India: Yoga Teacher Training Week 2

Week two of my yoga teacher training is over, the course half-way done. It’s going great, in mind, body, and spirit. I’ve heard the hardest parts are still to come. We’ve continued to practice between 3 and 4 hours a day, but the classes this week felt a little bit easier than the first. We didn’t do quite as much core work, and we’re all stronger. A few people have had some back and joint issues, but I’m feeling great.

Today is our day off, and a few of us decided to start the day with 108 sun salutations (an auspicious number). It got to be difficult by the end, but I felt totally energized afterwards. It took about an hour, a little more with our rest in savasana. One of our teachers told us about a time he did 108 sun salutations every day for 108 days, in addition to teaching and the rest of his practice. This guy is awesome: totally humble, authentic, and kind.

Which is to say that the yoga at this training is really honest. We spend a lot of time chanting and meditating and resting and sweating. It’s all with the goal of knowledge, purification, mindfulness, and compassion. It feels different from most of the yoga in the west. In my experience, most of the classes in the states are exercise-focused, and somehow the ones with a more spiritual perspective seem a bit wishy-washy. The Om-Shanti Express. Maybe it’s due to the fact that yoga tends to be isolated from the rest of our lives, while here it is all we do and think about. If you only have one hour to focus on your spirit, you can’t get very far in before you need to run off to the next appointment or obligation. A lot of that seeking takes a big chunk of quiet time and space. I’ve had enough space to explore that I’ve been getting back to painting, using the watercolors I brought with me. It has been flowing easily and naturally, and feels wonderful.

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Our teachers have been guiding us in meditation after each of our classes. In the past I’ve done unguided breath awareness meditation, but here it’s nice to have a bit more direction. Mostly because the teachers really know what they’re doing. Each time it sounds like they’re reading from a script that’s been labored over for clarity and flow, but actually they’re just speaking from the heart, improvising, taking us to places they care about and know we can learn something from. I really enjoyed our last session, which I’d summarize with:

Don’t let your successes go to your head, don’t let your failures go to your heart.

This resounded with me, especially with the creative work I’ve done. We are all going to fail a lot in anything we do seriously, and it’s wonderful be able to find the lessons in that without being discouraged. It’s so easy to overthink things that go wrong, to use them as excuses not to try again. I don’t mean to say that we should be hard-hearted, but instead maybe that we be clear-hearted enough for the negativity to pass through without causing damage

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One other big point that we’ve been working on is the fact that everything we’re doing here is a lifetime (or more) of work. Yoga is for the entire life, and we should keep that in mind with our bodies. It doesn’t matter how flexible we are right now, but it does matter that we keep our bodies and minds healthy for years to come. This is hard for me. I like to push myself and explore my limits, but I think there’s a place for that without going to the point of damage. I’m excited for this coming week, and curious to see how it affects my state of being. More intense practice along with a deeper look inside. Sounds perfect.

Be well!

India: Yoga Teacher Training Week 1

I’ve just completed the first week of my month-long hatha yoga teacher training in Kovalam, India. Taking a very much appreciated rest day today. The training has been fantastic so far, but it’s already starting to fly by. Days blend together, as they tend to when following a strict routine.

We wake up at 6 AM for our 6:30 practice. It’s a hatha (pose-focused, rather than flow-focused) practice for about an hour and a half, then a half hour of breathing and meditation. We have breakfast at a local restaurant, then take a few minutes break before class starts at 10. There is an hour and a half of theory (philosophy, anatomy, etc), an hour of in-depth study of the poses, then an hour of practical teaching in small groups. We have a three-hour break in the afternoon, which I usually fill with lunch, swimming, and playing ukulele on the beach. At 4:30 we have a faster vinyasa practice, which is more cardio and muscle focused than the morning. At 6 we chant for a half hour in a big group, have some dinner, relax and study until bedtime. I’ve been falling asleep around 9:30 PM, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for either.

My body has been pretty tired the whole time, but once we get into a practice I’m always ready for it. I feel stronger already, especially throughout my core. Beyond the soreness I’m pretty sure my flexibility is increasing. My tendons and ligaments feel a bit softer than usual, and especially by the end of the day I’m able to get into some pretty extreme positions (for me). It’s kind of hard to explain how the flexibility feels, but it’s as if every part of my body is a little bit closer. My toes aren’t so far away, it’s a little bit easier to reach an itch in the middle of my back. There’s less restriction in all my movements, even just walking or sitting. It’s pretty cool.

The core strength also feels great. I’m pretty sure having a strong core makes everything better. This is something I really want to keep up when the training is over – I think it will help me stay healthy and stable in all the activities I do, from running and climbing to washing dishes and grocery shopping. Eventually, in getting old.

The changes I’ve been feeling in my body make me think of this: just as the eyes adjust to the dark, the body adjusts to an exercise routine, and the brain adjusts to just about everything. I’m exercising 4 hours a day and it’s totally doable. After a bit more of this, I could probably do 6 hours and be fine, as long as there was nothing wearing on the body in an unhealthy way. My brain is getting used to some of the harder parts of being in India: the beggars, the trash (It’s everywhere. This is depressing in lots of ways and apparently has become a much bigger problem in the last 10-15 years as more western corporations have started taking advantage of the emerging market), the constant bombarding from street vendors, the stares and requests for photos. But we get used to everything. An unfulfilling office job, an overly long commute to work, inadequate communication in our most important relationships. Also the positive experiences: sunsets, the way the wind plays with a tree, sex with a long-term partner.

A major part of my yoga and meditation practice is focused on keeping these experiences fresh and staying present in all situations, no matter how routine. When we sink into the routine, we are blinded to the beauty around us, and to the negativity which is slowly creeping into our bodies. Ignorance is not bliss, it just postpones and repackages difficult emotions to lash out later on in unexpected ways.

Aside from the physical experiences, I’m loving the theory and teaching practice as well. A lot of the core practices of yoga are totally lost in the American-style studios, which tend to be 90-100% about the exercise. If I have my own studio some day, I’d love to incorporate Karma Yoga (basically community service) and some of the philosophies on mindfulness and morality. Nothing preachy or weird, mostly just basic community center-type events that bring people together and encourage everyone to live well. Kind of like church without the blind faith. So far we’ve only been teaching a couple poses at a time for a few minutes, but it has reminded me how much I like to teach and share. It brings me all the way back to my public speaking class in high school. That’s probably one of the most valuable and widely applicable skills I’ve learned.

I’m excited to see how all this will change as the course continues. I’ve heard that the second and third weeks tend to draw powerful experiences out of the body. I’m not sure what that means, or if it will happen to me, but I’ll definitely let you know if it does.


Healing the Body

Keeping up with the education- and travel-filled fall I’ve been having, I just spent two weeks in Portland taking a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) class through the Wilderness Medicine Institute. The course came so quickly after my meditation retreat that I didn’t gear up for it mentally, just kind of jumped in. It turned out to be fantastic, completely new to me, and a wonderful lens through which to view some of my recent musings.

The course was ten days (anybody know other 10-day adventures I can go do? This is becoming a trend), and covered everything from reducing dislocations to wound management to stabilizing spinal injuries. Snake/spider bites: not as bad as I thought. Femur fractures: really really bad. Epinephrine and Benadryl: bring some. There was a staggering amount of information for the 80 hours we spent together, so I’ll definitely be reviewing my course notes every so often and before big trips.

My main reaction to everything we learned was definitely, “I can’t believe I’ve been going out into the woods for so long without knowing this.” For the most part, I wouldn’t have had any idea what to do if something serious happened to me or my companions out there, or (more likely) if I came across someone in dire straits. There’s not much actual treatment that makes sense to attempt in the woods, but now I know how to assess a situation and help make sure someone is safe while we get however much more help we need.

The reaction that’s continued to grow since the course ended, however, is how much I loved learning how to take care of people in need and start their injuries healing. It was fantastic to learn about how the body works (for instance, diabetes. I had no idea what was actually going on with blood sugar, ketones, etc., and now it makes so much sense), and made me think a lot about the path I’ve been on recently. More and more I’ve been heading in the direction of inquiry into the mind and the body, how to grow and heal them, and how to share that knowledge and experience with others. Outdoor education is a great platform for sharing all this with kids while helping them discover it on their own. This blog is a place for me to put these ideas into writing, but maybe you’ve gotten something out of it as well. Now I’m planning a trip to India for January to do a yoga teacher training, which will probably blow my mind in all sorts of ways. I may find teaching yoga to be rewarding in itself, or it may just be a good chance to deepen my own practice. Either way, I’m excited to continue pursuing this thread of mind/body growth and healing and see where it leads.

I’m pretty sure art fits into this, too, but I’m still figuring that part out. Also, neuroscience.

Meditate with Max!

Some Kind of Transcendence: 10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat

Okay, first of all, calling this a retreat is totally silly. I’d go with something more like meditation boot camp. I got back yesterday from my ten-day (actually ten full plus two half-days) Vipassana meditation course at the Dhamma Kunja in Onalaska, WA. Looking back through the website, I see that there is all sorts of information I didn’t look at carefully before I went. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but I don’t think I realized how rich and intense an experience I was getting myself into when I signed up for this.

So, the course. Amazing. Extremely difficult. Exhausting and exhilarating. Definitely a major life experience that I will come back to again and again. I’m pretty sure there was at least one moment each day when the thought of leaving early slipped into my mind. I’m so glad I didn’t. The teacher, S. N. Goenka, describes at the beginning of the course that it will be like “giving yourself brain surgery,” but not to worry because the wound will be tended to and balm applied by the last day of the course.

There are a number of reasons I’m not going to describe my experience in excruciating detail (edit: it appears I have gone ahead and described it in excruciating detail. If it’s any consolation, there is so much more I could have said). First, everyone has a very different experience, and although most of the students ended up at about the same place, each had his own very unique path for getting there. So I don’t want to taint any experience you may have if you take the course by filling you with ideas of how it should go. And second, if you have any inclination toward self-examination or the spiritual arts, I want you to go take this course. I think it can do amazing things for anybody who is willing to commit to try it seriously. Every person I talked to on the last day (yes, we could speak again on Day 10) had a meaningful and powerful experience. Going into too much detail about the physical and mental difficulties might dissuade you from a fantastic opportunity. But, yes, sitting in meditation for 100 hours in ten days hurts a lot in a lot of different ways. And third, I just got back from being totally in my own head for ten days, and that is a LOT to describe. More than I want to write, more than you want to read. Instead, some highlights and comments on things people are most curious about.

The Theory

The official website does a better job of describing this accurately, but I’ll give my understanding of how this all works. Although this is an entirely non-sectarian teaching and technique, it is supposedly the very one developed by the Buddha to achieve liberation and enlightenment, so that is the ultimate goal. There are three main segments of the teaching, and by perfecting all three you reach a transcendent state of being. These focuses are morality, mental concentration, and wisdom through eradication of impurities from the mind. These are the same values that many traditions teach and have taught throughout history, but there is one key difference. Most teachings go only as far as an intellectual understanding of wisdom. Vipassana teaches wisdom through direct experience of observation of sensation in the body. Even seeing something first-hand is not enough to gain this wisdom; one must feel it in the body to understand and the deepest and subtlest level. This is also the biggest difference between my previous experiences with Buddhist thought and this course. I’ve learned a good deal about the Eight Fold Path, the Four Noble Truths, etc, etc, but I’ve never gone as far as to cultivate that understanding within the body. By practicing morality, concentration, and wisdom, one will become free from craving and aversion, which are the root causes of the misery we all suffer.

Another twist is that one cannot practice pure concentration unless morality is already satisfied, nor pure wisdom unless concentration is already solidified. So for the ten days, we were scrupulous about our morals by taking five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no telling lies, no intoxicants. Maybe (read: definitely) we were not great at upholding all these before the course started, but at least for the ten days we would be able to work on the purest concentration and wisdom. To get started on our concentration, we spent the first three days of the course focusing solely on the breath with Anapana meditation. Not altering the breath in any way, rather just observing it flowing in and out of the body through the bottom of the nostrils. This was a lot of time to spend on such a small part of the body, but by the end of the third day I could feel a remarkable increase in the sharpness of my mind. I could feel subtle sensations that would have been otherwise masked by coarser feelings throughout the body (like extreme hip and knee pain from sitting ten hours a day, but that goes away). With our sharpened minds, we started in on the insight technique itself, Vipassana. The technique is basically a body-scan meditation. With heightened awareness, one runs circuits through the body feeling the sensation on every part. Instead of reacting to the sensations (even if they are intense pain or pleasure), one observes each one equanimously. Through extensive practice, this teaches the body at an unconscious level to not react with craving or aversion to external stimuli, and rather maintain a balanced, harmonious demeanor. At the same time, the unconscious mind creates tensions in the body based on past injuries (physical, emotional, mental) and negativity. By remaining balanced in the presence of these knots, one slowly unties them, gradually purifying the mind and relaxing the body. Any description of this is bound to fall short; it must be experienced to cultivate this wisdom.


The course is taught by S. N. Goenka, through audio and video recordings. This (among other things) made it sound potentially cultish to me, but it’s really not at all. The whole system is super transparent, and the more you look into it the more you find that the organization functions with the morals it teaches. Only past students are allowed to donate. All the courses are totally free to allow the purest spread of the teaching and intention of the students taking them. Goenka passed away last month, and even from the videos you can feel how pure his spirit and intentions are. He’s a wonderful teacher – strict when necessary, but always compassionate, endearing, and funny. There were definitely a moments of wanting to forcibly make him shut up after the fifth story about stepping on a person laying on the ground and all the possible emotional repercussions depending on this factor or that factor. I’m pretty sure he was always doing that on purpose to teach us something, though.

Noble Silence

Everyone seems to be most curious about the silence at the course. It was an intriguing aspect throughout, but mostly not for reasons I expected. It turned out to be easy to be silent for the ten days (to be fair, there was a small amount of talking allowed with the assistant teacher to clarify the technique). Getting to know 30 people (men and women are separated completely) without speaking, eye contact or gestures is revealing and often hilarious. I thought the main reason for the silence was to simulate being in isolation throughout, and while that was a part of it, there were two more important reasons. First, it would have been bad to share our experiences with the other meditators while the course was happening (and why I hope you don’t build expectations off my experience). We all started and ended in similar places, but everyone had very different paths for getting there. On days when I was elated, other people were dejected, and a couple days later we would have switched. Second, we had agreed to the precept of not telling lies. It turns out the only way to get us to abstain from lying is to keep us totally silent. Every time we speak, our words are colored by the people we’re talking to, the emotion we’re trying to convey. Most of the time I don’t think we even know what the truth is. Even if it’s clear at the apparent level, we could be totally off the mark on a deeper level. Having just been quiet for a long time, this has become easily understood in my everyday interactions. So, we kept our mouths shut.


Misery was one of the main topics of discussion, and it really changed the way I understand how and why we suffer. Basically, there is only a limited amount we can do to influence the sensations coming into the body and mind. The path to liberation isn’t about putting yourself in constantly pleasant situations, but rather changing how you react to sensations. With proper training, we all have the ability to control the way we react to external stimuli. Slowly we can alter our unconscious conditioning, which has been taught to cultivate craving and attachment toward pleasurable sensations and aversion and hatred toward negative or painful sensations. Focusing on the sensations of the body with equanimous awareness brings this into the unconscious mind. I felt this in tangible ways. Most obviously, my pain tolerance increased and sitting for an hour at a time without moving a muscle became no problem at all. I feel more patient, understanding, focused, and comfortable being with myself. While becoming harmonious with whatever is happening to us, we also develop our compassion for all beings, which makes the whole thing a lot less detached-sounding.


The meditation technique requires closed eyes, so between ten hours of sitting and six to seven hours of sleeping, we weren’t getting a lot of visual stimulation (we also woke up at 4 AM every morning, so it was dark a lot of the time our eyes were open). Sounds were similarly absent. No talking, hardly any traffic sounds. The loudest thing we heard were the cows grazing on the surrounding farms (they were also the loudest smell). There was no touching allowed between students, so all in all we were very sensation-deprived. I’m sure this is important for increasing the sensitivity of the mind for feeling the most subtle sensations on the body, but it also came with intense awareness of sights and sounds. I felt a little bit like a new born baby or vampire constantly shielding myself from the bright sun (and this is Washington – I’m not sure I’ve ever called the sun here bright before) and guarding my ears.


Oh man, the food was so good. Maybe partly due to increased sensory acuity, but also because it was just really well done. We ate twice a day, at 6:30 AM and again at 11:00 AM, and new students were allowed a piece of fruit with their 5:00 PM tea. Goenka also read my mind on the second day and pointed out that we probably think this means we should eat twice as much at lunch to make up for no dinner. Instead, he suggested we only eat three-quarters what we normally would, as the stomach needs to be at least one-quarter empty to meditate properly. Having eaten that extra piece (or two) of cornbread or bowl of veggie stir-fry a couple times, I can vouch for him on this one. By the third day I would have about 20 minutes in the afternoon when I was hungry, but it would go away quickly. After all, we were hardly burning any calories. I was good about eating a little less than I thought should, but sometimes the food was, ironically, too good to resist.

Weird Things

Weird stuff happened. It sounded like everyone had some weird experiences, but hardly anybody described the same thing. Electricity, heat, separation of consciousness, dissolution of body parts, mental gymnastics, pools of energy. Sleeping was difficult, and I found out that the mind and the body don’t necessarily need to rest at the same time. So I meditated in the middle of the night, and felt great in the morning. Lots of music stuck in heads and words or phrases repeated ad nauseam. I actually did think I might puke once. Then I laughed imagining how ridiculous it would be if someone just keeled over and vomited all over the place in this big peaceful room with 80 people silently focusing on their breath. I had a kind of scary moment of bringing my awareness deep into my heart and being able to feel the blood moving from one chamber to another. I was near my watch and I clocked my heart rate at a peppy 30 beats per minute, the lowest I’ve ever felt it. I started to feel dizzy and worry that I might accidentally die, so I moved on. I had some ringing in my ears, but the assistant teacher reassured me that “the mind does some strange things.” It went away after two days.


We didn’t talk about this at all, but I am really curious about all the neuroscience going on here. I have some experiments I want to do on myself, but I’ll need to find myself a high-resolution infrared video camera and an MRI machine. If you know articles or studies on any of this stuff (or want to share access to your advanced technologies), please send them on! A book I’ve mentioned before, Happiness by Matthieu Ricard, touches on some of this stuff as well.

Moving Forward

I feel like I’ve written so much, but that I’ve barely scratched the surface. The thing is that words really cannot do this experience justice. It is so much about being present and experiencing your own awareness. I didn’t even begin to talk about some of the most powerful topics we covered, like gratitude, compassion, addiction, unconditional love, giving away your energy, being at peace in adversity. This is a course on the art of living, and in practicing the art of living, we acquire the art of dying. Goenka explained that an experienced Vipassana practitioner always dies with a smile, knowing that he has lived well. Moving forward, I plan to continue with an hour meditation in the morning and an hour in the evening, and I expect I’ll attend and help out at more ten-day courses in the future. Two weeks ago, I had trouble sitting quietly for twenty minutes at a time, and would only try for thirty if I was already feeling fully at peace. The meaning of meditation has transformed in my mind, and in such a practical way. It’s no longer an attempt to become more relaxed. Instead it’s a fully engaged activity from which a relaxed and strengthened mind are welcome by-products. It’s strange to say that such an abstract experience was so thoroughly practical, but that is the merit of the technique. If you’re curious, I highly recommend trying it out for yourself. Just promise yourself not to leave the course early. Nobody wants a brain surgery left half-done.

Yoga yoga yoga!

Mind on Yoga

Since returning from leading backpacking trips over the summer, I’ve been reinvesting myself in my yoga practice, expanding to new places physically and mentally. I started doing a daily yoga practice last year when I quit my office job, and the transition from once-in-a-while to everyday was astounding. My hips and legs opened up dramatically and my heart felt lighter. I didn’t make time to continue my practice with all the outdoor time I had this summer, but now I’ve redoubled my efforts. I bought an unlimited month at a studio (previously I almost always practiced on my own, or to podcasts) and have been going 8-9 times a week. I feel pretty lucky to be able to make the time for that, and the constant engagement has once again deepened my understanding and commitment to yoga. I’ve also been reading about more of the philosophical side of the art (including B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life, which is fantastic), bringing connection to my meditation practice and to the musings I’ve had lately on vulnerability, creativity, openness, and play. I’ve been coming across some big ideas lately.

Expansion and Integration

I’ve never thought about the cycle of expansion and integration before, but it’s been showing up on all different time scales in my life lately. On the shortest scale there is the breath, with the inhale expanding one’s body and the exhale deepening a pose with contraction. Over several breaths in a pose, the body expands out through the bones, and integrates back to the center with the muscles, creating depth and balance. On a longer time scale, our bodies try new poses and stretch our comfort zones, then take some time to grow accustomed to a new range of motion. This is how growth happens in yoga as well as life in general. This past year for me has been a time of major expansion in my life. I’ve been doing all sorts of new things, testing my limits with creativity, the outdoors, and the idea of teaching. Aside from my yoga practice, I’ve been taking it easy for the last month or so. I’m using an expansion in my yoga practice to integrate some of the other big things I’ve been working on into my whole being.


Balance is clearly an important part of yoga. There are all sorts of balancing poses, on feet, on hands, on one of each, etc, etc. Balancing in space is a great way to bring focus to a pose. It also brings our awareness to a balance in the fourth dimension, time. When we lean too far into to future or the past, we falter in our awareness and slip into negativity. We stress about things to come, regret things gone by. I like the idea that one’s physical position in a posture relates to a mental tendency to be a little bit ahead or behind. Obviously we need to do a little planning for the future, but I’m pretty sure being present and conscious of the moment is one of the most important factors to creating a deep sense of happiness.

The Gunas: Tamas, Rajas, Sattva

A month ago I had never heard of the Gunas, but the idea has come up a lot recently. I’m still working on figuring out what the whole thing is about, but it’s kind of like the three threads of energy that encompass the universe. There is tamas, which is the grounded, heavy, solid energy. It can be dark, isolating, and is typically associated with the body. Rajas is a bright, active, perhaps frenetic energy which is associated with the mind. Sattva is luminosity, balance, and presence. In class we’ve been focusing on balancing the tamas of the body with the rajas of the mind, and sitting in a place of sattva. I’m pretty new at this whole thing, but this has translated to the idea of expansion and integration in my practice. There is a balance (both metaphorically and physically) of simultaneously extending the limbs and pulling them back in, and this creates a profound sense of presence and freedom. Part of this comes through visualization (another crucial part of yoga and all other aspects of life), which ties the mind to the body and to the moment in time.


All this is turning out to be transformational in my life right now. I feel a renewed sense of life energy when I practice these things, and I’m excited to delve deeper into them. With or without the physical postures of yoga, finding balance through awareness is something I’ll be working on for a long time. I’d love to hear your experiences with yoga or any of these ideas!