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What I learnt with my feet pointing skyward

First in the list of my sabbatical activities was a month-long immersive yoga experience and I came away with the beginnings of an answer

The Trikonasana
The Trikonasana

I began my year-long sabbatical from my corporate job as a public market investor in mid-February with the intention of doing 12 different things for a month each. Having decided on the 12 activities, the next challenge was to calibrate the level of difficulty. Too easy and I wouldn’t feel challenged, too hard and keeping myself motivated could be difficult. I especially wanted the first activity to get that balance right and wanted to do it in a regimented environment where a schedule would be dictated to me and I had to just follow it. I still don’t trust myself to not head down the rabbit hole of blinking stock prices and business news out of sheer habit.

Silent meditation at sunrise
Silent meditation at sunrise

A few centuries ago, this specification would have taken me to a gurukul, and I found the modern-day equivalent in a yoga ashram. I wasn’t looking for three massages a day, kale and quinoa salad-type luxury environment but a more serious place where I could immerse in the practice of yoga—not just the physical part but also some of its philosophical underpinnings.

I have dabbled in yoga in the past but regular practice has eluded me. Of late, it had become a struggle to find more than an hour for “fitness" and that time started getting allocated to gym and running while yoga took a back seat. As the hamstrings shortened and stiffened, the toe-touch gradually became ankle touch and then “somewhere between knee and ankle" touch. My quest for reconnecting with yoga and living a regimented life intersected at the 28-day teacher training course at the Sivananda Ashram in Madurai.

I think the course is a great tasting menu where you can sample different types of yoga and deepen your asana, pranayam and meditation practice. Like any tasting menu, you won’t love all the dishes but it’s important to give each a fair trial. Also, just two spartan meals a day ensure that the other impediment to the toe-touch, a jutting belly, starts getting deflated.

Going through the schedule and rules doesn’t really prepare you for what awaits at the ashram. I reached Madurai thinking I would waltz through this—a few asanas, a bit of pranayam, vegetarian food—no big deal! I have done this before. Actually, I wasn’t prepared at all and that realization dawned in the first few days itself. The austere ashram environment, a schedule that starts at 6am and goes on relentlessly till 9.30pm, including cleaning the toilets and no phone connectivity, got to me and my mind threw a tantrum I didn’t know it was capable of.There were two arguments being made. One, why are you putting yourself through this? You slogged for the last two decades precisely so that you wouldn’t ever have to sweep the floor. Two, you really need to be in Mumbai right now, planning your sabbatical and helping the missus with really important things like paying the electricity bill. You can always throw in a couple of hours of yoga each day and spend a week up at the Anandas. That would count as yoga practice too.

In reality, the mind was hating the discipline and trying to create one persuasive argument after the other to relieve itself of agony. What helped me stay on was some of the well-timed coursework about the workings of the mind and how to detach from it. What also helped was seeing some tangible benefits in the first week itself, like being able to hold an unassisted headstand for a few seconds and a drop in weight. I told myself that this regimented environment was exactly what I had signed up for and it was the most conducive way to reach my goal.

I am sure that every activity I intend to do over the next year will have its share of tough moments and I will have to find something inside me to ride them out. Attempting things out of one’s comfort zone, nobody is immune to these moments of physical and mental discomfort and the antidote is similar to what the late Nelson Mandela said about courage— its not the absence of fear, but the ability to rise above it.

In the first week, I got a “B" in one of the philosophy homework assignmentsand I was upset for a full day. After 15 years of not being academically graded, I thought the obsession with marks would be extinct but it turned out to be just dormant. I seriously thought about chatting up the teaching assistant or looking at assignments of people who had gotten an “A" to figure out what works. Eventually, I didn’t do it but I had to remind myself that this was one course where grades did not matter and I could actually “enjoy" homework.

As the course progressed, investor Peter Kaufman’s definition of compounding kept coming back to me: dogged, incremental, constant progress over a very long time frame. We did asanas and pranayam twice a day and each day there were only minuscule, almost non-existent improvements. Yet, when accumulated over a month, the results were dramatic. What makes any practice, including compounding, so hard is that on a daily basis there is boring nothingness and you still have to keep at it.

I tried to detach from daily measurement obsession by promising myself two things. That I would dutifully produce myself to every class, unless, to use a term by one of our teachers, I was “projectile vomiting", and once there, I would give my best in each class. People talk about the exponential benefits of playing the long game but the long game is really a series of many boring short games and one has to develop some strong inner dialogue to counter the boredom and not throw in the towel.

We had a class on pre-natal asanas and as teachers-to-be, we had to tie large cushions around our bellies to understand how the poses need to be modified for expecting mothers. No matter what the age of a man, there is always an eight-year-old lurking inside who relishes such moments. Thus started belly-bumps, the way footballers would chest-bump, attempts to land on the belly by jumping off a chair and pre-juvenile guffaws all around. The mood amongst women, especially mothers, was sombre though. By the end of the class, some were in tears, possibly because they had been transported back to the time when they were expecting or because they were missing their children. As men, we will never understand this, but it embarrassed us enough to stop the tomfoolery.

Growing up, I convinced myself that “understanding" is a function of two things—intelligence and hard work. If you were smart enough and worked hard, you could understand anything and this worked well for everything from calculus to tax laws. The arrogant corollary is that if you don’t understand something, it’s either too obtuse or irrelevant. Understanding, though, has more dimensions, including your personality and past experiences. No amount of intelligence and hard work will make you understand those experiences, which means “What I don’t understand isn’t worth understanding" is an ostrich-like way of thinking. This realization hopefully breeds humility and, if not empathy, at least respect for things outside one’s realm of understanding.

On most days, we used to have a class on the Bhagavad Gita at noon. From among his many qualities, I developed new respect for Lord Krishna, the teacher, and his patience. I felt Arjun was in effect asking the same question over and over and Krishna found new perspectives every time to answer him. On a still, sultry March afternoon, sitting cross-legged on the cool marble floor, I found the beginnings of an answer too. In the 33rd verse of the 11th chapter, the Lord tells Arjun not to fret about having to kill his loved ones, for he has already killed them and Arjun is a mere instrument. The Sanskrit word for this is more precise: nimittamatra.

Of late, I have been grappling with the classic mid-life “purpose" question. I have reached a place of contentment for myself and close family and the arguments for taking it easy are strong. But what if I am meant to be an instrument for greater good? Wouldn’t being content in a limited sense then not be selfish? And since when did an instrument start deciding things? Its duty is to always be ready for whatever plan it may be chosen for. I have faith that the eventual plan, whatever it may be, will present itself—and I have to be ready for it.

Swanand Kelkar works in the asset management industry and is currently on a one-year sabbatical.

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