A few years ago, upon the insistence of a friend, I signed up for a five-day course with Art of Living, clueless about what it was. Being a self-avowed couch potato in the hazy years of middle age, which seems to be on fast-forward mode, one of the rare occasions when I move my limbs in organised motion is when I do aerobics or strength-training exercises.
Ergo, the idea of an oh-it-will-do-your-body-and-mind-much-good, and interacting with some friends, long lost social acquaintances and mostly total strangers appealed to the inherently-extrovert me. And there I was, one pleasant evening, month forgotten, at one of my favourite places in Lahore - the Royal Palm Golf and Country Club, the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the immaculately tended and beautifully landscaped golf course.
I breathed, sighing in contentment. It felt good before it could even begin.
Chatting nineteen to the dozen with people I had not met in ages, with many a grunt and groan, I settled down on a mat, and thus began my short journey into a realm I had no idea about. And what an experience it turned out to be. In a very positive way. Seated in a certain posture calmed the ever restless me, and staying quiet worked well for the ever talkative me, with even the noise in my head taking a break. Now don't read too much into my last sentence, I'm not crazy or anything! However, like all those for whom internalisation of pain is second nature, and brooding about even the insignificant is a part of living, I'm no stranger to sleepless nights, chaotic days and pains that are so chronic they appear to be phantom. Those five days of Art of Living didn't save my soul, but they did open a door for me that revealed the accessibility of understanding and recovery.
Being genetically inflexible - physically - to my relief, I found most of the moves easy, and once familiar, very fluid. If done properly and regularly, the body gets toned, and super fit. Yes, try it. The talking/sharing sessions, huddled in a unisex group of five to six, helped understand, all over again, how some issues and dilemmas are common to all of us notwithstanding the differences in our outlook, background, thought processes and jeans sizes. The thread of pain and suffering that joins human beings across aisles, statuses, ethnicities, nationalities, faiths and borders.
It was comforting to see very shy people open up to complete strangers without any fear of judgment. And there were frequent dance sessions, much to the dismay of a closet dancer like me, where no one broke a leg but swayed and shimmied - giggling and proving that most Pappus or Bubblys could not dance!
The breathing exercises help to heal. They helped me. Being an asthmatic and having sometimes been in situations where I had to catch my breath - someone takes your breath away or some have the power to knock out your breath - the Sudarshan Kriya helped me to be responsive to the one bodily process that is most essential for our existence and yet breathlessly taken for granted: breathing. Practising Ujjayi (victorious) breathing made me focus on parts of my mind that remain untouched most of the time, shutting out images and memories that torment my inner peace and turn me into an insomniac many a starless night. My headache became less of a monster and I slept much better. I also learnt that things tasted better if we just slowed down the process of eating. A grape feels like a heavenly fruit - which it is to many - once savoured slowly. And a sip of pomegranate juice feels like angelic nectar once your mouth learns to enjoy its taste. Forget my melodrama and try it yourself. Email me your gratitude, or better still, tweet it to me!
Moral of the story, many Pakistanis are regulars, in one form or the other, at practising that wonderful Indian gift to the world: yoga. And most of them are practising Muslims. That is simply because yoga is considered a mental and physical discipline, which when practised, endows the mind and body with calmness, endurance, strength and fitness. All very remarkable traits. Many a time, while at the gym or during talks with healthy, glowing people, I discovered the elixir of their eternal youth or enviable stamina: yoga.
And nope, not one of them thought it had anything that clashed with their religious practices or beliefs. In fact, many who wake up for their fajr namaz either go for a morning walk in the nearby park, or open their yoga mats to spend an hour stretching this or that way. No one in Pakistan thinks yoga replaces any religious practice or that it helps you to get close to the divine. We are not that gullible, contrary to the perception our rigid clergy may wish to propagate about us. We say our prayers, and that is a very personal act, something between us and our God. Then come our worldly activities, one of which is yoga, for those who benefit from it.
Over the years, I have been advised by many to take up yoga over my lament about chronic headache or sleeplessness, or the lack of peace in my life. That, to me, is in the vein of: drink eight glasses of water, eat lots of green or work out regularly. It is not suggested as an or/either with my religious practices. Our namaz is mandatory, something that is as much a part of our lives as breathing. Yoga or any other exercise discipline is voluntary - it helps us streamline our minds and bodies.
Those who think that if you or me adopt yoga, it would denote our attempt to attain peace for our souls are merely habitual nitpickers who hate anything that emanates from that land called Hindustan. When a Muslim does a surya namasakar - the solemn high-five that's shared with the big, hot, orange orb that gives the world life and sustenance - most of us purely perform another physical move without attaching a great deal of thought to it.
Yoga helps, but rest assured, the so-called guardians of that very personal thing called faith, that we are not swapping Allah for Om. One is a divine entity and the other is a manmade intonation. Mutually exclusive. No acquired discipline takes the place of the ibadaat you do for your God, and this simple truth must be as clear as the midday sun on a scorching June day. Now exhale.