I haven't been updating this blog that often. And the reason isn't work pressures or blog-fatigue. There are enough interesting things to write about - from the new Flying machine ad (isn't it a decade too late to be inspired by The Matrix?) to the Indian School of Business (Yes, I came, I saw and I am impressed!)
All that and more in due time. But as the year draws to a close and reams of newsprint are devoted to 'best of 2007 lists', I find myself in a more reflective mood. This year, for me, has been a journey... but an inward one.
And although I rarely get personal on this blog I feel the need to share this experience. So many of us, outwardly qualified, content and cruising through life are actually restless and raging inside. For no apparent reason.
Some say this is the scourge of modern life. That may well be the truth. But there are deeper and more eternal truths which I, a born skeptic, stumbled upon. And if it happened to me, it could happen to you too.
So bear with me, as I deviate into unusual territory. This is a 5 part series. If you choose to follow it, keep an open and inquiring mind. Let the journey begin..
A journey within - I
It is a mildly chilly March morning. I am at the German cafe in Rishikesh, a quaint little place which serves fantastic fluffy brown bread and coffee. And offers a great view of the Lakshman Jhula bridge.
I am the only Indian at the cafe. This is white-man-seeking-salvation haven. Elderly English ladies, youngish European lads. Most are sipping honey lemon water and discussing their progress on the path of yoga. They've been here months - some even years - and long after it was truly fashionable to be a hippie.
My mind says they're escapists - floating through life on the strength of a favourable exchange rate. But my heart feels otherwise. They could just as well be lying on a beach in Goa sipping tequilas. But they're here, on some kind of quest.
Clean as it is, there are flies buzzing around the place. Some make a landing on the honey-and-lemon-sippers legs. No one reacts. It's like this is a most natural and beautiful thing. Human beings, flies - they co exist in peace and harmony. I can't help but wonder: Are flies in Rishikesh different from flies elsewhere in the world?
Or is it just that these people are so much at peace - with themselves, and the world - that the fly ceases to bother?
And keeping with the metaphor of the fly, is it possible to be so much at peace with yourself that these 'flies' - the many irritants buzzing around in our day to day life - cease to bother??
The answer, I have discovered is 'yes'. Unlikely as it sounds at first, this is possible. And we don't need to be in Rishikesh to achieve this state (although it's certainly a very beautiful place and I would not mind spending a few months conducting lemon, honey and fly experiments @ the German Cafe in particular).
In fact, to the majority of Indians the idea of leaving home, family, job and all worldly commitments to someday achieve 'enlightenment' is laughable. Which is why an entire generation of spiritual teachers have taken it upon themsleves to create programs that fit into our world. And happen at our doorstep.
From Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to Swami Sukhbodananda, we have a wide variety of 3-5 day 'courses' designed to make us introspect, and to learn some simple techniques of meditation. The program you choose to take up generally depends on who you encounter that persuades you to 'give it a try'.
And so it was that I joined the 'Art of Living' basic course close to 5 years ago. Did it change my life? Well... it could have. I went into the course a complete non-believer and came out thinking, "haan isme kuch hai". The main takeaway from Art of Living is the 'sudarshan kriya' - a breathing technique which allows you to get into a meditative state.
The first time I did the sudarashan kriya I felt hot and feverish. Like something yuck was being released from inside me. Apparently this happens to many people.
Besides sudarshan kriya, the 'Art of Living' (aka AOL) is full of mini sermons, exercises and platitudes. But, it works. That bit reminded me of ERI (Exploring Roles and Identities) which we went through as second year students at IIMA. Taking time out of your daily routine to introspect and connect with your fellow human beings is always a cathartic experience.
The trouble is, it does not take long to get swept away by the torrent of day to day life once again. Of course, you are supposed to keep doing the kriya - and for a while I did. Then one morning you wake up late and skip, ditto the next day. And poof! You fall out of the habit and gradually forget usme koi faayda bhi tha.
The good people @ Art of Living will contact you from time to time and say,"Come for a refresher course (free of cost)... Come for satsang." But somehow I never did. So I can say the 'Art of Living' failed me... but the truth is that I failed 'Art of Living'.
The trouble is, a part of me just did not believe that this breathing in and out, shallow breaths, fast breaths, ujaya breaths etc can really make a difference.
Exactly 4 years after AOL I joined Isha Yoga. The truth is I had no idea what 'Isha Yoga' was. I was going through some inner turmoil and during this period I happened to see a poster for Isha Yoga stuck on a tree near my house. The introductory session was at 6 pm, not far away. It was 5minutes to six and for reasons I cannot fathom I rushed there.
I thought they would be teaching some yoga poses and possibly, that would be good for stress relief. Turns out Isha Yoga is very similar to Art of Living. Much of the course is talking, introspecting, fables, exercises. And of course they teach you a breathing technique called 'Shambhavi Mahamudra'.
Although in action it is different from sudarshan kriya, the ultimate result is the same. By focussing on one's breath through a precise sequence of events, you are able to rid your mind of all its chatter. And that, is a state of pure bliss.
Isha Yoga worked wonders for me. This does not mean it is 'better' than Art of Living. It is a little different in that it is more intense (they actually ask you to do 'homework' each day!). The Isha yoga 'Inner Engineering' program involves greater number of hours, and also explains some of the science behind what still sounded like spiritual mumbo-jumbo to the skeptic in me.
Lastly, they actually put up a projector and screen bits of discourses by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the force behind Isha Yoga and a rather charismatic personality.
However the real difference lay not in the courses, but in the person who took experienced them at two different times. Perhaps AOL was a preparation - it opened my mind to possibilities but I did not have the commitment to follow through and make it happen.
I entered Isha Yoga also without any expectations of radical or dramatic changes. And I continued to be a skeptic. But half way through the person who could not sit still in one position for more than 5 minutes began to experience physical and mental calm.
After the 'initiation', the yuck feeling which I first became conscious of during Art of Living, left me permanently. I can't describe how or what happened. All I knew was if doing this shambhavi maha mudra every morning can keep me at peace, I am going to do it.
And so I completed the 21 days of the Isha Yoga kriya. And I continue to practice it at least 5 times a week. I can feel a real difference. My mind is free of nnecessary thoughts and worries. And I don't get that easily irritated by flies - real or metaphorical.
You can choose any of these paths - or some other. The important thing, however, is to figure out what works for you and then commit yourself to doing the daily pranayam or 'kriya'. If it does not work for you, the reasons are within.
You could be closed and skeptical, or just plain lazy. Life chal rahi hai, your 15 minutes of extra sleep each morning are more important.
But it will happen, in time, if you need it and want it badly enough. So keep an open mind, keep exploring. Keep swatting those flies... Until one day, you decide, "That's enough!"
Note: I have the highest regard for Sri Sri and the Art of Living program. Please treat this as a deeply personal observation and not a declaration that 'Isha Yoga is superior'. You are welcome to share your own experience here, but let's not get into debating and defending :)