different.”

In Zen, the inseparability of the “body-mind” is often stressed, together with the need to retain our flexibility for life. Hogen Roshi taught that:
 “By doing yoga and zazen, we can begin to appreciate the real state of our body and mind, both of which are stiff and unpeaceful. We should not hate them. Please, let them be as they are. Taste their special bitter taste”.