Zen Yoga

Woman practices metitation on the beach in a tree yoga pose

Zen Yoga

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Definition

Zen yoga is a hybrid style mixing Indian hatha yoga practices with Buddhism, Japanese, and Chinese philosophies. “Zen” is the Japanese version of the Buddhist principle “dhyana”, or meditation.

Zen yoga encourages regular meditation and operating in place of mindfulness through all one’s actions, and a deep spiritual exploration of the world and one’s mind.

Multiple Styles of Zen Yoga

Oki-do by Masahiro Oki

There are actually multiple styles of yoga that often get labelled “zen yoga”. One of the earliest was Oki-do started by Masahiro Oki in 1967. The goal of his practice is to find enlightenment by opening up your inner-wisdom through change, balance, and stability.

It is a holistic practice that incorporates stretching, flowing movements, meditation, breathing exercises, healthy diet, and encouraging energy flow. It also believed that one needs to work with and find harmony with others to reach the right path.

Julian Daizan Skinner, one of the founders of Zenway Sangha teaches his own brand of zen yoga based upon zen master Shinzan Miyamae and Masahiro Oki’s teachings. Zenway puts their focus specifically on alignment, a flow of energy, and mindfulness, of which all three are related.

A strong, straight, aligned posture encourages energy flow, and one needs to be mindful to achieve this. Whether doing meditation or yoga postures, students are encouraged to bring all three to their practice. In general, the exercises are meant to prepare one for meditation.

Another was founded by Aaron Hoopes in 2007. He introduced it in his book, Zen yoga: A Path to Enlightenment Through Breathing, Movement, and Meditation. Although “zen” is a Buddhist term, Hoopes doesn’t mean for his yoga to be an offshoot of Buddhism. Instead, he wants people to bring a level of mindfulness to their practice.

He was a martial artist who used yoga to help him recover after his more intense workouts. Seeing their benefits in concert with each other, he looked to combine them into a single discipline. He is also a trained energy healer with a deep knowledge of many disciplines of yoga and Eastern thought. Thus his style is melange.

His hope is that zen yoga can be a bit easier to get into for people who aren’t incredibly athletic, and be accessible for people of any age or fitness level.

Portrait of Aaron Hoopes
American Writer / Founder of Zen Yoga
(1963 – )
A simple yet profound way to create a healthy body, a stress-free mind, and a peaceful sense of well-being.

Practice

Holistic Lifestyle

Oki-do can be seen more as a holistic lifestyle than an exercise, so the practice incorporates a healthy diet, meditation, and an encouragement to foster positive interpersonal relationships. Oki believed though that a healthy body is crucial to one’s true path, so the exercise component is very important, especially because it helps one foster the positive habits necessary to reaching enlightenment.

He believed that the most important aspect of physical health are flexible muscles, a straight, stretched spine, clean blood, and deep breathing. Oki-do incorporates all these ideas into their practice.

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It’s important that one practices without concern for the benefits one gets. Oki-do uses many of the asanas typical to most yoga classes, including Cobbler, Bow, Half Moon, and Triangle poses, among others.

Focus on Alignment and Posture

In zen yoga, there is a particular focus on alignment and posture. Having a straight back with the nose stacked over the belly button and ears facing out to the shoulders is to be encouraged through all one’s daily activities, not just when doing asanas. This alignment helps encourage a free-flowing energy throughout the body that is said to have positive benefits on one’s mental, physical, and spiritual health.

Meditation is seen as the most important aspect of the practice and students are encouraged to practice exercise, usually in the early morning, so the body is able to tolerate extended periods in a straight sitting position.

What to Expect in a Zen Yoga Class

Hoopes’s Zen yoga classes usually begin with a 20 minute warm up that combines tai chi, qi gong, and more traditional yoga. It uses simple movements such as wrist and shoulder rotations to loosen up. Even though people may see the style as primarily a workout, Hoopes does not want people to ignore that it is ultimately a spiritual practice. In the end, through stretching, combining breathing with movement, and meditation, practitioners can reach a state of deep relaxation and mental peace.

His style is meant to be practiced at its own pace so that people of all levels are able to find benefit. This idea extends beyond the exercise component of the style into the meditation practice. Hoopes thinks that people get so wrapped up in the methods of meditation that they lose a lot of the benefit. According to his views, the most important thing is that everyone sets aside the amount of time they can spare to sit in a comfortable position and focus on their breath. Be aware of the path of the air into the body and breathe in a deep manner, silently and slowly. If you master the breath, the mind should both relax.

Benefits and Risks

Zen Yoga may Have a Variety of Benefits

Zen yoga is claimed to have a myriad of benefits, similar to those of other yoga styles. On the physical side, it is said to increase flexibility and strength, and to improve circulation. It has also been said to ease chronic pain. Although there seem to be few scholarly articles looking at zen yoga specifically, there have been studies on other styles that support these claims.

Zen yoga improves blood circulation
One of the several benefits of Zen yoga is that it increases blood circulation.

In general, yoga is said to encourage flexibility and balance, and can help build strength, especially in the legs. Iyengar yoga, another yoga practice that has a particular focus on proper alignment has been shown to relieve chronic back pain, so there is a possibility zen yoga could help in that respect.

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Zen yoga is often claimed to be a relaxing, stress-relieving practice. This shouldn’t be surprising given the major role meditation plays in it. In general, yoga and meditation have been found to be calming to people.

Reducing stress and cortisol levels has been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system. Aaron Hoopes has touted the benefits of his practice, saying that a regular zen yoga practice with meditation can help one find inner-peace and reduce anxiety. Studies have shown that yoga practice in general can be used as a supplementary treatment for anxiety and depression.

Women found inner peace during meditation in nature
Frequent Zen yoga practice with meditation reduces anxiety and stress, and helps you find inner peace.

Few Opportunities for Injuries

Given Hoopes’s focus on students working at their own pace, there are few opportunities for injuries often associated with an asana practice. It is meant to be an energizing practice, not tiring. This makes it a style suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.

19 Sources +

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