People often ask: Are yoga and meditation religious practices?
Personally, I view and experience both as secular disciplines that promote introspection.
Spirituality in itself can be completely detached from religious doctrines or the supernatural, focusing on humanistic qualities such as love, compassion and concern for others.
The physical aspect of yoga (asana) is a celebration of the human body and its potential. In this respect, the practice is almost incompatible with religions, which are traditionally body-phobic. The Bible, for instance, speaks of the “vile body.”
Even pressing the hands together in “prayer” does not feel to me like a religious gesture, but rather like one of inner unity: joining together the two sides of the brain, the feminine and the masculine, yin and yang.
Of course, depending on where and how it’s taught, yoga can carry varying degrees of philosophy. Although these spiritual-philosophical concepts don’t necessarily fall into any specific religious framework, at times they inevitably do.
At the teacher training course I did at a traditional ashram in India, for example, they imparted a good deal of Hindu dogma and rituals, which felt strangely at odds with the organic flow of yoga.
Meditation, on the other hand, could be seen as closer to religion and is in fact often likened to prayer. Of course there are similarities, as certain meditation techniques can involve mantra repetition, which is the same as reciting a prayer. But there is one meditation technique, Vipassana, which offers a secular, almost scientific approach. It invites us to focus on the breath and on physical sensations—from the most obvious ones, like hot and cold, to more subtle ones such as vibration.
Vipassana means, “to see things as they really are.” It is a pre-Buddhist meditation technique popularised by the Buddha 2,500 years ago.
The practice of mindfulness meditation, popularised in the West as a stress-reduction method, is an integral part, if not the essence, of Vipassana.
When I attended the 10-day silent retreat a few years ago, I experienced first-hand what I’d known intellectually for a long time—that the mind can be our worst enemy and that, if left untamed, it can slowly destroy us.
If this sounds extreme, think of emotions such as anger, resentment and hatred, which are generated by thoughts in the mind, and how destructive they can be to oneself and to interpersonal and collective relationships (between rival nations or religious groups).
One of the advantages of the enforced silence during the retreat is that it makes you take the meditation practice rather seriously: If you don’t, you go crazy.
When you can’t speak or send a text message to anyone for 10 days (the use of electronic devices is not permitted and you can’t even read a book), you realise just how wild the mind is.
So long as we engage in conversation with someone else, we tend to follow a more or less logical path; but when the dialogue is only in our mind, it branches out all over the place with no logical sequence whatsoever. The “drunken monkey,” as they call it.
Another striking feature of the relentless mind chatter is that it’s incredibly self-centred. During the first few days of the retreat, I was ashamed with myself at how self-obsessed my thoughts had been. But around day three, in one of the video lectures that are shown in the evenings, the witty late teacher, S.N. Goenka, points out that this is the very nature of the mind; it’s just how it works.
I finally understood what the concept of the mind and the ego being one and the same really meant. And I felt a huge relief that it wasn’t just me!
After 10 days of meticulous practice, you learn to feel the entire body vibrate, as the illusion of solidity dissolves.
Everything in the universe is made of vibrating energy; even our body is vibration, as it’s made of atoms, which are made of electromagnetic particles literally spinning in orbit.
The human brain can identify a limited range of colours, sounds and smells that interact with our physical sense organs through energetic vibrations. So our reality is based on our ability to perceive. And, apparently, we’re only able to perceive one percent of what exists!
The illusion of solidity is created by the limits of our senses. Modern physics teaches us that atoms have no defined boundaries: when our hand touches the wall, for example, there’s a point at which it’s impossible to say whether a particular atom belongs to our hand or to the wall.
Once the Vipassana technique has been continually improved throughout the week, on the last day of the course, the “loving kindness” element is added to the vibration. This makes it all the more special, as one literally radiates love and kindness.
On my first meditation retreat in the Austrian Alps, I achieved a similar result almost instantly through the loving-kindness meditation that was taught there: I literally felt my body float in and above the mountains. It was amazing. But feeling loving kindness on command isn’t always easy. Some people can’t feel it at all, which is why the Vipassana technique is a very useful tool that ought to be taught in schools and prisons alike.
Every mental state has a coexisting sensation in the body, so by observing the physical sensations, we also observe the mind. And with the help of conscious breathing, we can learn not to act on cravings or negative emotions.
Psychologists have estimated that on any given day, a staggering percentage of our thoughts are exactly the same as the day before. No wonder we are plagued by anxiety, depression and all sorts of addictions, as most of these thoughts are driven by worry and fear.
Luckily, disciplines such as yoga and meditation can help us rewire the brain and choose different thoughts and actions; they allow us to convert negative energy into positive—transforming our life and the lives of those around us.
This article appeared in Elephant Journal in June 2016.