“Inhale, right arm up!”
One of my earliest childhood memories is of being in a large open playing field of our school, among about a thousand little children neatly measured in rows and columns, all wearing white t-shirts and shorts. The physical education teacher was in front with a megaphone shouting out instructions while we all moved in synchronicity. This was in the oil town of Duliajan, Assam, India. I was about four years old. This is how we started school every morning. Yoga, sing the national anthem, salute the flag.
My father was a petroleum engineer, and my mother a school teacher. It was a typical middle-class Indian upbringing. I used to catch glimpses of my father practicing asanas (yoga postures) in the mornings, that he had learned from his local teacher in the ashram (yoga center) of his childhood village, Koihati. My mother put my sister and I to sleep every night with stories from Indian folklore and singing ‘lullaby bhajans’ (chants).
In my early twenties, I developed a passion for tennis, which I still carry. Following my father’s footsteps, working as a maintenance engineer in the petroleum industry, I also started lifting heavy equipment. The combination of the two created random, painful back spasms. The uncertainty and intensity of this made my life very difficult. This was when my mother introduced me to yoga master-teacher Yogacharya Tyagarajan Nandakumar. My life since has been a dedication to yoga practice.
In my late twenties, I became a certified yoga teacher in the Sivananda Yoga tradition. I have been teaching yoga now for close to twenty years. I know from experience that yoga practice is truly good for everyone and for every aspect of a healthy life. It is the science of self-awareness.
About fifteen years ago, I started to hear about Vipassana. By then I had already cultivated a meditation practice and had experimented with several different forms of meditation. I was also offering workshops on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. More and more students and fellow yoga teachers started extolling the virtues of Vipassana meditation. They said that Vipassana is the Gautama Buddha’s teachings distilled down to its essence. Some came with warnings, “Be careful of Vipassana. The philosophy is different from yoga, and it will be difficult for you”. This did not concern me because by then, my experiential understanding of yoga practice was strong enough to not get disturbed easily.
Yet, I privately felt intimidated by what is asked of us in Vipassana training. Over ten hours of only sitting, every single day for ten days, no eye contact, not a single word! This felt like too much, even for someone with my background. Eventually, I gave in. If so many people have gone and benefited from this, at least as a professional obligation, I should give this technique a try.
So, in 2008 I headed for my first 10-day training, armed with the advice a long time Vipassana meditator had given me, “Practice exactly as they say. Practice sincerely, not seriously. Don’t give up”. I remember the beautiful drive to the old Vipassana center in Sutton, Quebec, having no idea that I was about to profoundly change my experience of life.
The training is so simple. About three days of observing the breath and seven days of observing body sensations. So simple, yet so deeply revealing. The teacher S.N Goenka said through his video darshans (teachings) that for some students the practice will feel like remembering. This is how I felt the moment I started Vipassana. It was like finally finding the gloves that fit perfectly. Everything in my life up to that point had essentially prepared me for Vipassana.
As far as the technique is concerned, I found the practice to be perfectly coherent with the ashta-anga (eight limbs) of the Yoga Sutras. The main difference that I noticed is, on the subject of “Ishvara pranidhana” (devotion to God), the Buddha remained silent on Ishvara (God). This is perfectly fine with me since I’ve always felt that the aspect that the word ‘God’ points to is beyond words. Besides, talking about things that most people have not experienced has only led to arguments and wars.
To me it was like a jigsaw coming together, revealing the overall picture. Regarding the eight limbs, the ancient yogis practiced the yamas (right social conduct), niyamas (right personal conduct), asana (preparing the body) and pranayama (preparing the mind) to practice Vipassana, which the yogis called pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). Vipassana practice clearly develops concentration (dharana). During the three Vipassana 10-day training that I have attended so far, I experience deep states of dhyana (meditation). I noticed a technical difference in the description of samadhi. The Yoga Sutras refer to this as ‘self-realization’ whereas Vipassana calls this a state of deep concentration. I was fine with this as well. Since I do not consider myself as self-realized (yet!), who am I to argue on semantics? Also, we have to consider all that is lost in translation between Pali (the language of Vipassana), Sanskrit (the language of yoga) and English, especially when pointing to the invisible.
Regarding Vipassana philosophy, the fundamental practice of sheila (wholesome conduct), samadhi (concentration) and panna (experiential wisdom), to me is in perfect alignment with the yoga sutras. As for The Noble Eight-fold Path (right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), it’s like two great scientists (Patanjali and Gautama Buddha) looking at the same river and describing it in their own way. The only difference being, conventional scientists experiment externally. These scientists experience internally, with the exact same methodology and rigor of a scientific experiment. Both descriptions of Patanjali and Buddha are accurate, complete and valid. They both promise and deliver on offering deep insights into the true nature of our reality. Finally, the Four Noble Truths (in life there is suffering, there is cause for the suffering, there is a way to remove this case and when the cause is removed, the suffering goes away), from my experience, is also an excellent description of yoga.
Beyond this, what struck me most was S.N Goenka’s description of daana (generosity). I remember in my first Vipassana training, after ten days of intense practice, sitting with goosebumps all over my body. How did we, as a global civilization, forget this? To my knowledge, all ancient traditions are based on this fundamental teaching of daana. Every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, gurdwara and monastery is built by generosity. It is how both yoga and Vipassana has been taught for centuries. All the great teachings from around the world have been sustained by our definitive human capacity to be generous. We all know how good it feels to give spontaneously without being asked. We know what a blessing it is to receive without asking. It even feels good to witness acts of generosity.
The truth is, I did not pay for that training. It was paid for by all the previous students. I benefited greatly from the training. It gave me so much clarity on my career, relationships, health and how I was actually living my life. This was priceless. The best I could do was express my sincere appreciation and contribute towards the benefit of future students. Then again, isn’t this true for all transactions?
Most would agree that we live in a society deeply trained and entrenched in the mindset of fear, greed and scarcity. Some may even argue that these qualities are encouraged and rewarded in the modern cultural context. I looked at what this is doing to the world, and realized, as many of us have, that this is simply not sustainable. We know the problem. The solution has been staring at us all along. Generosity.
The teaching of daana made such a profound impact on us, that my partner Caroline Goyer and I decided to start an organization called daana, built entirely by crowdfunding and volunteers (globaldaana.org, app: daana). daana makes anonymous contribution based activities accessible to all. The concept is simple, with profound implications:
The teachers share their gift, and anyone can participate.
The hosts share their space, for the benefit of their community.
The participants share their presence, and contribute for the teachings to continue.
We were honored to receive the 2016 CBC Media Prize, and to be invited to run the wellness program at the UN Climate Change Summit in Morocco (COP22). We would love for Canada to be a beacon of what is possible when we co-create a generous world that we all wish to live in.
I write this on the night of Shivaratri, the night of the Adi Yogi (ultimate yogi), Shiva. I write this with deep gratitude to all the teachers around the world who preserved this perennial wisdom so well, for us to live better lives. May we in turn, preserve them for all the generations to follow.
Yoga: lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu (may all beings on this realm be happy)
Vipassana: bhavatu sabba mangalam (may all beings be happy)