A Mindful Approach to Silence & Solitude

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a well-known scripture and various Indian and international yoga masters and scholars have interpreted the sutras in various ways. “There are so many commentaries by so many wise people and institutions the Krishnamacharya system, the Iynegar system but by the time these interpretations are further interpreted by teachers and brought to their students, the essence is diluted. We wanted people to experience the sutras. The ancient masters recommended that one should learn to chant them first. So the first level is to get people interested in chanting. That’s what japa is, and then after japa comes artha and then bhavana. The way to the mind is through the heart and music touches the heart so we made Seeds of Yoga with just 18 sutras (five songs) and the inspiration behind this is to reach the heart and the mind will follow. In fact, someone from the US messaged me and said they loved the sound so much, they would listen to it while practising and this is all we wanted. We want people to listen to become interested so they move into artha and from there to bhavana and take it off the mat. We want people to experience the meaning of the sutras through music. For example, ishvara pranidhana. I only want them to experience ishvara pranidhana through music. I don’t want to explain, I want people to experience. In that way, this is a visual, audio, multimedia expression of the sutras,” says Subba Vaidyanathan about the Seeds of Yoga music album. The album is conceived and created by Renuka and Subba Vaidyanathan, co-founders of BeingSattvaa

Subba’s background is in banking and engineering, and while he was practising yoga since 1988, at the time, his practise was erratic but in 2000, when his mum was diagnosed with cancer, he felt a significant shift and wanted to be present with his mother in the best way possible. He did this through yoga. “I’m an only child and when my mum got diagnosed with cancer (my dad passed away a long time ago), I wanted to be with her and in that moment be present with her in the best way possible instead of being present with her with anxiety or stress. I got into the practice of yoga seriously. Through that practice, I understood that yoga is body, yoga is food, yoga is breath, yoga is energy there are various levels at which this yoga happens so that is how it started. Then in 2004, there was another shift (the year of the tsunami). That year, I went into my first retreat of silence and solitude and there was a big shift that happened. I would say that is the second phase of my practice,” says Subba. A few years later, he reached the third phase of his practice and that led to the creation of Being Sattvaa in Ubud, Bali. “In 2008 - 2009, I was faced, as a banker, with the global financial crisis, and I reflected hard about how yoga needs to go off the mat and into the road and into offices, and how I should be present as a leader to my people, my clients and my organisation that was the third phase of my yoga practice. In all this, what I understood is that going back to our foundation of gunas, there is so much rajas and tamas in everything that we do, especially with respect to business. We only believe that we need to be rajasic to succeed or beat the competition. So I thought we need to bring a different dimension to this and in this spirit of bringing an ancient wisdom into and integrating it in today’s life and world, we used the English word  ‘Being’ with our ancient Sattvaa and that is how Being Sattvaa happened. We also felt that in today’s world it is important to be omnichannel. You can’t just be digital or face-to-face, you need immersive spaces too and you need to present in all forms so people can stay on the journey the journey of their best life.”

Subba and his wife, Renuka, first thought of creating a space outside Bangalore but life played out in a way that took them to Bali. “The flight from Singapore to Bangalore got cancelled three times (for completely unknown reason). So we saw a signal in that.  If something is being told to us, we listen. So we came to Bali for the first piece of land. We actually came to Ubud. We were clear we wanted to be in Ubud. We feel that the spiritual energy of Ubud is fantastic; the people are outstanding and the principle with which people in Ubud live their life is called Tri Hita Karana — balance within, balance with each other and balance with nature. That balance and is the principle of Tri Hita Karana. The land choice happened effortlessly and we found an architect, again by providence, and he came and looked at the land and gave us a sketch without even asking for a dollar — just by listening to our concept. Our concept was wherever you are, you have to be touched by nature and wherever you are you have to hear the sound of water, birds and even the sound of butterflies — we wanted to be touched by nature in this manner. People should know that we can live life sustainably this way and not be uncomfortable living such a life. We want them to be embraced by nature. That is the whole idea of the space so when you show up here, as soon as you walk in, you feel the shift,” explains Subba. 

Before the interview with Subba, I was reading up on his work and being in the yoga community for two decades, I’ve always wondered how yoga can be applied to people with busy urban lives. It’s easy to move inwards when we’re in the solitude of an ashram or in nature but how can these ancient techniques be applied to modern lifestyles and even a corporate lifestyle? Subba has an effective solution. “My fundamental work is to help people discover and then lead with their best self both in life and in work. There is no technology, no social construct, no economic construct, no political framework that can save humans unless the humans at the centre of creating and running these frameworks and technologies are self-assured, confident and bring their best self into every moment of creation and being who they are in that system. Otherwise, what manifests and multiplies is imbalance. So for me, this work to help people discover and lead with their best self is very important. Also for me, as a corporate leader, I have the credibility to go and speak with them. If I went to them as just a spiritual practitioner, they might say, ‘you don’t know my life,’ but knowing that I come from a similar background, they can relate to me and I make them realise that they don’t have to live a different life or be someone different when practising business and when practising spirituality. Both can coexist in harmony. The solution is integration,” advises Subba. I asked him how one can integrate mindfulness practises into a high-pressure, busy life? “I have a simple formula around this I call it Routines and Rituals. People don’t have time, so I tell them to try to integrate their practice with their wake time and also preparation time. For example, suppose there is a very important meeting today, I have to integrate into the preparation for the meeting how I energise myself for the meeting. I should make sure I eat a certain number of hours before the call. Before the call, I need to be in the right state of mind. It’s like what an athlete would do before a race they have a certain ritual before the race so if you consider some meeting important, or a conversation important, or any activity important, you have to organise yourself for that. That is what I call ritual. Other than rituals, there are routines. What do I do at sunrise? What do I do at sunset? What do I do at night? These can be easily integrated if you just take five minutes but you have to make sure your adoption is high your ability to adopt this practice it has to be more than 80 percent. Which means on eight out of ten days you should be able to do the routine and eight out of ten instances, you should be able to do the ritual. The outcome will be positive, which means your energy will be high and you will be able to integrate. Talking of mindfulness,  I tell people don’t just meditate, you have to go beyond meditation. Because if you don’t eat the right food, if you don’t move your body, if you don’t sleep well, if you don’t take care of all this, no amount of meditation will help. So my asana practice on a busy day is a five-minute workout. I even have a three-minute pranayama practice. They’re all high-impact practices but they are short practices, and I will always get them done. I have meditation practices or breath practices prior to a meeting. I have a specific practice when I sit at night in bed. So people need to figure out their routines and rituals, and when you figure that out, have a Sankalpa that you will follow the routines and rituals.”

While most of the world started using Zoom during the pandemic to work and even yoga classes were being offered on Zoom, Subba has been using the platform to offer meditative practices since 2017. He even ran a non-stop meditation practice for 108 days during COVID and “from that was born a series or programme called ‘calm in chaos.’ The foundation of that was also based on yoga and the yoga sutras, and this programme is based on three layers essentially my whole principle here was people should know what to do and people should know how to integrate spirituality with their being. I call the process from not knowing to knowing, knowing to doing and from doing to making it your new way of being. The first layer in the programme is called focus, the second dharana or flow and in the third layer we rewire our subconscious mind so ‘transform’ is the third and final layer. In the first layer, we just train people to focus, in the second we train emotions, and then the last one is about how you can change the way you’re wired to think because we all operate on default ways of thinking but as things change and you are presented with a new situation or environment, you need to rewire how you think, and only then you will able to solve what you have been unable to solve with your current wiring, and this is how we grow. So how do we do this through meditation? I will give you a few examples, like to build focus, we make people focus on sound, or their breath, or even thoughts. I also include talks that explain the process so people understand why we meditate, how to meditate…but the most important in all of this is which meditation to use for what. This is in keeping with routines and rituals. For example, if you want to build focus, what meditation should you use? If you want to build emotional strength or self-confidence, do a gratitude practice because it raises serotonin. So people should know which practise to apply when. And, I always say, don’t just meditate. So what does that mean? For example, in every sitting the focus is about meditation but then when you move to managing your emotions, you also have to add a layer of journaling and if you have to rewire the way you think, you also have to include fasts. So when you combine these things, that is when you go from knowing to doing to being, otherwise you keep meditating on acceptance and nothing will change because you have to add fasts and journaling to it for true change to be integrated into your new way of being. I ask people to work for specific challenges in their life, and to solve it through meditation. After all, when will you continue to exercise? You do it when you feel the impact of the exercise on the rest of your life. Or, when will you continue to eat right? You do it when it works for whatever metric you want to achieve or to feel healthier, have more energy, etc. So essentially, unless the meditation impacts your life, you won’t continue. We’re living in a world where people don’t want to spend ten years meditating to see how it impacts them in the next ten years after that.  We want things that impact our present and our today so when we see results, we will commit to a long-term practice. As yoga teachers, it is our responsibility to solve problems here and now.”

All of Subba’s meditation and mindfulness programmes are based on his personal experience of silence and solitude. As a practitioner of Vipassana, I asked Subba about his annual silence and solitude practice that he’s been doing for 15 years. But, his experience of silence didn’t come from Vipassana. “I see the benefits of Vipassana and agree with Goenkaji’s teachings. So many people ask me about Vipassana as it is the most well-known practice of silence. But I haven’t practised Vipassana even once. I was inspired by something completely different. I took up this practice in December of 2004 inspired by a book called Nine Steps to Transform Your Life. I decided I wanted to try silence and solitude even though it wasn’t even prescribed in those nine steps. I started off with four days and I do it at home every year. I’m locked up in a room in solitude, there is nobody else with me and I allow this practice to flow naturally but it has certain ingredients. So I will have some practise of breath, some practise of chanting, some practise of meditation, one knowledge text that inspires me but I am only allowed to consume knowledge for 30 minutes a day. The rest of the time I have to be present with myself so I call this my day or my time with myself. I have to be present with myself in the spirit of being my best friend. In that spirit, fundamentally, I don’t have to be anyone. I don’t have to achieve anything, I have no goals. So during those days, I’m truly nobody. I have nothing to solve or resolve. I just have to be present. The beauty is that this presence brings out fantastic awareness and you have to be open to the awareness. Certain intentions will call out to you and the process will also make you understand what is stopping you from being on your true path. It’s an understanding and awareness of the self in a non-judgmental space and frame of mind. So that’s the spirit with which I started but it's grown a lot since then. It has helped me a lot in my spiritual progress…I feel the power of silence is underestimated. One should experience the power of silence and feel its beauty. But, you have to stay with the practice,” explains Subba.

I totally agree. For any practice to work whether it is asana, meditation, pranayama regularity, sincerity and a willingness to change is essential. Subba also advises teachers and students to remember to take their practice off the mat, “There is a life off the mat and it is by bringing yoga off the mat and into life and work is how people can be truly uplifted. It is ok to start on the mat but you have to take it off the mat, too. If you don’t, you will feel like you are living a dichotomous life and not being true to yourself. Slowly integrate your practice off the mat. The most important message I want to send to people is abhyasa dirgha kala nairantarya satkara — it means with sincerity, practise over an extended period of time. As a banker and an engineer, I like maths. If I can grow one percent everyday, just one percent, I am better today by one percent compared to yesterday and tomorrow I will be one percent better compared to today and so on and in a year’s time, I will be 36 times better, in two years, I will be 15,000 times better than the person I am today, so the power of compounding is huge and people have to understand that’s all they need to strive for. Take one breath better today than yesterday. In one situation in life, be slightly better today than yesterday. You can even be worse tomorrow and fall off the rail but then be better the day after. Allow yourself some allowance but don’t give up if one day goes wrong. Nobody becomes an olympic athlete overnight. Same with yoga and spirituality.”

For further information on Subba’s work, visit Being Sattvaa