Ira Trivedi on leading Yoga Day celebrations at Rajpath
As I practised, I felt strong, centred, graceful, beautiful and connected.
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There were yoga mats and people till the eyes could see. It was 6am and I stood at the podium at Rajpath in a bit of tizzy - partly because I had woken up at 3am (an urgent call had me up typing a document for the prime minister on the asanas that the program would include) and also because I hadn't slept more than three hours in the past week. But more than anything else, I was startled and awed by where my yoga journey had brought me - getting ready to lead 35K people, more people doing yoga together than anywhere, ever, in the history of the world.
Close to a decade ago I had entered the Sivananda ashram on somewhat of a whim. I had gained 15kg during my first year in college, and for the next two years I had been on one fad diet after another crushing gym routine. I had developed major body image issues and was teetering on the brink of bulimia.
In my desperation, I googled "yoga+ Ayurveda+ weight loss" and the auspices of the Internet took me to the Sivananda Ashram website. A week later I was in Kerala for something called a "yoga vacation".
I returned home happy with the few kilos I had shed. Little did I know at that point, that those two weeks of yoga, meditation and more bhajans than I had collectively sung in my life had kickstarted a subconscious transformation. It wasn't a big bang, divine realisation that came to me while I was meditating on a mountain top (though we did that too.) The kinds of changes that I was going through were subtle - they were happening without even me even realising it. The only tangible feeling was my conviction to hit the yoga mat, every day, no matter what. It wasn't about weight loss anymore. Even though I had come to yoga to lose weight (and I had) I was quickly learning that yoga was about so much more. Without even trying or even wanting it, I had stopped partying hard, I had stopped drinking, I had turned vegetarian.
A year later I was back at the ashram, this time to do my teachers' training. I expected the month-long teachers training to be as breezy and heartening as the yoga vacation, but I was in for a surprise. I had been having neck issues over the past few years (professional hazard) and my doctor advised me not to attend the training, where we would be doing over 200 hours of yoga. But I was adamant. I was in between books, and I felt like it was now or never. So I set off to go to Uttarkashi, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and on the very first day of the course, in my enthusiastic attempt to do a head stand, I injured myself. For the rest of my teachers training, I could barely do any yoga. I wore a neck brace, popped painkillers and watched in envy as people as people balanced on their heads, and I couldn't even try. I returned home angry at the experience I had had. I told myself that I was done with yoga; it was time to move on. But it wasn't to be. No matter how I tried, the mat always pulled me back. I continued my practised and realised that slowly and steadily yoga was curing me. Within six months, I began getting into that head stand that I had always envied. Yes, I still had neck pain (I still have it) but it was when I was stressed out or worried, and if I did yoga every day, the neck pains too would stay away.
The ashram always called me back. I found myself in Trivandrum, twice a year, for some event or the other, and since the ashram was only an hour away, I couldn't keep away.
Over the years, I did many courses including brutally difficult ones, which entailed nine hours of yoga a day, and others, which had, be on a juice fast for two weeks. I began teaching too, because it brought me in touch with people. The life of a writer is not easy. We don't have to report to bosses, nor do we have to go to an office, we can start and end work whenever we want, or just skip work if we feel like it. But it is also lonely, often stressful, and sedentary and on the days that you just can't write - utterly depressing. Teaching was bringing emotional and mental balance into my life.
A few months ago when I was asked by the Director of the Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga to help in International yoga day preparations. I was hesitant to say yes, but I also couldn't say no. After all the director was my teacher, and it seemed like this somewhat vague concept of yoga day was probably something good.
The real frenzy began a few weeks before when the director told me that he needed me to put my writing to work - I had to prepare the script for yoga day. We had to do every single asana prescribed in the official yoga protocol, and we had to instruct in not one but two languages. The yoga session that we would conduct could not go a second over 35 minutes, or else we risked losing the world record that we were hoping to set. At first we thought it was impossible. The protocol took 35 minutes with basic instructions in one language, how could we manage two? Over tedious days and anxious nights, I wrote and edited like a maniac, but till even the day before the event, at the grand rehearsal, we clocked in 36 minutes.
But the yoga gods were with us. On June 21, we finished the instructions within 35 minutes. The stern lady from the Guinness book of records stood besides the stage with a timer in her hands. Each one of us three instructors had a timer on, and every second of each asana was coordinated in two languages, between the four demonstrators and us.
Our start was a little shaky, mostly because none of us expected the prime minister to leave his perch on the stage and join the crowd. For the first few minutes there was chaos in the front lawns, and a clear tension in our instructions. I had the extra challenge of giving my instructions in both Hindi and English. My Hindi is colloquial, and the instructions that we gave were technical and consisted of difficult words I had never come across before. I also spoke English with an American twang, picked up from my growing up years in the US. The bureaucrats who were supervising us had warned the director - I would be kicked out if I didn't mend my accent and pronunciation (that went badly during the rehearsals). I practised each word, over and over again, so much so that they are still floating around in my brain (sa- HAA-yak) (san-too-lit) but lady luck balanced on my tongue that morning, and I didn't mispronounce any word, though Baba Ramdev gave some odd looks when I instructed in accented English.
I woke up this morning at 4am, thinking that I had to run off to Rajpath for practice. Then I remembered that it was all over, and I couldn't pin down what I was feeling - relief, happiness, emptiness? After the overwhelming event, I had promised myself a break from yoga, but I couldn't help but crawl back onto my yoga mat.
And then I began my practice. Given the yoga frenzy, it had been a week or maybe more since I had been able to do my full, solo, practice, and as I closed my eyes and stretched into various asanas, I remembered why I did this practice. Just this feeling alone was wondrous. The closest it can come to is the feeling one gets after drinking ice-cold water on a very hot day.
As I practised, I felt strong, centred, graceful, beautiful and connected. Yoga was where I became, present, grounded and steady. Yoga was here to stay, it had became a part of me, whether I liked it or not, and I am immensely thankful for that blessing.