The Body Beyond Knowing: Zen Mind Yoga Body—An interview with Samantha Ostergaard
by Amity Bacon, Writer and Zen Practitioner at San Francisco Zen Center
Striking the perfect balance is an aspiration that most days can seem out of reach. And yet, in
The Body Beyond Knowing: Zen Mind, Yoga Body, yoga teacher Samantha Ostergaard and Zen priest Do-On Robert Thomas find perfect balance at the midway point between yoga and Zen, as each practice provides what the other lacks.
As the retreat’s metaphorical title implies, the body knows a lot that extends beyond our thinking mind and is central to establishing life balance. Samantha shares with us some of her insights as a lifelong student of yoga and Zen, in this interview.
Amity: How are yoga and Zen complementary spiritual practices?
Samantha: Yoga as we practice it in the U.S. is mostly the physical poses or asanas. This leaves out the rest of the yoga tradition that is about meditation practices and how to live our spiritual practice in every aspect of our lives. So this part that is missing from the yoga tradition is exactly what Zen, especially the way we practice it at Zen Center, is so good at.
At the Zen Center, this is a living tradition — it’s not something we sit around talking about, we actually do it, day after day, year after year. Robert and I spent years at Tassajara, doing retreats, and generally living in a way that taught us to bring our meditative awareness into every moment of our activity. The insights we gained while living at Tassajara, as we tried — and often failed! — to practice this are a big part of what we offer in our retreats. We feel it is our responsibility to be a resource for people who aren’t able to take a year or two off to go live in a monastery and figure it out that way.
What we are missing in the Zen tradition is that we need to move our bodies in more ways than just sitting cross-legged for meditation. We need to move and stretch and turn upside down, because our lives are so sedentary, and when we don’t move enough, our bodies don’t function well. So the yoga provides this part that is lacking in Zen.
The yoga also helps get the body ready to sit on cushions in a cross-legged position. In our retreats, the yoga sessions are always followed by a period of meditation so that we can enjoy these benefits of yoga during the meditation.
A lot of people are afraid of meditation because they have physical discomfort. Our retreats usually include a “posture clinic” to help people troubleshoot the most common issues that can cause this. The pain that many people feel when they sit in meditation is often totally unnecessary. Then I also make sure that the yoga sessions take care of this as much as possible, so that people can have a positive meditation experience.
Many people have told me during our retreats that they meditated without pain for the first time. At a recent retreat, a lady told me before the first practice session that she was afraid of meditation for both mental and physical reasons. Then at the end of the session, which included yoga followed by meditation, she told me that she had had the most wonderful experience of meditation, beyond what she could have imagined was possible. This is the kind of experience many people have in our retreats.
Getting back to your question, the yoga is a big help with the effects of stress—poor breathing patterns, patterns of tension and holding in different parts of the body—that can have a big impact on our wellbeing and on the quality of our meditation sessions. I always teach some therapeutic yoga to address these effects of stress that pretty much everyone is dealing with.
I always give some restorative postures as well, so that people can really rest and restore their vital energies, which get so depleted from trying to keep up with the demands of their busy lives. All of these ways of taking care of the body are missing from the Zen tradition, that pretty much ignores many aspects of the body. Yoga really makes up for this deficit.
Amity: What opens up to us when we actually experience our bodies more intimately through yoga?
Samantha: Our bodies are the foundation for all spiritual practice. We can’t do it with just our minds. We start by paying attention to the experience of the body as a way to stabilize and calm the mind. This can mean simply noticing the sensation of the breath, which is a good point of focus for the mind, both in yoga practice and in meditation. Then, we can start to cultivate the ability to stay present and aware of the sensations of the body more of the time, and this can give us so much information about what is actually going on inside of us, more than if we just pay attention to our thinking minds. It is a way to begin to know ourselves in a deeper way.
In Buddhism we have a healthy disrespect for the thinking mind that makes up stories all day long about our experience. These stories and ideas distort our experience and cause us to respond in ways that cause suffering for ourselves and those around us. In our retreats, I introduce ways to bring this insight into the yoga practice, so we can begin to work with the mind and body while we move. This is good practice for taking the mind of meditation into our everyday activity.
Our bodies don’t lie. Our thoughts lie to us all the time, but our bodies tell the truth. They tell us all about how we really feel, what we really want, and what we really need. Our bodies teach us in a very concrete way about the reality of impermanence and interdependence. They teach us about love, compassion, and intimacy.
If we can learn to listen to our bodies, then we can begin to live our lives according to the truth of who we really are and how we really want to act in relation to ourselves and to others. We learn how to take good care of ourselves and those around us, to be in harmony with ourselves and with others.
Amity: You have been a Yoga instructor for over 10 years. What are you doing today in your workshops that is an innovation from your past?
Samantha: I am always working on improving the experiences I create for people in the Yoga sessions, and in the last year what I am teaching has changed quite a bit. Lately I have been exploring new ways to help people experience the insights that can be gained by working consciously with thoughts and emotions, in the Yoga sessions. I am really excited about presenting this new material in the retreats that are coming up this Spring and Summer.
We will have the opportunity to practice with Samantha Ostergaard and Do-An Robert Thomas at the Body Beyond Knowing: Zen Mind, Yoga Body retreat, May 24 – 27, at Green Gulch Farm.
They will also be leading retreats this summer at Tassajara. We hope you can join us.