Spiritual hibernation and the realisation that ‘slowing down is not giving up’

Leading IPR lawyer Dahlia Sen Oberoi has been a known face in the publishing world, legally assessing manuscripts, fighting piracy and court cases for the industry. Yet, she disconnected from the rat race, learnt yoga and retreated to an ashram to find her moorings and live her life better. She is the creator of Dahlia Nrit Yog – an amalgamation of Yoga and Kathak – as a path to wellness.

It was not one particular incident, but a series of them leading up to that one moment when I decided to finally stop and take stock of my life as I knew it. A life in which I was busy being a lawyer for 28-odd years, striving to be good enough for clients to trust with their money and their confidence. A life of too many client meetings, too many plane trips, too many laptop-ridden hours and too much self-importance! I was running, and I was running, and yet I could see no trophy at the end of the race. Heck, I could not even see the end of the race. It was just one long track, with no beginning, no end. I had been the same old, same old, for way too long. Professionally, personally, even socially. You know how Bruce Springsteen says in Dancing in the Dark? “Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face?” I think I was in that zone…where I wanted to change everything about myself.

Had I exceeded my best before date? I had wondered then… I was grateful for all the success my profession brought me, but it equally burdened me with stress. From being a relatively easy-going person, I had become this overthinking professional, who was always looking for solutions to problems, both existing and imaginary. My clients’ strife became mine, and my life was bereft of harmony because of all the discordant notes from my client’s disputes. Then there was the façade of pompousness. And the burden of arrogance.

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Yoga to the rescue

Yoga came to me as just another exercise routine that was to be tried when I hit a plateau doing other stuff. Also, because it was peri-menopause time and my gynaecologist, none other than my Maa, had said a strict “No” to any kind of medication to treat the insane symptoms. The only option I was told was yoga… and if even that did not help, then to grin and bear it.

And so I did yoga off and on… It was when the body started feeling the positives of the practice that I decided to learn a bit more, not only about the physical asanas, but the philosophy behind them too, as also the meditation. I was convinced that this sudden urge to learn was only so that I could teach this form of wellness to others, to “give back.” And that is how I tricked myself, or rather as I was later made to understand, my mind tricked me. I had to go for others, not for myself!!! Such delusion. That was then.

Spiritual hibernation

Many discussions and research later, I found myself an ashram to go and learn yoga at. Then came the more important question. Could I actually take out a whole month, being away from work and home to just do something for “myself”? Didn’t the entire universe revolve around me? Wouldn’t things come to a screeching halt, if I did? Despite my grandeur syndrome, I felt something pushing me to go and even though I was in denial then, it was clear that I was looking for answers to questions which had not emerged yet. It was time to leave my world of entitlement and to look for my own version of enlightenment. Only I did not know it then…

It was with painstaking planning and many a second thought, that I found a time slot for myself to go on what I termed as my “Spiritual Hibernation.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into. All I knew was that I had to go. Was it the right time? I said to myself, “If not now, when?”

Lessons at an ashram

I went into the ashram with no preconceived notions. I refused to read even online reviews of the place and the teachers’ training course it conducted, lest I get influenced. And so it was with a blank slate of a mind that I entered the ashram in February 2020, at the age of 52 years and four months. Four months earlier, I had to wear braces for a dance performance owing to knee pain. And so along with all my essentials I had packed knee braces. They remained packed. Through the duration of the month-long intense yoga practice, physical, mental, spiritual and emotional, not once did I need those knee braces.

Ashram life was far, far removed from mine. Each day was the same. For someone who abhors discipline as she likens it to monotony, this was a parallel universe in which I was told what to do, what to wear, when to eat (the menu further confusing the digestive system!) and how long to sleep. I also learnt to sit in a cross-legged Sukhasana position for hours. Not challenging by itself, but doing so for long stretches of time definitely was. Add to it, sitting ‘still’ for long stretches of time. That was a whole new paradigm of challenge and change.

But this sitting still, just sitting still and not doing anything, translated into a calm that I had never felt before. Each day was regimented. Starting at the crack of dawn and ending in an exhausted midnight, every day was a lesson in pushing limits and finding new muscles that got sore. I would go without looking at a mirror for days and vanity not just took a back seat, it all but disappeared from my life.

Ashram was also a reality check. For the first time, the spotlight was not on me because the bunch of people I was with were better, way better. From being “star pupil” at my gym yoga classes to barely able to keep abreast in the ashram classes, I understood that one is only as good as one’s competition is. And yes, yes, I know about accepting oneself, faults and all, but what came as a startling revelation is that no matter how good you are at swimming, there always will be waters deep enough for you to be “out of your depth”. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Because it will make you break moulds, push limits and set yourself free.

Detachment from self-importance

The ashram also taught me not to hold on to every thought that came to my mind, “not to ride every wave.” And so it is that I gave up many waves that I rode on. I learned to be detached from my own self. To be a witness in every situation and not a participant. Ashram allowed me to meet myself again. To rediscover who I was, who I could become. And that it was okay to let go of the old and embrace a new. Okay to take a break, and get some me-time – and no, a day at the spa does not qualify!

Ashram prepared me to come back to my life, not to give it up. To not run away from my responsibilities, but to fulfill them in a better way. It taught me that to get hold of that elusive calm, you do not have to exit the chaos outside, just quieten the chaos inside.

Billy Joel famously sang in Vienna, “It’s alright you can afford to lose a day or two”… And yet, we don’t press pause. The pandemic forced us to hit pause the hard way. But slowing down is not giving up.

My shoulders are straighter now, my back more erect. Because I left my baggage of ego at the ashram gate. I now know that there are no “best before” dates applicable in life. All we need is refreshing and repackaging, and we are good as new. And while neither my clothes changed, nor did my hair nor face as hoped for by Springsteen, I did find a brand new identity. And all I want to say is, that if I can, so can you!

Find your own ashram, it may be in the mountains, by the sea or inside your own house. Wherever you find it, allow it to dwell inside you… Once built, it will remain within, standing tall – unbreakable and forever.

(Dahlia Sen Oberoi has just published Ashramed: From Chaos to Calm with Hachette India)

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