“Shall we become yogis then?”

From 29 October to 6 November 2011 Ken Holmes presented a retreat called: Buddhist Yoga of Body and Mind: the Nangpi Yoga of Kalu Rinpoche, at Bodhi Khaya.

The word yoga conjures images of contortions that stretch the limbs. Buddhist yoga, it turns out, is designed to stretch the mind.

The inimitable – indeed, lovable – Ken Holmes, esteemed director of studies at Samye Ling (the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West), took his seat in front of the shrine on our first day, rubbed his hands and with a provocative glint in his eye asked: “Shall we become yogis then?”

Those who’ve met Ken will understand when writers, like myself, must first indulge in a physical description. The profusion of hair makes the most indelible impression – a mop of grey the colour of wisdom; curly locks like cornucopias of knowledge; wrathful eyebrows that hint at the role of grand dharma protector. It’s like he skipped reincarnation and just walked straight out of the 19th century.

It was also as if he’d brought a spot of Scottish weather with him, a fitting backdrop for the work at hand. The anachronistic clouds and rain and cold seemed to complement the significance of what we were there to learn, and proved little cause for complaint thanks to the downright cosiness of even Bodhi Khaya’s dorm rooms.

Forest Shrine

The unique series of yogic exercises that we proceeded to learn over the next eight days were devised in Samye Ling by the great Kalu Rinpoche for the special benefit of a Western and lay audience. They are informed by Kalu Rinpoche’s own experience, as well as the non-secret portions of some of the yogas practised on the traditional (and unbelievably intense) four-year retreats. As such, its aspects go from the beginnings to the end of Tibetan Buddhist practice, using body and mind in a way that speaks to both halves of the brain simultaneously. It starts with the basics (itself calling on a big mind, an open heart and a level of compassion that stretches the imagination), builds up through classical compassion exercises (like tonglen) and moves on to channel and chakra work in the inner, visualized body of light.

The mindful movements were relatively unchallenging (except, perhaps, for those who attempted to include the headstand). But each move had its own place within a wider contemplation, and in this way practitioners were able to actually embody some of the insights of the Buddhist view. In the words of Kalu Rinpoche: “Dharma is not like a speech – if you don’t practise it, it remains as it is, just words.”

Our deepest thanks to Ken Holmes, whose devotion to the Kagyu tradition and the purity of authentic dharma is a true inspiration.

Written by Albert Buhr, who is a regular visitor to Bodhi Khaya.