Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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A Mom who meditates

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My favorite story about my childhood is one that my mom told me. Not really a story, just a visual. Me as a three year old, running in circles in the living room, twirling, dizzy, blissfully oblivious to those around me. I would shriek with the sheer thrill of watching my frock billow around my body.

If a picture could describe me perfectly, it would be that one. A busybee, a dervish, a spinning top. I like doing things. Life is movement, action. I am always caught doing something, even if it appears to be a passive activity such as reading. The mind is engaged; the body is alert. As a child, I was known as the girl who was easily bored. As an adult, I became the busy one. I considered myself the quintessential “karmayogi”. My brand of spirituality involved action. I was attracted to yoga for the dynamic asanas. I equated sitting still with dullness, lethargy, monotony. Life ever so obliging, threw me challenges that involved movement, action, drama and lots of opportunities to keep me busy. Every moment spent “doing” meant a moment away from introspection. Being around people meant less time for silence.

Silence scares me. Loneliness too. Growing up in a small apartment in a big loud city set the precedent for seeking out things to do, people to be with. Going inwards was as frightening as being lost in the woods. Hidden thoughts lurked there, guilt, blame, self-pity would come out in the quiet; those dark shadows that I had pushed to the back recesses of my mind. Meditation? Not for me.

Yoga came into my life soon after DQ was born, initially as a coping mechanism, a fitness strategy. I would get a happy buzz after each yoga class. Injected with a burst of fresh energy that propelled me towards more physical activity, material goals and personal development. It resonated with my basic nature. I integrated yoga smoothly into my life.

Meditation was another story altogether.

It took more than motherhood to move me towards meditation. It took loss and life changing decisions. It took significant shifts in life as I knew it, on the work front, marital front and major midlife events in quick succession before I moved step by step into the unknown inner world. Hesitatingly. Skeptically. Slowly.

The early sessions of silent attention to my breath to still the butterfly mind showed me glimpses of all that I feared. I cried when I relived my mother’s death. I choked at the return of hurtful words that had been exchanged during the divorce, I felt a fresh stab of pain when I realized I could never get a chance to recover those unhappy years and to live them once more. Meditation made me sick, made me mad, made me sad. A part of me knew that I needed this internal churning to push out my anger and release my resentment, to settle scores at the energy level, to heal wounds, not just seal them with time, as I had been doing until then. So I persisted. I sat on my yoga mat each morning for longer periods of time. Some days I felt light, other days a little disoriented. I learnt to feel comfortable in my own company. I spoke less. I listened. I sensed others, I understood myself. My eyes sparkled and my face glowed. Work that I loved flowed into my life without much effort. DQ and I moved closer as she entered her teens. I made peace with my single mom status.

Meditation didn’t work any miracles. Miracles happen in an instant of faith. For the scientific, logical, skeptic in me, I needed proof.

One week my printer suffered from a recurring paper jam. I hated the thought of having to lug the heavy equipment to the service center. I opened the front and back of the device each dayand pried out the little pieces of paper that I could see. But it still wouldn’t work. One night I went to bed knowing that I needed to attend to the dreaded task of getting it fixed. I woke the next morning with one single crystal clear thought – read the manual. I found the manual and within a few minutes of going through the troubleshooting section, I was able to get it working again. OK, perhaps this had nothing to do with meditation. But there was reasonable doubt that where the logical mind had not presented me with the obvious solution of studying the manual, the intuitive one had come to my rescue just in time.

Meditation gave me a peek into the future. A few hours before my father died in another city, I heard my dead mother’s voice responding to my pain at facing the inevitable. “We can’t be around forever, you know. It’s time. He has suffered enough.” “You don’t know anything” I replied, like I had done many times before, peeved and unreasonable in my ignorance. And then the news of his death came.

Meditation gave me hope. In my silence, I saw HH as a person with whom I wanted to share my life long before I met him. Not knowing how or when, I knew that I would experience a happy relationship. When the time came to decide, I was a little girl once more. I needed to know my parents reaction to my decision to remarry. I decide to sleep over it. I woke up feeling a loving presence in the room, I felt a gentle hug and a pat. I was sure it was my mother, endorsing my decision.

Meditation shows me the way. As I learn to blend our families to form a harmonious whole, there are challenges. I lack sufficient data to apply the scientific method to all situations. When logic fails, I sit and close my eyes. Without exception, I am guided towards a loving solution, one that is free of misgivings. As I still my mind, the answer flows gently, like a ripple over a clear lake. When I open my mind, I have no doubt about what I need to do.

As a toddler, DQ used to watch me do my asanas. Quite often she would come and sit on me as I tried to hold the upward dog pose. Now she has taken to yoga as a fitness activity.

Princess watches me now while I meditate. Curious about the stillness, she tries to make me open my eyes. I look at her and smile. She walks away, surprised.

I wonder what is in store for my girls. Life will throw challenges at them as they go about their journey. What can I tell them to help, I wonder? Children don’t do what you say but do what you do. When my girls need it, I know they will meditate, like me.

All I need to do for now, is meditate.

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10 things I learnt in an ashram

I spent a month in an ashram in Kerala last year. The goal was to get certified as a “yoga teacher” after the well-researched and intense residential course of study and a final exam. If there is one thing I take pride in, it is in completing every educational endeavor I undertake. I love exams. How hard could this be?

What I learnt was mind-boggling, uplifting and sometimes depressing. Depressing because the experience busted several of my myths about myself.

  1. I am a morning person

At home I enjoy having some time by myself each morning, a particularly productive time for introspection, inspiration and initiating the day in a peaceful way.

At the ashram, it took about three mornings in a row of waking up to the bell ringing in the distance to announce that there were only 30 minutes to the first task of the day that began at 6 a.m. By day seven, I was ready to get rid of the bell or the person ringing it, whichever was easier.

  1. I am a highly disciplined person who thrives in a structured environment

When I am at work, I enjoy the fixed routine into which weekdays and weekends fall into. When I am busy, I am motivated to accomplish more.

At the ashram, the morning and evening asana classes, the early morning and late night meditation routines, fixed mealtimes and the unyielding regimen crushed me more than any army boot camp. Each day I contemplated running away from the tried, tested, pre-decided schedule.

  1. I am generally open and accepting of others.

At work, I have done well on teams with people from different countries, backgrounds, cultures and personalities.

Each activity was monitored, every absence noticed and censured. I don’t know who I hated more, the teachers who seemed inhuman in their dedication or my fellow classmates who noted attendance.

  1. I can live with a variety of personalities

I grew up in a small apartment with two brothers, parents and a finicky grandmother. No personal space, no privacy, no problem.

My immediate neighbor in the dorm would stay up well after bed time rubbing cream into her face, an additional half hour on her hair each morning, time I would have gladly spent sleeping. There were nights when I came close to throwing a pillow at her to turn the lights off.

  1. I am not picky about food

A lifelong vegetarian, I love eating vegetables, happy to eat healthy.

The ashram food was timely, adequate and wholesome, day in and day out. Oh how I missed my daily caffeine, my regular desserts, my occasional junk food!

  1. I am physically fit

I have maintained a healthy weight all my life, practice yoga regularly and go for walks. I have as much stamina as people who spend hours in the gym each week.

After the 2+2 hours of asana classes each day, with multiple rounds of surya namaskars and pranayama, I had to drag myself up the steps to my dorm and collapse into a disturbed slumber.

  1. I can deal with heat and humidity

Mumbai is blessed with a hot and humid climate. I grew up playing outside every summer, traveled by trains packed with people and lived in a home with no air-conditioning.

I know now that April in Kerala should only be enjoyed from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. I could never be sure if my t-shirt was wet from sweat after an asana class or after a shower. I just know that it was always glued to my body.

  1. I am trained to do my work myself

My mother was a neat freak and wanted us to be self-sufficient. This meant learning to wash your clothes, cook your meals and keep your room clean.

A week into the ashram routine after I ran out of clean under and outer wear, I would have gladly paid anyone to would do my laundry. Why oh why can’t there be a laundromat in the ashram?

  1. I like being around people

Perhaps a result of growing up in a big city, I feel safer amidst crowds than on deserted streets.

With 120 classmates constantly hovering around from 6 in the morning, there was no place to hide, have a private conversation or even think. A quiet day by myself seemed a distant luxury.

10. I love practicing yoga

I really do. Yoga came into my life soon after DQ and has contributed greatly to my physical and mental health.

After 4 weeks of a brutal regimen, I had to seriously think about my relationship with yoga. Instead of a constant companion, for me yoga was more suited to being an regular but undemanding acquaintance.

It was an eye-opening experience. I was not too pleased to find out the limitations of my body, surprised at my mental strength that helped me stay the course and reassured by what I already knew – I loved the spiritual discourses on Vedanta the best.

Would I do it again? No.

What did I gain from the experience? Self-awareness.

Am I a certified yoga teacher? Yes, on paper. But as our asana guru said, “You can never be a yoga teacher. You can only be a yoga practitioner.”

That was what I was when I entered the ashram and that is what I am today. The journey continues.

As the Bhagavad Gita says “Yoga is the journey of the Self, to the Self, through the Self.

 


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Keeping me whole

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“Yoga is not exercise” emphasized the gentleman with kind eyes and a soft voice. Although surprised, I listened intently to the instructor in this new yoga class that I joined today in Singapore.

This isn’t the first time I have found myself in a yoga class. The first time was more than 15 years ago, at the gym at my workplace in California. I was at the office 6 weeks after giving birth. My body was a shapeless over-inflated balloon, my eyes seemed permanently encrusted with sand. I dragged myself to work each day and took naps at my desk when I thought no one was looking. “Its always easy to spot the new moms” said my colleague with a smile, pointing to the tell-tale drool marks on my left shoulder.

My supportive boss who pretended to look other way when I was slumped in my chair, showed me the poster announcing the lunch-time yoga class. I was the only Indian woman (other than the instructor) in a class of 20, predominantly female employees. I was the novice, the one who came from the land where yoga originated. “You had to come to America to learn yoga ha?” smirked the woman on my right. “I had to come here to be stressed enough to need it” I replied haughtily. On that tart note began my initiation into the ancient practice of yoga, one hour at a time, twice a week. By the time the 12-week session ended, I was a rejuvenated woman. I looked forward to the classes and to each day. My eyes got back their shine, my body started looking a little bit like my former pre-pregnancy shape (just a tad thicker around the middle though) and only the baby took naps during the day. I was a happier mother and my boss was an overjoyed manager.

The journey into yoga that began with a single step into the aerobics room at work has taken me places.  Whether I lived in California or India, labeled a new mom or newly divorced, working woman or entrepreneur, I held fast to my yoga practice. From was initially a purely physical improvement program, the simple practice of being with myself for that one hour on the mat, allowed me to transcend daily travails. I inhabited a space of oneness.  

I stood tall in the tree pose; it enabled me to write every night about my baby, about being a working mom and my tightrope walk across the chasm of guilt that divided these two selves.

I did 12 sun salutations the day I left the home I shared with my husband after we moved to India, taking only my daughter and a few clothes with me.

I sat in the lotus pose as I pondered how to create a fruitful life as single mom in a culture that frowns on divorced women.

I bent over in surrender in a forward bend while accepting that death of my parents, both of whom died within a few years of each other.

Like a mother, yoga suffered with me in the days when all I wanted to do was weep in bed. Like an older sister, yoga quietly watched me trying to quiet my mind as it ran off in a hundred different directions, afraid of what would descend once it stopped moving. Yoga stood by me watching like a proud parent when I turned my life around to find meaning in each day. Like a mentor, yoga showered me with blessings when I found a wonderful man to once more share my life.

I have tried different styles of yoga, different gurus. I experimented with various routines, at various times of the day. I spent a month at a yoga teacher’s training camp at an ashram. Yoga is always on my mind, if not in my body during the months I practice daily and even the days when I waver.

I don’t weigh myself to monitor my gains when I practice regularly. I just observe myself many times a day.

I don’t go to a gym. I watch in silence as the sun comes up shyly over the hill that I can see from my bedroom window.

I don’t need a therapist. I stay present to my feelings as I experience them.

And I have yoga to thank for it. Ever the patient teacher, yoga helps me gently come back to my center whenever I wander too far.

I asked my first yoga teacher “how do I know if I am doing the asanas correctly when I do them at home?”

“It’s simple. Do you feel better after your practice? If yes, you are doing it right.”

I feel great. I must be doing it right.


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The Sweet Life

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It’s a rainy Monday morning. The children have left for the day, so has my husband. The clouds hang low across the trees on the hill in the distance, caressing the uninterrupted greenery on the horizon. I sit with the newspaper on my lap. My maid hands me a hot cup of tea to start my day. Bird calls surround me while a cool breeze blows in through the kitchen window. I look out the balcony and see the clouds playing hide and seek amidst the treetops, moving aimlessly together, and then apart, unsure of the plan for the day ahead. Like me.

 “It’s mid-February oready” – as the locals say. Four months since I moved to Singapore – this multicultural oasis that is now home. It has been a time of transition for the family and not just in the “we just moved here from India” sense. My husband and I, through our decision to marry, are in the process of building our blended family. We each had a daughter through our previous marriage and now we are four in a new place, a new job for him, new schools for the girls and of course, a new family of our own.

 It feels a little strange, not being a single parent any more. There is once again, a spouse, another adult under the same roof to share the days’ details – like the leaking sink or plans for the weekend. It is reassuring to not have to worry about paying the rent or running out to a full-time job to keep the home fires burning. It feels wonderful to have full-time help at home to take care of the mundane chores that form the bane of every housewife. For the first time in a long time, I am free to pursue my dreams, with time on my hands and no impending worries about the future. I have the support that I have craved – physical, material and emotional. I have in front of me days of unstructured time when the girls are in school, with no other distractions, time in which I can do exactly as I please. In short, the life I have always dreamt of.

I practice yoga every morning. Then I read. Or write. I look out the window and see a beautiful blue bird fly by. The monkeys that live in the nature reserve behind our condo seem particularly busy; single-mindedly climbing the flimsy barrier that supposedly protects the humans. There is a flash of red in the trees, some flowers sprouting in search of an early spring in a city that ostensibly has no seasons. The lawns are brown. We haven’t had a decent downpour in weeks. There is a slight haze, perhaps from all the particles floating around without the rain to push them to the ground, or is it from the brush fires in nearby Indonesia?

 A day like this would have been a holiday during the years I worked at a full time job while raising my daughter. I would hurriedly scribble my thoughts at night after the house was quiet. Now I find myself wishing for a busier day, a fuller life. The highlight of a well-spent day is in the dinner that I cook, scouring the net for recipes that will appeal to the varied palates and picky eaters at home. I can’t recognize this domestic goddess version of myself. I feel like an impostor. Will the real Ranjani please stand up?

 What is it about the human condition that always looks at what else, not what is? Is this striving a precondition of living or a conditional response to an ever-moving, grabbing lifestyle that we have taken for granted? I have been given the greatest gift of all, the ability to introspect, and time to do so. Outwardly it appears to be a time of transition for me. It is also one with the added blessing of these quiet moments to go within. I can choose how to make them meaningful. And I decide to follow Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for living a life”

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.