Manoj Dias - A Space for Compassion
Manoj Dias is a yoga and meditation teacher, and the founder of A-Space meditation centre in Melbourne. In this conversation, we learn from Manoj what it was like growing up in the Theravada Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka before relocating to Australia as a child. We learn about his struggles with anxiety in a high flying corporate career and how finding a very special and compassionate teacher brought him back to meditation. He also tells us how he began teaching yoga and meditation, founded A-Space and continues to teach in Australia and internationally.
We have a deep and far-ranging conversation that includes issues of accessibility, cultural appropriation, the potential abuse of spiritual practices in the corporate world and self-care.
Manoj's Website: https://www.manojdias.com.au/
Manoj's Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/manojdias
A-SPACE meditation centre: https://a-space.com.au/
Last chance to book in to "Guiding Inner Journeys" with Amy Bell: https://www.gardenofyoga.com.au/workshops/guiding-inner-journeys/
Support us on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/flowartistspodcast
Click on a timecode to play from that time in the recording.1:30 Last chance to book in to Guiding Inner Journey’s with Amy Bell
2:45 Manoj tells us about his background growing up in Sri Lanka before relocating to Australia
4:06 Manoj describes the Theravada Buddhist tradition he was raised in.
7:22 Manoj’s perspective on authenticity and appropriation
13:05 On Michelle Cassandra Johnson’s book “Skill in Action”
14:14 How does Manoj skillfully guide individuals through asking themselves the “ugly” questions?
19:52 Did Manoj have a very strict upbringing?
20:52 Did he rebel against his religious upbringing at all?
22:26 What was it about this teacher that brought Manoj back into his practice?
24:55 Manoj talks about his time working in a high stress job and dealing with anxiety.
27:50 How does Manoj deal with anxiety now?
29:28 Does Manoj have strategies for dealing with the stress of travelling?
30:20 Please support us on Patreon!
31:26 Is a different mindset required when teaching a larger group rather than a more intimate setting?
32:29 Setting up A-Space Meditation centre
36:54 The morality of mindfulness in large corporate spaces.
40:56 What is Manoj doing these days?
42:47 What does Manoj think are the key things that people can be doing to make sure that these teachings are being made accessible to everyone?
48:15 How does Manoj get into a good headspace for teaching when he has had a bad day?
50:04 What is the one core lesson that Manoj would like people to take away from his work and his teachings
51:00 Outro - next week’s episode.
Please email us to report any transcription errorsRane Bowen: Hello, my name is Rane and this is the Flow Artists’ Podcast. Every episode my co-host Jo Stewart and I interview inspiring movers, thinkers and teachers about how they find their flow and much much more. I hope you’re having an absolutely wonderful day. I’m having a great day myself so far, I am excited!
As I mentioned in the last episode, we’ll be putting out an episode out every week for the rest of the year, well, at least until Christmas. This is because as well as releasing our episodes with Yoga Australia, we have many other amazing interviews we really wanted to release, including our conversation today with Manoj Dias.
Manoj Dias is a yoga and meditation teacher, the co-founder of A-SPACE meditation centre in Melbourne and he teaches all over the world. Now, it might just be me, but sometimes you can witness someone’s career from afar and maybe feel a little bit envious of the success they have had, and then you meet them and it just all makes sense, this person is the real deal. Well, Manoj just happens to be one of those people. The guy just seems to emanate a sense of calm, clarity and kindness. He’s a genuine and wonderful teacher, and I was glad to have the chance to speak with him for this episode. His success didn’t come without struggle of course, which you’ll hear about shortly, but before we get into the conversation with Manoj, I just wanted to let you know about an amazing event we have coming up at our studio, Garden of Yoga.
Our workshop with Amy Bell, Guiding Inner Journeys, is coming up very soon on the 12th and 13th of October, so it’s your last chance to book in. This is a two-day workshop aimed mainly at yoga and meditation teachers or anyone wishing to enhance their communication skills. In the workshop you’ll learn how to communicate effectively, verbally and non-verbally, how to connect deeply with all walks of life, how to read people accurately via non-verbal cues and much much more. We had a really fun conversation with Amy for the podcast a couple of months ago, so for more details you can check out our show notes at podcast.flowartists.com. Jo and I will both be at the workshop, so come and join in the fun.
Alright, that’s more than enough from me, I know you want to hear from Manoj, so let’s get in to our conversation with Manoj Dias.
Rane Bowen: So good to have you here today. Perhaps we could just start with you telling us a little bit about your background and where you grew up?
Manoj Dias: Ooh sure. So, first of all, thank you again for, for having me here and in this very beautiful and colourful space.
Jo Stewart: Oh! Our pleasure, thank you!
Manoj Dias: So my background and where I’m from, so I was born in Sri Lanka, many many years ago, and I migrated to Australia when I was 6.
My formative years in Sri Lanka I remember a lot. A lot of the things I remember were around the, the spiritual feelings of what it was like growing up back then and I lived in a place called Bentara, which is down south in Sri Lanka, but I went to school in, in the city. And you know, I think growing up in Sri Lanka was really like just a beautiful beautiful place to live. I remember monks lining the roads as we were driving, I remember the sounds of the temples and the chanting in the morning, and I really missed that when I migrated to, to Australia when I was about 6.
My family for whatever reason decided to move to far north Queensland to begin with, when they came here. It was an interesting choice of location <laughs> considering there were no other Sri Lankans there, like there weren’t anyone, from my memory, like not many other people from different backgrounds living where we lived. So it was a very rough sort of upbringing those first few years there, and then we migrated to Victoria and kind of regional Victoria near Bacchus Marsh and Melton, and I’ve been Melbourne-based ever since.
Jo Stewart: I’d love to find out a little bit more about the Theravada Buddhist tradition that you grew up with and like could you describe that tradition for us?
Manoj Dias: Yup, yeah yeah. A Theravada tradition is known as the first school of Buddhism, if you could call it that. It’s the most conservative style of Buddhist practice as well, and it’s probably the closest to the original teachings, depending on who you speak to <laughs>
Jo Stewart: I’m sure everyone thinks that they’re the closest to the original teachings. <laughs>
Manoj Dias: Exactly, exactly. So the emphasis there is on liberating ourselves from suffering. And to give you a really quick rundown of the different variations of Buddhist practice, one of the easiest ways to think of it is that the Theravada tradition is about ah liberating ourselves through suffering, the Mahayana, which came a little later on, known as the Greater Vehicle, the Mahayana tradition is most prominent in Tibet, Indo-China, that sort of region, and the emphasis there is on not liberating ourselves until everyone else is liberated, so there’s a heavy emphasis on compassion and, heavy altruistic emphasis in that practice. And then there is the Vajrayana tradition, Vajrayana practice, which if you want to think of the first one being liberating ourselves, second one being liberating everyone, the third one is like, I want to liberate myself and everyone as quickly as I can. <laughter> So those are the three most prominent schools and there’s also variations, there’s the Pure Land tradition, Zen tradition, the Churian Buddhism, lots of different um styles and practices within that, but they’re the three main styles.
There is a heavy emphasis in the Theravada tradition on meditation practice. There is also a heavy emphasis on ritual, on chanting, on community, on Sangha as we call it. But you know, for much of my life, that was my understanding and my teaching and it started with the rituals you know, it started with that, it started with the chanting. My family did it, it’s very ingrained into, in a Sinhalese culture, and for the vast majority of my life it’s been in that training.
But over the last few years, two three years, it’s branched more into the Vajrayana teachings and for me that’s been largely because a) I hit somewhat of a roadblock in my personal practice after a little while and then my teacher at the time, who I’d been studying with for, you know, close to seven, eight years on a daily basis, moved away and he was travelling and teaching in Europe, and there was a little part of me that had a lot of questions but had nowhere to go for answers. And the questions I was asking of the teachers I had access to I didn’t feel like they resonated with me. And yeah, you know, by a strange set of circumstances I met ah, teachers in the US, in New York that were all in the one tradition and I started to learn a more embodied practice. And that’s really when it really evolved from what I’d always known to, to exploring these new different styles and sides of the Buddhist practice.
Jo Stewart: And so it’s really great hearing about your journey and sharing something that’s very much ingrained in your culture and something you grew up in and then eventually kind of branching out in different directions and, I’ve come to yoga from a completely different perspective and so, because I’m teaching something that comes from another culture, there’s questions about authenticity and appropriation that come up and …
Manoj Dias: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: … authenticity to the practice itself but also being authentic to who I am and the life that I live today. I’d really love to hear your perspective on those issues.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, and thank you for asking that question ‘cause it’s, it’s a loaded question you know, essentially what we’re asking, ah what we’re discussing is authenticity and appropriation, ah and you could also put in appreciation and appropriation to that as well. But it’s a conversation that is happening more and more in the wellness world which really is, you could argue, what the world I kind of exist in and it’s a fine line that I don’t have any strong answers for. I think when we look at appropriation of traditions, of practices, of people’s livelihood then it’s a, it’s a slippery slope. We’ve all seen all the hysteria in the US about, you know, people wearing black face and then wearing you know, Native American headdress and things like that…
Jo Stewart: Yeah it seems like that’s very much on one side of the line, where you’re like, ‘yup I can see from here that that is wrong’ …
Manoj Dias: Yeah, yeah…
Jo Stewart: … but then there’s the stuff that is more nuanced…Yeah.
Manoj Dias: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that where it’s really healthy to ask questions. So you know, go, we go into Svadhyaya (8:13), which is our yoga practice in general right? Like how am I benefitting from what I am doing? And a lot of the time I think we live in a culture where, ah the dominant culture being traditionally the white, heterosexual male, has colonised you know certain areas and certain countries and there’s been benefits from that, both from a capitalistic framework but also from a cultural framework. Ultimately there is a sense of profit that comes either monetarily or in different ways. And I think a lot of the time like we have to ask the question, like who is benefitting from what I am doing? And an example might be you know, doing a yoga class where there’s chanting, and you might say, ‘okay we’re honouring yoga’, and you know this is where it gets nuanced, and like yes there is an honouring of the yoga practice, but how are we honouring these people? And who exactly are we honouring? Are we honouring our yoga studio that’s going to make lots of money from, you know us holding this event? Are the people that were the traditional custodians of this practice benefitting in any way? Why not? Or why? And are these people even represented in the spaces that we’re you know, holding these events? So for me it’s always asking a question like, you know, what’s in it for me here? Am I honouring where I came from? Am I honouring the roots? Am I even honouring the practice itself? And you know, I don’t like to give strong answers on these things because I feel like it’s up to us as you know yogis and meditators to really come up with the answers ourselves but it’s a, it’s a slippery slope that, you know, more and more people need to ah bring their awareness to, and you know, similar to the way you’re asking me, I think it’s, you know, it’s in asking ourselves. When I go and get that Ganesha tattoo on my back like, do I really understand what it means? Am I really a practitioner of you know, Ganesha and do I know the history of that? Or do I want to show the world that I do yoga? You know and ah …
Jo Stewart: Or do I just think it looks cool ...
Manoj Dias: Do I think it looks cool? And you know, this is where we have to really do our research because we live in a time where it’s sensitive, and it’s not just that we’re sensitive, I think there’s just more awareness of these things and, you know for the longest period of time the Native Americans have been oppressed, ah for the longest period of time our traditional custodians of this land have been oppressed but you know, we tend to knowingly or unknowingly appropriate their culture where there’s benefit for us. And I think we need to ask questions about that, and make changes you know, and appreciate the culture without necessarily appropriating it.
Jo Stewart: I think as well there’s something else that comes up in the yoga space, in the yoga world, where people want to focus on the positive, and this is a practice to help you relax and to help you deal with the other stresses in your life, so sometimes there’s a bit of resistance or just not feeling like it’s an appropriate space to ask hard questions and to ask questions that don’t have a happy answer.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, and I think that inner self has been an appropriation of the practice right, because when we get on the mat we’re always asking hard questions of ourself, like, ‘why am here, I could be sleeping?’ You know, ‘why am I going through my tenth round of you know Surya Namaskara?’ Like, we’re asking ourselves these questions and I think, I think it’s really interesting if we think that this practice or spirituality is just love and light, you know and um, I think it can be, for sure, but it’s also full of all the other parts of life which are not so pretty, which are a little bit ugly, which are painful, which are full of suffering, and it’s important that we all of these as part of our practice, otherwise it’s almost spiritual bypassing right? You know we use our practice just to not feel, and that’s not really what I learnt, that’s not really what I teach.
Jo Stewart: Yeah it’s almost the opposite of like, ‘we do these practices so we are able to feel and we are able to comprehend all aspects of life’.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, and look at qualities like ahiṃsā and stuff like that, you know—non-violence—like you know, where are we creating violence in our practice? You know, where are the people that created these practices? An interesting thing when we talk about appropriation is that you know, oftentimes we are very welcoming of certain elements of a culture ...
Jo Stewart: Like the food!
Manoj Dias: Yeah, like the food, you know but then are we as welcoming of Indian people in our spaces? You know, um why are they not represented—Sri Lankans or Indians or South Asians—in marketing of yoga studios and things like that? But we get a beautiful girl in a bikini in a beach, that’s usually white—and there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you I’d personally have an issue with it, but I think it’s important we consider where we can bring these people in to the conversation, and make it a truly liberatory practice.
Jo Stewart: And I think as well, like bring them in in a real way, not just in a like, ‘ticked that box’ way.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah I’m really glad you said that, yeah.
Rane Bowen: Actually reminds me I’ve just finished, or we’ve both finished reading ah Skill in Action by Michelle Cassandra Johnson.
Manoj Dias: Ah that’s my friend… she’s such a, love her, Michelle Cassandra, yeah.
Jo Stewart: Ah, such an amazing book!
Manoj Dias: Yeah she’s such an amazing human as well.
Jo Stewart: Yeah!
Rane Bowen: We’re hoping to get her on the podcast actually, but…
Manoj Dias: Yeah, if you’re listening to this, hi Michelle Cassandra <laughs>
Jo Stewart: And like, what I loved about her perspective as well is so much of it was about love and about being heard and about poetry and about self-expression, like it’s, she’s asking those hard questions but also like shining light back on the people who are asking that question of themselves.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, and I think it’s an uncomfortable conversation you know, like I think we, like you said, we, it’s a difficult conversation for many of us to broach especially in this wellness, yoga, meditation community so we’d rather not have the question. And in that process there is harm that’s occurring, whether we know it or not. And I think asking ourselves these questions is the first stage of transforming it. And for me, that is the yoga, you know that is where our work begins, is that we can be truly inclusive, we can be truly diverse, we can ask ourselves hard questions and we’re not running away from ourselves or the moment.
Rane Bowen: About asking these difficult, potentially ugly questions, how do you go about, say skilfully guiding people through those types of experiences?
Manoj Dias: I think the only way to do this, and the only way to ask hard questions, is with compassion you know, we, I oftentimes will do this, but it’s always with the intention of holding this person, you know like, like they’re in my arms, because oftentimes where we are by-products of conditioning that we have no understanding of, that we have benefitted from, that we don’t even know we’re benefitting from, and it can ah, one, on one side be something in which we educate, and it can also be something that we really inspire in others as well. So oftentimes when I’ve had this conversation, oftentimes people, you know we call them ‘dominant culture’, Michelle Cassandra refers to a dominant culture, they feel quite triggered, because you know, it’s like, it’s like you saying ‘oh but I’ve always lived these ethics and I’ve got South East Asian friends, I’ve got black friends, you know blahblahblahblahblah...’ Yes, and you’re also benefitting from the way the world is at the moment, which is: you are in a dominant culture. So it has to be done with, with compassion. And compassion shows itself in two ways: it’s the fierce side which is, you know not going to stand for social issues that are going unheard and gonna stand up and speak but it’s also with the understanding that, you know, this is a human being and they also have the potential to liberate from their suffering and the suffering of others. So, the short answer is with kindness and gentleness and compassion. At least that’s my way of doing it.
Jo Stewart: I think as well like it’s unfair that the person in the dominant culture has to have their feelings treated with extra special care when often the person in the oppressed culture just doesn’t get that, yet at the same time it can be really polarising if, ‘cause I’ve seen this online so much, like someone will just comment on something that’s really true and the person who gets asked that comment is super reactive and it’s really polarising and they just go straight to being anger and feeling like they’re being attacked, and it’s like, yup they needed to hear that but expressed in that way it didn’t actually progress their understanding of the issue, it just made them really defensive.
Manoj Dias: Yeah.
Jo Stewart: It’s like such a tough situation because its like, their feelings seem to be more important, which they’re absolutely not and yet to get to a better place for all of us, if people get really triggered and really angry it just, like now it’s worse, now there’s a bigger disconnect between…
Manoj Dias: Well I feel like sometimes it’s good to feel that as well. You know, sometimes …
Jo Stewart: Yeah like that’s part of the process…
Manoj Dias: Yeah and, and you know, again, it’s not the way that I do it, personally, but I feel like sometimes it’s good to be rattled a little bit into, into being like ‘ooh ok I didn’t expect this’, and, and that’s like, that’s the moment for us to liberate because that’s when we feel the most alive right? Where something within us doesn’t feel right and we’re like ‘oof like what is this?’ and oftentimes when we experience that as humans we do one of two things: we fight or flight. And what we’re being asked to do is not do either, to hold both of these different desires with compassion, like can I just be here feeling vulnerable, feeling like I’m attacked, but also feeling compassion for where this is coming from because it’s so nuanced depending on where you’re asking the question. Like in the US, having this conversation is much more nuanced than it is here. Here I feel like the conversation is just starting, you know, just starting, where in the US it’s been going on for a long time. Then let’s go to India where this conversation even starts and it’s different altogether. So, it’s complex, there is, I don’t think one right way of doing it. In my personal experience and in the Buddhist practice, it’s always with the intention to benefit all beings. So for me I don’t, I personally don’t see the value in alienating someone. I see an opportunity to educate someone but yeah, that’s just the way I’m kind of built and that’s the way I tend to teach.
Jo Stewart: That’s a lifetime of Buddhist practice for you! <laughs>
Manoj Dias: Yeah. <laughs>
Jo Stewart: I guess as well, that’s when the next question comes in. So if someone has had a really strong reaction and feels attacked or whatever, it’s like well the next question is why have you had this response? Like it must have sparked a realisation that there’s some truth in that, because otherwise you’d just let it slide by.
Manoj Dias: Yeah and I think we all have our ways of dealing with unpleasant feelings. Yeah um I’ve moved away from making blanket statements ‘cause we don’t really ever know. You know, it’s, it’s complicated and it’s nuanced and I feel like for each of us, it’s finding our own way of having this conversation. I think and just having this conversation is the first place to begin with because it sparks interest, and the more I’ve done it these, you know, last, this last year, the more people have been like, ‘Oh I didn’t even realise, I didn’t even realise I was causing harm, I didn’t even realise like I was oppressing this minority’. And sometimes that’s enough ‘cause you know, the seed has been planted that you know, might come to fruition years down the track, but it’s still been planted and I think we have to create space for that as well and not just go in there with our agenda and be like, ‘I want this, I want it now, let’s do it’. I think it’s, it’s more nuanced than that.
Jo Stewart: And I guess that applies to everything that happens in a yoga and a meditation practice, like there is no one right way that’s gonna work for everyone and if you have a really concrete set goal that ‘this is what I want this practice to be like, this is what I want other people’s experience to be’, it never really works out, like all we can do is just be present.
Manoj Dias: Totally yeah, well said.
Rane Bowen: Well this might be a complete left turn, but um …
Manoj Dias: Love left turns. <laughter>
Rane Bowen: … so I remember you mentioned that Theravada is the most conservative of the Buddhist practices and I was wondering did you have a very strict upbringing?
Manoj Dias: Yeah I did, yeah I did yeah. And I’m not sure if that was entirely because of the Buddhist practice, but I think it’s also cultural. You know um, you know my family left a pretty comfortable life in Sri Lanka to, at the time there was a war going on, and they wanted to give you know, me and my brother the best possible opportunity of life and to flourish and you know, like traditionally, we work hard, like Sri Lankans are very hard workers and for a family to uproot itself when it’s you know, successful in Sri Lanka and to come here and start from the bottom, there was a lot of pressure that was, that was placed on that you know, and placed on us. And at the time like I hated my parents for it, for sure but you know, I think as you grow older you realise the sacrifices people make in order for you to have the life that you’re having.
Rane Bowen: Did you find yourself at all, when you were growing up, sort of pushing back against your religion, did you, did you struggle? I mean, I’ve heard a case of Westerners and a lot of Christian upbringing, many people I guess almost rebel, so yeah …
Manoj Dias: Yeah, yeah yeah no you’re right. So, when I came to Australia, like the first few years we still had that, that strong sense of spirituality and religion in our household but as I kind of grew up and as we moved to more metropolitan areas we weren’t surrounded by temples, we weren’t surrounded by monks and teachers so yeah, for a good portion of my adolescence to my mid-twenties, like I really wasn’t practicing. With that being said, I had this sense of spirituality within me, like I would always just contemplate life and meaning and purpose, you know I was always a very compassionate and generous person, but I couldn’t reconcile that with my Buddhist practice. It was more like I was feeling these things but what does it mean? Like I wasn’t seeing my teachers, like it was all just a very like confusing time. And it wasn’t until my late twenties that I really met my teacher and went deeper into the practice and you know, eventually, there were periods when I thought I was going to be a monk and I wanted to really explore my spirituality at a deeper level, but for whatever reason chose not to go down that path.
Jo Stewart: Maybe it is that generosity of spirit that you’ve just mentioned like, rather than just being a practice for yourself, like you’ve just been driven to make your life about sharing this practice.
Manoj Dias: Yeah. I think it was also like probably very selfish, like I wasn’t ready…
Jo Stewart: Yeah yeah like I’m not cut out to be a monk… <laughs>
Manoj Dias: … like, ‘I love the footy, like I’m gonna have to give up the footy, like what am I gonna do?’ You know, like I think for whatever reason, like at that point in my life, like it wasn’t the right time. That doesn’t mean in the future it might not happen you know, I always contemplate it, like it’s always there at the back of my mind.
Rane Bowen: And what was it about this teacher that really bought you back into the practice?
Manoj Dias: It was just unconditional.
Rane Bowen: Mmhmm.
Manoj Dias: And I think, as much as my parents love me, they love with conditions, you know like, especially with me growing up first generation it was like, there was a lot of pressure, they bought you know, what their parents had taught them, but here there was a teacher, like there was a man that was just so loving in an unconditional way. Like he would take in people that couldn’t afford to pay for classes, he would cook meals for people that hadn’t eaten food, he would never turn anyone away: people that were suicidal, people that were extreme mental health disorders, he would welcome them, he would treat them like brothers and sisters and I’d never seen anything like that before.
But there was also a, a transmission, like when I met him there was something so special about him that I felt it, like within my body, within my bones and I think there are very few teachers that ah I’ve had that experience with and, you know I still to this day, I can’t reconcile it in my mind, it’s not like I can say, ‘oh it’s because he meditated 10 hours a day’, like I sometimes think he probably didn’t for a big period of time, meditate at all, but there was just something in which I would come one day to have coffee with him and he could just look at my eyes and he knew exactly what was happening and he would be like, ‘how are you dealing with this?’ and I’m like, ‘how do you know that? What the hell’s going on?’ <whispers> and it was just really special you know, and he taught me how to understand my mind, and he taught me to be unconditional in my generosity and unconditional in my spirituality, but also to not identify with it as well, because we talk about Westerners’ adaptation of spirituality like sometimes we can take it on to the point where we just go down this one very specific path, we turn our backs on conventional life or you know, we start to tell people off for living their life a certain way, and he really taught me not to identify with anything. So, he said like, ‘if you’re gonna buy clothes, buy clothes, nice clothes! If you’re gonna dance, dance!’ you know, ‘if you’re going to’ um you know, I don’t drink often but he was, ‘if you’re gonna drink, get drunk!’ but then realise the impact these things have on your life, and don’t identify yourself with being this spiritual person because that’s another identity that we wear. Just like the identity of a businessman or identity of someone that’s a victim, that’s another coat that we wear that can cause us suffering.
Jo Stewart: I guess that links us a little bit back into like your early twenties where you worked in marketing right?
Manoj Dias: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: … and kinda had a really high-powered, high-pressure career…
Manoj Dias: Mmm.
Jo Stewart: .. and, do you want to share a little bit about that time, and.. ?
Manoj Dias: <laughs> Yeah, that was a, was a very interesting time. Like I, yeah to be completely honest with you I um grew up thinking I had to have the white picket fence, the, the wife and you know, enough money to have kids and to live a comfortable life, and I got to a point where that was almost a reality for me but I was deeply unhappy.
There was an inner calling in me that kept on asking like what is it that I’m meant to do because this doesn’t feel like it’s my life, I can’t see myself crunching numbers and working for this financial institute, it just didn’t feel right at all and life has a funny way of giving you the answers that you ask for and, for me it came first with a pretty serious panic attack that I had at work, and I’d probably been operating under anxiety for about two, three years, that was probably misdiagnosed or undiagnosed at the time. And it became misdiagnosed as ADHD and the psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, psycho… one of them, anyway, kind of said, it was you know, ADHD and they gave me medication, developed an addiction to the prescription medication that they gave, and then I had a really bad case of ah insomnia, like chronic insomnia and same therapist gave me um sleeping pills to manage that and then there was this little period of time where I was you know, addicted to sleeping pills and addicted to Ritalin which was you know, medication for ADHD, and it was spiralling. I was spiralling you know, out of control and my mind felt like it was just away from my body and um yeah, like I had a bit of a breakdown, like this panic attack was you know, a bit of a breakdown for me and couldn’t work for a period of time, and um yeah, it was very dark days for me. You know, I didn’t know what my life had come to and what I was going to do with it and how I was even going to claw myself out of this level of suffering.
But, as fate would have it, I met my teacher. He re-introduced me to the Buddhist practice, to meditation, to gentle yoga and I started to, to heal myself, and you know, I don’t say I started to do it, because it was very much with the support of a community of people, but yeah, that life that I was living was, not that it wasn’t for me, but I just didn’t have the tools to manage it.
Jo Stewart: Well and especially when you went and asked for help, to a mental health professional, it sounds like that was exactly the wrong type of help and that just, you know put you in like, a deeper hole of suffering.
Manoj Dias: Yeah. And I think for me, and I think, that’s not to say it was the wrong advice, I think its, medication and everything has its place, but for me, for whatever reason, it wasn’t the right treatment. I felt, for me personally, it was very quick, like the diagnosis was very quick and it felt like a very quick transition, like, ‘you’ve got this, take this’. And you know, I had no idea about yoga, meditation and when I discovered it, it was like ‘oh!’ a light bulb went off, and I was like, ‘holy shit, like, I could have saved myself so much suffering if I had done this earlier on!’ but I also know that this was my path you know, I had to go through that level of suffering to understand other peoples’ suffering.
Jo Stewart: Yeah you’d have this next level of empathy for anyone else who was struggling with those issues.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
Jo Stewart: And are there still practices or strategies that you employ today to help you manage anxiety?
Manoj Dias: Yeah like I don’t get it as much now, if at all. Like, and this is the thing, I feel like we all have anxiety to some extent, and I think it can be like this, taboo topic, like this person has, this person hasn’t but you know, like we go through moments where we have an anxious moment and you know, now I have the awareness that, you know, this anxiety isn’t who I am. It’s something that is impermanent in nature, just like everything else, so if I can just hold this experience with compassion, just be gentle to myself, not freak out, then it’ll be okay, it’s not going to kill me, you know, and, I also have little techniques, like breathing exercises, and ah I also know what foods to eat and not to eat, and you know, if I have too much coffee I get anxiety! And it’s completely nothing to do with my mind, it’s just like this stimulant just has this affect on me. So there are, there are strategies that I have, but also for me the understanding that this is a human experience and it’s okay.
Jo Stewart: And I guess as well, this is a message from my mind or my body, like I’m not talking about chronic anxiety and debilitating anxiety, but just when you have that little anxious moment, it’s like, ‘okay why am I feeling like this? Have I scheduled too many things in this day? …’
Manoj Dias: Yeah totally.
Jo Stewart: ‘… or have I not had enough rest? Or…’
Manoj Dias: Absolutely, yeah. There’s always causes and conditions you know, it’s not like it just naturally springs up, there’s different things that come together for us to feel that.
Jo Stewart: And I know for a lot people, travelling a lot and travelling a lot for work and, all of the disruptions to your sleep schedule and that extra layer of pressure if you’re kind of doing big events and also keeping track of stuff that’s happening at home, would be a big pressure cooker for anxiety and stress!
Manoj Dias: Yeah, yeah.
Jo Stewart: Do you have any strategies for like, travelling and how you manage that phase of your life?
Manoj Dias: You know I’m still working on that. If I’m like, I, it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve really started to travel and teach and I’m still <laughs> trying to work out the best way to kinda, you know move beyond that. But yeah, right there are moments that, I don’t really sleep well on flights so I’ll just meditate. I don’t really sleep well in different, new places so you know, like I’ll go outside, go for walks, I’ll do all that.
But you know now I’ve loosened the grip. I used to like really freak out if I had a big presentation and I didn’t sleep the night before, I would go into like, ‘oh my god, I’m going to be so bad, and everyone’s going to hate me and everyone’ll think I’m a fool and blah’ and now I’m just like, ‘you know what, this is just meant to happen like, who cares?’ Like at the end of the day, like other people’s opinions are their opinions and no one ever wants another person to suffer so everyone’s there kind of rooting for you so, just look on the positive almost a little bit, but also don’t avoid what you’re feeling. Just be like, it’s part of life.
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Alright, let’s get back to our conversation with Manoj Dias.
Jo Stewart: And so do you find that’s it quite a different state of mind that you go into when you are doing a presentation to a big group as opposed to a little one-on-one session or a session with a smaller group in your home studio?
Manoj Dias: No I think it’s always the same for me actually, I think it’s always the same like, if it’s one person or if it’s like, a thousand to five thousand, like for me it’s always like, these are just human beings. They, like me, want to be happy; they, like me, have hopes and dreams; they, like me, suffer. So if I can keep them in mind that these are humans and these aren’t like, you know robots that are judging me then, yeah I feel like I can always serve them the best way possible.
Jo Stewart: Oh it sounds like a really grounded and sensible approach.
Manoj Dias: Yeah yeah, it doesn’t mean I don’t, you know, freak out before things but yeah, I try to take myself out of it, like being identified with myself causes a lot of suffering and then I’m like, you know, it’s not really about me, it’s about these people.
Jo Stewart: And I guess sharing these teachings.
Manoj Dias: Yeah exactly right, yup.
Rane Bowen: Another slight left turn I guess …
Manoj Dias: I love all your left turns.
Rane Bowen: <laughs> I think it’s my role in the podcast to do the left turns. <laughter> After working in corporate for a while, you set up A-SPACE, would you like to talk about that for a little bit?
Manoj Dias: Yeah, so actually, when I left the corporate world I just started teaching, like just, like freelancing if you can call it, just different studios, and it wasn’t until probably about four, five, four years ago now, that I was working at a studio and I started to feel like I wasn’t really aligned with the studio. I was working harder than I had ever worked in the studio than I did in corporate, and I was feeling burnt out and stressed, I’m like, ‘well this doesn’t feel right, like hang on, what’s going on here?’ and again it was a strange set of circumstances. I was invited to this um organisation of entrepreneurs, it was like a, like a membership club to give, just a talk about my, my life, you know, like how I went from having all the success in marketing and advertising to then being a teacher essentially. And I went and shared my story and I really shared about how the practice of meditation helped me through this whole thing, and that kind of opened up a lot of questions for these entrepreneurs and then they started inviting me to their companies to just talk about my experience and to share meditation.
And from there it kind of evolved into this idea that I had where I was like, ‘wow there are so many people just like me that are in these organisations, that have no tools’. I sometimes always think like, if I had the tools of meditation and yoga would I have left corporate? Maybe not. You know, I might’ve had a very comfortable, nice, peaceful life. And I saw a lot of my friends in those places, suffering. So I wanted to create something for them so they had these tools. And, at that time, if you wanted to meditate, you had to really go to an ashram or a temple. And for a lot of people that was very confronting and for a lot of people that wasn’t accessible. You know, like even for me I would’ve had to have travelled 45 minutes everyday to go to a place like that. So um, I met a friend of mine, and you know, we bonded one day over this shared passion we had to bring meditation and spirituality to, you know, people that didn’t have access to it, and it really kind of spiralled from there. We started to do some ‘pop ups’, which, meaning you know, like a, an event here, a four-day, a four-week course here, and it kind of spiralled into me going to New York in 2015 or 16, and then I saw like communities starting to form around these ah contemporary meditation studios and I thought like, ‘we could, you know we could do this in Melbourne’. Like I felt intuitively like we had this ability to make this come to life and we came back and me and my business partner at the time, we were like, had two credit cards, like ‘let’s do it!’ and ah it was literally on a hope and a whim. We maxed out our credit cards, we borrowed a little bit of money from our parents and we opened our first bricks and mortar studio.
Rane Bowen: Nice, and it was a beautiful studio.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, yeah thank you, have you been there?
Rane Bowen: Yeah, yeah.
Manoj Dias: Oh great, yeah it’s um, yeah it was a really, really beautiful studio and I think that the highlight for me was to see a community starting to form. When people would come in and they would feel like strangers and then, you know two weeks later they’re like going out for coffees afterwards.
Jo Stewart: Oh, so nice!
Manoj Dias: It was so nice, yeah, it was really nice.
Jo Stewart: And so you’re kinda mobile now, right? Like are you looking for a bigger space or just travelling around Melbourne a bit?
Manoj Dias: Yeah, so at the end of 2017, like we needed to find a bigger space, ‘cause we just couldn’t, we didn’t have the space to, for the students that were coming in and um we kinda ran out of time, and we thought okay like, where’s our studio gonna be? Is it gonna be in the north side where it always was? Or is there an opportunity to go to the south side ‘cause so many people were travelling from the south of Melbourne to come there. So we’re like okay, let’s just, we haven’t got a studio, there’s no rent at the moment, let’s just like explore what it’d be like to open a pop up you know, in the north, the south, the east and the west, three months at a time, and let’s just see how it goes. And yeah, it’s been really successful you know, like ah Collingwood, we’ve had our you know, usual students come, but then we’re in Cremorne at the moment and there’s a whole new bunch of students and such a different demographic, and it’s really beautiful to see it, you know, really beautiful to see people being drawn to it and a community starting to form around these really ancient practices.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, beautiful!
Rane Bowen: You mentioned about giving people tools to survive in the corporate world I guess, and one critique I’ve read of mindfulness is that it enables a type of behaviour amongst large corporate entities, I’m not sure I’m expressing this question very well but, it enables a behaviour that really, I guess puts the onus on the individual to help themselves rather than the employer I guess to really give a situation that is beneficial for everyone. I was wondering if you had…
Manoj Dias: Yeah… I think, this conversation’s been going around for a little while. It was recently like a Guardian article that came out, and I think um teachers were all in hysteria about it and they were saying ‘what a joke and blahblahblah’ but I actually, a big part of me agrees with that article. And I think this is one of the pitfalls of taking a practice, like mindfulness, out of the Buddhist tradition and teaching it just as one component in itself. Yes there’s so much benefit to mindfulness and to mindfulness-based stress reduction, it has helped countless amounts of people and you know, I teach a lot of that, I you know, I really respect what it’s about, but I also think that part of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is the integration of ethics into the practice, you know and the Eightfold Path is really comprised of ethics and meditation and wisdom, you know and, or when we take just one component out of it we’re, I don’t want to use the word appropriating because I don’t think it’s exactly what it is, but we’re taking out of context. And part of it is, yes we need to help ourselves, but part of it is also to know how are we, how are we getting stressed in the first place? Like it’s it’s, for me now, like I don’t do many corporate functions, but I also teach people when I go in there that, ‘I’ll give you strategies to you know, deal with the complexities of your life but it’s important you look at what’s creating those problems in the first place.’ And its not always the company’s fault, it could be our conditioning. Like you know, for me for example, my conditioning was I had to make lots of money because that’s what my parents came to Australia for. So that’s something that I need to look at that no corporate should be responsible for doing it, right? But when you have a corporate company come in and they’re just essentially teaching you attention regulation, then I feel like it’s not that’s, it’s not wrong, I fear that it’s just, it’s not complete, you know? So yes we need to pay attention, we need to develop focus but we also need to look at the bigger picture, like is my behaviour causing harm? Is my lifestyle causing harm? Is it a matter of just feeling good for 30 minutes or is it a matter of really re-examining the way I live? I think, so, to that extent, I think it’s important that we consider the context in which meditation is being taught, and I think it’s important, like even in corporate contexts, and it takes like leadership from these organisations right, to be like, yeah okay, if I’m going to bring someone in that’s going to teach my people to be happy, like I need to run the risk that these new staff members might leave, and maybe they don’t want that, I don’t know, I’m not sure yet.
Jo Stewart: I think as well like, the whole aspect of compassion as well is so, ‘cause that’s one of the criticisms right, that that compassion element has kind of been taken out of that practice a little bit …
Manoj Dias: Totally, totally.
Jo Stewart: … and if you were in a situation in your life where you feel like, your life doesn’t have meaning when you have all of these external successes but you’re still feeling empty inside, like compassion can be such a powerful way to bring meaning back into your life and to feel like you’re making the world a better place ...
Manoj Dias: Absolutely.
Jo Stewart: … and that you matter.
Manoj Dias: Yeah absolutely. And I think to be honest that’s what’s, that’s the next phase of the evolution of this practice is that. I think we, we have reduced it down to just attention. And I think that’s problematic. And many, like you know, teachers that are new to teaching might just be teaching that because it’s more palatable to people you know? I know for sure if I go into ah like a football club, and I‘m like, ‘oh we’re going to talk about opening our hearts today,’ straightaway they’re going to be like, ‘what the fu…’<laughs> you know, whereas for, if I start off by saying, ‘hey you know, like you know when your attention slips? That two seconds after the opposition kicks a goal? And you know, this happens blahblahblah, and then you blame yourself? Like, that’s actually not helpful’. So it’s, it’s around finding the language for it. But I genuinely believe like the evolution of meditation has to include compassion. Otherwise it’s incomplete.
Rane Bowen: You mentioned before that you are doing a lot more travelling these days, what sort of things are you doing now?
Manoj Dias: That’s a good question <laughter> Sometimes um, not sleeping of most <laughter> but um, you know a lot of it, for me, a few years back I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough for me just to teach people to de-stress, a) I’m not passionate about that, but b) I think we’re missing a vital opportunity to really re-examine our life and, and the life of those around us. So I look at wellness spaces as an example, I look at yoga, meditation, healing spaces and a question I often ask myself is, ‘who’s not in the room?’ and what that really points to is like, is there a single representation of diversity in this group? Is there people from different backgrounds, different.. are there able-bodied people in this class? Is there not able-bodied people in this class? Is it representation of the queer community? You know, why? I think that for me, part of the reason I travel around and teach a lot is like, I’m trying to now to integrate my social justice views with meditation and mindfulness. And I feel like for me, this is where liberation can occur because otherwise it becomes liberation or freedom or you know, awakening or even happiness, is just for a certain group of people and, it’s fine, but I feel like it’s a missed opportunity to not bring, you know, people of colour along for that journey, to not bring marginalised communities, you know here and abroad, into the conversation, ah and to not have representation you know and, um not have other teachers of colour or Southeast Asian teachers being represented in spaces that essentially they created, you know. So um, part of it is to teach, part of it is to talk and I do a lot of talking these days for organisations’ sporting teams but also at events and festivals.
Jo Stewart: I think that’s so important and what do you think are some of the key things that yoga studios and organisations could do today to make that better?
Manoj Dias: I think the first question is: do they care? And I think we have to get really honest with ourselves about that because it’s okay to have the conversation about it, but when it comes down to it, like what are we prepared to do? And at the end of the day, we live in a capitalistic framework ah in which we all have to operate, and a studio might say like, ‘oh it’s not really that much value for me to get a person of colour teaching yoga and meditation or to change my marketing because it’s all working, I’m a profitable company and that’s great’ but then own that, that’s fine. And don’t just have a conversation to have a conversation. I feel like if we want to make meaningful change, I feel like if we want to really make yoga accessible and meditation accessible for everyone, we need to look at the barriers that are stopping people being able to access it. One of them is price, you know, like why would we charge in excess of $800 for someone to learn meditation, as an example, right? And that’s not to say it’s wrong ‘cause the teacher might be amazing, but who can afford that? Like, what people from the suburbs could afford that? My family couldn’t afford that, um indigenous people, you know, based on where they’re located, might not be able to afford that, I mean white people might not be able to afford that! So it’s ...
Jo Stewart: Yeah you have to be in a pretty privileged position to be able to have the time and the spare money to go and do that.
Manoj Dias: Totally from a monetary perspective, but then you know, we look at a lot of, like I said before, like a lot of marketing in yoga and meditation and it’s again not representative of Australia, I don’t think, you know, ‘cause we are a multicultural place. Look at this table right here <laughter> you know, um but you know, we tend to have these beautiful models, you know in their poses and I think we just have to, we have to really break down and dismantle all of the ways that we are creating harm in this practice. And I do believe there’s harm there, whether the studio owners feel like there’s harm or not, it’s really up to them and I don’t begrudge them because I know it’s hard to run a studio and it’s not for everyone this conversation to have. But I feel like if we want to make it really accessible we have to look at the ways and the barriers that are stopping people, and that is like financial, that is through representation, that is through spaces that feel warm and inviting, that is through all of these combined.
Jo Stewart: I know a previous guest ah, Mei Lai Swan, has a really great initiative with her Bali training, like she offers some local scholarships for local people who probably never would get to go to a yoga training in their country.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, totally. Absolutely and you know, we do say, at A-SPACE, we leave spots open in our workshops, in our courses for people that are under-represented and you know, people that can’t even afford to pay, we say, ‘you can pay us in time’ and people, not everyone takes us up on that, and that’s cool like you know, it’s our work to do, because we also have to be aware that not everyone’s ready for this work. But I think it’s also nice to have those options and Mei Lai’s an amazing human that’s doing wonderful things and I think other studios could learn a lot from that.
Jo Stewart: Do you just have that on your website, like when there’s the information about the teacher training, like you just put it out there as well that there are spaces available if you don’t have the financial means?
Manoj Dias: Yeah so for our workshops we have that, so we have different ticketing options. And we also work with local community groups and we say like, ‘look we’ve got this amount of tickets, anyone from your community that they want to go, then please let us know, we’ll support.’
Jo Stewart: That’s a great way to do it because people in that community may not even think to look at your website so…
Manoj Dias: Totally, totally yeah.
Rane Bowen: Yeah, a bit of an aside but I read recently about how even requiring someone have an email address can be a bit of a barrier because nowadays to get an email address from say, Google, you need to have a phone number and if you don’t have a mobile phone then … so … yeah.
Manoj Dias: Yeah. It’s a slippery slope right? Like, and there’s arguments for and against, but if we are genuinely passionate about these, these are things we need to do, look at all the different ways, you know. Our studio for example, our old studio, it had stairs; you couldn’t access it through a lift.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, we have stairs as well, and a narrow walkway.
Manoj Dias: Yeah. And you know like, we were getting so many people like emailing going, ‘oh I’m in a wheelchair’ and it used to break my heart, and I’m like, ‘fuck like we’re, this is, we’re causing harm’ like this person’s looking for, you know, alleviation from their suffering, we can’t offer a space, so our next space like we have to have something that’s easy for people to enter, like it’s, there’s, that’s a given you know, so yeah.
Rane Bowen: Mmm. And another aside, I guess even from a hardnosed business point of view, perhaps having a more diverse clientele, that’ll increase the pool of students so it’s gotta be good for business ‘cause I guess I see a lot of yoga studios—there are a lot of yoga studios at the moment—and they’re all marketing towards the same people so, yeah ...
Manoj Dias: Mmmm. Mmmm I mean this is the thing where like, the more inclusive it is, the more a studio can benefit from it, but we’re stuck in these old paradigms of marketing and promotion where we can’t see that there’s actually a benefit here, like writing a teacher training offering like three scholarship spots to people of colour is going to benefit them, you know but ah, I think again it’s the studio and their own grip on their goals and their, you know, KPIs and you know, I can speak for all of them but I think it’s an opportunity that’s going begging at the moment.
Jo Stewart: Do you have any personal practices—for yourself as a human being—but also for yourself as a teacher, that can help you kind of tap into the energy that you want to bring to the class especially if maybe it’s been a hectic morning or a bad night’s sleep, something that will just help you to ground?
Manoj Dias: Yeah. I’m quite fortunate because I teach mainly meditation. You know, like as soon as I’ll teach, I go into that space of meditative awareness. That’s not to say in the past I have been, like you know, having A-SPACE and being a teacher, I’m constantly negotiating being a CEO and a teacher in going from one side of the brain to the other side of the brain and it’s, it can be stressful.
First thing I do is always, I offer my teachings to my teacher, you know and my teacher’s teacher and the lineage in which I practice in. I call them into the room, I call my ancestors into the room, I call other people that’ve taught in this lineage before me into the room. Then I offer myself, I say, ‘it’s not about me, like you know, I’m not here to look good, I’m here to create a space for these people to find healing’. I feel like that the moment I do that, I get out of my own way, it’s like it’s not about me anymore, like I become like a vessel, like a conduit for this practice and these teachings.
And then in the practice, like you know, I’ll take three deep breaths, I’ll connect my back to the chair, my buttocks to the floor, my legs to you know, the floorboards and I’ll feel embodied you know, and when I’m in my head is not when I’m in my body and when I’m in my body is when my best teaching comes out. So I take those first few moments to really just get into my body and be with whatever it is I’m feeling.
Jo Stewart: And that sounds like a practice that would help in anything you were trying to do in your life, beyond teaching, just being present.
Manoj Dias: Yeah, you know we live in a very ‘neck-up’ culture, you know we’re always cognising, we’re always planning, we’re always analysing, and the moment my practice went from the head down into the body it started to really transform my life. So yeah, always invite anyone to just get into the body and you know, yoga’s a great way to do that as well.
Rane Bowen: if there was one thing, one core lesson, that you’d like people to take away from your work and everything that you’ve learned, what would that one thing be?
Manoj Dias: Oof! <laughter> That we each have the potential to liberate ourself from suffering. The Buddha himself was just a guy, was just a man you know, and he found practices that awakened his mind. And I see the work that all of us do in the space of yoga and meditation as being the same. We have found practices that liberate our mind, and for us it’s to cultivate that throughout the rest of our life, and once we do that, to share it you know, and to help others and be more altruistic and I always say like that the measure of my teachings is seeing um people living a more compassionate and present life. If I can do that, if I see it, then I know that whatever is come through me is of service.
Rane Bowen: Beautiful!
Jo Stewart: Wow! Thank you so much for sharing that and everything that you do in your life and your work.
Manoj Dias: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Rane Bowen: And there you go! Again, I think Manoj is a really interesting and inspiring guy and I was really grateful to get the chance to speak with him.
For our next episode, we’ll be speaking with Shyamala Benokovic, the CEO of Yoga Australia. Shyamala was an absolute delight to speak with and she shared some really interesting information about some of the things that Yoga Australia is currently working on and what it’s like to run a national peak body that is largely made up of volunteers. In our conversation with Michael de Manincor, he told us that one of his proudest accomplishments as President of Yoga Australia was hiring Shyamala so listen to the conversation next Monday for a little bit of insight why.
Alright, our theme song is Baby Robots by Ghost Soul and is used with permission. Get his music from ghostsoul.bandcamp.com.
Jo and I wish to honour the elders that have bought us these wisdom traditions that we share and we also wish to honour the Wurundjeri people of the Kulun Nation, the traditional owners of the land where this podcast is recorded in Melbourne, Australia.
Thank you so so much for listening. Arohanui, big big love.