On my first day at the ‘Art of Living’ ashram in Bangalore, I met a recently graduated contemporary artist who was there for reasons not very different from mine. A general absence of distractions and an over-analytical temperament wreaked havoc on my mind for a while before I decided to do something about it. So, there I was, not knowing what to expect but desperate for some relief.
Why did a 20-year-old turn to a spiritual retreat to find relief from an anxiety-ridden mind? Well, because alcohol didn’t help. It did, for a brief while, before I was left feeling worse than ever. I learnt, very early on, that substance abuse was barely a lasting solution to what I was going through.
The artist, who was also my roommate, became a constant companion through those three transformative days at the ashram. Our schedules allowed for no spare time: we would start our days with yoga and follow that by attending lectures, interacting with people in the ashram, intensely meditating for hours, listening to spiritual discourses, and, sometimes, singing, dancing and praying in unison.
On the last day, after one of our meditating sessions, my friend/roommate came to me and said something that summarized just about everything I took back from this experience. Being a heavy smoker for quite some time now, she said that she had never experienced a high this intense and that she never expected to be able to live without it, let alone experience something that transcends it.
I had one reason that drove me to practice yoga, but by the time I left the ashram, I had many reasons to make it an intrinsic part of my life. If I had to lay it out simply, in three days, I was a happier person with more mental clarity and focused than I had ever known. I slept better, ate healthier, and most importantly, found a community of people who valued compassion, kindness and truthfulness.
The ancient Indian practice of yoga, mentioned for the first time in the Rigveda, is now a popular mainstream exercise for over 300 million people around the world. Surprisingly, it is even more widely practiced in countries like the USA, Canada, and Australia than in India.
With celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Madonna and Mathew McConaughey famously declaring how yoga helped improve their wellbeing and reduce the crushing anxiety that is often a part of their public lives, this practice has a large following of people who seek some sort of inner peace, strength and joy.
As with any exercise, yoga, too, has physical benefits such as: an increase in flexibility, balance, strength, and stamina. Studies show that regular practice of yoga can aid in weight loss and improve cardiovascular health to a substantial degree. What sets yoga apart from all other forms of exercise is that it benefits the body, mind, and soul.
An article in Harvard Health Publishing suggests that yoga can improve cognitive brain functions such as learning and memory. Meditation can elevate brain chemicals, improving mood and decreasing stress levels. The Psychological Health Care blog illustrates how yoga can boost serotonin to promote feelings of overall wellbeing and happiness.
While there are several types of yoga that one can practice, what I find most enjoyable is that there are no stages to accomplish. There is no right place to start either. Yoga honors individuality and can be something that you turn to for a little inner calm when the world outside seems to be spinning too fast.
From what I have learnt from my days at the ashram, if you realize what it is that you are truly seeking, there is always a way to actualize it. As someone who is a product of a fast-paced, media-driven, and sometimes superficial world, I have felt its heaviness dampening my spirit, and I have found solace in an unexpected but profound place. As long as I am here, I will always have my breath to center me, my body to feel at home, and my mind to provide a heightened sense of awareness and deep inner peace.