As roughly 35,000 people prepare to leap about in yogic positions at Rajpath to mark International Yoga Day, I find myself reflecting on my own experiments with meditation, or dhyana yoga. In the last decade yoga has been embraced by the hipster brigade in India, sending its popularity soaring among the young and the cool. I would like to believe they see yoga not just as another way to stay slim but I don't. I hear a lot of talk about how meditation has changed people's lives, made them less antsy, but a quick survey of Facebook and Twitter will show you no evidence of that.
I can see the lure though. In the past I have been attracted to meditation by this promise of a calmer mind. One could engage with the world with more calm and grace, one admits reluctantly, and in search of that equilibrium, to be able to accept that people are annoying and will remain so, I have tried meditation several times. But it didn't begin with a choice.
I don't think I will ever forget that day, seven years ago, my first brush with meditation in the unlikeliest of circs. I used to work for this large media house where my superboss was very fond of me but thought I wasn't up to the mark when it comes to being calm and dignified. From time to time, she would try to get me, and a few others (the bratpack you could say), to do things that would improve our human quotient.
"I've arranged a meditation class for you in the office," she announced one day.
"Oh how lovely!" I replied, secretly quite stumped at this.
But, like the Indian cabinet, we never said no to our dear leader, and we were always happy. To paraphrase Rumi, everything was awesome.
So off we went to meditate the next morning to the… cafeteria. At 9am, the early shift people came to the café to eat idli sambar for breakfast. Superboss had instructed the office boys to pull the chairs from under the idli-eaters and arrange them in four rows, theatre style. We lined up, me in the front row, facing menacing-looking idli-eaters (now standing) watching us with a mix of resentment and awe. Perched on chairs in the absence of yoga mats, we breathed deeply and in unison under the instructions of the teacher, waiting to feel relaxed and evolved. And then she said the sentence that has remained stuck in my mind forever: "Repeat after me," she said in her gentle even voice, "I am relaxing my toes..."
A giggle escaped my mouth before I could control it. Glances were exchanged and soon the whole class was falling off the chairs with laughter. It was all very relaxing but perhaps not quite in the way it was envisaged. "Are you relaxing your toes?" became a forever-joke between us. We never returned to the meditation class. Superboss gave up on me and I gave up on meditation.
Or so I thought. As I raced along in my 30s, it became clear to me that life's stresses are here to stay and the aforementioned promise of meditation seemed appealing. So when for a work trip I went to the first destination spa in the country, known for its yoga uniforms, I pounced upon my chance to meditate properly (on mats). Apart from group meditation classes, I also signed up for private ones (at upwards of two thousand rupees per hour) and showed up for the first one before the guru. The guru took one look at me and summarily asked me to stop thinking of everything. Right, okay.
"Focus on nothing," he said.
"Okay." I replied, impressed.
"Don't pay attention to the traffic."
Traffic? Hey, I hadn't even noticed the tooting trucks outside. Now I could hear nothing but the trucks. And the birds. I tried to focus on the birds. Then he turned the heat on.
"Don't move, be still."
The minute he said this, my feet started itching, and then my head. He looked at me with disappointment and disdain. He asked me to lie down so I could stop looking outside the window, but then I went right to sleep - at this he struggled to maintain his calm but said that sleeping was also a way of meditating. Why didn't anyone tell me that? I can do sleeping. In fact I doubt if anyone can do it better than I.
If this didn't put me off meditation forever, that PT master Ramdev certainly did, what with his hairy underarms on display at every given opportunity. A friend (clearly with a secret grudge) suggested I watch dhyana yoga videos by Ramdev and attempt meditation on my own at home. This began badly when the YouTube video started with Katrina Kaif encouraging me to buy a fairness cream, my mood souring more than usual. Then Hairydev came on, looking very much like a Ramsay Bros creation, and started mumbling things in Sanskrit that sounded more like a havan in progress than a meditation chant I could follow. And how am I supposed to relax with this mountain of hair in front of me anyway?
I wouldn't have ever done it again if I had not found myself in Goa in the monsoon with nothing to do. The hotel staff encouraged me to try their meditation class (this seems to be a common trend with me) and, so, with considerably little hope, I went.
"We'll focus on your sins," said the guru.
Oh! Oh okay. Right. Sins. My God. I was terribly impressed by this guru. This was the real stuff. He was going to make me focus on my sins, make me feel bad about myself, and then make me feel better after all. Nervously, I started to search my mind for a recent sin, scared to unearth something I may have pushed away into the subconscious. This is when he interjected.
"First, focus on your left sin."
It took me quite a while to figure out that he meant for me to focus on my bodyparts in an effort, like the first teacher, to relax each part individually. When I did realise this, however, most unfortunately, I burst out laughing uproariously.
Perhaps the only form of meditation I haven't tried is Isha. I did visit Sadhguru's giant "ashram" in Coimbatore once but ran away before anyone could make me wash plates in the name of personal growth. If Sadhguru had not started a mutual admiration club with Modi on Twitter, I may have considered trying Isha meditation out but how does one trust a self-proclaimed enlightened being who, like Ramdev, cannot keep his hands off the political pie?
The much-adored Khushwant Singh routinely said that meditation is hogwash and peace of mind is a sterile state that leads to nothing good. Even if you don't agree with that, I'd still argue that there's no point trying to strive for a permanently even state of mind - not in our country at any rate. All of us try to cope with the world with more calm and grace; sometimes we win, sometimes we fail. There will be moments when we might feel above worldly worries and we must enjoy those moments and be glad for them instead of locking ourselves up for 20 minutes every day feverishly trying to be peaceful.
I think the closest I have come to a meditative state of mind was last month. I was in the middle of a forest, where my cottage, hanging over the edge of the cliff, was swinging so wildly that I couldn't sleep. I went out when it was still quite dark, with nothing but the wind outside. I walked among soaring trees and could hear the call of at least ten different birds. I felt a strange relaxation - almost as if I could walk endlessly without any effort, as if I was gliding by instead of walking. This, I thought, was that peaceful state of mind I've often desired. Here I was, without any rituals or chant, finally able to well and truly relax my toes.