Life before yoga.
“My life was dominated by severe physical pain and the resulting mental confusion,” shares Seema Sondhi, candidly. “The pain was because of a distressed lower back, owing to 3 slipped lumbar discs. I couldn’t move without the help of a belt. I struggled to cope with the situation, and with its impact on my marital/domestic responsibilities; as well as on my two young daughters.”
When all of it became too much too handle, Seema turned to yoga; and found a teacher who could come home and give her lessons.
“My life changed from that first class itself. I simultaneously vowed that this change, obviously for the better, was here to stay; and that it would do nothing except improve the quality of my life, and my fabric as a person. Within 3 months, my body was significantly stronger, my mind, clearer. I knew exactly what I wanted to do for myself in the future. I could feel everything falling in place, because the way I’d begun thinking, had changed,” she smiles.
How yoga caused this epiphany – and she didn’t even know it at the time.
Seema laughingly confirms: “Yes! At the time, I didn’t know how this change was making itself evident, and how I was becoming sensitive to the realisation that it was. As I delved deeper into the study of yoga, I learned that yogic mechanisms work their way through the 5 layers of the body. As people, we only tend to remain connected with the physical layer; and tend to ignore, underestimate, or even get intimidated by the other 4 layers.”
“None that you don’t know of already, which is exactly what makes realising yourself through yoga such a beautiful and life-changing process,” Seema says. “These other 4 layers are your breath, mental space, intellect, and that final state of everlasting bliss that we all keep chasing.”
I remind Seema of the connection between everyone’s personal spiritual journeys, and levels of spiritual ascension, and that state of bliss. “Yes, that’s true. But your intentions, decisions, and actions are what define the nature, strength, and ‘speed’ of your journey.” Continuing further, she says, “What’s stopping you from feeling that bliss on a daily basis, little by little? Your own thinking! The more you practice yoga, the more you’ll find yourself saying that you’ve changed. I’ll give you my own example. It was only when I decided to alter the way I was going to approach my back problem, did my body actually undergo the envisaged change. Where I once couldn’t walk freely, with 6 months of practice, I was able to walk without my belt. By the end of the year, I was touching my forehead to my knees.”
At this point, I recall watching my aunt, my Guru, in yoga class, helping her students come one step closer to performing that posture correctly. I now know why she never judged, never admonished, never encouraged any inter-student competition with respect to this pose, or any other. The idea’s to find yourself, no matter how long it takes.
Seema’s journey as a student of yoga.
Vijay, Seema’s home-schooling instructor, announced one day that he wasn’t going to teach her any further. One year of instruction apparently showed him that Seema could actually go forward, and teach others what she’d learned.
“As much as hearing that made me happy, I wasn’t quite confident in my abilities as a teacher,” Seema says. “For the two years that followed, I was my own teacher. I practiced 7 days a week, without fail. I analysed myself as I practiced each pose, studied my breath as I held them; looking my strengths, and more so my shortcomings, in the face. The more consistently I did this, the more I understood that my own body was helping me learn, and improve. Again, this was happening because my mind was getting better at staying in the moment, a little less prone to wandering than it was the day before, or the day before that. This is the key to appreciating what yoga can do to you – acknowledging the present moment.”
Certified by the International Sivananda Vedanta and Yoga Centre, Seema has 15 years of yoga, wellness, and holistic lifestyle expertise behind her. “But, I’m committed to life-long study of yoga. My education will never be complete, because yoga is more than a fitness/health discipline. Everyday is different, it’s a lifestyle choice,” she clarifies.
Seema says she feels honoured to have met everyone who has mentored her along the way, including Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore. More recently, she’s training with Matthew Sweeney; who after 20 years of studying Ashtanga Vinyasa, has developed his own sequences. Seema is certified to teach Sweeney’s Moon Sequence. At the time of this interview, she was preparing to leave for a month-long trip to Sweeney’s retreat in Ubud, Bali. “30 days of yoga, that’s it”. The way Seema’s face radiates as each of these words leave her mouth tell me that yoga is truly a lifestyle for her.
The Inception of The Yoga Studio.
Seema launched The Yoga Studio (in Hauz Khas, New Delhi, India), in 2001. She asserts, “With the Studio’s launch, my only vision was to use yoga as a means of helping and healing people, the way it had helped and healed me. I wanted – I want – people to know that they can take sole, and complete responsibility; for changing their lives, through practice of yoga. I started The Yoga Studio with an open mind – I would teach whoever wanted to sincerely learn. Whether it was going to be just the 1 student, or 20, or 50, my vision entailed that the quality of my teaching, and sharing, wouldn’t suffer.”
I ask Seema if she faced any challenges along the way (with respect to opening the Studio). She stops the question mid-way with a tranquil nod of her head. “No, not at all. My entire family has been extremely supportive, and I know they always will be. Everyone does yoga now”. “Including the dogs”, I observe, as one of Seema’s dogs stretches out into a pose that ironically resembles the downward dog pose.
We take a moment to pause and reflect on the efforts of two women who really pushed Seema to make her vision a reality. Her mother, and my mother. With both our mothers in a better place now, we exchange a poignant smile as we realise that yoga is just another means of strengthening our bond as aunt and niece. Inside the Studio, she is my Guru, outside, she is my Bua. And I’m very proud of her. I’ve been dreaming of the day I’d write my 100th post on my blog, and I always knew I was going to dedicate it to Seema Sondhi.
“So I teach Ashtanga Vinyasa, therapeutic yoga (aimed at remedying specific injuries), and pregnancy (pre-natal and post-pregnancy) yoga,” says Seema. I take the opportunity to expand my understanding of the ‘8 limbs’ of Ashtanga.
Seema obliges. “The 8 limbs describe a code of moral/ethical conduct to live your life by. They help you understand the need for self-discipline, better health, and a more fine-tuned self-introspection, from a spiritual perspective. These 8 limbs are: Yama (non-violence, non-stealing, non-covetousness, abstinence, and truthfulness); Niyama (study of the spiritual texts and self-introspection, meditative practices and spiritual regimes, cleanliness, contentment, and one-ness with God); Asana (the physical practice of yogic postures, respecting the body as the home of your soul); Pranayama (mastery over breath control); Pratyahara (working towards sensory withdrawal/transcendence); Dharana (slowing the mind down in preparation of meditation, as Pratyahara successfully sets a distraction-free ‘stage’ for the same); Dhayana (the deep state of meditation, that continuously ‘flows’); and finally Samadhi (a complete merging with the Divine/Universal Source, or self-realisation).
All these ‘limbs’ are interconnected. The Yoga Sutras will tell you that without Yama and Niyama, you cannot successfully practice Asana, which is incomplete, even incorrect, without Pranayama. Each is a stepping stone to final self-realisation; and collectively, the 8 limbs are the building blocks of your character.”
Seema moves onto explain the Vinyasa element, “Vinyasa refers to application of the right pace of breath, and the correct positioning of the physical body; that allows a natural flow of movement from the previous Asana to the next. Usually, people mistake this dynamism of movement with Ashtanga, because they take a superficial interpretation of ‘anga’, which means ‘limb’.”
Addressing misconceptions about yoga.
“I can’t do yoga because I’m inflexible.”
“I can’t do yoga because it won’t help me lose weight.”
“I can’t do yoga because I don’t have time.”
“I can’t stop eating non-vegetarian food.”
Seema laments these are the most frequent complaints she hears from people, even from those who are learning yoga. She elaborates, “Yoga can be practiced at any age, at any time. Here’s the singularly crucial fact everyone forgets. No form of exercise will help you lose weight, if you won’t regulate what you put in your mouth. On that front, yoga will firstly help you exercise mental control – you’ll become mindful of what you’re feeling, what you’re eating. The asanas will help you tone your body, making it more nimble and fit. You’ll automatically lose the unnecessary weight, as a result of which your body’s flexibility will improve, as will your levels of stamina, and balance. And you certainly don’t have to give up non-vegetarian food, you only have to pay heed to the signals your body’s giving you, and respect them. That applies to everything you eat, and drink.”
The connection between yoga and meditation.
The words flow out of Seema’s mouth like natural breath: “Yoga IS meditation. You can’t practice Asana with a scattered mind – if you think you can, then whatever you’re believing to be Asana, isn’t Asana. Meditation refers to complete mindfulness, complete concentration on the present activity – be a they Asanas, or every-day activities like eating, working, or commuting from one place to another.”
On what makes yoga difficult.
Seema feels it’s a person’s attitude, and the associated decision-making mentality that makes it easy or difficult – after all, yoga requires self-discipline and restraint, patience, enthusiasm, and humility! After pausing to think for a moment, Seema observes, “If you ask me, what causes people to start yoga, and then give up halfway, is their inability to accept whatever current state of fitness/proficiency in yoga they’re at. Yoga doesn’t speak to those who compete with everyone else, it speaks to those who compete with themselves.”
All this discussion on bodily mindfulness reminded me of a question I always forget to ask my Guru:
Ever since I’ve been practicing yoga regularly, I don’t feel like eating much. I could go a whole day without eating! Why?
I’m rewarded with a guarded smile from Seema. “Maybe because you’re breathing right, life-giving oxygen is reaching deep into your cells and feeding them, and giving them energy. Your cells undergo a detox, they’re rejuvenated and full of fresh energy, because of which, you don’t tire out easily, even if you don’t eat. How do you think yogis are able to control their hunger, thirst, and their resilience to weather conditions?”
Some food for thought.
“Yogis are at levels beyond the physical sensory ones, and can tell their minds what to ignore. The point is, their mind obeys. There’s a deep interconnectedness between your mind, body, and breath. Have you noticed how you breath heavily, when you’re angry; or placidly when you’re relaxed? If you want to control your thoughts, learn to control your breath. The longer you ignore the significance of breathing right, the faster your mind and body will age.”
What then, does it mean to be a yogi?
Seema takes a deep breath before answering. “You know, to be a yogi means to be yourself – do what you want to, say what you want to. Don’t be controlled by anybody, don’t be a slave to any phenomenon. But, at the same time, have compassion and empathy for other beings – all of them. Above all, always be grateful. I can speak for myself, I’ve learned a lot in life, by being grateful.”
If you’d like to make queries, please call +91 9811131368, or email email@example.com. Below are details about the branches (appointments only).
Seema Sondhi – The Yoga Studio (Hauz Khas Branch)
D-43 Hauz Khas
New Delhi – 110016
Seema Sondhi – The Yoga Studio (Gurgaon Branch)
Intellitots Essel Towers Complex
MG Road, Gurgaon
(Image Credits: Personal/Seema Sondhi)