And the answer continues to remain controversial. There is a wealth of conflicting information online regarding this subject.
As a cancer survivor, British asian, fitness professional and someone who does not consume animal meat or poultry, the subject of soy in food continues to come up. So let me break it down into as short a piece as I can to give you a general sense of it all in plain English from my perspective.
Some studies promote its health benefits with statements like: Soy’s anti-estrogen properties prevent breast cancer, its fiber content can lower colorectal cancer, and in various stages of prostate cancer soy lowered PSA levels. Here’s one such study: MDAndersonorg
Other pluses for soy include its low fat content and high protein content, making it an efficient nutrient, especially in a vegetarian diet.
Many western articles point to asians having lower occurrences of certain types of cancer, reasoning that asians eat a high amount of soy. They use statistics to prove that the two facts are related. Here’s a WebMD article detailing an example of this theory.
Books like the China Study link an asian diet heavy in soy with health benefits.
Some studies show that soy consumption switches on cancer-forming genes, increasing the rate of cancer cell growth; like this one on breastcancer.org
Others provide studies linking soy to miscarriages, hormonal disruptions, infertility, loss of libido and erectile dysfunction; like this one from Dr. Mercola.
Some studies claim too much soy causes dementia and other brain issues, as well as hair loss.
The Middle Ground:
What’s clear is that the jury is out. This information sounds all too familiar: Wine is good for you, then it’s bad. Fat causes heart attacks, so we must eat nothing but carbs. Oh wait, oops, carbs are bad, now fat is back in fashion! Heard this before?
There are easy guidelines to follow here that can also be mirrored when deciding on your fat, sugar, carbs or alcohol consumption too. The rules are quite simple. In fact, there’s really only one:
DON’T EAT TOO MUCH OF IT!
I knew a middle aged woman in Oklahoma some years ago who was overweight and tried every fad diet possible to lose a few pounds. The only thing she didn’t try was sensible portions and moderation. She ended up doing crazy things like downing an entire bottle of olive oil because she read it was “good for your heart”. True story. Not long after this, she had a heart attack.
As with everything, too much of something is bad. But with soy, this statement rings even more profoundly. In an attempt to give us westerners a miracle low fat, non-meat protein substitute that’s easy to produce, the soy industry has given us a soy mutant monster. Soy protein isolate is a component of soy, literally isolated and multiplied to hulk like levels.
Enthusiastic believers in the asian diet ignore the fact that asians also eat a lot of meats, vegetables, fungi, legumes, fruits……. The point really is to look at the amounts and the ratios. They aren’t knocking back pints of soy milk like it’s going out of fashion.
Additionally, if that soy isn’t organic it may be genetically modified for hardiness to be sprayed with Round Up. This means it has probably also been sprayed with said toxic chemicals you’d never want to set foot near, much less consume.
Even if it’s organic, if it isn’t fermented, it contains high levels of phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that leaches vital nutrients from your body, and blocks the uptake of others. Dr. Mercola’s article details this well, but you can find this information in many forms if you google it. Here’s an article from foodforbreastcancer.com that suggests eliminating soy protein isolate from your diet if you are fighting breast cancer.
With all the back and forth, what is one supposed to believe? Conclusive findings don’t appear to be anywhere near in sight. So for myself, I choose to logic my way around the situation. Here is my deductive reasoning:
Soy clearly doesn’t actually cure cancer. If it did, we’d all be miraculously cured by now. So there’s no need to start consuming it heavily for its proclaimed health benefits, when I can get my protein from many sources, even if I’m a vegan.
Asians traditionally don’t eat unfermented soy products without also consuming some form of seafood or seaweed, which neutralized the phytic acid in the soy, making it safe to eat. So probably eating soy protein isolates and other unfermented soy products doesn’t mimic the Asian miracle diet anyway.
If numerous studies tell you something causes cancer, perhaps it is worth listening to that information and investigating it before jumping under the bus and regretting it later.
I choose to eat organic soy and fermented soy products in moderation. I avoid any foods containing soy protein isolates like the plague; like soy milk and soy burgers. I don’t go near soy beans aka Edamame either. This crop was originally used in between usable crop seasons on fallow land to re-nourish the soil and wasn’t consumed in its bean form. Asians knew it to be poisonous to consume as is. Hence, they developed a way to ferment the bean and make it edible. Here’s an article that I quickly googled referencing this at authorityNutrition.com. Edemame is not fermented! It doesn’t make the cut!
Here is a list of soy based products I personally deem safe:
Organic Tofu – but I try to make sure I consume some form of seaweed or seafood along with it. It doesn’t have to be much. And I don’t eat it very often, perhaps once a month as my source of protein. I happen to LOVE tofu, so it’s hard not to eat too much of it to be honest!
Organic Miso – fermented soy paste soup, sometimes with seaweed and tofu.
Organic Tempeh – Health food stores have a lot of Tempeh burgers/patties to choose from, in various flavors.
Organic Soy Sauce – a fermented sauce.
Natto is also a fermented soy product that makes the cut, but I don’t personally like it.
Moderation, moderation, moderation!
Be sensible, read articles, make your own decisions based on more than one source.
Last month my partner and I took the 3 Day Vipassana residential meditation course for Old Students at Dhamma Sukhakari, in Saxmundham, Suffolk, UK. The course is a refresher or sorts for students that have already taken the 10 Day residential course.
Dhamma Sukhakari means ”Giving the happiness of Dhamma”, and the atmosphere of the center and it’s helpers definitely reflected that spirit. Everyone was really friendly, helpful and respectful during induction and course end. Of course, as with all Vipassana courses, we practiced in complete silence for the entirety of the course once the bell was sounded.
The course felt very different to the 10 day course. For starters, everyone there had experience with Vipassana, knew the rules and already had some modicum of discipline in meditating in stillness. Talking to fellow meditators before the course begun, it was very interesting to hear how Vipassana had changed their lives or helped them in ways they couldn’t have imagined. People of all ages and walks of life, each with their own stories and backgrounds, many from other countries, all gathered to practice this simple but powerful meditation technique. It was a wonderful experience to meet them and be inspired by their stories.
For me, my intention was to top up my basic practice and confirm its direction, to make sure I was staying on track. Being forced to spend 3 days doing nothing but meditating to revisit the experiences I had while on the 10 day course were part of my goal in signing up. I actually wanted to do another 10 day course, but with precious little time to spare, another 10 day course in less than a year seemed overzealous at best. So we opted for the 3 day.
If you aren’t familiar with Vipassana and the 10 Day course, I wrote three posts detailing everything about the experience. Here are links to check them out:
The structure of the 3 day course, including the schedule, the rules and the food were all maintained from the 10 day course. It seems the organizers of this group that practice around the teachings of S. N. Goenka are very coordinated and go to great pains to make sure the experience is consistent from center to center. Even the kneeling mats were the same.
The major differences for me at this center were in the size of the premises. In Twentynine Palms USA, there was space for long nature walks and our own bedrooms with private bathrooms. This made working in silence much more easy to do. There was much more sense of isolation, with minimal chance of contact during group meditation and dining hours. In Saxmundham, UK however, the quarters were tight, with 4 bunks per room, only 2 toilets, and 2 showers for 18 girls on the female side.
Trying to remain isolated without eye contact, physical touch or speech really was quite hard, especially with the British inclination to apologize to everyone, each time you so much as cross someone’s path. I heard numerous accidental “Sorry”s muttered under the breath during these crowded times.
Even separating males and females was impossible to do in this center, as is the practice at Vipassana centers. Our quarters were separated by a single door inside, which was sufficient, but by a thin hedge on one side of the garden, and an awkwardly positioned trailer on the other. On the first day, a male wandered on to the wrong side of the garden and saw me in my bedroom, thankfully clothed. Needless to say, this was distracting, though not intentional. It took a day or so for everyone to get used to where the undefined boundaries really were, to avoid each other.
Male helpers would walk through the girls’ quarters frequently through necessity. The layout of this center doesn’t allow for multiple separate entrances to the kitchen. I didn’t find this distracting however. It was noticeable, especially with the male meditators on the 10 day course, that by day 10 many of them were gawking at the girls. But on this very short course of experienced meditators, the atmosphere was much more focused.
Walking in the garden was especially awkward, as it wasn’t really big enough for more than a couple of people to move around in without getting in each other’s way. It was cold in January, so this wasn’t much of a problem, with most girls staying indoors wrapped up in blankets.
I feel like as an Old Student (as one is automatically called once completing the 10 day course), the challenges of the center were chances to use the skills I had learned. I do feel like this center would have been too challenging for me as a New Student, and this is perhaps why this center is more focused on 3 Day courses. I felt a sense of claustrophobia and no sense of privacy. I spent much of my down time from meditation observing these feelings as sankaras.
The constant distraction made it feel difficult for me to get back to the level of focus I had attained on the 10 day course, and by day 2, this was bothering me. I was also having a hard time with the heat. The heaters in the center were all cranked up full blast, and sleeping in the top bunk, with up facing heat fans blowing on you, isn’t a pleasant experience, even when it is cold outside. I’m usually someone who runs cold, and had expected to be chilly on this course, bringing only warm clothes to sleep and meditate in, given the weather and British tendency to only use the least amount of energy possible to take the edge off. By the middle of the first night, I was burning up, sweating and having trouble sleeping.
I tend to get insomnia anyway and am a very light sleeper. My bunk mates were heavy sleepers who snored, but would wake up numerous times throughout the night to pee, then fall right back asleep. This led to me being woken up constantly through the night, taking a long time to fall asleep again, only to be woken at 4am with the morning bell. I was very grumpy.
By Saturday lunch time I was sleep deprived and overheated. Every time I closed my eyes, I would fall asleep. Every time I tried to sleep, I would be woken up. Every time I opened the window to get some relief from the hot air trapped in my top bunk, a girl from the bottom bunk would close it. I was frustrated and exhausted. Unable to express in any form of communication how hot it was on the top bunk, made it impossible to make her understand that my situation was unlivable. I had however noticed that the girl on the other top bunk was similarly hot, as she too would open the window every time it was closed. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one suffering did help, but didn’t fix the situation.
During morning meditation on Saturday, I had to leave the meditation hall to remove clothes, as I felt like I was going to pass out. By this time, I was very disappointed and frustrated that my experience wasn’t going as planned. Vipassana rules include not being allowed to wear revealing clothes, including sleeveless tops, vests, shorts, leggings etc. I felt trapped in the heat, and this created its own additional heat in the form of anger and frustration. By lunch time, I seriously considered packing up and leaving. I sat alone outside in the freezing cold for over an hour contemplating my situation and cooling off my body temperature.
While sitting there, I realized that this experience was part of a sankhara I needed to address. I had started to become angry and had started deflecting that anger on to the girl on the bottom bunk, blaming her for my situation. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know what it was like on the top bunk, and we couldn’t talk to each other. It also wasn’t anyone else’s fault that I have a problem sleeping and wake up at the smallest whisper or movement. So I sat there in my anger trying to understand it and let it pass. S. N. Goenka often talks about anicca – pronounced “Aniture”, the concept of everything changing constantly. Each moment, each feeling, each experience passes and is replaced by another. We crave the good sensations and try to avoid the bad ones. When things don’t go our way, we get sad, angry, remorseful, fearful. I focused on this philosophy and sat there feeling my body cool down in the freezing air.
It was then that I realized that I was experiencing the same exact sankhara I had visited during my 10 day course. I had been uncomfortable and frustrated, and deflected that anger on to the girl sitting in front of me. On that occasion, it took me 4 days to realize everything I was experiencing was of my own design. It was a real revelation for me, and practicing Vipassana has allowed me to understand and break this habit without internalizing my anger in an unhealthy way. However, it is a lifelong habit and a hard sankara to dissolve. So once again, here I was, surfacing the sankhara again. To my credit, I didn’t get anywhere near as mad as I did on the 10 Day course, and I recognized my frustrations and anger for what they were within hours. That’s a massive improvement by my math!
Of course, as we sat down on Saturday night for S. N. Goenka’s evening discourse, things became very clear. He talked about expectations during Vispassana. He explained that chasing the feelings you achieve during deep meditation take away from the goal and impact of the meditation, and that to do that means that you aren’t practicing Vipassana. To have expectations is to misunderstand Vipassana and leads to incorrect practice and frustration.
The technique of Vipassana is to observe one’s sensation with equanimity. To acknowledge the sensation, understand that it isn’t permanent, and observe it going away. Not to crave the sensation. Not to avoid it. Just observe it.
By observing and understanding every sensation and treating each with equanimity, you can break the cycle of blindly reacting to the sensation. A situation that causes both yourself and others to suffer by your actions.
Goenka explained that if you spent the entire course observing your inability to focus, found nothing but blockages and couldn’t manage to even observe any anapana* meditation, yet alone a sequence of Vipassana meditation, as long as you observed these facts with equanimity, you had successfully practiced Vipassana. If you observed these failures and reacted negativity to them, but then noticed this and observed the sensations, you had practiced Vipassana and perhaps even uncovered a sankhara. However, if you considered your experience a failure because you hadn’t achieved the clarity of mind you once had in a previous course, you had missed the entire point of Vipassana.
The point of Vipassana is to notice sensations, understand that they are not permanent, observe them, understand anicca and thus remain equanimous towards the sensations. In doing this, you can break the cycle of misery caused from craving or averting sensations, and become happier and more present.
Some days you will have amazing clarity, alertness and feel a sense of progress with your meditation. Other days you will feel sluggish, blocked and will be unable to focus. Other days you will roller-coaster between clarity and fogginess. None of it matters. Each time you observe the sensations you are feeling, you are practicing Vipassana, and you have been successful.
We are the sum of our parts and to ignore or avoid part of yourself, whilst focusing and craving on other parts of yourself is to create imbalance and unhealthy dependence on something; akin to a junkie trying to get a fix. Vipassana in my mind teaches me to recognize this pattern of craving and aversion and catch myself reacting to it in order to retrain my bad habits. When I say bad habits, I’m talking about negative thoughts, knee jerk reactions, anger, fears and sadness, but also attachments to love, happiness, exhilaration and other enjoyable sensations. Coveting the good sensations only leads to disappointment and upset. Equanimity enables you to walk day to day experiencing the present moment for what it is, whether it is happy, sad, good or bad.
Being present is the purpose of many types of meditation. However with Vipassana, I have found that presence is more attainable and more of a practical goal, less of a philosophy or mystical state of being.
For me Vipassana makes perfect sense. It allows me to develop as a human being and takes the mystery out of being present, having successful meditation sessions and what that really means. I highly recommend giving Vipassana a shot if you’ve never tried it. It is a big commitment to take 10 days of your life to dedicate to this. But I assure you that for everyone I’ve met who practices it, the benefits far outweigh that of any vacation, spa membership, yoga retreat, therapy or drug. If you can manage it, it will change your life for the better.
As for the Dhamma Sukharkari center in Saxmundham, I would take this course again, this time with no expectations. The center has everything you need. It is clean, well stocked and despite being in the center of a residential neighborhood, is surprisingly quiet. The center is a challenge for sure, but overcoming those challenges makes for a great experience in learning about oneself. I definitely got what I needed out of the course, and I expect if I do it again, new and different experiences await me.
If you have an experience with Vipassana, I’d love to read your comments here. If you want to learn more, I’d be happy to try and answer your basic questions or refer you to the proper resources to guide you further. (Since I am not trained to school the practice and am still in the early stages of my own journey, I can’t answer questions that don’t relate to my personal experience, and wouldn’t want to misguide anyone by attempting to teach this practice.)
For more information, check out the Vipassana website where there is constantly updated information on courses, educational materials and ways to contribute to the centers. Vipassana centers are 100% funded on donations. Even the staff donate their time. Vipassana courses are free, including board and food. You are encouraged to donate time in service to help others, but it isn’t mandatory. You can also give by signing up for amazonSmile, where amazon donates to a charity of your choice based on purchases you make. You can also donate services if you are in a profession needed to maintain, promote or manage the centers. Donations are not accepted from anyone who has not taken the course.
This is a fusion recipe inspired by my love of Singapore Rice Noodles, Pho, Miso and stir fried veggies. Add egg if you aren’t Vegan, and meat if you aren’t Vegetarian at all. Substitute the rice noodles for Ramen if you like too. Play with the soup stock based on your tastes. Enjoy!
Singapore Rice Noodles (fresh or dried)
Miso stock or vegetarian soup stock
Chili Sauce (optional)
Boil noodles for 1-2 minutes. They really don’t need long. So don’t walk away from them. Add Miso/vegetable stock to the water to taste.
Stir fry the chopped onion in oil, adding in broccoli and tofu. Splash with soy sauce and a little water to avoid burning without adding too much oil.
Serve noodles and stirfry in a large bowl. Add more soy sauce, pepper and chili sauce to taste.
Buy fried tofu in an Asian fresh market. If you can’t get hold of it, you can use regular tofu from the grocery store. It has a different flavor and texture, but still makes a wonderful soup.
If you aren’t likely to use a lot of Miso stock for all your cooking needs, a way to cheaply and quickly make a batch of this soup without wasting money, is to use a cup-of-soup single serving packet instead. Here’s an Organic Miso Soup in a cup from Tesco, UK.
I have spent a fortune over the years on Pilates classes even though I have been a certified Pilates instructor for years. Why? The equipment. Home gym style reformers just don’t have the smooth running glide of a clunky home gym version, and space is always an issue with a reformer in your home. Let’s not mention that a decent reformer can run thousands of dollars.
I recently developed a hip injury from sitting in Lotus too much meditating of all things. I have ended up receiving a lot of Physical Therapy for this issue to get back to full health. Pilates reformer as well as Wall Unit / Springboard work became a major factor in my rehabilitation. Quick shout out to Maile Bay at Excel Physical Therapy in San Pedro, CA for her amazing top level diagnosis and treatment regiment btw. I highly recommend this clinic!
Since regular Pilates classes didn’t allow me to focus on my therapy exercises, I decided to make my own Wall Unit at my father’s house, where I’m living for part of the year. It cost me under 100 GBP total for everything I needed to make this unit.
My Wall Unit works just like any other Springboard, with a series of eyelets spaced evenly in pairs, roughly a foot apart, spanning about 6 ft. I have tubes and springs attached to it. I also created a spring bar for core work. I did this with materials I bought from the local hardware store and amazon.
I drilled holes in the external weight bearing wall in my bedroom, and attached the two planks of wood, using heavy duty, weight bearing bolts, glued and screwed into the wall. (You can look up the recommended weight allowances for Wall Pilates equipment from various equipment instructional websites, if you aren’t sure of the weight needed.)
I bought a cheap exercise Resistance bands kit with removable handles online. There are dozens of kits to choose from, but this kit has a great little selection of handles, different resistance levels and plenty of quick release attachments which came in handy.
This item was my biggest expense at 46.79 GBP for two springs and I picked carefully. Replacement Pilates bed springs don’t really have a cheaper counterpart you can replace with. I chose to buy 2 medium level resistance springs to use for for all-purpose exercises. I can always buy more if I want, but I haven’t need to. The link above may be out of stock, but you get the idea.
I bought a thick wooden dowel from the hardware store. You can use a broom handle, or anything about that size. I cut the dowel to about 2.5ft to fit my space, and attached an eyelet on each end to fasten carabiners. One dowel will make two. These can be used at the bottom of the wall unit for holding feet or hands in place while doing ab work for example. Or can be used as a spring trapeze attachment. Put a spring on each side and attach the springs to the wall unit using more carabiners.
At less than 100 GBP, my DIY unit may not have all the bells and whistles of commercial versions, but it does the job and you can pick and choose what equipment you spend your money on, based on your needs. Just to compare, here are some commercial Wall Units and pricing. :
The Great Yoga Wall website offers modular systems that you can order all kinds of parts to customize your set up. But it is costly. If you can afford it, it looks like great quality equipment and definitely worthy for professional set ups.
My design allows me to use one spring or band on its own for stability exercises and two together for symmetrical work. I also have a neck traction device from my Chiropractor that can be hung from this unit whenever I need to use it, and its a great place to store my yoga hammock when not in use. So it’s very handy. Here’s a video with some exercises you can do on a Springboard. If you google pilates wall workouts or Pilates Springboard workout, you’ll find more.
Here’s some other DIY Pilates hacks to get a professional reformer experience in your own home:
There are dozens of options for Exercise Gliders on Amazon.co.uk, like this one. The same discs are available in US on amazon.com for $14.99 with Prime shipping. Check for the double sided ones – smooth plastic on one side for gliding on carpet, and fabric on the other, for gliding on hard floors.
If you really want a reformer, but just can’t afford one and/or don’t have the space, a Total Gym is the closest, best piece of equipment to give you a similar experience….and not just because Chuck Norris said so! Using it flat, it can mimic non-resistance reformer exercises, and inclining it progressively will give you more resistance. Of course, it can’t do everything, but it gets pretty good results, can be bought new cheaply and/or probably even cheaper second-hand. And it packs away under your bed or against a wall very nicely. Here’s a couple of links for some on amazon, but I’d shop around…there are many models and prices:
This is one of my favorite leftovers recipes. In this case, left over steamed broccoli and mash potatoes from a holiday dinner.
Parmesan Cheese grated
Make sure your leftover mashed potatoes are stiff. If they are too creamy, your cakes will not stay together. You can add bread crumbs, or bread to the mix to make it more stiff if necessary. You can also try other healthier filler options, like oat bran flakes also.
Mash the steamed broccoli into the mashed potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, add Parmesan cheese to taste and bind with an egg. Add more egg if you have a large amount or if the mixture seems too dry to bind.
Form into patties. Make them quite thin so they cook through easily and more crust forms, which always makes it more tasty. Saute on medium heat with ghee, flip until brown on both sides. Serve.
I went camping this weekend and couldn’t find any fresh fish or vegan sources of protein, so had to settle for frozen fish at a local convenience store. Frozen fish isn’t my favorite because it doesn’t defrost well. It is often rubbery or mushy. So I usually avoid it.
Here’s what Rick did with the frozen cod we bought to make it taste fantastic!
3x frozen cod fillets – defrosted.
1 large tomato
1/2 lb of cherry tomotoes
1 tspn Turmeric
1 tspn Garlic Powder
1 tspn Ginger Powder
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1/2 tspn Red Chilli Powder
1 tspn Cumin
1+ cup of water
Instructions to cook:
Heat coconut oil in a pan and combine the spices as the pan heats.
Add diced onion and sweat through. Dice tomatoes and add to mix. Simmer for 5 mins before added sliced zucchinis. Cook 5 mins adding about a cup of water to the mix.
Add defrosted fish and simmer for 20 mins. The recipe is the same if you use fresh fish, and tastes even better btw. Use any white fish for this recipe: Tilapia, Hoki, Cod, Haddock, Red Snapper are all good.
Serve over Jasmine, Brown, Black or Red Rice. Enjoy!
This is a quick and easy leftovers recipe that you can also make from scratch. Whenever I eat out at places where I know there will be too much food, I order mashed potatoes and save them for the next day. This is what I make with them. The ratatouille I make from scratch most of the time, but you can throw leftovers into it too. It takes about 20 mins to prepare and cook from scratch.
One egg plant (aubergine)
1-2 small zucchinis (courgettes)
One large heirloom tomato
Salt & Pepper as seasoning
Instructions for Mashed Potatoes:
Bring water to a boil, add a pinch of salt. Boil potatoes for 10 mins, until you can easily stick a fork through them. I prefer to make my own potatoes with skins still on. They’re more nutritious this way. But peel them if you must. Drain. Mash with a fork.
Instructions for Rosti:
Form mashed potatoes into patties. Saute over medium heat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Turn once. Cook until brown. Serve.
Instructions for Ratatouille:
Dice egg plant, zucchini and tomato. Pan fry egg plant for a few minutes first, in coconut oil. When slightly browned, add in zucchini and tomato. The vegetables will start to cook into each other, with the tomato and zucchini providing plenty of juice to cook everything through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 10 mins. Sprinkle with hemp hearts, mix and serve.
The SCVC is situated close to Joshua Tree National Park. It’s extremely hot and dry in the summer and gets a little chilly in the winter months. Students are encouraged to dress in layers, and bring warmer clothes in the winter, even though it’s in California. The desert nights can get quite cold.
I was pleasantly surprised by the standard of the quarters at this facility. I had expected a very basic level of quality, knowing that the center is 100% funded on the charity of past students. Clearly their generosity and gratitude towards the center is huge. The center has high quality amenities including many individual private quarters with built in bathrooms. Some quarters were shared dormitories, but these were also more than adequate. Everything has been thoroughly thought out to give you the best experience. I’m not saying it’s a 5 star hotel. But what you get is exactly what you need to be distraction free and focused on your task. There are noise free toilet lids, soft closing door mechanisms, separate air conditioning for each room so you can control the temperature for your own comfort at all times. Cushions, mats and blocks are provided for meditation in the main meditation hall, but you can use your own if you wish. The main hall would get cold during group meditations. Many of us would bring sweaters and shawls to wrap up in, as well as socks, then remove them all after sessions.
There’s a ¼ mile nature trail on each of the men and women’s sides of the center and walking it is encouraged during rest periods. The trail is full of protected nature. Exercising is not permitted on the course, so stretching one’s legs on the trail is almost a necessary contrast to the hours of sitting in meditation. The animals on the trail are incredibly friendly and not threatened by humans. Rabbits, snakes, chip monks, lizards will all walk with you fearlessly. Doves and bats have made their homes in the roofs and trees around the residences. It’s a refreshing change to see untamed wildlife living so care free around humans.
The food was pretty good and a lot of options were provided, all vegetarian. I prefer to eat a vegan diet, and there was always plenty for me to choose from. Meals containing dairy, nuts and gluten were labelled. I was able to avoid wheat and dairy the entire time without feeling hungry or malnourished. Meals included Lasagna, kitcheree, burritos, noodles, tofu steaks, cake desserts, soups, stews, curry and every day there was a salad bar, breads, cereals, fruit and a large selection of soft beverages to choose from.
Difficulties during the course:
It is apparently normal for at least one person to give up and leave the course. Our course was no exception. Someone left on Day 2. Many others became overwhelmed at various stages throughout the course, packing their bags and trying to leave, only to be talked out of it by the teachers.
My partner Rick reports that he really wanted to leave on Day 2, but found the muster to suck it up and get through it. By day 4 the benefits he was getting stopped any further thoughts of leaving early.
For me, I didn’t feel the urge to pack up and leave, but I did have trouble on numerous occasions mustering enough enthusiasm to drag myself to each of the group meditation sessions. Day dreaming, and wandering thoughts, not to mention falling asleep at times made it challenging and frustrating.
Our schedule everyday looked like this:
4am Wake up bell
30-6.30am Meditate in hall or in room
8-9am Group meditation
9-11am Meditate in hall or room according to teacher’s instructions
1-2.30pm Meditate in hall or room and/or teacher’s interviews
30-3.30pm Group Meditation
30-5pm Meditate in hall or room according to teacher’s instructions
6-7pm Group Meditation
7-8.15pm Teacher’s discourse
15-9pm Group Meditation
9-9.30pm Group Meditation and questions
30-10pm Rest and lights out.
That adds up to over 100 hours of meditation. By the 5th day, it was encouraged to practice “noble stillness” during group meditation, meaning trying your hardest not to move an inch during the sessions, working through discomfort using the tools given to us. By around Day 4, most people were aching all over and having trouble sitting in any position at all. The Day 5 rule really helped create focus and by day 6 almost everyone was practicing in complete stillness.
I have been nursing a Psoas injury that was making sitting on a floor mat particularly painful. There were others like me with pre-existing injuries. We were allowed to sit in a chair as needed. I had to be mindful not to use the chair at the first signs of discomfort and only use it when my injury became unmanageable.
Another difficulty came with withdrawal symptoms for reading, writing and media. I found myself reading the back of my Vitamin D bottle, curiously interested in where it was from and anything else it said in small print.
Being left with one’s own thoughts is a daunting experience. I equate it to solitary confinement of sorts…but with guidance on how to best get to know your own mind. Some days I would sit and cry during rest times, through sadness, frustration, and sometimes through happiness. It was definitely a very emotional journey, full of self-reflection, self-realization and self-discipline.
My most profound experience came around Day 4. Our meditation mats in the hall were close to one another, and rules as they were, we were not allowed to touch anyone else. So everyone carefully stepped over everyone else’s mats to get to theirs, and stretched themselves out around each other’s spaces to get comfortable as needed. Nursing my injured joint, I would stretch my leg out a lot in front of me to avoid exacerbating my injury. The girl sitting in front of me would knock my foot, reach back and grab it from time to time while adjusting herself and almost stood on me numerous times. I started to become sensitive to this behavior, getting mad at her for trying to hurt me, and in my head purposely trying to make me feel like I was being an inconvenience to her, despite her having plenty of room. In the 3 days that this happened, I became more and more annoyed by her behavior, calling her names in my head, making up stories about where she came from and what an awful person she was. During meditation I started imagining scenarios where I could call her out on her about her behavior.
It was around this time that my hip joint was getting especially painful and I had asked for a chair. Despite getting my chair, I still wanted to sit on my mat when I could, but developed an aversion to sitting behind this girl. I really didn’t want to be anywhere near her. I started feeling like she was causing me to not get any benefits out of my time meditating. I became very frustrated that my mind could only think about what was going on between us. I got so angry that those thoughts started to become violent, and with no other outlet, verbal or otherwise, I started day dreaming about punching her in the throat UFC style. My thoughts had grown wildly out of control and I felt I wasn’t getting anything at all out of the course, rather regressing. I went to my teacher to ask to be moved to avoid the distraction and find focus since my violent thoughts were starting to disturb me. My teacher smiled and said “no”. My descriptions of violence and anger didn’t faze her at all. She explained that it was perfectly normal and expected to start having these types of thoughts. That this was one of my sankharas surfacing. She told me that I needed to stay sitting behind her and work through my sankhara to understand it. She also commented that this girl and myself would probably end up being best friends by the time we left the course.
I went away and contemplated this discussion, slightly peeved that I hadn’t gotten my way. That evening, Goenka (who teaches via video in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ban Khin, having died some years ago) started talking about these types of thoughts and sankharas and what they meant. Every evening his discourse was so profound to me, that it was like he was reading my mind…. But truthfully, this fact speaks volumes about the structure of the course and the predictable nature of the mind. In essence it’s a scientific method of understanding and controlling one’s mental faculties. But I digress. Geonka’s explanation described everything that had been going on in my head with this situation. I retired for the evening realizing that I had created this situation and manifested conflict, anger and upset in myself without cause. That I had been doing this with so many things in my life that my stress levels had become intensely high for no good reason. So many of my worries and conflicts were unnecessary and only hurt myself, no one else.
The next morning during group meditation, I changed my thinking. I used my new found knowledge to step away from my emotions about my situation and see things as they were. I realized that the girl in front of me was having a really hard time sitting still and focusing. She would fidget a lot and move around in frustration. She couldn’t get comfortable no matter what she did. I realized that what I had perceived as animosity was actually just frustration. All the anger that I had developed melted away. Half way through the day, she grabbed a kneeling bench and was precariously trying to balance it on her foam floor mat in her space so that she could sit on it. It was really unstable. She started trying to shift her mat forward, encroaching on the space of the girl in front of her, seemingly because she knew I used the space behind her for my outreached leg. In this moment, I broke my vow of non-communication momentarily for the sake of her comfort. I reached forward and grabbed the kneeling bench and put it over my foot, behind her mat, where it could sit on the sturdy floor. I looked up and smiled at her mouthing “It’s fine”. She smiled back at me with a look of relief on her face, giving me a thumbs up. Suddenly, this girl who had been the devil’s right hand in my mind a day ago, was a nice, well intended person who, just like me, was trying her best to get through the challenges of the course.
I can’t tell you how fortunate I was to have experienced this during my course and have the opportunity to address this thinking that had been weighing me down for so long. Now I’m back in the real world, I’m applying these lessons and making new observations every day. Rick and I have great conversations about behaviors and emotions that we’re noticing that were too subtle to realize before our training. We’re definitely able to process our emotions and thoughts so much more effectively. We are able to be present and have become better versions of ourselves because of it.
Day 10 was a special day where we were allowed to talk to our fellow students. It was a really interesting day, learning about people that we had been living, eating and sitting with for 9 days in complete silence. You inadvertently make up stories about who they are and what they do simply from observing some physical attribute about them or some physical action they have made. How wrong we can be about people. It’s an interesting exercise in perception. The girl who sat in front of me in the hall turned out to be more like me than I could have imagined. My teacher was right. We are now friends.
The journey is so different for everyone that experiences the course that I can’t tell you what the experience will be like for you, and it would be remiss of me to try to explain the method to you, simply because I don’t have the training to do it, and to teach it incorrectly would be an injustice to you. I can only recommend the course whole heartedly no matter what walk of life you’re on.
The course is 100% free and everything is provided for you. Just bring bedding, towel, toiletries and enough clothes to last 10 days. No laundry services are provided but you can hand wash and hang your clothes outside. There’s no obligation to donate money at the end. They actually encourage service over payment to help you grow spiritually. The center staff are all volunteers who have taken the course, and no one, including the teachers are getting paid a penny. Even the facilities are provided as donations in money and time by skilled workers. You can sign up for amazonSmile to have a portion of the money you pay for goods bought on amazon go to your Vipassana center, at no cost to you.
I can tell you that we are now strong practitioners of this meditation method and will most likely return to do the course again. If you have any questions about the Vipassana course, I would be happy to respond if I can. If you have questions about the practice, there’s lots of information on their site about the theory, practice and history of Vipassana, and I recommend you check it out.
If you’re at all interested in enlightenment, happiness, brain training, or meditation for mental or physical reasons, this course is the real deal. The course has given me the tools to deal with anxiety, depression, attachment, anger, and also to more fully experience happiness and love.
My life has become so much more vivid since finding Vipassana. I am so grateful for the experience and wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go.
In this part of my report on Vipassana, I’m focusing on religion. Talking to friends about the course, it is easy to see the apprehension of others in deciding whether or not Vipassana is for them. Most conventionally religious individuals are unsure of trying such a practice, not wanting to interfere with their beliefs or other daily religious practice.
The Vipassana website describes the practice in full. Here is the first paragraph to give you an idea. Check out the site to read more about the history:
“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.”
Emphasis should be made on the term “non-sectarian”. The roots of this practice have been passed down from Buddha…. But let’s be clear for those who may not know. Buddha is not a God. A Buddha is a human-being who has reached enlightenment. Gautama was not the first nor the last man to achieve this feat. There are branches of Buddhism that promote God/deity worship and types of meditation that have been adapted from the pure Vipassana practice to include prayer, chanting, objects of visual focus and mental markers to focus the mind. Vipassana is none of these things. It is the plain and simple physical practice of meditation without such distractions, allowing observation of one’s own body and thoughts.
Vipassana centers do not expect you to convert to Buddhism or denounce your current faith to practice, and they don’t turn away anyone because of faith. But they do ask you to put aside religious practice of any kind when you come to the center in order to experience the benefits of Vipassana, as well as not to distract others. If your mind is distracted with prayer, worship and faith, you will never fully experience the benefits of the course. On completion of the course, teachers help those with faiths to incorporate their new found practice in a way that isn’t counterproductive.
Goenka also is very clear at the end of the course to mention that it is not imperative for you to believe in everything he has taught during the course. It is for you to take away the parts of the teachings that resonate and work for you. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to dive into the deeper teachings. There’s no pressure or commitment, no obligation whatsoever … but in giving the course a fair trial, I found that 99% of the teachings have given me the tools I need to evolve my mind/brain continually from now on. I can’t express how valuable the course has been to me personally, and to my partner.
Vipassana’s Strict Rules:
The rules are in place to help you and everyone else reach their fullest potential on the course. You can find a full list of the rules on the Vipassana site including special vows called Precepts that one must commit to at the start of the course, but in short, here are some of the bigger rules from my perspective:
You MUST stay the full 10 days.
You must put aside all religious practices & prayer for the 10 days.
You must not wear religious paraphernalia.
You must not lie, steal, kill or engage in sexual misconduct during your stay.
Men and women must remain separated at all times, and have their own sides of the center to conduct practice, eat, walk, etc. A male and female teacher is assigned for each.
Students must wear modest and comfortable clothing. No revealing or tight fitting garments, including shorts, leggings or tank tops.
No talking, no physical contact, no eye contact with any individual during your time at the center. You can only talk to the teacher during set interview times to ask short and on topic questions about the practice. You can also talk to the male or female manager that presides over the residences for the course should there be any issues.
No phones, internet, writing, reading, drawing, taking photos, listening or playing music. Emergency contact info is available for you to be reached by loved ones while you’re there.
You must eat the vegetarian cuisine provided and only eat during set meal times at 6.30am and 11am. A snack of fruit and tea is given at 5pm for new students, but old student repeating the course are encouraged to forego this extra snack. The only exceptions are for medical necessity.
As a grown adult, some of these rules seem a little extreme, but about half way through the course I started appreciating how important they were to allowing everyone to focus without distraction. Silence and being left to one’s own thoughts really forces you to address your feelings without reacting to them. Having no entertainment to distract my mind, I was able to focus 100% on being present and experiencing my emotions as they happened, observe them in silence, and understand myself.
On the last day, we were allowed to talk to everyone, and immediately meditation sessions became much more challenging to get into. My mind became filled with thoughts and emotions about conversations I had just had and what they meant in terms of my present and past. Just interacting with people provided a distraction large enough to split my focus during meditation that I know I would not have been able to get past earlier in my training.
In the final installment of this three-part report, I will talk more about my experience, and specifically the 29 Palms location I attended.
In short though, if the rules of Vipassana concern you, I urge you to consider that the course is only ten days long, and there’s nothing you can’t be without for 10 days that isn’t provided on the course. God and your church will still be there when you’re done. Your job, worries, family and friends will all still be there in 10 days, but you’ll just be better at dealing with them when you get done.
If money or time are an issue, consider doing Vipassana instead of going on vacation. For my partner and I, the course gave us a refresh that no cruise or tropical vacation has ever done. Not only did it recharge us, but it gave us the tools to continually top up that charge indefinitely. The course was free and donating at the end isn’t required. There isn’t even a weird uncomfortable request for donations leaving you feeling like a douche at the end. They spend more time encouraging you to come back and get more benefits than they do on trying to get you to donate. There’s no catch, no further commitment, no expectation of further involvement or obligation.
Vipassana has been a life saver for me. I had begun to think there was nothing out there that was truly altruistic, gave tangible results and could make an actual difference in my life. I can’t express to you how thankful I am to have found Vipassana and to also have discovered it with my partner. Finding this technique together has been so much easier to maintain than it would have been if only one of us had taken the course. We are able to discuss our experience and thoughts about it all and support each other in keeping up our daily meditation. It means a lot to our relationship to have been able to share the experience together.
Vipassana works well if everyone in the family practices it. The course encourages families and couples to do the courses together, even though they separate men, women and children. Children actually have their own special course separate of the adult course. At the end of the course I spoke to several participants who told me they had done the course many times before, some of them as children. It seems that with each time you take the course, you get something new out of it, no matter how far down the path of enlightenment you are.
Six months ago in frustration, I posted on Facebook to all my friends, “Does anyone know of a retreat that teaches meditation without religion that isn’t an over-priced relaxation spa?” To my surprise and delight, two acquaintances responded, “Vipassana”. That was all it took. I started researching it immediately and soon had secured 2 spots on the Vipassana meditation course in Twenty-nine Palms, CA. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
My partner Rick and I completed the 10-day New Student course. For the first time in my years meditating and seeking some level of enlightenment, happiness and contentment, I can finally say I have found a practice that yields physical and mental results that last beyond the practice session itself. I’m truly amazed at how simple and powerful Vipassana meditation is and am recommending it to anyone and everyone that will humor my discourse on the subject. Let me tell you more…..
For myself, I have been drawn to meditation as a way to curb my fierce type A personality, filled with fire, anger, frustration and impatience. For my partner, he has been drawn to meditation to alleviate his chronic anxiety issues for which he takes a couple of different prescribed meds. In the past, various meditation practices have helped us to find clarity and peace of mind during the actual practice itself. This has been a welcomed break from the constant barrage of thoughts, emotions and psychosomatic symptoms that manifest from mental stress.
I don’t know what I expected to happen on the Vipassana course, but I’m delighted to tell you that both Rick and I experienced a level of lasting clarity, calmness and contentment through learning this practice. Our physicality has also reaped immense benefits from it. Rick hasn’t needed to take his prescribed meds since coming off them on the course. He’s also stopped biting his nails, which he has done for about 30 years incessantly. His mind is clearer than ever. I am so much calmer than before, so much so, that a stress hump between my shoulder blades has almost disappeared. We’re working more efficiently than before, with much more focus, and we are enjoying our free time with more presence, making every moment much more intense and vivid.
The course gives guidelines to practice after leaving the center, and we’re trying hard to incorporate the recommended hour in the morning and hour in the evening every day to maintain the benefits and progress even further with our practice.
We have both had huge revelations about various issues in our lives that manifested during our time at the center. According to the practice, these are called Sankharas and are deeply carved scars that cause aversion or attachment. These lead to unwanted emotions that cause pain and suffering. Through Vipassana practice, these issues come to light for each individual and one is able to subjectively deal with them. It seems that for Rick and I, our most prevalent issues surfaced incredibly fast and resolved themselves, lifting a weight from our shoulders. Through deeper and consistent practice, other sankharas continue to present themselves from the depths of our psyches. Clearing all one’s sankharas is part of the goal of the practice, since one cannot become enlightened if one still has aversions and attachments or cravings.
Vipassana new students HAVE to take a 10-day course to begin practicing. It’s like bootcamp, a crash course or as Goenka, the teacher calls it, “Vipassana Kindergarten”. One can only really get the benefits from immersion in this way. After you have done the 10-day course, you’re allowed to take 1 day, 2-day, or even 40-day courses if you wish. There are also meditation groups and workshops, but without the basic understanding you get from the 10-day course, it would be difficult to get any benefit from just these sessions alone.
I can only equate the experience to something like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. You’ve seen pictures, you’ve read the details about how vast it is, and you’ve watched footage of aircraft flying around its immense depths… but there’s nothing like walking up to the edge yourself and seeing it with your own eyes. I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking “Wow, I knew it was going to be big, but crap, I didn’t realize just how immense it would be now that I’m here looking at it.”
I’ve read many books on meditation, I’ve practiced under various masters and gurus who claim to have some level of enlightenment and wisdom to offer me. But I always felt that there was a level of mysticism involved in enlightenment that made it somewhat unattainable and magical. All of the tools that I was given to help me meditate became automated processes that I went through in hopes that somehow, one day, the light of wisdom would eventually pierce through the veil of emotions and thoughts that plagued my mind. With Vipassana, by the fifth day of the course, without any mysticism, only practical and tangible instructions, I started feeling incredibly in tune with my body and emotions. Deep issues started to surface. With help from my teacher and understanding of the practice I was able to work through and address them. I had many “oh wow” moments like this. Moments when everything suddenly seemed to make sense, and I finally thought to myself “So THIS is how it’s supposed to feel”. I finally understood through experience.
I also know now that this is why it is so important to commit fully to the course and the strict rules of which I will go into in Part 2 of my report. Without full commitment, you can’t experience that “Wow” moment where everything clicks and you finally understand the goal and the way to get there.
I highly recommend checking out the links I’ve provided in this post that give you more information about Vipassana and the location I went to. The organization has many venues where you can take the course, all over the world. Check it out for a location near you.