The Roots of Heart Yoga
"You cannot enter the door of yoga without kindness and compassion for others."
--Changkya, Who Swam in the Diamond Sea (1717-1786),
yoga teacher to the Emperor of China and
His Holiness the Seventh Dalai Lama
The ancient art of yoga came to Tibet from its birthplace in India over a thousand years ago. It quickly became very popular, and wonderful systems for its practice sprang up like mushrooms all over the country. The yoga practice you will learn here, which is called Heart Yoga, belongs to the Gelukpa tradition of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet.
Heart Yoga works on your heart in two ways: It makes your physical heart and body healthy and strong, and it opens your heart to love others. And of course really the first always comes from the second.
The instructions for the physical exercises and inner practice of Heart Yoga entered Tibet in two different lineages. The exercises--or what we in the modern world think of as "yoga"--were first taught to Tibetans by the Indian master Naropa (1016-1110). They form part of an ancient tradition known as the Six Practices, and the Tibetans nicknamed them the "Machine of the Body."
The instructions for opening our hearts to others are called tong-len, which means "Giving and Taking." This practice involves special ways of breathing and thinking of others, throughout the day, and especially as you do your yoga exercises. The lineage for Giving and Taking goes back over two thousand years to the Buddha himself. It was passed on quietly from teacher to student without being written down and was brought to Tibet by the great Indian sage Atisha (982-1052). The practice was first put into book form by a Tibetan, Geshe Chekawa, about a hundred years later, and our presentation here is from his work.
Both the physical exercises and the special breathing techniques merged together by the time of Jey Tsong Khapa (1357-1419), who describes the yoga poses you find here in a secret text called The Book of Three Beliefs. The three beliefs, by the way, are belief in the beauty of the way; belief in the one who teaches it to you; and belief in yourself, that you will succeed in your practice.
Jey Tsong Khapa was the teacher of His Holiness the First Dalai Lama (1391-1474), and from here Heart Yoga continues up to His Holiness the current Dalai Lama, whose cheerful wisdom and compassion certainly embody its goals. Those of us who have written this book received the instructions on Heart Yoga over many years from great Tibetan lamas, especially Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tharchin and Sermey Jetsun Geshe Thupten Rinchen. They in turn received them chiefly from Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, the teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Thus it is an authentic yoga you will learn here, and we hope that the blessings of this long line of masters will touch you, even if we ourselves as teachers are but mere babes by comparison.
The daily half-hour program for Heart Yoga presented in this book is both similar to and very different from other kinds of yoga being taught today. On one hand we have selected exercises that you are probably already familiar with if you have ever tried yoga; you will feel at home here whether you are just starting out, or whether you are already attending classes in the Ashtanga, Iyengar, Shivananda, Jivamukti, Bikram, or other common yoga traditions. We ourselves enjoy and practice these well-known programs too; this book was in fact written during a deep three-year retreat in the Arizona desert, and throughout this time we received training in these five systems by kind and dedicated teachers who traveled far to come and instruct us, often at their own expense.
Each of the standard yoga poses you find here is accompanied by an additional pose that will be new for you; these are from the book by the teacher of the First Dalai Lama. These exercises deepen and strengthen the effect of their sister poses. But the most important difference between this yoga tradition and the others is in how you breathe and what you think about as you do your exercises. The Heart Yoga of Tibet works from both the inside and the outside, to bring you lasting strength and calmness. So next let's take a look at how this happens.
How Heart Yoga Works
"Come to understand that great core within you, like the very axis around which the stars turn."
--The Yoga Sutra of Master Patanjali (3rd Century)
Most of us are interested in yoga because we hope that it will give us more energy, better health, a trim and more flexible body, and of course peace of mind. Most of us too are more likely to really put our heart into a daily program like this if, at the very beginning, someone can give us a clear idea of how it works. To understand how helpful Heart Yoga can be, you need to understand what we call the Five Levels.
Think of your body like an onion. On the outside are all the parts we can see: arms, legs, tummy, and such. When we do yoga, this outer layer is what we think about the most. Where am I supposed to put my foot? Where does my arm go? Am I finally looking better?
And then there's a second layer right below the first. This level is made of all the things that give our outer body energy to be healthy and strong. One example of course is what we eat, but the ancient books of the East say that other things sustain our physical body as well--things like hope, and sleep, and even quiet times when we can sit down and think about something without being interrupted.
The most important source of food, raw energy for our bodies, is not what you might expect; it is our very breath. We can go for days without eating, or even drinking, but a good gulp of breath is something we need every couple of seconds. Our bodies contain billions of cells, and each one is fed consistent meals of fresh oxygen through the wondrous network of our lungs and bloodstream. If our breathing is deep and steady, it nourishes us automatically; we glow with health. And so of course all systems of yoga emphasize staying aware of our breath as we move through the exercises.
But now when you peel off this second layer, the breath, you come to a third level: one that makes the breath itself move. And this is the inner winds. Think of pictures you've seen of how the nerves spread throughout our body, branching off from the spinal cord like limbs of a tree, reaching out to the ends of our hands and feet.
Our nervous system really counts as part of the first level: the outside body. Now imagine a ghostlike network of tiny pipes and channels made of stuff so fine that you could no more touch it than you could grab a ray of sunlight peeking in through your window. This is what we call the inner channels--they lie inside the whole framework of nerves and blood vessels and even bones within our body. In fact, you could say that the very patterns of our nervous system and veins and skeleton all grow within us, in the first place, by following the outline of the lightray channels that are already there, even in the womb.
The whole shape of our body then, inside and out, is simply a reflection of the shape of these subtle inner channels. Have you ever gone outside in the sun in the morning after an ice storm and seen the branches and twigs of every tree in your yard coated in beautiful glistening ice? The shape that the layer of ice on each twig takes all depends on the shape of the twig beneath it: If the twig has a bump, then the ice forms a bump over it.
Every bump and indent on the outside and the inside of our bodies then is a reflection of a twist or turn of the invisible inner channels. The bones of our lower back, for example, form in the shape they do because there's a very similar, lumpy intersection of the inner channels right there in the same space.
You can probably already guess where all of this is heading. If these same inner channels lying within your lower back get knotted up somehow, then the very bones of your lower back get jammed up too. And that's exactly what causes a sore back. So if you really want to fix the pain in your back, you need to fix the problem at the level of the inner channels: at the third level.
Although people might not talk a lot about these inner channels in a typical yoga class nowadays, the whole purpose of yoga exercises in olden times was to reach down to this third level and straighten out problems with the inner channels. And because the first and second levels rest upon this third level, your breathing and your health straighten out as soon as the inner channels do.
All of this so far is working on yourself from the outside, with the yoga exercises. Now we get to the exciting part, which is the special secret of Heart Yoga: working from the inside.
Excerpted from The Tibetan Book of Yoga by Michael Roach. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Roach. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.