Neeta Madahar is an artist, meditation and yoga teacher in West Berkshire, England, focusing on Anapana Sati (natural breath awareness). Although she learned mantra meditation as a child, she abandoned the technique as an adult. After experiencing stress and burnout as an artist in 2010 she attended a 15-day Vipassana meditation retreat in India and the profound experience rekindled her interest in meditation. She later decided to become a teacher. Clay Hamilton interviewed Neeta in summer 2019.
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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.
I teach Anapana Sati (Natural Breath Awareness) meditation on a non-profit basis to my local community in and around Newbury, West Berkshire. As well as running courses that are suitable for beginners, I start all my yoga classes teaching 5-10 minutes of Anapana Sati to help students’ minds settle and to aid focus on the breath before undertaking physical postures. I also facilitate free ‘top-up’ sessions so that meditators can practise meditating in a group and benefit from the social interaction a group dynamic affords. I used to organise ‘Meditators Movie Nights’ for a local group of female meditators until I got too busy with other projects. It was a lot of fun watching a dharma-related film with food, drinks and lots of laughter.
How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?
I first learnt Anapana Sati as part of a 15-day Vipassana meditation retreat in India in 2011. Within a few months of that retreat I began training as a yoga teacher. After a further 3 months I was teaching yoga at the same time as completing my training. Having personally experienced an array of mental and physical benefits from both physical yoga and meditation, it seemed a natural extension in 2013 to learn how to teach meditation to help my students and others in my community.
What types of meditations have you studied or practiced, and what method do you mainly use or teach now?
I started practising mantra-based meditations that I’d learnt as a child from my mother (I was raised a Hindu). I had abandoned meditation in early adulthood but took up Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the 1990s, when I was in my mid-20s, to handle stress at work. Although TM helped me relax and improved my problem-solving ability, I wasn’t noticing a deeper change with impatience, anger, greed etc. I drifted away from TM and some years later when I experienced burnout, a friend recommended I try a Vipassana retreat in 2011. It was tough and the meditation sessions were quite unlike anything I’d experienced before. However, upon returning home, I felt different and sensed a deeper, more profound change in me. That gave me the motivation and commitment to continue with Anapana Sati and Vipassana meditation, eventually becoming a teacher. It’s not easy to examine the knotty, gnarly unattractive aspects of one’s personality, but looking at them dispassionately, with equanimity, they weaken and wither away. I know this through my own experience.
What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation?
Feeling robust and grounded that I can face life’s challenges.
What is your favourite meditation technique or form of practice?
I practise Anapana Sati and Vipassana meditation, sitting for 1 hour a day although I’d love to do 2 one hour sessions daily if I could. I also attend 2-3 silent meditation retreats annually that last between 10-15 days and 2-3 Anapana Sati weekend retreats a year as mini top-ups.
What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?
When I’m giving meditation instruction, I always say that no matter how many times the mind wanders off and gets distracted, keep bringing the mind back to observe the natural breath. Treat the mind like a puppy in training, needing patience and compassion.
How many times and how much time per day do you recommend students to meditate?
I recommend twice a day for between 20-30 minutes and before a meal. If students can do longer, that’s great. If they can’t do as much, then it’s fine to do what they can. Even once a day for a few minutes is better than not doing any at all.
Describe your ideal meditation session (location, length, outcome, etc)
My ideal session would be one hour long and part of a longer day set aside to incorporate more meditation sessions within a gentle, silent environment. The location would be warm, clean and in a rural setting. The ideal outcome would be to feel equanimity whatever challenges may arise.
What do you think about meditation retreats? What form, how long, any advice? What if someone can’t afford the financial or time commitment of a retreat, do you have any recommendations for them?
I find them hugely beneficial, in fact necessary if I’m to do all the many things I do in life as well as I can. Retreats offer time and structure to get away from day-to-day concerns and focus exclusively on my meditation practice. Maintaining noble silence is an essential pre-requisite and I love the concentration that silence permits. It’s my hope that all my students try undertaking a retreat at some point in their lives whether it’s for a day, 3 days, 10 days or longer. There are centres where people can undertake short retreats at very reasonable rates, for example, at The International Meditation Centre near Calne, the cost for a retreat is £25 a day for food and shared accommodation and one can undertake a retreat for between 3-10 days. So a 3-day weekend retreat for £75 seems very reasonable, especially given the amazing vegetarian food that is provided.
What misconceptions about meditation do you hear in the media or popular culture?
The biggest one is ‘I can’t meditate as my mind is all over the place.’ It’s similar to what I hear when people talk about yoga, i.e. that they can’t do yoga as they aren’t flexible enough. It’s important to just start where one is and build from there.
What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?
I’ve recently read an excellent book called “Siddartha’s Brain” by James Kingsland. It weaves neuroscience research with stories of the Buddha. I’ve been recommending it to many meditators.
How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?
There are meditation resources and events listed on my website www.neetamadahar-yoga.com. Readers can also contact me through my site.
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[This interview is an extract. You can see Neeta’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]