The morning of my 35th birthday was just another ordinary daybreak. I was scrolling down my Instagram feed and stumbled upon one of those motivational feeds that I normally would have yawned off or speedily glazed over, slowing down again only when I came across a picture of an acquaintance’s Tuscany wedding or my favourite, a canine Insta-celebrity donning Ray-Bans and panting into a Balinese sunset.
But that morning, the words “Are you the best possible version of yourself?” left me cold and bitingly restless. It was a visceral response that self-help gurus call “That moment of truth” or what I call “I am now that cliché.” I think it was my first real panic attack—feeling mediocre, out-of-place, and finding nothing but faults in my existence…
I was suddenly that person—a poster girl for a hyped Eat Pray Love-ish airport read.
What made things worse was that I had no real reason to feel this way—I nearly had it all with a seemingly-successful career, a rented apartment in the heart of Mumbai, doting friends and family in close proximity, and a gym membership. I made my own kombucha and kefir, drank aeropressed coffee, and possessed a densely stamped passport boasting exotic locales.
But that morning I melted into a puddle of disappointment. I was wrought with fear and anxiety. Everything seemed dubious. Everything seemed…wrong.
Peace and deliverance by the Ganges
Flashback to one year before this meltdown. A sense of misplacement had already started creeping into me, languidly gnawing my insides. I brushed it aside calling it a ‘burnout.’ My Google search history at the time was dotted with quick fix articles to deal with burnouts—the keyword being ‘quick.’
After all, time is money, and life’s too short to indulge in clichés; I had to be better than that. So, I did what many would—I joined a yoga class. And as with most life-altering decisions, only hindsight makes you truly appreciate some choices you make.
Back to the ‘Day of the first panic attack.’ That evening, I French Pressed my nerves into Googling a series of words, phrases and solutions: panic attack, feeling of emptiness, where does one go from here, the best time to visit Portugal, jobs in Italy, a barista course in Manila—but nothing felt right.
And the next thing I knew, without thinking it through, I’d enrolled myself in the Sivananda Teacher Training programme in Uttarkashi.
The website’s page laid down the daily schedule: Wake up at 5am followed by chanting / meditation; An introduction to the world of Vedanta; Bhagavad Gita classes; Four hours of Yoga theory and practice; Two meals a day. It seemed exactly what the doctor ordered—an extreme change!
After all, something so overwhelming needed a drastic overhaul. I was thinking, “I will be a new person after this course! I’ll detox my mind, body and soul. I’ll surely win at life like Julia Roberts did in Eat Pray Love.”
So, without a blink of my eye, I quit my steady job of three years, gave my landlord notice, packed my things away, consolidated my bank accounts and bid goodbye to the ‘old me,’ excited to return as Dee 2.0. Little did I know that the journey that lay ahead would change me so much so that I’d never feel the same.
On 8 September 2017, I left for the Sivananda Ashram in Uttarkashi. Over the next 32 days I learnt:
Less is more: I shared a dormitory with 14 other women from across the world. We washed our own clothes, cleaned the bathrooms, emptied the bins, and swept the halls of the ashram. We cried, laughed, shared, and bickered in a 300 square feet room. We each had a bed, a shelf for our stuff and owned nothing more than would fit there.
Unlike my life back home where I had ample space and resources, I realised that I didn’t need much. Not having my French press coffee and favourite pair of white pants was tough in the beginning. But over a period of time I realised I conserved a tremendous amount of time and energy by simply not making trivial decisions regarding what to wear, and so on.
I began to struggle with the concept of time. How did someone like me, whose definition of a normal day was sleeping for just four hours at night, just to fit it all in, find time to appreciate the River Ganga for two hours daily and gaze upon the Milky Way? I spent hours staring at the stars and pondering over our wondrous Universe. This couldn’t be my life. Or could it?
Surrender, it’s no big deal: When you find yourself in an Ashram for the very first time in your life, learning yoga, washing your own clothes, sitting cross-legged on the floor (with the promise to straighten the spine) for five hours each day, the chances are that you will experience intense pain and frustration.
In the beginning you will cry, you might scream, and you might complain till someone points out, “hey, you signed up for this.” Life doesn’t happen according to the plans drawn up by you on most days.
If you surrender to the pain, the joys, and the experiences, then what lies at the end of the road is equanimity, or the ability to STOP making a big deal of the bad and the good. And you realise that these two aspects are not mutually exclusive.
You suddenly receive a large dose of gratitude at your ability to see colours clearly. You feel smiles through voices. You feel awe not only at a TEDx Conclave, but even while sweeping the floor of the ashram’s dining hall. The word to remember here is ‘saranagati’ or surrender—just surrender and let the universe do what it does best, while you continue doing what you do best.
You are me; I am you: The world is smaller than we think. This course forces different people to come together and shed the ‘skin of uniqueness’ that most of us carry around with pride. People with differing attitudes, opinions, response mechanisms, accents, OCDs, frames of references, successes, and failures realise that they have the same cell structure, skin, heart, brain, and fleshy composition, and that at some point they will turn to ash—just like me. We might be unique in our expression as humans, but at the end of it all we are all the same—mind, body and soul.
For someone like me, who for the longest time had considered herself different from others due to habitual ego, this realisation was a shock. After all, being special brings happiness. But once you surrender to the idea of oneness, it’s empowering. A lot more empowering than that million dollar pitch you won for your company just last week.
We are all God, but let’s not make a big deal out of it: Trust me. Like most of you, I have no room for religion in my life. So, Sivananda’s practical and scientific approach to the Bhagavad Gita was the ideal introduction to someone like me—a believer in science.
For those familiar with the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna in Chapter 4 verse 17-18, “He who recognises inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among men; he is a YOGI and a true performer of all actions.” The first time I came across this verse, I was appalled at the idea of ‘inaction’. To me it sounded like a passive, lazy approach to existence, after all, success comes to ‘the doer.’ I am no back bencher.
So, I spent 21 days reading, talking, and arguing, until one morning, when I woke up drenched in the usual feeling of life having been unfair to me, in spite of my having ticking all the right action boxes? I was a good person. I did charity work. I paid my taxes. I loved my family. I went out of my way to be nice to people. And I believed in a higher being. Then why did I feel this way?
And just like that, I realised that I had gained more in the last 21 days of ‘inaction’ than in the last 35 years of ‘action’. The second I truly accepted that we are all energy at our core, the same energy as a higher being, which simply means, we are all God, that moment of acceptance was a potent act.
Health is wealth: When you practise the physical form of yoga for two hours each day for 25 days, you will find your body transformed—your spine straighter, your legs longer, your spine bendier, and your shoulders stronger. You’d feel your heartbeat for the first time. This new awareness brings with it an overwhelming sense of being able to feel your breath. You are now conscious about the air entering your lungs and intestines. Your ability to live on just two meals makes you feel the impossible is possible.
I found that a flexible body trickles down to a flexible mind—it happens when you least expect it—when you don’t seek it. It’s like that moment when after 24 days of struggle and bruises you suddenly find yourself standing on your head and the blood rushing to your heart, it’s at this moment you realise that you made it all happen. You made it happen by ‘looking within’.
Time is not running out: It’s funny how you suddenly appreciate box office hits like The Matrix and Inception a lot more—time is relative, dear reader. It’s true, it’s not just something one can brush aside as a well-published fact. Try making that your motto instead of “life is too short” (because it isn’t) and you may find, like I did, that time is not running out, and there’s really no pressure to always be smelling the roses, to seek silver linings, to appreciate moments of beauty, to spend time with loved ones. It’s alright to stare at the stars and feeling nothing.
Appreciating beauty, breathing, talking, and interacting with people become mundane acts of daily life—because time is relative. We have ample time—it’s not running away. So relax, don’t rush, and don’t waste energy. Just breathe for a bit, everything will continue to exist long after you finish taking a moment for yourself. Traffic will continue to exist. The countries on your bucket list will still be around. But what will change is that you finally experience life with a willingness you didn’t know you had in you. There’s more time in this world than you believe.
The power of pause: Believe it and don’t fear it, it’s the most empowered you will ever feel. It will suddenly make the same sun shine brighter, it will make the same food taste better, it will make the same cynical friend easy to not affect you, and in our crazy cities, it will make the traffic seem bearable, while making the same music sound more rhythmic.
The here and now: Another concept that I struggled with for a very long time was that of ‘justice.’ “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “What is the point of doing the right thing when you have no control on what life brings to you?” For many years I have argued with those wiser than me on the concept of karma, which they often quoted as the answer to my questions.
I learnt to accept the Law of Karma finally, and along with it the understanding that ‘Here & Now’ is not limited to just this life, and it’s not limited to actions but thoughts count too, which is amazing and scary. We have so much more to learn, and we have so much more waiting for us. I am finally not rushing to catch up with my bucket list; I am finally living in the now.
Now that I am back, out of the shelter of the ashram, I can safely say that life will never be the same again. I am stronger with weaker reactions, better prepared with little or no R&D, I am breathing better with lesser oxygen, pausing more with less to play with, slowing down with a faster purpose and learning more with nowhere to go, doing less and feeling more. I have surrendered with a purpose, with one oxymoron after another guiding me to a path of clarity.
(Originally published at http://beejliving.com/)