Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Virtual Mysore – Is there any point?

The Covid19 virus and the measures Governments are taking to address the pandemic have completely changed the structure of a Ashtanga Yoga class.  Not only are physical adjustments not possible, the teacher and students can’t even be in the same room!  How can classes continue?

The answer is Virtual classes.  I had to set up an entirely different system – pick the software and supporting technology, develop the administrative processes, then figure how to best conduct the classes.
It works!!  The Led classes are more popular as students are used to getting on their mats and following the teacher’s cues.  Mysore classes on the other hand require an entirely different mindset.  I was skeptical in the beginning.  Why would someone want to attend a Mysore class when he/she can just get on the mat at home and do a self-practice.? What’s the point of attending a Virtual Mysore class when you’re essentially on your own anyway?

After conducting my first Virtual Mysore class however, any doubts of ‘Is there any point’ went away.
There are many reasons to attend a Virtual Mysore class.  In fact there are benefits (which you wouldn’t get in a physical Mysore class) that lead to the ultimate goal of deepening your own practice (physical, mental and spiritual).
The best way to illustrate this is to tell you in my students’ words.
I asked them to jot down 2 or 3 reasons why they attend a Virtual Mysore class versus doing a self practice.

I have grouped their answers into 4 categories:
  • Developing the Discipline of a Home practice
  • Better Focus and Self-Awareness
  • Better Control over One’s Body
  • Cannot Cheat!
  • Group Energy & Community Spirit

Developing the Discipline of a Home Practice
  • Virtual Mysore is motivation to practise, for lazybones like me who cannot self practise 😆
  • Logging in at a fixed time/day makes it easier to keep a routine going.
  • Seeing that I can repeatedly get through my whole practice at home is changing my expectation that home practice will be a ‘second class’ version of my usual practice.  
  • Of course would prefer physical adjustments but in troubled times like this, verbal adjustment is better than none. 
  • Commitment. Even though I resented home practice so so much, I now force myself to get on my mat. Plus virtual cues and virtual company are way better than none at all.
    I am now starting to enjoy the virtual classes.
    At Sharath's 2016 Bali conference, he said, "First, make it a commitment. Then it becomes a habit and it becomes your life”.

Cannot Cheat!
  • It is more difficult to “cheat” during virtual mysore because there is a pair of keen eyes constantly watching. ;P
  • I’s good because I’m usually too lazy to finish the full sequence on my own. 
  •  I go through most of the primary series on non-Virtual Mysore days, but there's always the (tempting) notion to skip some poses. That tends not to happen when I'm doing Virtual Mysore.
  • I put less effort into finishing poses during self practice.   In a virtual class; I have to do them.
  • Virtual Mysore is better than not practising at all. To stay connected to my teacher (at the very least virtually) will make me complete my full practice, otherwise I will use busyness as an excuse to cut short my practice or not do it at all.
    I am not a hardcore/ disciplined student but still want to practise as regularly as I can.

Better Focus and Self-Awareness
  • Gives me Focus - knowing that the teacher is there and others are practicing too.
  • Verbal cues and encouragements from the teacher (as well as the chance to ask questions) give me things to focus on when I’m practicing by myself.
  • I am more aware of my practice/poses in Virtual Mysore than in self practice.
  • Helps establish a deeper practice with someone watching you.
  • I appreciate the convenience of not having to travel to the shala and back after.
    I think it translates into greater mental placidness during the practice.

Better Control over One’s Body
  • With verbal adjustments, I am more empowered by tuning in more to what my body is doing.
  • Break out of the pattern of being dependent on physical adjustments.  The teacher tells me specifically what to look out for and 'verbally adjusts' me
  • While Virtual Mysore doesn’t allow for physical adjustments, I think there shouldn’t be an over-reliance on them in the first place. Verbal cues work equally well. For me personally, half the time it’s also about that Eureka/Self-discovery moment. 
  • With the teacher’s instructions, I learned to use my own body to go deeper in certain poses.  I needed to use my Breath.  In class I let the teacher adjust me into it versus trying more on my own.
  • Getting verbal cues makes me 'work harder' and leads to a deeper self-discovery of my body.  With no physical adjustments, I have to move/engage all/certain parts of my body in order to experience the full asana without hurting myself. On good days I get the cues and am able to feel the pull/stretch/lift (especially shoulders and bandhas).
    On other days I don’t get them.  That gets me thinking, what has my body done previously that it is not doing now? Experimenting with my body in different asanas is fun!

Group Energy & Community Spirit
  • Shared, collective energy.
  • In the current circumstance, it's also the closest we get to a sense of community.
  • Teacher’s watchful eye and motivation. That extra boost of energy at the end, or word of encouragement means so much.
  • Covid19 will be around for a Long while. Going to a shala isn’t just about the teacher’s guidance. It’s also about the energy of practising in a community.  So, practising together, even virtually, will continue to keep the spirit going.

Just as we are at different stages in the Ashtanga sequence, everyone is also at a different stage of our yoga journey.  Some have no home practice whilst others practice 6 days a week.  Regardless, I am sure that more than 1 of the points above have resonated with you.

I would like to thank all my students for being part of my community; for all your support in the past and especially now.  I feel bad that I can’t physically help you in asanas that you struggle with.  However, when I see how focused & present you are, how you adjust immediately when I give you a cue and that you really understand what you are trying to do in an asana (I can actually see it in your bodies), my heart swells with pride.

Change is the only constant in our lives.  Covid19 has turned our lives upside down but I know that our yoga practice will keep us grounded and/or sane.  As my student told me,
"Working from home leads to an extension of working hours; the line between work and home is blurred! The act of ‘going to’ class tears me away from work. If I don’t have the virtual class, I may end up working overtime every single day!"

For many of you, Virtual Mysore classes will transform your Ashtanga practice, taking it to new heights (or depths) which you would not have imagined and making it truly your own.

See you on the mat!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Vipassana Meditation .. Moving towards Stillness & Equanimity

I recently completed a 10 day Vipassana Meditation course (as taught by S. N. Goenka).  It was hard... and long … and the slowest 10 days of my life.  When it ended on the morning of Day 11, I gave myself many pats on the back.  This is a huge milestone in my journey towards stillness and equanimity; a journey that has changed and evolved my life in the most profound way.

When I decided to try Yoga almost 20 years ago, I just wanted to touch my toes.  To gain flexibility in a body that is stiff by nature and made even stiffer by being an athlete my entire life.  I tried different styles of yoga and only fell in love with Ashtanga Yoga as it was dynamic.  I found the more static forms boring and my mind started going crazy if I wasn’t moving.

During my annual trips to Mysore, India, to practice with my teacher Sharath Jois, a lot of my friends would practice Vipassana meditation afterwards.  I was never interested as I knew I could not just sit and meditate.  I have been also been gifted with an innate ability to fall asleep very easily, especially in moving vehicles (even bumpy safari cars).  So, just sitting and being asked to close my eyes is a recipe for instant Zzzzz-ing.

I did some meditation during my 2 month Yoga intensive in 2003 and when I went to a Catholic ashram for a weekend in Mysore.  It was 1 hour maximum a day but I was bored, unsettled and definitely fell asleep a lot.  Over the years, even with a moving meditation practice, which is what Ashtanga yoga is sometimes described as, my mind has quietened down a lot.  In 2008, I felt that I could ‘sit’ long enough to attend a 1 month Pranayama course in Lonavla (outside Mumbai).  That involved specific breathing techniques which occupied my mind while I sat… I still fell asleep though.  I went again in 2009 and would love to say that I improved and fell asleep less often…

In the back of my mind, I had always thought about trying the 10 day Vipassana course.  Perhaps it was a challenge to myself; to see if I could do it or maybe it was to see if it was as beneficial as many purport it to be.  Many years of a daily Ashtanga yoga practice had taught me to be more aware of my body, thoughts and feelings but the ultimate goal of equanimity and not reacting to external stimuli was still beyond me most of the time.

Vipassana Meditation is a Buddhist technique.  Vipassana means to see things as they really are.  The objective of Vipassana meditation is to develop an insight into your mind by observing the physical realities of your body.  All new students have to do a 10 day course with a very strict daily schedule.  The first 3 1/2 days involve observing your natural breath as it moves in and out of your nostrils (Anapana meditation).  This helps to focus and sharpen your mind, preparing you for Vipassana meditation where you scan the body from Head to Toe to observe any sensations that you may feel (pleasant or unpleasant).
The objective is to develop Awareness and Equanimity, as you try not to react to the sensations you feel.  The underlying principle here is Anicca; that change is inherent and nothing stays the same. 

“All things are impermanent
when one observes this with insight,
then one becomes detached from suffering;
this is the path of purification.”

In the middle of the year, the desire to attend the Vipassana meditation course suddenly became very strong.  2 of my students who had both done it were very encouraging.  I can really procrastinate but with their support, I found myself blocking off dates and registering for a course at Dhamma Malaya (Kuantan) in September.
The Great Hall just a few steps from my room

The Vipassana course is tough not just because it’s long but because it’s very regimented with lots of rules to follow.  There are people who leave without completing the course.

The first thing the course managers did was to tell us all the Do’s and Don’ts as listed in the Code (a lot more Don’ts than Do’s).  Here's a bit more about the Vipassana technique and the Code of discipline.
Here is the daily schedule.  Looking back, it’s good that I didn’t look at it closely until I got there.  Because I might not have signed up.

Adhering to the schedule and the rules is strictly enforced.  The course managers go around to check if that people are present for the group meditations & meals, that you don’t sit with your feet facing the Teachers’ chairs or slouch down too low during the nightly discourses (talks) etc.  This could vary depending on the centre but the teachers and managers on my course were always on the lookout for any infractions.

Maintain Noble Silence
No talking to anyone (except Teachers and the course managers); not even sign language or making eye contact).  To me, that was not a problem.  I didn’t know anyone there and was not there to make friends.  I don’t think I even talked to myself those 10 days.  The Noble Silence is actually broken a day before the course ends.  This is to ease you back into the real world.  Personally I preferred it when people didn’t talk because they couldn’t stop talking.

No phone
I thought that would be a problem but once I didn’t have it, I didn’t miss it except when I thought of something I didn’t know the answer to and I couldn’t Google it! That drove me nuts for a while.

Many ‘new students’ ie first-timers have to sleep in a dormitory but Dhamma Malaya only has single rooms, probably why courses there are in such high-demand.  The room is basic but clean with a thin mattress, a small pillow (some people bring their own) and a ceiling fan (so it’s cool even during the hottest part of the day).

My block

My room

No hot water
I was warned that there would be no hot water in my room.  I didn’t have an issue with that; have had many a cold shower during my backpacking days.  You can imagine my surprise when I discovered not only a hot water shower in my room, but with a built-in booster pump so I had decent water pressure too! Turns out I was lucky to be assigned a room in the 2 blocks with hot water showers; so the older ladies don’t have to lug hot water in a bucket from taps situated outside.

Shower with heater & booster pump
4am wake-up call with the 1st sit at 430am
Again not a problem as I was used to waking up even earlier in Mysore.  Apparently there are people who skip this sit and just wake up in time for breakfast. But this was my favourite sit as it was cool and quiet.  I could go to the Hall or meditate in my room but I always went to the Hall as it was nice to meditate with people when the urge to lie down on your bed to sleep is strongest.

No food after lunch at 11am
Hhmm … breakfast was at 630am with lunch at 11am.  Meals were all vegetarian (also not a problem for me).  There was tea at 5pm and as a new student, some fruit (usually bananas and apples).  There was Milo as well and many students put some in a flask to take back to their rooms.  All food had to be consumed in the eating hall.  I heard that people sneak in food but I didn’t and didn’t really feel hungry as I didn’t do much more than sit the whole day.

No yoga.  That was a big problem for me as I have maintained a 6-day-a-week Ashtanga practice for over 15 years.  I missed it a lot.  I did do some stretches as my back and shoulders got sore with all the sitting but it wasn’t the same.  They discouraged any other form of meditation or healing/spiritual practice during the time you are there.  This is to allow you to experience the Vipassana technique in its purity.  You also had to surrender any prayer beads, religious pendants etc.  The only exercise that was allowed is walking so I walked a few rounds after each meal.

No reading and writing
Oh no!  Although most of our time was spent sitting, we did have some spare time after meals.  Books and writing were not allowed.  I have maintained a daily journal for years and a lot of my thoughts are condensed when I write things down. There was only so much hand-washing and cleaning of my room that I could do.  So I did spend time sitting in my room staring at the wall.

Lots of sitting
 … nothing but sitting … the whole day.  And from Day 4, during the 3 group sits, you were strongly encouraged not to open your eyes or change your leg and arm positions.  Now that is what almost did me in.  After so many years of an asana practice, my hips are open enough that I can sit cross-legged without discomfort.  But 1 hour of not moving? 45 minutes was very do-able but the last 15 minutes was excruciating; made worse by the growing mental anxiety that hearing Mr Goenka’s voice to signify the end of the hour was taking SO LONG.

Bilingual course
More than half the participants were Mandarin speakers so all the instructions were repeated in Mandarin.  The group was split up into 2 during the nightly discourses.  There was also a multi-lingual room with headsets and audio tracks for people who needed translation to other languages.

There were 2 (husband and wife) on my course.  They didn’t give any instructions as everything was done by Mr Goenka via audio/audio.  They were there to oversee the sessions, check our progress and handle any individual questions.  So, other than 1 question that I had, I didn’t have any interaction with them at all.

As I have said before, my problem is staying awake, not falling asleep.  However, after Day 3, I had problems falling asleep at night.  This bothered me enough that I went to queue up to ask the Teacher if Vipassana meditation affects one’s sleep.  She said ‘Yes it can’ as the mind is very alert.  She told me to lie down, keep my eyes closed and try and relax (so the body can rest).  Then just scan the body and observe whatever sensations I feel, without reacting (so the mind can rest too).  This way, I will still feel rested in the morning even if I don’t fall asleep.  Easier said than done because I couldn’t help but feel a little anxious.  I wanted to sleep so I would not be tired during meditation.  So ironic, that I couldn’t sleep when I was supposed to be and fall asleep during meditation instead.

Many people have asked if this course has improved my life?  People are supposed to feel lighter after the course. A course-mate said that his eczema was noticeably better.  Personally I didn’t feel very much difference on Day 10 than I did on Day 1.  Being a bit of a skeptic, I found that being isolated from people is not reflective of the realities of daily living.  Mr Goenka did say in his discourses that we need regular practice in order to see differences in how we react to things.  You are recommended to continue to meditate for an hour every morning and evening which I find hard to do on top of my daily Ashtanga and Pranayama practice, plus my teaching.  In addition, I am tired and my mind is distracted.  How can I meditate with a quiet, focused mind?
But as my student who has been such a help in encouraging me and answering my questions says, just do what you can.  It is what it is, just observe and have no judgement/reaction to the quality of your meditation.
So it’s been almost a month since I came back and I have tried to meditate when I can.  It hasn’t been every day and only 30 minutes on average.  I always doze off but I think that I see a difference in myself.  In the Ashtanga practice, you observe your Breath and your Body but you control the breath and how you move your body.  You try and remain detached to whatever you are feeling in your body that day, whether it is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ practice.  In Vipassana, you train your mind to focus on the physical body as it is, observing in great detail whatever you feel, without reacting to it.  I have found that the slow detailed observation has helped me remain equanimous (calm and composed) for a bit longer before I react and to try and react in a positive way.  It’s almost like things are in slow motion.  My Ashtanga practice did that too but Vipassana seems to have helped sharpened my focus and for a longer period of time (even though in reality everything happens in a flash).  When your area of focus is narrower (body part by body part), your awareness does get more acute 
Not reacting negatively to external stimuli was my main objective of attending this course so yes, I think it has helped, though I still have a long way to go.

Would I do this 10 day course again?
I hesitate to say Yes because I find the inability to do anything other than sit very restrictive.  I would if I could maintain my Ashtanga and Pranayama practice.  I find them very complimentary to Vipassana.  The physical stretching and focus on the Breath helps prepare the body and mind for the many long sits in the Vipassana course.

My journey continues ...
When I attended my first yoga class, I only wanted to touch my toes.  I had no idea of Yoga's mental and spiritual effects.  Now I can touch my toes but my journey is far from over.  I may reached Mt Everest's Base Camp but there is a whole Mountain yet to climb.