Om, before and after

Om is a remarkable word, sound, utterance. It is a mantra in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, resonating for thousands of years across the universe. There is something powerful in the single syllable, in the vibrations it triggers. Without fail, the sound waves of an “om” chant bounce around the room and return to bring calm, focus, centredness to me.

In my yoga class, we say it at the beginning of the class and then again at the end. I’ve noticed a difference in the quality of my “om” in these two bookends. At the start of the class, my mind is inevitably distracted. Since I’m doing yoga on the weekends, I bring a frazzled energy with me, piled up from the week. Unending demands, unpredictable life events that must be coped with, and a general stress on mind and body result in a scatteredness to my being by the time I show up on Saturday morning.

So, when I say “om” over a long breath to initiate my practice, it is discordant. The sound from my throat is uneven, falling up and down into an unmelodious pitch. I try to blend with the harmony of the rest of the class as I don’t feel strong. My voice is small. My “om” is tentative, cowering from the world outside, whimpering inside a shell.

And then, I practice yoga for the next hour. With each asana, I shed the distractions. As I hold a pose, my mind comes back in sync with my body. They fall in line together, no longer fighting, no longer pushing and pulling each other in an exhausting struggle to dominate. My mind once again falls in love my body and showers attention to it, wanting to be together, pliant and frictionless. By the end of the hour, there is an essential strength to the way my body moves, led by my quietened mind. Energy flows, there is a grace to my movements.

The “om” at the end of yoga class is coherent, stable, steady. My voice has vigor, I choose a single note that has all the melodies contained within it. “Om” sounds sweet, gentle, generous. I am out of my shell, eager to play with the universe, as it should be.

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Why don’t I do more yoga?

The single thing that I crave the most is connection. Or rather, connectedness. To people, to my surroundings, to my true self. It gives me the deepest sense of being, truly being, to feel that I am linked to others, to sense the illusion of boundaries, distances, and differences dissolve, to recognize the limitlessness of my own existence.

Is there anything that can deliver all this?

Yes. Yoga.

I have known it for more than 15 years, which is when I took up yoga as an adult. Without fail, after every yoga class, I emerge as if with a new set of eyes, looking out into the world in sharp definition, heightened, authentic colours, and energy that flows seamlessly around me.

One of my favourite instructions occurs at the beginning of the class when the yoga teacher says, “Reconnect with your breath.” So simple, and yet, so forgotten in the hustle of my crazy, hectic life. This small act immediately centers me and I express a humble “thanks” to my breath, for going on even when I have forgotten it. When I do bring my attention back to it, the sensation in my belly, my limbs, my throat is exhilarating. It is almost like I can feel the thousands and thousands of cells reviving themselves and beginning to play.

During that hour or so of yoga, time is suspended. Sometimes, it feels like every second elongates exponentially as the pose has to be held even while muscles tremble. At others, time is forgotten as a series of moves is completed, one into the other into the other. Yoga is an antidote – to the crazed pace of moving faster than we should, juggling more tasks than are appropriate, to functioning like machines. Yoga humanizes me, every time. I slow down, even as I sense my own impatience in the beginning of every class. It’s like an addict, getting irritated for being denied the hit of excess activity.

Yesterday, I returned to yoga after a long hiatus. It was hard. My stamina was not what it used to be, and some of my flexibility was gone too. It didn’t matter, though. That’s what’s great about yoga. I am perfect wherever I am. So I stayed with that level of strength and stretch, and focused on my ever-present breath.

And that’s when I almost cried. In that not-so-great state of physical fitness, yoga still put me in touch with my true self. I finally paid attention to the little core inside of me, having neglected it for so many months. It was there, shining quietly, intact.

Yoga is miraculous. Science is finding out more and more about how it delivers health benefits. I don’t need science to tell me. I know it already. I just have to get over myself and practice it with the reverence and dedication it deserves.

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Forget the fitness gadgets, what you need is already in your kitchen

I have a monthly calendar, which hangs in my kitchen, next to my fridge. It’s one of those common calendars that hang in any Indian households, called Kalnirnay. I look at it 8-10 times a day, from the morning, when I’m waiting for my coffee to brew to the multiple times I open my fridge door and glance at the calendar in passing.

Why am I telling you about this? Well, it’s because this seemingly ordinary kitchen item has a powerful impact on me and my health. Since I recently moved it from its usual place, I’ve noticed that I’ve stopped exercising with the diligence and discipline otherwise followed.

The link between my calendar and my exercise regimen, you see, is that my calendar is where I mark the days that I’ve exercised. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and I never tire of marking that “X” on a date triumphantly after a workout. It is deeply satisfying. Even more is the sense of achievement from seeing the number of “X”s every week, telling me I’ve hit my fitness routine four times a week, like I know I should. And when I look at the total number of crossed out weeks, week upon week, I catch a glimpse of the bigger picture of my fitness. Ultimately, that’s what counts because many of the health benefits of exercise arise over a period of time. When I see all this, I feel good about myself.

On the flip side, seeing a blank week has played the role of creating a reminder, a pressure of sorts, to get in a workout. It has kept me on track where my mind wanted to play mischief, luring me into thinking I still had many days ahead to allow for procrastination today. Clean days, ie without crossmarks over the dates, fill me with guilt and dissatisfaction. Chagrined, I shake my head and resolve to rectify the situation the same day or the very next.

When I moved my calendar, I no longer saw the “X”s or the blank weeks. Even though I didn’t move it completely out of sight, it has proven detrimental that it did go out of my line of sight.

Soon enough, I found myself struggling to keep up with my weekly routine. Workouts started piling up towards the end of the week because I hadn’t realised how many days had passed by since the last one. I was now relying on my mental calendar, which proved quite treacherous. No alarm bells ringing in time, no inspirational past “X”s to push me onward. I’ve been floundering, truth be told, these past several weeks. Needless to say, the feelings of guilt, discontent and self-reproach have been on the rise.

I’m amazed at how much my lowly calendar has proven to be my coach and cheerleader when it comes to my fitness. Sitting quietly on the wall, occasionally fluttering if the slamming fridge door created a clap of wind, it has nudged me, every time I looked at it, showing me the days I had conquered and the ones ahead to still conquer. It has reminded me of the commitment I had made to myself. Those black “X”s did not let me forget.

All the glory usually goes to a hard-core, blood-pumping workout – it’s seen as the real test, the measure of grit and pushing of boundaries. I’ve come to think that the real hero, the one that makes all the difference in whether I’m fit or not, is my humble calendar. I don’t need a fitbit or any fancy fitness tracking app; I’ve already got what I need in my kitchen.

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Pick a herd that helps you change yourself

Herds. They don’t just describe cattle, they also describe us. Herd mentality, herd behaviour – these phrases exist because they are accurate observations of what we do, following what others are saying and doing, moving along with whatever is the prevailing belief of the day.

We like to belong, as a rule. I think it reaches back to primitive times when survival was the need of the day and being in a group increased your chances of fending off a hungry saber-toothed tiger or other such hostile predator. Being by yourself was the short route to extinction. Ditto for sticking out. You didn’t want to get noticed.

This instinct to blend in and go along with what the group wants hasn’t died out, despite the thousands of years since saber-toothed tigers have died out and we no longer have to worry about basic survival. Theoretically, we can survive by being our individual selves; it’s safe to stick out now. But, we don’t believe it, from the looks of it. Most of us still go along with what society wants, not daring to break away from the community. We celebrate the folks that play within the boundaries and chastise those that meander out of them.

It’s a shame, of course, because millions of individual talents get submerged under the crushing demand of homogeneity. However, there’s a way to harness this predisposition.

What if you could choose the group you belong to? And what if this group exhibits behaviours that you want to imbibe? For example, a runner’s club. If you’re an aspiring marathoner, you’ll find kindred spirits in a runner’s club – people who are already marathoners, so you have role models. These are people who understand the kind of sacrifices and commitment it requires to train for a marathon (family members often grumble about the hours that get taken away from them as you set off on solo training runs). They will celebrate you, guide you, encourage you to become like them. You, in turn, are surrounded by language, actions, and values that extol the joys of running.

Often, when you talk to people who are passionate about what they’re doing, they’ll say “you won’t understand why I work on this through the night.” It’s true. Only someone else also in the same space, sharing the same values, beliefs and behaviours will get it. And when these two people meet, their relief at recognizing each other is palpable.

Finding your group is a highly effective secret to learning new habits. We seem to be genetically wired to want to belong to a herd. Why not choose a herd that reflects the best version of ourselves?

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The social nature of behaviour change

Is behaviour change individual or social?

A lot of stuff I hear about forming new habits is solo stuff: making your resolution, writing it down, creating a routine, monitoring the progress, realising success. It’s all just you. If it’s about losing weight, I get advice about joining a gym or finding a workout that works for me. If I want to stop smoking, buy a pack of the nicotine chewing gum. If I want to eat out less and cook more at home, well, start cooking in your kitchen, folks would say.

The problem is, it feels very lonely. Yet, humans are social animals. So, it makes me wonder, is behaviour change hard because it’s isolated and anti-social?

The steps to form a new habit are straightforward usually. They’re simple, even if not easy. But there’s no social component to them, where there’s someone patting us on the back every time we stick to our resolution, or others are watching encouragingly as we sweat it out on the treadmill. The monumental feat of showing up, not giving in to temptation and doing what we are supposed to go seems to go unnoticed. No recognition whatsoever.

This makes it feel unrewarding to stay disciplined. Why bother, if no one is noticing the hard work or the sacrifice?

Any habit takes time to form, so during that formative phase (21 or 30 days, depending on who you ask), it’s crucial to be applauded. It’s during this time that it feels like we’re not making any progress while experiencing the deepest pain and anguish as we try to shed our old skin.

I think I would like someone to notice me when I’m on my journey, not just when I’ve reached the destination. The oohs and aahs after melting a few kilos are pleasing, to be sure. My question is, why hold on to them till the end? Why not distribute them throughout. We all know how motivating it is to hear praise. When we hear the compliment, in fact, it reenergises us, we recommit to our goals.

So, here’s a suggestion. If you know of someone who is trying to change something about themselves – learn a new skill, stop doing a bad habit, or something else they want to reinvent about themselves – check in on them from time to time. Appreciate the fact that they’ve been at it for a number of days or weeks. Congratulate them for keeping at it. Acknowledge what a challenge it is and what a champ they are for persevering. You might just be the difference in a smoker turning a new leaf, an overweight person creating a healthier body, or an aspiring writer getting published.



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Sitting with restlessness

We all know restlessness, that feeling of unease. It sneaks up on you like a thief in the night and before you know it, has permeated everywhere. One moment you are cheerful, flowing with life. The next moment, that harmonious spirit is running amok, this way and that. Tables are toppled in disarray, the papers are scattered, black is white and white is yellow. Gnawing at the edges, restlessness sticks its nose in all the nooks and crannies, stirring up irrational anxieties that stay suspended in air like dark, heavy clouds.

At such times, the instinct is to distract. Go for a movie, clean the house, hang out with friends, as if we can drown it out with raucous noise and fervent activity. This works, to some extent. It provides some distance from the uncomfortable feeling, which can help give a perspective to wrestle with it.

That’s all distraction does, though. The best antidote to restlessness, I’ve found, is to sit with it.

Sitting is a common Zen practice. It’s literally what it says, to sit, nothing more or less. Simple, but not easy. Sitting with restlessness means staying with the emotions, looking them in the face. Confronting the unease, which can often feel like fear. Sitting means there’s nowhere else you can go. You’re right there and staring at your fear is the only recourse.

To be sure, distracting thoughts will loom and it is tempting to chase after them. They dissipate soon. The restlessness is still there, waiting for your attention.

The nose itches. You scratch it and feel the relief. That sensation dies down, and you’re left with restlessness.

Try as you might, when you sit, there is no way to escape the confrontation. And that’s such a good thing.

Scary as it may seem, in my experience, once I actually settle down to face whatever is troubling me, it isn’t so scary after all. I stop shielding my face away and give in. I let all the thoughts and fears tumble to the fore, expecting a horde of them to jumble up my sense of sanity. In fact, they don’t. They stand respectfully in front of me, and we gaze at each other. As I look at them, and they look back at me, they don’t seem so fearful. I get curious, and I begin to explore what they are, their edges. At some point, I am so immersed in the exercise that fear is no longer on the scene. Instead, it is beset with calm and interest, the way it is when we make friends with strangers.

Zen writings talk about making friends with your fears. I didn’t quite understand what this meant at first or how to go about it. Sitting is the way to do it. Nowhere to go and nothing else to do, I get to know what my fears are, and as I spend time with them, they lose their fearsome quality. I guess that’s what it means to make friends.

I see a lot around me that can trigger restlessness these days, and I fall prey to it often. I see others around me also struggling with the confusing, fear-inducing elements that have come to define our volatile, unpredictable world. Sitting is the fastest and most effective antidote, for immediate relief and as a vaccination for the future.

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Imperfect fitness sessions

There are good days, and there are, well, not-so-good days. The important thing is to show up.

This is true for life, and it’s true for fitness. (It’s actually the banal things in life that often prove more challenging to show up for, I find.)

Fitness has increasingly become important to me, in such a gradual way that I did not even realise it before it had become a natural part of my life. Just because it is so integral or I’ve been doing it for a long time does not mean it happens easily, however. There are days when it is a challenge to keep up with my commitment to staying fit.

Like today.

I woke up, groggily. It’s getting colder now, so staying under the covers was definitely tempting. Nevertheless, I dragged myself out and tried not to think about anything as I put on my workout gear. I rolled out my yoga mat, and stared at it for a few minutes. Move, my brain said. My body refused. I just stood there, blank. It’s challenging to motivate oneself when the brain and body are not in sync.

Moments passed. My workout flashed through my mind, the exercises I wanted to do, how great the exertion would feel as a reward. Visualizing failed. I didn’t move. So, I thought, I’ll stretch.  Let me start with that. Maybe, once the blood starts moving and the energy is coarsing through, I’ll crank up the machine for more energetic pushes.

I stretched, more than I usually do. I stayed with the stretch, moved into it, and felt it fully. Like a lazy cat, I flowed down the length. Soon, I was gently tugging out a shoulder here, leaning my neck this way and that, breathing into the little movements to occupy them completely.

The workout never materialized; it was filled, instead, with a long-drawn stretch session. Not what I intended, not what I planned on. Still, I showed up. Sometimes, it’s all that matters, reporting for duty. It keeps the momentum, even if at a lower pace than expected, and it’s a vital affirmation to oneself of one’s commitment. That’s the difference between motivation and discipline. That’s the true measure of success – it may not feel like it at the time, but soon enough, with each little step, with each effort to keep moving forward, success is achieved.

(I wanted to share this because I have just written about discipline and how it has helped me with my fitness regimen, a recent blogpost called A thousand tiny choices. That blogpost might feel too perfect, like it’s easy to make the choice to work out every time. I wanted to share the struggle it is to make the choice, and how unwieldy the choice can be. Nevertheless, making the choice, however imperfect, is what matters.)


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