If, when I was a teenager, someone had told me that one day I’d be a yoga teacher, I’d have probably laughed out loud.
My father was an old-school Marxist, so I received a thoroughly atheistic upbringing in a fairly religious part of the world: Southern Italy.
Being one of the few non-believing kids in school wasn’t always easy. Nevertheless, I’m very grateful for my secular upbringing.
Yes, it might have enhanced the sense of differentness I already felt from the other children, but at least it spared me the guilt bestowed upon countless LGBT people by bigoted nuns and priests in Catholic schools and parishes around the globe.
One of the main differences between a religious and a non-religious upbringing, I find, is that the latter will make a child question things, whereas the former, in most cases, will only indoctrinate.
At the age of 11, a schoolteacher who knew my family told me shamelessly that her aim was to convert me by the end of our three years together, during which she virtually persecuted me. In the end, her patronising attitude only served to reinforce my non-religious beliefs.
Another reason why I might have laughed out loud is that I was not an athletic teenager at all. In fact, I hated PE classes with a passion! I especially disliked playing football, or any ball game; swimming being the only physical activity I enjoyed.
It was not until the age of 21, when I was already living in London, that I joined a gym for the first time ever – although, admittedly, for cosmetic rather than health reasons.
But apart from the occasional eye candy, gyms can be dreadfully boring places, and I soon lost interest.
Almost a decade later, just before hitting 30, I observed myself in a group picture and noticed I was developing a slight hunchback. Which was hardly surprising, considering I’d spent much of my life hunched over a piano, while doing virtually no physical exercise.
I remember thinking, if this is happening now, at 29, what will it be like ten years down the line? So, after a rather long break, I joined a gym again. But this time I took it more seriously and started attending the yoga classes there twice a week.
Even though it was vanity that had drawn me to it (the sight of the hunchback had been unsettling!), I soon realised that the benefits of yoga went beyond the physical realm.
At the end of each class, I felt lighter and lifted.
Nine years later, I went on a meditation retreat at a stunning location in the Austrian Alps and although I had no prior “formal” experience in meditation (except a rather irritating attempt at a London centre), I went quite deep during the first session.
I guess all those years of yoga practice had prepared me for it – physically, mentally and spiritually. Reading E. Tolle had also had an impact. And the conducive environment of the retreat probably played a role, too.
The following year, I attended a Vipassana meditation course: an intense 10-day silent retreat that was quite revelatory.
Vipassana means, “to see things as they really are”. It is a pre-Buddhist meditation technique popularised by the Buddha 2,500 years ago.
The retreat allowed me to experience firsthand what I’d known intellectually for a long time: that the mind can be our worst enemy and that, if left untamed, it can slowly destroy us.
If this sounds extreme, think of emotions such as anger, resentment and hatred, generated by thoughts in the mind, and how destructive they can be to oneself and to interpersonal and collective relationships (between rival nations or religious groups).
One of the advantages of the enforced silence on the retreat is that it makes you take the meditation practice quite seriously: if you don’t, you go crazy!
When you can’t speak or write to anyone for 10 days (the use of electronic devices is not permitted and you can’t even read a book), you realise just how wild the mind is.
So long as we engage in conversation with someone else, we tend to follow a more or less logical path. But when the dialogue is only in our mind, it branches out all over the place with no logical sequence whatsoever.
The “drunken monkey”, as they call it.
Another striking feature of the relentless mind chatter is that it’s incredibly self-centred.
During the first few days of the retreat, I was ashamed with myself at how self-obsessed my thoughts had been.
But around day 3, in one of the video lectures that are shown in the evenings, the witty late teacher, Goenka, points out that this is the very nature of the mind; it’s just how it works.
I finally understood what the concept of the mind and the ego being one and the same really meant. And I felt a huge relief that it wasn’t just me!
So, the question arises: are yoga and meditation religious practices?
Personally, I view and experience both as secular disciplines that promote introspection.
Spirituality can be completely detached from religious doctrines or the supernatural, focussing on humanistic qualities such as love, compassion and concern for others.
The physical aspect of yoga (asana) is a celebration of the human body and its potential. In this respect, the practice is almost incompatible with religions, which are traditionally body-phobic. The Bible, for instance, speaks of the “vile body”.
Even pressing the hands together in “prayer” does not feel to me like a religious gesture, but rather like one of inner unity: joining together the two sides of the brain, the feminine and the masculine, yin and yang.
Of course, depending on where and how it’s taught, yoga can carry varying degrees of its philosophy, which stems from Hinduism. And although these spiritual-philosophical concepts don’t necessarily fall into any specific religious framework, at times they inevitably do.
On the teacher training course I did at a fairly traditional ashram in India, for instance, they imparted a good deal of Hindu dogma and rituals. Which felt at odds with the organic flow of yoga.
Meditation, on the other hand, could be seen as closer to religion and is in fact often likened to prayer, as certain meditation techniques involve mantra repetition, which is very much like reciting a prayer.
But Vipassana meditation offers a secular, almost scientific approach: it invites us to focus on the breath and on physical sensations – from the most obvious ones, like hot and cold, to more subtle ones, such as vibration.
Everything in the universe is made of vibrating energy. Even our body is vibration, as it’s made of atoms, which are made of electromagnetic particles literally spinning in orbit.
After 10 days of meticulous practice on the Vipassana course, one learns to feel the entire body vibrate, as the illusion of solidity dissolves.
The human brain can identify a limited range of sounds, colours, smells, etc. that interact with our sense organs through energetic vibrations. So our reality is based on our ability to perceive. And, apparently, we’re only able to perceive 1% of what exists!
The illusion of solidity is created by the limits of our senses. Modern physics teaches us that atoms have no defined boundaries: when our hand touches the wall, there’s a point at which it’s impossible to say whether a particular atom belongs to our hand or to the wall.
Once the Vipassana technique has been mastered, on the last day of the course, the loving-kindness (Mettā) element is added to the vibration. Which makes it all the more special, as one literally radiates love and kindness.
In fact, if I have one criticism of how the course is run, it’s that the Mettā component could be introduced on day 7 or 8 rather than day 10. It would make the last few days much more enjoyable.
During the retreat in Austria, I had achieved a similar result almost instantly through the Mettā meditation that was taught there: I literally felt my body float in and above the mountains. It was amazing.
But feeling loving kindness on command isn’t always easy. Some people can’t feel it at all. Which is why the Vipassana technique is a very useful tool that ought to be taught in schools and prisons alike.
Every mental state has a matching sensation in the body, so by observing our physical sensations, we also observe our mind – and with the help of conscious breathing, we can learn not to act on cravings or negative emotions.
Psychologists have estimated that on any given day, 99% of our thoughts are exactly the same as the day before. No wonder we’re plagued by anxiety, fatigue, depression and all sorts of addictions, as most of these thoughts are driven by worry and fear.
Luckily, disciplines such as yoga and meditation can help us rewire the brain and choose different thoughts and actions, allowing us to convert negative energy into positive, transforming our life and the lives of those around us.