Buddhism and Yoga: An American Teacher’s Journey

An Interview with Geshe Michael Roach


Geshe Michael Roach has spent most of his adult life as a monk in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and has been meditating for over 30 years. He’s gone deep in the study of both the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which he also translated. He received empowerment into the Six Yogas of Naropa, the most famous of the Tibetan systems of Yoga poses. For the last 12 years, he has maintained a daily practice of Indian styles of Yoga. In this interview, he talks about his experiences with Buddhism and Yoga and points to where he thinks these two traditions have profound things to say to one another.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What led you to the study of Yoga after years of Buddhist training?

Geshe Michael Roach (GMR): Well, I stayed for 25 years in a Tibetan monastery. After 25 years you are examined for the Geshe degree. It’s very nerve-wracking because over one thousand monks question you in public. When you graduate, you are very happy because you can relax after that and you become a teacher in the monastery—though mostly you drink tea all day (laughs). So, after I passed the Geshe exam, they called me into the abbot’s quarters. My teacher of classical logic said, “You are not finished. Now you have to start tantra, the higher, secret teachings.” I asked, “Well, how do we do that?” He said, “The first thing you are going to study is Yoga.” I told him, “I’ve been in the monastery 25 years and I’ve never seen anybody do Yoga.” And he said, “Well, it’s secret. You have to finish your Geshe before you can study Yoga.” I asked, “Well, who’s the Yoga teacher?” He said, “I am.” I was really surprised because he was sort of a nerdy, logic teacher.

He started teaching me Yoga, and we followed the Yoga that was taught by Naropa, who lived one thousand years ago in India, and his spiritual partner—whose name was Lady Niguma. They both had different systems of Yoga, which I studied. Then he told me I had to do a three-year silent retreat. I was getting ready to do that when I had to go to New York. When I got there, a friend of mine told me I should go to Jivamukti Yoga to take a Yoga class. I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable because I thought they were mostly Hindu and they would make me chant “Hare Krishna” and there would be a Ganesha statue there. And, if people saw a Buddhist monk there they’d think that was something strange. But my friend convinced me to go and just try a class.

I went to Jivamukti and I went up in the elevator. As the door opened what greeted us was a huge Ganesh statue. I said to my friend, “See I told you they were going to have Ganesh.” And then I heard them chanting “Hare Krishna.” Then I thought, this is going to be strange. I went into the class and David Life was the teacher. He started the poses, and I was very surprised because what I was seeing were almost exactly the same poses I had been learning at the monastery.

IYM: What happened when you went back to the monastery?

GMR: When I went back to my lama at the monastery, I told him, “Look I have some bad news for you. You know your big secret Yoga that you can’t do except after 25 years in the monastery? Well, there are other people who are doing it.” He said, “Who and how many?” So I said, “Well, I read in the Wall Street Journal that there are about 20 million people [laughs heartily].” He got tears in his eyes. There’s a word in Tibetan—pekyu—which means professional jealousy between different traditions. I thought, “Oh, he has that,” so I said, “It’s okay Rinpoche. They don’t know much about the inner part of it; they just do the exercises. You don’t have to be upset.” He said, “No, no. I’m not upset. I’m happy. All those people doing Yoga, they were Geshes in their past lives. They wouldn’t be attracted to the word ‘Yoga’ unless they were doing Yoga in their last life. All those people were high Geshes in their past lives.” I said, “That’s impossible Rinpoche. Twenty million people? Our monastery graduates only like four Geshes a year.” He looked at me like I was crazy and he said, “Well you know, there are other planets…”