How Vipassana meditation breathes life into Anirban Lahiri's golf game

SHELBURNE FALLS, Mass. -- Imagine arriving at a secluded, eerily quiet compound tucked into the woods, giving up your cell phone, laptop and other technology and taking what is essentially a vow of silence for the next week-and-a-half.

That's exactly what pro golfer Anirban Lahiri did not long after his runner-up finish at the Memorial Tournament in June. He checked into the Vipassana Meditation Center in rural northwest Massachusetts for a 10-day regimen of inhaling, exhaling and clearing his head.

"Over the course of meditation, different thoughts and tensions come up, and your continuous effort to go back to focusing on your breath will get you to go deeper into your concentration," said Craig Miller, Lahiri's trainer at the center. "This, I am sure, helps him a lot when he is out on the golf course."

For the 30-year-old Lahiri, the first player from India to earn a top-five finish in a major (2015 PGA Championship), the benefits of Vipassana go beyond his sporting endeavors.

"I went in there thinking it was just going to be good for my golf, it will help me with my concentration, and I came out feeling this is great for life," Lahiri said. "Golf's just a part of our lives. We do have a life off the course, and it helped me be a better person, made it easy for me to make decisions."

AN ALMOST-FORGOTTEN, 2,500-year-old Buddhist practice that was revived by Burmese-Indian meditation expert S.N. Goenka in the 1970s, Vipassana has gained popularity in India in the past decade, with nonprofit centers being established in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai. Before his death in 2013, Goenka launched 200 centers across the globe.

In 1982, the Shelburne Falls compound was the first Vipassana center opened in North America. The facility, which started in a two-story house and barn, has grown to include several connected, nondescript buildings spread over 108 acres. The compound is hidden among trees and red tulips and sunflower patches approximately 90 miles west of Boston. Although it's only 10 minutes off Interstate 91, the first thing that strikes you when you go inside is the silence.

Hanging on the wall next to the registration desk are white signs displaying the day's schedule, the center's motto and the rules in bold, black letters. Like any powerful tool is accompanied by a set of instructions, Vipassana comes with five ethics to be followed during the course: do not kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, lie or become intoxicated.

"When people come here, first thing they say is, 'My vow is to be ethically pure. I am being especially ethical for these 10 days to help myself,'" Miller said.

The facility is designed to eliminate all distractions. There are octagon-shaped individual rooms for meditation, a large rectangular hall -- with flat, square cushions spread throughout for students to sit on during group meditation sessions -- dining areas with long tables and basic folding plastic chairs, and single bedrooms that contain nothing more than a basic cot and a wooden chair.

The corridor leading to the individual meditation rooms opens into a courtyard, wherein sits the facility's only hint of luster: a majestic, gold, dome-shaped pagoda. A portion of the center is under construction, with more bedrooms and meditation halls being added (the current capacity is 114 students in the winter months and more when the weather permits the use of tents and cabins).

There is no set fee for the 10-day course, but students usually make donations -- anything from $10 to $10,000 -- to the nonprofit organization when they finish their stays. One- and three-day sessions are also offered, as well as longer courses of up to 60 days for more experienced Vipassana practitioners. The staffers, including cooks, trainers and assistants, are all volunteers.

Lahiri was part of a course that included 140 other students who woke up to a bell at 4 a.m. and went to bed at 9 p.m. In between, there were scheduled individual and joint meditation sessions, food breaks and short, one-on-one sessions with instructors. Those sessions were the only times attendees were permitted to speak. A group lecture session was held at 7 p.m. daily, at which students listened to Goenka's recorded talks -- in English or in other languages, such as Spanish, Hindi, French and Chinese.

Meals consisted of simple vegetarian food such as kale, salad and rice for lunch and fruits and tea for dinner. Continued meditation slows the metabolism, decreasing appetite. Lahiri and the other students broke their silence on the 10th day, symbolizing a return to their usual schedule.

VIPASSANA -- also known as insight meditation -- is about overcoming bad habits and establishing good habits, and the trainers help students through this difficult process. Miller used a sporting analogy to describe it: If you're learning a bad golf swing, you are reinforcing a bad habit; if you're learning a good swing from an expert, you're reinforcing a good habit. Vipassana trains your mind to take good swings.

Miller explained that everything a person does at the physical level is affected by the health of his mind, and everything a person does at the mental level is affected by the health of his body. Focusing energy on one point -- breathing -- neutralizes the fight between the physical and mental being. Lahiri is drawn to this, Miller said, because a golfer uses the same technique on the course.

This was not Lahiri's first time at a Vipassana center. He took his first course at age 17. His parents had completed the course, and he wanted to find out if it would help him concentrate better on the golf course.

Lahiri said as a teenager he had a tendency to be self-destructive during close competitions, and he didn't know how to handle his intense energy. Vipassana helped him deal with that.

"[After my first retreat] when I went out and played and felt the nerves, I would just channelize it into something positive, and that really helped me," Lahiri said.

The meditation practice also helped Lahiri attain "equanimity" with his emotions -- happiness, anger or sadness -- both on and off the course. The process is extremely difficult, he said, because it goes against the human nature.

"We don't want things we don't like, and we want things we like, and Vipassana basically helps you to bridge that gap and react the same to either situation and not get too angry or too happy and be 'equanimous,'" Lahiri said.

His recent session was his fourth Vipassana course and first outside India. Classes at the Massachusetts facility can fill up several months in advance, with waiting lists numbering in the hundreds, and the one Lahiri signed up for happened to overlap with the U.S. Open.

There was almost a tough decision to make after his second-place performance at the Memorial (it was his best finish on the PGA Tour, though he has 18 international victories) increased his world ranking to just short of U.S. Open qualifying. When his wife asked what he would do if he qualified for the major -- Vipassana or golf -- he did not have an answer. But he said it worked out well in the end.

"Funny I say it worked out in the sense of me not getting in, but that's what I wanted to do at that point in time," Lahiri said.

In his first tournament after the course, Lahiri tied for 17th at the Travelers Championship with a performance that included a career-best 63 in the second round. Then came The Open Championship, in which he missed the cut by a single stroke after hitting into a bunker on and bogeying his final hole at Royal Birkdale.

Still, Lahiri, who is ranked No. 75 in the world and has earned more than $1.6 million on the PGA Tour this year, credits his success to Vipassana.

"I am happy with the way I am playing ... and I am looking forward to the next few events," he said.