YOGA AND ZEN IN THE HIMALAYAS: AN INTERVIEW WITH SAMANTHA AND ROBERT

As director of Yoga Nepal, I’m always looking for ways to help yoga practitioners deepen their practice in and beyond the studio. Our retreats in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley give participants a chance explore the place where the Hindu and Buddhist cultures of the Himalayas converge. And when combined with practice, reflection and teachings from Buddhist masters, we all get a little closer to the real meaning of yoga. The entire valley is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and its many temple towns and its wealth of sacred monuments have inspired pilgrims and seekers for centuries. 

These days, I’m often asked how our 2011 Mindful Yoga and Zen Meditation program came into being. Zen? …in the Himalayas? This story goes back a long way and brings back lots of good memories…

About 10 years ago my boyfriend and I set out on a trip through the Himalayan regions of South Asia for a little adventure and to deepen our understanding and practice of Buddhism. We were new to the Dharma, and like many Buddhist backpackers on the path, we went straight to Dharamsala, India, to attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

At the teachings, we met a pair of newlyweds on a kind of pilgrimage-honeymoon: a talented yoga practitioner named Samantha and her husband, Robert, a newly ordained Zen priest. Having spent years living and practicing zazen (zen meditation) at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Zen monastery in the California mountains, they were out in the world, exploring the Buddhist traditions of India, Nepal and Thailand.

If you’ve done a lot of traveling then you know the kind of magic that can happen when you’re far from home meeting kindred spirits. Friendships form fast, and the conversation is never boring. We took walks in the Himalayan foothills together, and they shared with us their experience of living at a Zen Buddhist monastery and what it meant to commit to a life of practice. My boyfriend and I were happy to share our own experience practicing within the Tibetan tradition we’d traveled so far to learn more about. No doubt, there was some intangible connection among the four of us.I didn’t know it would be nearly a decade before we’d have the chance to explore it further.

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Samantha and Robert left for Nepal and Southeast Asia, and my boyfriend and I headed onwards to Tibet. And it looked like life was taking us in different directions too. James and I ended up in Kathmandu a few years later, where we immersed ourselves in the study of Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language. Samantha and Robert returned to California and shifted their base to San Francisco. Robert became a spiritual and administrative leader of the San Francisco Zen Center. He later received “Dharma Transmission” in the Soto Zen tradition and began to teach Buddhist philosophy and meditation. Samantha completed teacher training at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco and taught yoga classes with a therapeutic focus. She continued to incorporate her many years of Zen training into her teaching as well.

Last year, I was in the planning stages for Yoga Nepal 2011, when I learned that Samantha and Robert had been sharing their gifts in a new way -- leading Zen Mind, Yoga Body retreats for the San Francisco Zen Center.  By combining their rare and complimentary gifts, they’d discovered a new way to help people heal the body and mind.

I had an idea. It was time for a reunion.

I can’t wait to present Mindful Yoga and Zen Meditation with Samantha and Robert in Kathmandu this fall. I recently had a chance to talk with them about the importance of pilgrimage and retreat. Here’s what they had to say:

Marni:What is it that motivates you to teach?

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Robert: I have been practicing Zen Buddhism rather intensely for over 17 years now, and for much of that time I have been practicing as just a simple monk, not so interested in becoming a Buddhist "teacher." I'm really a rather shy person, and I came to practice because I was causing myself and others around me great suffering. I wanted to find a way out of these seemingly endless cycles and patterns of suffering.

I have always appreciated that Zen is a path of practice seeking a direct engagement with and understanding of the profound teachings of the Buddha. It is focused on waking up from the delusion that we are separate and permanent, and seeing how things really are: interdependent and impermanent. It was only after years of practicing Zen meditation and extending that meditation into each moment of my life, cultivating the practice of continuous mindful activity, that I really began to appreciate the subtle guidance of my teachers and how important it was that there were experienced practitioners there to meet me when I had questions about practice; that there were wise and compassionate human beings there to show me the way as I endeavored to open my life up to its full possibility and potential. 

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After many years of practice I ordained as a Buddhist priest and now have received from my teacher what is referred to as "Dharma Transmission." This qualifies and supports me to wear the traditional Buddhist robes and pass on the lineage of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki. For this I am extremely grateful. As a Zen "teacher" my way is to be a humble example of the Buddha's path that all humans can walk, to show others how they might enter and then continue on that path, and to express the truth of the way things are in simple, direct, straightforward language that others can understand and incorporate into their lives. This is not so much the role or title of the "teacher," but more the compassion and commitment of a "Dharma friend," or Bodhisattva, who vows to live life for the benefit of all living beings. 

Samantha: I teach yoga because yoga has been one of the practices that has brought the most healing and wholeness to my life, and I am passionate about helping other people find what for me has been most transformational, which is to turn our awareness inward towards our true self, our innermost spirit, and to listen and feel what that inner knowing, that inner voice is saying. So we can find out who we really are, what we really love in life, what we are really meant to do here in this life. We also gain invaluable insight into the deep patterns of our thoughts as we observe our responses to the poses, especially the poses that challenge us more. From observing our habitual responses, we see ourselves more clearly, we understand ourselves better, and we have a chance to free ourselves from our limitations.

I also teach yoga because I love how yoga can bring us to a state of well-being and happiness physically, mentally and emotionally. For this retreat in Nepal, I will focus our yoga practice on making us very grounded, spacious, and well-aligned physically, so that we can be comfortable and at ease as we meditate together after the yoga practice.

Marni: Why do you think pilgrimage and retreat are so important to a spiritual path?

Samantha: We came to Asia 10 years ago on a pilgrimage because we were living at Tassajara doing intensive zen meditation practice for several years, and we wanted to see how people practiced and lived Buddhism in Asia. We had no idea how much it would change our ideas of what spiritual practice is, to see the Buddhist countries in Asia, and to see how monks and nuns and regular people approached their spiritual practice. What I loved to see was the physicality of the practice -- to watch an elderly Tibetan lady sitting there, turning her prayer wheel and saying a mantra for hours on end; to walk with the people in Boudhanath around the enormous stupa every morning and evening. Something gets enacted there that is very deep and powerful.  I also loved to see how spiritual practice was an all-day thing -- you get to see things like how, first thing in the morning, a woman walks up to a tree and offers, with great love, a tray of offerings in front of it; or to see a woman place flowers on each side of her front door after sweeping in the morning. These are ways that spiritual practice is just part of life in Asia, and it makes life very meaningful.

Robert: It’s very important for people to take time from their busy lives to practice. It is naturally very difficult within the normal daily momentum of our life for us to do anything different than what we always do. When we step out of the conditions that support the habit patterns of our life, we open ourselves to new conditions, to new ways of seeing the world, and encourage us to reconnect to parts of ourselves that we had forgotten about or had neglected. Retreats like Yoga Nepal also help us to find other people who are looking for ways to find peace and happiness in their lives, and to connect with something larger and more important that can have a profoundly beneficial impact on their life and the lives of those around them. Finding others on this path and connecting with them by practicing together as a little "mini-sangha" is a very powerful and life-changing experience.

Marni:What can we learn by practicing meditation together with yoga? How do they inform one another?

Robert: The purpose of Zen meditation is not to have some special "enlightenment" experience, but instead, it is to become aware and to see things as they really are. It is to see and understand in a deep way that our actions have consequences and that awareness in each moment is the foundation for benefiting ourselves and others. Learning to sit meditation is very important, but just as important is learning how to extend the calm, open, flexible, and ready mind of zazen (zen meditation) into each moment of our lives. In our yoga practice we get to practice with becoming more aware of how each thought, each emotion and action that arises in the present moment conditions the next. We get to see how the thoughts and habit patterns of our mind work, and we start to understand how they are helping us or not helping us. In this way we start, one moment at a time, to wake up form the delusion that anything is separate from anything else, and we see how the smallest adjustment -- in our mind or our body-- can have a profound affect on us. 

Marni: What inspired you to take this opportunity to teach with Yoga Nepal? What do you look forward to on this journey?

Samantha: To be invited to teach with Yoga Nepal is really a dream come true for me. Ten years ago when we went on our first pilgrimage to Asia, we were stunned by the effect that visiting sacred sites that had been places of intense spiritual practice for many generations had on us. We were on hallowed ground, and we really felt it. These sacred spaces have a lot of power to alter us in profound ways that we don't understand at first.

I am also really excited to return to the Kathmandu Valley for the cultural tour -- there is such an incredible, rich history of cultures and religions there – I’m really looking forward to learning more along with all of the participants.    

Marni: It’s always been a dream of mine to bring the teaching of yoga and Buddhist meditation together. In a way, that’s what Yoga Nepal means to me – it’s a vehicle for truly exploring how these methods work in harmony. So I just want to thank you both for bringing your open minds, your warm hearts and all of those years of Zen and yoga training to Kathmandu for Yoga Nepal 2011. I have no doubt that this is going to be a very special journey. I truly cannot wait to see you and our Yoga Nepal “mini-sangha” in Kathmandu!

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Mindful Yoga and Zen Meditation is a reunion of sorts. A reunion of old friends not far from the place they first met ten years earlier, and for Yoga Nepal 2011 participants, a reunion of body and mind and a chance to reconnect with their innate sense of joy, spaciousness and ease.

Robert and Samantha return to Yoga Nepal in March of 2015!