A life of yoga and meditation

Yoga & meditation

Yoga and meditation nowadays is a wellness trend. I always wondered how someone can possess a serene combination of physical and mental strength, that can reach a certain level in this area of wellbeing. Let me share a lovely conversation I had with a dear friend, respectable mentor of mine, Marc Christiaens, who is more than willing to provide the secrets of his wellness journey in adaptable, and simple words.

I’ve known you since 2011 as an IT Management Master instructor and I actually witnessed how excellent you are as a trainer. Please share something about yourself.

I’m a father of two daughters, 22 and 19, both in university. I live on a farm in Belgium which is my home country and I’m happily retired at age 57 now. I moved to Dubai in the mid 90’s as an IT manager with Compaq Computer. After five years in Dubai my wife left me and I left Compaq. My business partner, Jace Finman and I started an IT management training company (SMME) after that. SMME did very well and ended up expanding into Europe and the US.

When you were still managing SMME, your own company in Dubai, you also managed to go to Fitness First and/or Zen Yoga. Why was that important to you, despite having a busy schedule?

Let me just say that my fitness journey wasn’t easy. It was one of the first times in my life that I wanted to get in shape and be in good health. By this time I had met the mother of my daughters and we had also broken up again. I felt that I was piling one mistake on another. I was a disillusioned and middle aged beer drinker. Something had to be done or I’d remain in this cycle forever. There was a lot of sadness, but these obstacles made me more determined.

What does wellness and meditation mean to you?
During my divorces I started seeing a psychologist named Azar in Dubai. One thing she always said to me: “Marc, you must learn to feel.” I had no idea what she was talking about but this sentence has struck a chord. It has guided me to all the practices and readings I’ve done over the past twenty years. Learning to feel means learning to stay with the feelings and emotions as they happen in my body and in my thoughts. I had always taken pride in denying feelings and emotions. I thought that denial and suppression of feelings was what made me manly. But that was just my ego.

How and when did your love for Yoga started?
A friend had invited me to join him for a yoga class in Antwerp. The instructor was very pretty, so I was eager to keep attending her classes. Then later, our employee Nicole Lesseux, got more and more into Ashtanga yoga and she started organizing some classes in Dubai. That was the second episode. After that I tried more Ashtanga classes and even a month-long retreat in India.

Yoga & meditation
Photo courtesy of: Marc Christiaens

What is the difference between meditation and yoga or are they somehow the same in some ways?
So apart from yoga, I had also started attending meditation retreats and even Amazonian plant retreats. My first meditation retreat was a Vipassana in Belgium. This is a very strict eleven day retreat with whole-day sitting practice, silence, meals only before noon etcetera. It was very difficult. At one point the pain became so intense and agonizing.. that it suddenly stopped. A very strange experience.
I have done many meditation retreats since. Sitting in a good posture feels very comfortable now and my mind can be very clear. I practice yoga to open up my channels and chakras and I practice meditation to stay in the openness and to experience the ground of my being. Yoga and meditation have merged into one practice. They are supposed to be one, since they both enable us to experience our inner stillness, silence and openness.

You have attended several Yoga retreats, which one is your favorite and why?
I have really done only one serious yoga retreat. That was with Purple Valley in Goa. I liked it a lot but my most memorable retreat was another vipassana. This one was in a monastery in Thailand and I attended together with my friend Kami who was then living in Thailand. We slept on concrete beds with wooden pillows. Snakes, scorpions and spiders could be seen entering, leaving and residing in the rooms. We got eaten alive by mosquitos and fire ants. It was incredibly difficult. And the feeling after those eleven days, when we were back on the beach, watching the biggest sky ever, was like arriving in heaven.

For those who are thinking of starting yoga classes or any sort of fitness/wellness activity, what is your advice to them?
Slow and steady wins the race. To my embarrassment I have always started these activities with an egocentric goal in mind. I wanted to look like an Ashtangi, I wanted to run a marathon, I wanted to develop superpowers, I wanted to become a teacher. This is a striving for recognition rather than self development. It doesn’t work. I would tear a muscle while running, injure my shoulder with yoga, stay in thought during meditation. Meditation and yoga have very little to do with achievement. In fact, the idea of achieving something is an obstacle. Better to choose a discipline without ambition and just let its wisdom deepen over the years.

Yoga & meditation
Photo courtesy of: Marc Christiaens

Most of us think we are not flexible enough to do yoga. Is there any right time or age and physical condition we need to have to do yoga and meditation?
That’s a funny way to put it. If you wanted to study mathematics, would you say you can’t do it because you don’t know mathematics yet? You don’t have to be flexible to practice yoga. And you don’t want to become a gymnast. You want to feel the stretch, not show it off. Every time you stretch a little bit further, something opens up. You get to know your body a bit better, deeper. And sometimes nothing opens up for a long time. It doesn’t matter. Of course the sooner you begin the sooner you’ll discover yourself and the more you will be in touch with yourself and stop wasting time on meaningless activities. The fuller your life will be.

Do you have any plans of being a yoga instructor? What do you do to keep a healthy body and mind?
As I mentioned I started with a lot of ego. I saw myself becoming an instructor, maybe having some adoring disciples as well. I’m a happy practitioner now without ambition. Once a lama told me he walks ten kilometers every day, so I walk ten kilometers every day. I practiced some yoga stretches and breath retention. I meditate an hour everyday with friends on zoom. And I do mantra recitations two hours daily. I also listen to Buddhist teachings and attend retreats.

You are one of the blessed people who retired as early as at the age of 50’s and enjoys a simple life, any inspiring words to our readers.
Well I’m no teacher, just a fellow practitioner. But here goes: Try to connect with your innate wisdom. The ground of your being and the universe, which you can discover in yoga and meditation, is immeasurable love, compassion, joy and equanimity. This is why good always triumphs over bad. This is also how intuition knows what is right, before any thought has occurred. If you live in accordance with that nature of yours then you will have a happy and joyful life, and ultimately a peaceful death.

Yoga & meditation
Photo courtesy of: Marc Christiaens

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