Yoga and Vipassana Meditation, creating a balanced practice

In a small village in India lived six blind men. One day an elephant was brought to the village. The blind men had no idea what an elephant was, but they decided to go and check it out anyway. All of them went where the elephant was, and all of them touched the elephant."Hey, the elephant is the trunk of a tree," said the first man who had touched his leg.
"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who had touched the tail.
"Oh, no! it is like the branch of a tree," said the third man who had touched the trunk.
"It is like the leave of a tree, but thicker" said the fourth man who had touched the ear.
"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who had touched the belly.
"It is like a solid pipe," Said the sixth man who had touched the tusk…
 

When it comes to yoga, the Western world is very much like the proverbial blind men of this famous Indian story. We only feel parts of it, and mistake it for the whole.

Like Buddhism, yoga is an eight fold spiritual path (in yoga, they are called the eight limbs). In other words, yoga is a comprehensive practice of self development, and not just a system of physical exercises.

The eight limbs of yoga as defined by Patanjali more than two thousand years ago are:

  • Yamas, which are five rules of moral conducts, (equivalent to the five precepts in Buddhism), an essential protection from causing harm to oneself or to others, rarely get a mention in yoga classes in the West (where the very notion of morality is often seen as quaint, and where basic rules of morality are openly flaunted by those in prominent positions),

  • Niyamas, which are qualities to be developed by yoga practioners. Some of these yamas are direct equivalent to some of the paramis of Buddhism. Yamas get even less of a mention in Western yoga classes,

  • Asana, the physical practice of postures, which is often the only part of yoga that is practiced by those who “do yoga” in the Western world,

  • Pranayama, yogic breathing, which is rarely taught as such in the West, but often gets to be the poor parent in yoga classes where it is taught alongside asanas,

  • Pratyara, withdrawal of the sense draws our awareness away from the external world and direct our attention internally,

  • Dharana, concentration,

  • Dyana, meditation or contemplation,

  • And finally Samadhi, absorption, where the mind rests in the peace and full understanding of the divine truth within.

Practicing only a fraction of what is meant to be a complete system leads to a very unbalanced practice. A lot of advanced yoga practionners who do not balance their asana practice with some form of meditation use their asana practice to boost their ego, rather than to reduce it. In fact, I know few advanced asana practioners who do not fall into this trap, and the few I know all have a serious, well established meditation practice to balance their physical practice. Interestingly, they also tend to be very reluctant to let anyone see their asana practice and are, as far as I can judge, people of deep integrity. In other words, they practice all limbs of yoga, and not just one or two. So develloping a meditation pratice (and a code of conduct) to balance our physical practice becomes increasingly important as our asana practice progresses to advanced level.

Asana practice develops flexibility and strength on a physical level and this translates into freedom and power in our daily lives. To use this freedom and power wisely, we need the clearly accepted limitations of a code of conduct, which yamas and niyamas can provide.
We also need awareness and insight, and this can only be developed by practicing the higher limbs of yoga. Unfortunately, there are few yoga teachers who seriously teach them, and this lead me early on in my yogic studies to look into Buddhism, and finally, to Vipassana meditation.

Vipassana meditation, sometimes referred to as Insight meditation, is an ancient technique which was originally taught by Gautama the Buddha to his followers. It is a simple practice of observing bodily sensations with equanimity. As such, it is an ideal complement to an asana practice. The awareness of the body that the practice of Vipassana develops can be put to good used in the practice of asanas, and asana practice make sitting still for long period a lot easier. In this way, the two practices support one another.

For centuries, Vipassana was preserved in its original form in monasteries in Burma, and for the past two decades has been increasingly taught in the West. It is taught mostly on intensive ten days silent retreats. These are serious undertaking and cannot suit everyone, but those willing to take a further step on a path of self development will greatly benefit from such courses.

In addition to a vow of complete (noble) silence for the first nine days of the course, students must adhere to a strict code of discipline by following five precepts:

  • to abstain from killing any living creature (in yoga this is the yama of ahimsa);

  • to abstain from stealing (in yoga this is the yama of asteya);

  • to abstain from all sexual activity (in yoga this is the yama of bramacharya);

  • to abstain from telling lies (in yoga this is the yama of satya);

  • to abstain from all intoxicants.

The time table on these courses involve getting up at 4 am and includes nine hours of sitting meditation daily. For the first three days, students practice a simple technique to devellop attention and learn to concentrate the mind (in yoga, this is the 6th limb, Dharana). They then learn the technique of Vipassana meditation (the 7th limb, Dyana) and practice it for the following week. Hopefully, they gain from this practice some insight into the meaning of life and get a glimpse of some essential truth (Samadhi). Thus in essence, Vipassana is yoga. This should not be surprising since Buddhism and yoga have their common root in ancient India, and the ultimate goal of both practices is liberation by way of learning to control the mind. Clearly, Gautama the Buddha was one of many accomplished yoga masters that ancient India produced.

Vipassana is taught all over the world by S.N. Goenka and his assistant teachers, see http://www.dhamma.org/. Unfortunately, S.N. Goenka has a hostile attitude to yoga, so if attending a course with him or his teachers, you might have to forego asana practice for 10 days.

It is also taught in the US by the Insight Meditation Society, see http://www.dharma.org/, who have a much tolerant attitude to yoga.

A number of small centres all over the world also run courses in various traditions of vipassana. One such centre is Gaia House, in the Devon (UK)