Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vipassana Meditation or Yoga? Which is the best?

Continued from: "The Vipassana Meditation Experience: Observing the Mind"

I told you! stick to one path only: A mind in conflict

Though I did enjoy a lot the retreat I did have some conflicts especially during the first days. I came to this retreat not because I wanted to learn a new meditation technique, I just wanted to have the opportunity to practice meditation as intense as possible and to develop will power, and this Vipassana retreat sounded like a good option. It is very difficult to do this by yourself cause you need the right environment, the right food, and lots of discipline. Of course I knew this was a new technique and I was not allowed to practice anything else at all during this 10 days, but I never gave much thought to it, I just thought, "10 days silent meditation retreat, awesome!"

But then when I started the retreat I realized that I really had to drop any other meditation technique for these 10 days. That was hard, specially cause I felt like I could work very well with the practice that I already knew because I was having such a clear mind. It felt like if I was wasting some precious opportunity.

I was also shocked by how different the Vipassana approach to meditation is compared to Yoga. In yoga you normally learn from the beginning to have the right posture, back straight keeping the natural curvature of the spine, chin parallel to the floor, hands in a mudra for meditation. But in this retreat they only said "sit in a comfortable posture". That's all! nothing else?? And only during the FOURTH day Goenka mentioned "Keep your back straight" and only at day sixth he said "if your mind is too restless just observe your breathing for a few minutes". That was a bit shocking for me. No wonder why gurus always say "stick to one path and one path only".

I felt this was unfair for the people who didn't know anything about meditation cause they had to struggle more than the rest changing the posture constantly or assuming a posture that would inevitably end in back pain.

Always finding something to complain about.....

What?! No cushions?!

Another thing that shocked me was that we only got one flat square cushion to sit on, just to avoid sitting directly on the floor. That was it! normally you need to raise your hips on a higher cushion to allow your knees to rest on the floor and the high of the cushion will depend on how flexible your hips, thighs and knees are. Sure, Indians and Nepalese are more used to sit on the floor cross legged, that's a habit in their culture but for westerners this is very unusual.

So the very first day knowing that I needed a higher cushion I folded my cushion to raise my hips and let my knees rest on the floor but as soon as I did that one of the volunteers approached to me and said "not allowed to fold cushion". I thought "WHAT?! How am I suppose to sit comfortable then?". Later on he told me that I could ask for an extra cushion if I really needed one. So I asked him, "Ok, can you give me an extra cushion?" And then he said, "no, you need to ask the teacher". So, I had to wait till 12 am for the "teacher meeting time" just to ask him for a cushion. Finally I got my cushion, but it was as good as nothing: hard as a stone, too small and totally irregular. So I had to follow the same process again to ask for a second horrible cushion. This was very frustrating and annoying.

Coming from a yoga background I was just thinking, "Asana: steady and comfortable posture... but how am I supposed to sit steady and comfortable under such conditions? And I still had nine days to go!" I felt this was very unfair, specially for westerners and for those with no experience and less flexibility. We all had to improvise cushions with our sweaters, blankets, sleeping bags or whatever we could find except for the blankets or pillows from the rooms cause that was not allowed.

I know this is not the same in every Vipassana center. I heard from other friends that you can normally get as many cushions as you want. I guess they wanted us to purposely suffer a little bit, but a little bit for some can be quite a lot for others. I couldn't stop thinking about all this for the first days, but as the days passed I was more or less able to let it go and think "whatever".

Vipassana, the best meditation technique in the world. Not again please!

One think that really bother me is that people always believe that their method is the best method in the whole world. It happens all the time. Teachers and Gurus always say "this is the fastest, the deepest, the highest, the strongest, the most secret etc., etc., method ever taught". And Goenka's Vipassana is no exception.

During the evening discourses Goenka would say something like "sure... verbalization (mantra repetition), imagination (visualization of a deity or inspiring form) are good, but the right type of Samadhi (Samma Samadhi or concentration as he defined it) can only be reached by practicing this Vipassana technique, cause you don't use any external aid but your own body sensations."

He also said that Vipassana was taught by Buddha in India and then it was spread to neighbor countries but unfortunately with the pass of time the technique was lost. Luckily it was conserved in its pure form in his country, Burma, and from there it has been brought back to India and spread to the world. Ok, fine, but it makes me think that he obviates the fact that Buddha gave more than 85,000 different teachings (which is interesting since it is also said that there are 85,000 yoga asanas) aimed to different people of different characters. Vipassana is not the only technique that Buddha taught.

Why can they just say "any technique is good, you just need to find the one that suits your personal character"? I guess this gurus probably talk like this to remove any doubts from the students mind and to help them to choose one path only. Or, like a friend of mine said, maybe they purposely feed peoples ego so they think that they have the best technique ever. That would also help people to stick to one path only.

One argument that they use to say that Vipassana is such a powerful technique is to see how it has spread all around the world, even though all the retreats are offered for free, founded only by donations. This is quite remarkable and yes you can find a retreat center almost every where. I'm sure many people have found lost of benefits doing one of this retreats and some have probably completely changed their lives, but I think there is also a psychological factor here.

Buddhist never just ask directly for a donation but they give a very good philosophical background behind it. They talk to you about how positive it would be spread these wonderful teachings that are so beneficial for all sentient beings, how positive it would be to share this experience with others and give the opportunity to other people to have this experience. They also tell you about how many merits (good Karma) a person can accumulate by doing such positive acts as donating money or time to spread these wonderful teachings that can help to eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings in the world. I think this kind of talk plays a bit with our minds and makes us feel naturally inclined to donate as much money as we can. Is the best selling technique, asking for a donation without really asking for a donation. I'm not saying is wrong, but I think is a factor that plays a crucial role in successfully helping with the financial and labor to spread a technique like Vipassana around the world. But of course I do think this is very positive for the world.

Vipassana is a wonderful technique but is not magic. I think if you practice any meditation technique with such intensity you will definitively experience some positive transformation. Even if doing something as simple as mantra repetition. Just put a Christian to pray with a rosary in a retreat center for ten hours a day for ten days . I believe that if the mind and heart are really focused on the prayers something for sure will happen. Like Goenka says.. "you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful"

Attachment to believes

Another thing that really bother me is they would regard the Vipassana meditation as a very scientific technique, where no religion or any sectarian believe is involved. Yes, that can be a good thing but at least at the Kathmandu Center I felt that it reaches a fanaticism level.

Before the retreat starts they ask you not to practice anything at all, no chantings or prayers and they ask you to leave behind any religious item like a rosary or mala. I do understand this cause they want you to give a fair trial to this technique. But they even asked me to remove my necklace with the Om symbol and some string bracelet that I had attached to my wrist. What!!! if the technique is so scientific why should you remove any religious or spiritual item? And what difference does it make if I'm wearing it or not? This really didn't make any sense to me. Nobody was able to give me a good reason for this.

But then you still have to adhere to their conservative rules like do not point the sole of your feet to the teachers, do not leave the room before the teachers leave or before any guest monk doing the retreat. We also had to listen to Goenkaji's chantings and after the evening discourse the assistant teacher that would play the CD would leave the room in such a ceremonious and serious way. I really don't mind to stick to all these rules cause I understand that they are also part of the culture, but if they claim that the technique is so scientific and they force you drop any believe for this 10 days then why they just don't drop all this stuff as well? A bit annoying to me.


Vipassana and Yoga

And this brings me back to Yoga. Yoga is also regarded as a scientific technique but you are never asked to drop any of your believes. The Yogis say that regardless of what your believe is you can still practice yoga (please not that yoga is not just the physical postures). A Muslim can be a yogi, a Christian can be a yogi, a Jewish can be a yogi, anybody can become a yogi. You might gradually abandon wrong conceptions like "I am a sinner" that cause nothing but a guilt and inferiority complex, but this doesn't mean that you need to change or abandon your religion to even start practicing yoga.

Religion is not seen as a negative practice in Yoga. Yoga techniques involves different practices that suits the character of different people. Gnana Yoga, for the scientific minded or intellectual, Karma Yoga for he that is fully active in the world, Bhakti Yoga for the person of devotional character and Raja Yoga, the path of will power, for he who is attracted to mystic practices like meditation.

No path is better than the other, it all depends on the personal character, but they all complement each other. In Bhakti Yoga a devotee of any religion is encouraged to channel his emotions to his Ishta Devata or chosen deity, for instance Jesus for a Christian. "Sing the names of the Lord and tell His glories", these are all regarded as Bhakti Yoga practices that lead the spiritual aspirant to the ultimate goal, Self-Realization.

I'm not trying to say that Yoga is the best, but just trying bring a bit of clarity and to say that there is no better path or no better technique. I talk about Yoga because that's my path. Even some Buddhist see yoga as only the physical postures performed by yogis in India and they forget that Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, was born in India, lived in India and attained enlightenment in India. Similar Buddhist teachings but in different words can also be found within Yoga and Vedanta Texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Raja Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. And actually "Equanimity" which is the main realization and experience that we want to achieve through the practice of Vipassana is the very definition of Yoga as described by Krishna in the Bhagava Gita. "Samatvam is Yoga, Equanimity is Yoga".

But don't get me wrong. I do like Goenkaji, he is a fantastic being and who knows, perhaps enlightened as many believe. He has a deep experiential knowledge that he can easily transmit to his students even through recorded videos and he is doing an amazing job in spreading this technique around the world and a remarkable contribution by introducing the Vipassana technique in jails in India and in other countries. If you ever have the opportunity I think you should definitively try the 10 days Vipassana Meditation retreat.



  1. Uh... Vipassana is way better and more effective than yoga if you're talking about the path to happiness and enlightenment. In 2012 this isn't even debatable.

  2. I have just finished my ten day course and it was brilliant. By the way Buddha was born in Nepal not India. He was born in lumbini, and his palace is still there.

  3. i believe the difference in "results" depends on how the meditator sees and understands the technique. i haven't done yoga and found sitting down 10hours a day quite difficult and painful but as the days passed and i understood that it boils down to discipline and really controlling your mind to become equanimous, it became a breeze. just like in everyday life - sometimes you don't get extra cushions or a comfortable posture (these in a figurative sense), but if your mind is sharp and strong enough to still be equanimous about it, then you're tremendously helping yourself to get out of misery. it boils down to taming your subconscious mind. vipassana does wonders doing this.

  4. I have never participated in vipissana or yoga but am currently considering signing up for vipissana. I happened across this post in a search for what would be a suggested mat to bring with me. Common sense tells me that they didn't want you to fold "their" mats, or use "their" beds or pillows, since they rely on these things for people who will come to learn, long after you are gone. To start your post off about your whole posture argument almost made me stop reading right there. You know what works for you and you alone, Would you then say a parapalegic can not meditate without the proper posture?

  5. I think people like us should not discuss on which meditation is the best but discuss on which meditation suits us. IMO both the meditations are gifted to us by two great people (Buddha and patanjali). think again before commenting anything about their meditation techniques.both are great accept what suits you

    1. Hi Shrey P, thanks for your comment. If you read the whole post carefully you'll notice that I haven't said which is the best meditation technique, I don't even believe there is such a thing as a "best meditation technique," but I guess the title might be misleading. I'm actually just sharing what was going on through my mind while I was doing the Vipassana retreat, that's all. I can't not discuss either about which meditation suits other people, that's for each one of us to find out. I agree with you, both meditation techniques are given to us by two great sages so they are both good, we just need to choose one according to our temperament.

  6. Hi Marco,
    I really enjoyed your post, it helps me contextualize things as I am trying to decide whether to do the 10 day course or not. I am concerned about why vipassana as taught by Goenke's organization is trying to be exclusive. Actually there's a very good article online on how vipassana has to be developed simultaneously with samatha (tranquility) even if sticking to a strick buddhist tradition. I am not sure if vipassana is going to be my path and since there are so many warnings about not mixing it with other techniques then I keep wondering what's the point of doing the 10 day course. I know for a fact that I will not exclusively choose vipassana. anyway confused again, but thanks for your post!!

    1. Hi there. Well in every tradition the masters always recommend to stick to one path, one sadhana and one guru. This is, I believe, not because they want to be exclusive but to avoid any mental conflicts and confusions that might arise in the mind of the students, and can tell you that this does happen.

      For those who stick to only one practice and one teaching the path is easier and progress perhaps faster. But I think we also need to be accept who we are and act accordingly. In my case I find it impossible to stick to only one guru, one tradition, one path. I think there is so much to learn from all the masters, I love them all and can't choose to follow the teachings of only one. I do however have pretty much one meditation practice, and is not vipassana.

      I think that even if you don't believe you will continue the vipassana meditation in the future you should still try the retreat. There is much to learn and it can be a wonderful experience. You might find then that you don't want to practice anything else, or instead it might lead you in a new direction in your path.

      Good Luck!

  7. Thank you for your posts on vipassana! I am deciding if I should do Vipassana in Kathmandu or Jaipur (India), so your thoughts are really appreciated.
    I was just wondering, did you do your physical yoga practice during the 10 days? Were you able to do asanas on your "freetime" (even though there was not much)? I think the asana practice could also be really improved by this immersion propposed by Vipassana, just not sure if you are allowed to maintain your practice during this time. What would you say?

    1. You are not allowed to practice any physical exercises other than walking and basic stretching. The reason may be to stabilize the mind.. and not disturb it as much as possible. So fewer physical movements the better

  8. I u are looking for self confidence and all mind related positive qualities like determination, focus, intillegence, calmness than vipassana is best, in the sense it has more positive points for mind related things.