Vipassana, Fixed Gear Bicycles and Training for Climbing

November 11, 2009

This post was originally posted in my yoga/massage page and I add it here because of the obvious overlap.

On the first of November I returned home from a 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat/course.  I returned filled with new sensations, bodily sensations, with plenty of revelations, insight, and with many questions.

As is costumary, the questions arose hand in hand with the insights and throughout the process I would mentally connect the dots (because no writting or speaking was allowed) and by the end, somehow, the themes: Vipassana Meditation, fixed gear bicycles and training for climbing were the key themes.  Allow me to explain why.

I had really no idea what Vipassana meditation was before going into the course.  I had done a few 2-day retreats back in Gainesville, and also several 1-hour sits but they were not instructional sessions, they were sometimes guided but in a more relaxed way, more intuitive.  The truth is that even if those previous sessions had been guided and in the traditional form I would still return from this experience saying the same thing because a 10-day retreat/pilgrimage/journey has instilled a experiential/somatic knowledge of what Vipassana meditation is for me that one or several two-day or 1-hour sessions could not.

It was a silent retreat.  The first few hours we were allowed to talk with the other people who had signed up, I talked to a couple of people but felt myself already gearing up for the retreat by talking less.  We had a light dinner consisting of soup and bread and then the men headed over to sleep on their side of the building and the women on their side.  The segregation was to be mainted throughout the retreat and was aided by separate dining halls and separate areas of meditation; its function was to make it easier for us, the meditators, in that we would have one less thing to think about (i.e. not thinking about courting, about sex, about flirting).  I would say that measure was about 50-60% effective.

We learned Vipassana meditation as taught by Goenka (a.k.a. Sri Satya Narayan Goenka). The technique behind this was very simple, very straightforward, very devoid of belief structures or cerebral games (such as imagining something, some person, form or deity).  I ressonated very much with this right from the beginning in that it was all centered around developing a heightened awareness of the body.  The technique is, in part (or at its root), noticing the entirity of what the body is sensing at each moment; through that noticing, equanimous noticing, one becomes aware of the games they play and in which they get trapped.  Mind games of craving and aversion which limit juan’s full perception of the world by filtering filtering filtering the incoming information.

That is as far as I’m going to go in describing the technique because that has very little to do with what I experienced, and what I experienced is what I can really write about (or else I would be going around the world teaching the technique myself).

We meditated for 10 hours and watched a 1-hour video of Goenka talking each day.  That is 11 hours of sitting.  Exercise was … minimal.  I stretched every now and then, did a few handstands, walked around the limited area allowed for students and that is all.  We would sit for 1.5 hours and then get a 5-minute break and then another 1-hour or more sitting… and so on and so on.  The first 3 days were the most difficult ones for me.  During those days the sitting was the most painful, as the body was still adapting to the routine, and the thought of staying for 10 days… it felt like a long time, like time was going sooooooo slow.  I say: “the first 3 days” but the truth is that I am generalizing each day, giving an overall impression, what really happened was that during each day I would experience moments when everything seemed sooooo easy and in which I would think to myself: “I could sit like this for hours on end with no effort” and then moments when 5 minutes were AN ETERNITY!!!  Overall, the first 3 days were hard.  Goenka says that the 2nd and 6th days are when students most want to leave the course (and often do, Goenka himself had packed to leave on the second day of his first 10-day course).

Up to, and including, the third day I would wake up, meditate, eat, sleep, meditate, eat, sleep, meditate, snack, meditate, sleep.  But in the fourth day something really shifted.  The sky seemed clearer, things were less foggy inside.  I felt lighter, more expanded, less turmoil.  I started to feel more aligned.  I was feeling so much more awake that I attempted skipping the day-sleeps, day-naps, and though I thought I would become sleepy at the meditations I didn’t, I felt more awake.  Wondering what exactly I was feeling, how to describe it to myself, and what could be the reason for this led me to the memory of the first time I tried a fixed gear bicycle.

Fixed gear bicycles are for crazy people, that was the impression I had before trying them.  I mean, you don’t have brakes!  You can’t just be biking along and then hit the brakes.  Who would want to not have brakes??  The other thing is the uphills, you can’t shift into a different gear when you get close to an uphill or a downhill for that matter, you have to put more effort or less effort the bottom line being that the wheels only move as much as the feet move and the feet move as much as the wheels move.  If you loved to cruise down those steep hills, to raise your arms and close your eyes and feel the breeze in your face then fixed gear bikes are not for you: if your bike starts going fast because of gravity then your feet have to keep up.  So I got on this beautiful, gorgeous fixed gear bike and decided to just give it a small ride around the block; what happened next I can only describe by saying that as soon as I strapped into the bike it became a part of my body.  There is a sense of alignment when I ride a fixie, lightness, there are no extra pieces rattling around, no extra baggage, just the essential and it is working in unison with the body.  It was definitely awkward the first turn that I made but also correct, true; I had to slow down with the whole body in order to slow the bike, not simply grip the brakes.  Furthermore, the bike’s simplicity forces a simplicity in myself, an honesty in my own movement, a heightened awareness of my body.

Wanna know how they brake while going on the downhill? watch this first video:


Having Fixie Fun:

So in the Vipassana retreat, around the 4th day onwards, each day I was greeted with a deeper sense of alignment, and with that alignment came a feeling of strength too.  To describe it further: I see my body as a complex, very complex, instrument.  It has so many parts and they are all working together to make the whole.  Many of those parts are so present in my mind, such as the hands since I use them alllll the time; but many of those parts are blind spots, areas that are not really in the forefront of my mind.  When I want to do any action, running, jumping, swimming, sitting, standing, walking, anything I can only do it with those parts that are conscious, the other parts, the blind spots go along for the ride.  Sometimes, the blind spots are so important, however, that they influence the movement of the whole body.  The top notch athlete that after excelling at a sport for years “had” to get a normal 9-5 sitting job and his body changed but when he looks again at the sport he used to do he knows he can still run the 100m in 9.5s but his body (or parts of his body) cannot perform (an perhaps in attempting he injures himself).  I noticed I had more control of the movements I wished to make (a handstand or a stretch for example), like those blind spots were being integrated, like the Vipassana meditation was bringing consciousness to those blind spots and thus they could become part of the conscious whole.

Aside from the other mystical experiences I had during those 10 days (the snake charming, the levitation, the awakening of the kundalini, and so on and so on) I left with a sense of health like no other I had experienced before.  This was the health I have wanted to have through training.  This was the strength and whole-body bliss I have wanted to feel through the exercises.  Here it was.  After 10 days of sitting on my ass for 10-hours a day.  The analytical part of me was very perplexed.

It has now been 10 days since the retreat and I have had time to digest and process the experiences.  I have learned what aspects of my previous lifestyle do not support the presence of that superior state of health, what aspects add baggage to this instrument that is the body-mind and which ones respect it.  I have gone climbing and noticed how much more pleasant it is to climb with such health, such full-body awareness.  I have made love and noticed how much richer lovemaking is when I am more fully present, there is sensation everywhere.  I really notice how large of a role the food that I eat has on my health, the type and the quantity.

Having a curious scientific mind I have conjured up many a theory about this, one such theory is as such:  during my training for climbing, for example, I do exercises on top of exercises, pull-ups, sit-ups, climbing, levers, finger hangs et cetra.  All those exercises are traumatic to the body, it is as if I am trying to shape the body into a certain shape/form that I believe will make it optimal for climbing.  They are also traumatic to the mind for these exercise regiments tend to bring me to a result-level state of mind which removes awareness/acuity of the body senses.  I measure my health, my progress, by how many pull-ups I can do that day, or how many sets, or how much weight is being lifted – that becomes the gauge, the thermometer.  The goal is to do more, to do them more statically perhaps, more controlled, or faster and more controlled.  Patxi Usobiaga, for example, a top climber trains8 hours a day for months on end with no rest .  Often times that training is simply volume,  1000 moves on the climbing wall for example.  Often times it is power, campusing with weights.  He also receives massage and constant evaluation and so on, no doubt about that, but I question how much introspection he does?  How much time he spends simply sensing his body, as it is when it is quiet, still, without having it do anything or anything done to it.  Maybe he knows that his left bicep can lift less than his right by 2% because his charts tell him so but what does he really sense?  I wonder what is the concept he has of his body.  Chris Sharma, another top climber, spent 2 months working on his new house, I heard he climbed twice or three times during those months, yet he competed amongst the very best and came in … what was it 2nd? 3rd?  I wonder what is the concept he has of his body, his body-mind.  I know that I watch Patxi climb and I feel like I’m watching a machine, precise, and methodical.  Whereas when watching Chris it’s like watching something more natural like a wave in the ocean, very little restricted motion, not much order/rigidity, and Adam Ondra is like watching a ball of fire, pure motivation somehow exhibiting shape/form.  Now what is “healthy”?  I know I came out of those 10-days being able to climb much better yet I couldn’t do 600 pull-ups in an hour anymore; climb better and simply feel better, move better, breath better.

What is the best goal when training then?  Internal alignment?  External performance?  What is your concept of your body and what are you reinforcing when you train?  Reinforcing blind spots and strengths?  Reinforcing overall health?




I again think that that 10-day period was essential because it allowed enough time for me to experiment a different way of life and it gave time for that way of life to sink into a body feeling and then into mental knowledge, which is real knowledge, not knowledge from a book that says to eat this and that in order to be “healthy” but knowledge born from experience, REAL experience which is to say: your own, my own, juan’s own somatic experience.


Final Note: I already talked to two friends who at some time in their lives also did a similar 10-day Vipassana retreat and their experiences were very different.


One comment

  1. Nice you shared your experience with others! 🙂

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