BKS Iyengar is well known for bringing stability and alignment to the physical practice of asana; bringing the mind and the body onto the same level to create what he often referred to as “Meditation in Action”. However, he is also well known for classic thought and literal meaning of the practice of yoga. He was emphatic that actual meditation cannot be taught, but only occurs when the fluctuations of the mind and body are concentrated, then within that uninterrupted concentration, time disappears.
In this society where yoga is now a household term and meditation retreats and workshops happen almost every weekend, we forget that the whole system of yoga actually takes place over a very long and very committed period of time. There is no rushing it, we are all working at our own pace. Before Dharana (mental concentration) and Dhyana (meditation) even happen, we first have to have had some success at our moral codes (yamas), our personal observances (niyamas), our physical postures (asana), our breath control (pranayama), and withdrawal of our senses (pratyahara).
Of course, I didn’t really have a full concept of all of the above when I started Vipassana meditation in the lineage of SN Goenka. I had read The Yoga Sutras and knew that meditation was a part of the practice of yoga, had tried a few weekend meditation retreats and even took a longer term Thai meditation course, but nothing stuck. I can’t say I was even “looking” for a meditation to do. A friend from my yoga class had some folks over for dinner to watch “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana.” It is a famous documentary about Vipassana meditation being used in the most violent jails in India. It was moving and intriguing to see the transformation of the inmates after their courses.
But, the courses are 10-days….no less and no more… for your first learning of the practice. So, it took me a year before I had time during my transition to teaching yoga to “sit a course.” In March of 2005, I gave myself one of the best birthday presents I have ever received, and sat my first 10-day at the Vipassana Center right outside of Dallas, TX. That experience changed my life forever and in my opinion has been a foundation to a deeper experience in yoga, but also life in general.
Now, most of you know me by now, so to know that the 10-day courses also require you to have no phones, no books, no writing utensils, and is completely silent, you might scratch your head and wonder how on earth that would happen?? Yes, I love talking and reading and writing, but I also know (now) that most of it is out of deliberate distraction or nervous energy. To take it all away is one of the most terrifying and freeing experiences, and opens up the doorways and pathways to truly work through all the fluctuations of the mind that yoga wants us to settle. When you just have YOU to deal with, the real TRUTH is revealed.
The ten days are also the perfect time structure to give anyone at least a momentary experience of what meditation actually is. The first three days you are just fighting with all the reactions within the body and the head as you acclimate to sitting and focusing your attention fully on the breath. By day four there is some settling in, and step by step you move through the days learning the techniques of Vipassana. By around Day 6 you have learned the whole body scanning process of Vipassana and can put the practice into, well, practice, hopefully forming new mental habits to carry you back into the world. The tenth day is one for “reintroduction” to the group at the course, starting to talk and interact again before throwing you back into reality.
So what is the “purpose” of the body scanning of Vipassana? Vipassana means to “see things as they really are”, and through the practice you develop the skill of observation without reaction. Whether we realize it or not, every single experience we have causes a sensation within the body on some level. Most of the time we are in a constant state of distraction and reaction so most of us don’t notice. When we get angry or upset, do we notice the heat, the subtle breath changes, the agitation in the cells? Or do we just get mad at someone else or something else?? Over our lifetime, all of those sensations and reactions however small or big are recorded and processed. Vipassana Meditation allows us to begin to see the process of sensation and reaction and begin to slow it down, ultimately eradicating it, living in the world as yoga suggests – free of disturbance and unfluctuating.
After my first course, I will say that my mind literally turned a corner, flipped a switch, however you want to say it. Overtime, the practice has decreased my deep disgruntlement with the world and eased some of my anxiety. I still have bouts of depression, but they are farther and farther apart and within them I am observant instead of overcome. I have a regular seated practice and try my best to sit a full course each year. Since 2005, I have only missed two course sittings.
Though I do understand the differences in approach from Vipassana to Iyengar Yoga, in the end the goal is the same. I know that Iyengar Yoga originally helped me to physically sit the long hours for a course without too much initial bodily pain and mental distraction, lessening some of the upfront surface reactions. And I know that Vipassana has made me more sensitive to my sensations and mental reactions within active yoga practice, Savasana, and Pranayama.
For me, the practice now all flows together and creates for me a more observant and emotionally steady existence. Yes, life is still life, and of course no one is perfect, but as SN Goenka reminds us over and over again, each sitting, every moment, every breath is an opportunity to “start again”.
I am excited to sit my 13th course coming up on October 16th. After skipping last year due to the move, it will be a great opportunity to clear some settled dust and truly make this fresh start in La Crosse!