Meditation for mental health
My experiences with Yesplus
When I was a sophomore, I participated in a club event at MIT called the Yesplus retreat: an on-campus workshop which taught yoga, meditation, leadership, and communication skills. I learned about it from a graduate student I knew who volunteered to teach weekly yoga and meditation sessions.
I enjoyed getting the chance to go to these classes once or twice a week because of how good they would make my body feel, and how they would help my mind come to an elevated state. Attending a longer program was a bit tough on my schedule, but the graduate student who recommended it assured me it was a “totally different” experience than anything we’d done in the normal weekly classes. I was curious enough to give it a try. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” as my grandfather used to say.
Something different about this class was a breathing technique we’d be learning called the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga. In prior yoga classes, I learned that breathing deeply through a difficult pose kept the mind focused and provided endurance, even when it felt like my muscles were going to give out. I had some notion that the breath was a powerful tool for gaining focus and strength, but I only had cursory knowledge of what a “breathing technique” could even be.
The course was taught in a classroom on campus. It began on a Friday evening and would continue through the weekend. Out of the 30 of us, I recognized a couple of people who I knew from the weekly yoga classes I’d been to. Once everyone was checked in, we sat in a circle and the teachers introduced themselves.
We discussed what we wanted to get out of this class. We talked about a few tendencies that the mind has, and what it takes to overcome them: for example, how the mind tends to move between the past and the future, rather than staying in the present, and how we often let our minds wander instead of putting 100 percent of our energies into one action. We learned how the way we breathe can greatly affect our state of mind, and how attending to our breath in particular ways could help bring the mind more into the present.
We learned a couple basic breathing techniques which we would need when doing the Sudarshan Kriya technique. There were a couple different types of breath: one was called “ujjayi,” which was elongated and relaxing; another was called “bhastrika,” which was quick, slightly forceful, and energizing. We learned the full technique over the next five days. But even that first session led me to a pretty relaxed state. I noticed that, while doing this practice in a classroom, some loud sounds coming from the hallway which would typically bother me had become less distracting.
On the second day, we learned a couple more breathing techniques. We now knew enough to practice the first part of the Sudarshan Kriya. We started off with the practice we did the day before: a progression of ujjayi and bhastrika breathing. We then learned a carefully guided, rhythmic breathing technique, which we would do along with a tape. We learned to follow along and switch between the different speeds of breath as the tape instructed. Soon, it required no effort to synchronize my breathing with the tape. I felt as if the breathing was being done for me.
Shortly after that, all my thoughts had dissolved: it was just me, my breath and the rhythm. And then just me and some rhythm — the breath had become light and almost imperceivable. There emerged a state of uncanny, other-worldly bliss. I was completely inward: no thoughts, no physical sensations coming from outside of the body; no feeling of even having a body, or of existing inside of some room. There was just a state of deep contentment. And then, there was just, simply, nothing.
After the teacher had us open our eyes, everyone shared their experiences. I remember most people had some deep experience. Some were like mine, though others had different emotions or sensations. One of the teachers advised us that some memories and stresses which had been buried within us, might have come out during the practice. If that happened, she said, then we might feel a tad fragile or raw when we went home that night. The teachers noted that it was essential to come back the next day and finish the second half of the Sudarshan Kriya, to more fully eliminate those stresses. We were right in the middle of a powerful process, one teacher explained, similar to being in the middle of a wash cycle in the washing machine: we were all sudsed up with soap before going through a final rinse cycle and coming out clean. Tomorrow, we would get our final rinse.
The next day, after the second part of the Sudarshan Kriya, we learned a shorter version, one that we could do at home every day in 30 minutes. We practiced the home version in class, and we got to try it at home the next day. Doing the home practice brought me into a similar state of nothingness as the longer, in-class version — it was just a bit less intense, and for a shorter duration
On the final day, the teacher recommended that we try doing the home Sudarshan Kriya practice once a day for the next 40 days. At that point, she advised, look back and assess whether it made a meaningful impact or not. If it did, keep doing it as a daily practice. I didn’t need the 40 days; after having such a life-changing experience during the course, I knew that I wanted to get myself back into that awesome state of mind every day.
I began doing the home Sudarshan Kriya in the mornings. I only managed a few days a week at first, but I practiced more regularly over time. The effects were just so amazing, and so repeatable: every single time, again and again, I could get my mind into this awesome, calm, yet energized, state. The experience would be different on different days as time went on from sophomore to senior year. Sometimes, the Kriya would turn a good day into a great one; other times, it turned an impossible day into a manageable one. A day without the Kriya started to feel like a day not lived to its fullest potential.
As time went on, a few other students and I realized that what we had learned in Yesplus would be useful to almost anyone on this campus. I went to more of the 5-day programs that were hosted here, and I got to personally see over 60 MIT students go through the program, most of whom had some deep experience. Afterwards, many students agreed the program was a good investment of time. We suggested to a few faculty and administrators that such a program could help many more students if launched in the proper way. Ultimately, the PE department agreed to offer it for points.
MIT should teach its students not only the content of their chosen field, but a toolset for leading a life of impact — this involves strong leadership, resilience, compassion, humility, and an open mind. I have found that learning meditation really gets at the core of these skills. As 19th century philosopher and psychologist William James has written, “[T]he faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”
A paradigm shift is possible in how we view mental health, which is to treat managing the mind as a skill that can be learned, rather than as a set of conditions we have no control over — and which need to be treated when they become a problem. I was surprised to see that these skills could in fact be taught directly, in a genuinely effective, non-superficial way, through meditation and other introspective exercises. I think many more students would be pleasantly surprised, too.
The MIT Physical Education (PE) Department is piloting a PE course, “Yesplus: Yoga and Meditation for the Mind,” over the President’s day weekend (February 17-20, 2017), which is currently available through Q3 PE signups. More information on the SKY technique and the program is available at http://web.mit.edu/yesplus.