Updated: May 23, 2020
Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique originating in India, and is now taught worldwide in hundreds of locations. Nowadays, most people experience Vipassana by taking part in an initial 10-day silent meditation retreat, which I found myself doing in 2017. I should admit now that my intentions of implementing a strict daily meditation practice after the course did not last long, but what did last was my impression of just how similar Vipassana is to ashtanga yoga. Here are some of the similarities that struck me between the two.
Not a quick-fix
If you choose to book a 10-day Vipassana course, it is made clear that it is not a holiday and that it requires ‘hard, serious work’. It is not the type of meditation class that makes you feel instantly calm and relaxed; in fact, it can be quite the opposite, and many people leave within the first few days for this very reason. Basically, it’s not a quick fix: it’s a discipline that will take time to work its magic. And really, the same is true of ashtanga: it’s not the type of yoga class that lulls you into an instantly relaxed state. You’re actually moving your body through a rigorous physical practice, which initially is not relaxing at all. But, it will retrain your body and mind and over time the transformative effects will seep into your life.
The bare bones
The Vipassana course booklet outlines the rules, which are strict to say the least. There is of course a vow of silence, which includes no eye contact or hand gestures. And there is a list of lots of other things that are prohibited, such as electricals, books, writing materials, jewellery and even exercise (other than slow walking within the grounds). The centres are typically very basic without any luxuries, and there is a set timetable for the day, which includes a 4am wake-up call and 10 scheduled hours of meditation. The rules can seem a bit much, but really they are necessary, and it all comes down to limiting distractions so you can become truly aware of yourself. And of course this draws similarities with ashtanga, in that traditionally you’re not allowed props (such as blocks or straps), there isn’t any music playing, and it’s typically taught in basic spaces rather than luxury yoga studios. Both are stripped down to the bare bones of the practices, leaving just you and the practice. Nothing to hide behind, and nothing to distract you.
The silence of the course actually didn’t bother me that much: I like being alone, and to be honest, one of the reasons I like ashtanga is the silence - particularly in a Mysore room. There is a teacher in both Vipassana and ashtanga, but really they are there only to give you the information you need and not much more. In Vipassana, each morning you are taught a new technique, but from then on, it’s mostly silence and you’re left to practise. The same goes for ashtanga - in Mysore classes, you might be given more instruction when you learn a new pose, but then you’ll often be left to your own devices to figure it out on your own. Even in a led class, you might be guided into a pose but then there is just the count to five and little else is said. We’re looking for the mind to become quiet(er), so it makes sense that being left in silence helps this. It is actually also extremely empowering in many ways, as both Vipassana and ashtanga are ideally disciplines that you practise at home too: even in a class or on the course, you are learning to be comfortable alone in the practice, without relying on a teacher always telling you what to do.
The eye contact rule was quite difficult for me to get used to, partly because it was a habit, but also because it felt rude to not acknowledge someone holding a door open, and wrong to see somebody sobbing and walk straight past them. But this is an important rule and is all about minimising your contact with others, which ultimately would act as a distraction during the process. The whole point of these practices is to turn our attention inwards, so any contact with other people would make it ten times harder, and before you know it, the small external encounter has hugely affected your mind and emotions. In ashtanga this element is brought in with drishti, or the gazing point. You’re told exactly where you should be looking in every single posture, again minimising your interaction with others in the room, and therefore keeping your attention internal. Whilst it’s not a rule, there isn’t even usually much eye contact with the teacher in an ashtanga class, encouraging you to stay present with yourself.
Early mornings have never been my thing, along with structure in general, and I think this is why I benefit so much from the ‘strictness’ and discipline of Vipassana and ashtanga. Ashtanga is typically practised before dawn (which is something I’ve only managed a handful of times outside of a retreat setting) and there are rules about how many days a week to practice, which specific practices to do on each day and even which days you should take as rest. I’m the first to admit that I break the ashtanga rules, but I can absolutely see the benefit of them. It’s all about discipline, mental strength, and creating positive habits - sometimes referred to as tapas in yoga. The other major benefit of the rules and schedule is that the decision making process is taken out of your control. You don’t need to think about what to do, what time to practise, or how long to practise for - I enjoy the indulgence of deliberating over a choice, but I know that having the decision process removed is in many ways liberating for the mind: no unnecessary thinking. There is a time and a place for thinking, but for me, yoga and meditation are about getting out of the thinking mode and into a simpler being mode.
Again and again
Having said all of that, it is the actual content of the Vipassana technique that I found most similar to ashtanga. Firstly, there is a huge amount of repetition. You do the same thing in Vipassana all day every day, without being entertained with any new tricks. Once the mind has been adequately trained, you’re introduced to new techniques. But even these are extremely similar and you sit for hours repeating the same meditation technique. Ashtanga too is very well known for its repetition: exactly the same sequence is practised over and over again, eventually adding on one new pose at a time. It can seem tedious to repeat sun salutations over and over, or to just focus on breathing in and out, or sensations in the body, but it is the repetition that gives us deeper awareness of ourselves. You keep doing the same thing, which allows you to notice what is really going on inside. It's also very humbling to keep repeating the same process, and it can teach us a lot about finding joy and peace in the mundane.
The first step of both Vipassana and ashtanga is the breath. You spend three full days simply observing your breath on the Vipassana course, the goal being that you are aware and conscious of every single breath whilst you are meditating. The breath really is the most effective and most readily available meditative tool we have, and it’s also hugely important in ashtanga. Every single breath in an ashtanga practice is accounted for, either linked to a specific movement or counted while you hold a pose. It’s such a simple concept, but breath awareness is so effective in training the mind to be still, and for me it’s what makes ashtanga a meditative practice.
During Vipassana, you’re asked to remain attentive and equanimous (or, as I like to call it, ‘attenti-quanimous’). The concept is simple, but it is not easy. First, pay attention - to the breath, to the body, to the trees - to whatever is in the present moment. This is achieved in ashtanga through the tristana method - asana, breath and drishti all combining to keep your mind focussed. Secondly, be equanimous - don’t judge anything as good or bad, don’t react to it and definitely don’t develop any desire or aversion towards it. This is probably the part that helped me understand why ashtanga is such a great meditative practice. You work through the sequence of poses, whether you like the poses or not - some of them you will love and others you will possibly even hate. But you can’t avoid them; the practice teaches you to face whatever is in your path, both good and bad, with a calm and steady mind. You can’t just rush through the parts you don’t like, and stay with the bits you do - you hold the poses for five breaths and that’s that. And eventually you come to realise that whilst some parts are easy and others difficult, it makes them neither good nor bad. It’s on the same lines as non-judgment - just allow your practice to be whatever it is, allow whatever sensations to arise and try to avoid letting it affect your state of mind. Ashtanga is often known for its physically challenging asanas, but part of the practice is learning to let go of any kind of attachment to the poses, and not always wanting or desiring more - a lesson that is fundamental in Vipassana too.
There are of course other elements of Vipassana that are similar to yoga in general, such as the cultural origin, and the code of conduct being linked to the yamas and niyamas of yoga. But I really do think that ashtanga in particular is the Vipassana of the yoga world, and Vipassana is the ashtanga of the meditation world. The two go hand in hand, but remember, you are not allowed to practise ashtanga during a Vipassana retreat... perhaps the perfect opportunity to practise non-attachment to the physical practice.