I first started learning yoga at the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1974 while spending a year there trying to figure out if I wanted a life as a film actress. Kaivalyadhama was founded in Lonavala in the late 1920s to disseminate the yoga teaching of Swami Kuvalayanandaji. Swamiji had been doing extensive research into yoga and modern science and was teaching these methods for health and healing. Soon it became apparent that more and more of the people who wanted to learn were coming from Bombay. They persuaded Swamiji to set up a branch in Bombay and this came into being in 1932. In the 1970s, this was the place to go to learn yoga.
At Shreyas, my school in Ahmedabad, we were taught all about holistic living, but somehow, yoga was never part of it. Papa used to do asanas at 5 a.m., an ungodly hour for me, so I was rarely privy to them; Amma, never. So I was not really exposed to yoga, growing up.
In Bombay I was getting bored and restless listening to endless useless ‘starry’ film scripts and needed to find a more worthwhile occupation. By this time my interest in wellness and being fit had taken root, and I felt I wanted and needed something that engaged my body. Yoga had intrigued me and I felt this was a good opportunity and time.
So I enrolled myself at Kaivalyadhama. The few months of learning were great fun and I looked forward to getting to the institute every morning. Once back in Ahmedabad and while I was doing my PhD, I used to dance a little and do some asanas in my room, but I wasn’t really committed to either dance or yoga, back then.
In 1976 I broke up with the man from Kenya whom I was engaged to. I was heartbroken, even though the decision to end the relationship had been entirely mine (and oh, so correct). I went into a deep depression and more or less locked myself up in my bedroom. I felt let down again, once by Papa and death, now by a man I loved and trusted and whom I did not expect would yield to a domineering mother. I could not stop telling myself that I could never trust men—a feeling I still battle with constantly, even twenty years into a very rich and committed relationship.
Our home, Chidambaram, in Ahmedabad, is on the banks of the Sabarmati (actually, used to be. Now
the Sabarmati Riverfront project has taken the river further away and a highway borders us!). My bedroom had a glass-windowed wall facing our lawns and the river. My favourite chair is a large one with armrests that take a notebook or a computer and a seat that is wide enough to meditate cross-legged in. It was handed down from my great-aunt Anasuya Sarabhai, friend and colleague of Mahatma Gandhi, the woman who fought for labour rights in 1918 and founded the first labour union in India, to Papa and then to me.
I spent four months of nothingness sitting in this chair, with my legs propped up on the windowsill, looking at the river and asking, why? Why did Papa die? Why did this man let me down? And then, in a Eureka moment, I woke up one morning with a single thought: ‘All I want is to dance.’
Amma had never tried to persuade me to take on dance as a career. Clever Amma. So finding it through a flurry of grief and grieving was a boon to both me and her. She too had felt lost after Papa’sdeath. Even dance had begun to seem pointless. But having me commit to it was a second innings for her and we plunged ourselves into working together. I started relearning the rare dance pieces of Kuchipudi that my amazing guru, C.R. Acharyulu, had taught me, and that is when I found I needed to get back to regular yoga.
The many sculpturesque poses that form the backbone of Kuchipudi demand a very flexible body and spine, and I found nothing better than asanas for this. C.R. Acharyulu was a shishiya (disciple) of the guru credited with transforming the dance drama form of Bhagavata Mela Natakam into the solo Kuchipudi that we know today. This guru, Lakshminarayan Shastri, had two favourite students, my Master and the much more famed Vempati Chinna Satyam.
Master arrived at Darpana in 1953, sent by Amma’s friend, the art connoisseur S.V. Venugopal (then officially working for Lux soaps). Amma had set up Darpana some five years earlier and was looking for traditional gurus. Venugopal thought that Master, who also had a deep knowledge of the Shastras and of Andhra shadow puppets, would be a good fit. Master was invited to join Darpana and arrived from Elluru by train, a journey broken by many stops and many telegrams to Amma that read, ‘Arrived xx. Taking rest. Will be newly arrived soon.’
His English was amazing in its ability to evoke the right images through the most bizarre usage of words. Including always calling Amma ‘Sir’. I inherited him at Darpana and started learning from him at the age of fifteen. He was one of my main sources of knowledge about our myths and legends, Shastras and texts. His joy in dance was perhaps what infected my Kuchipudi style the most.
Many years later, in 1999, I decided to introduce a yoga class for all the performers at Darpana, not
only for flexibility, but also as a pooling into the common consciousness every morning that I felt was
required in a performance company to work closely and creatively as a team. We have been doing this five days a week since then. And on tour wherever we are, as much as we can.
My yoga practice has changed from one that limbers up the muscles and makes the spine more flexible, to one that promotes wholeness and wellness and now, more recently, rehabilitates worn and torn muscles.
Till recently we have always had teachers trained at the Shivananda Ashram in Ahmedabad.
Then five years ago, having heard and read a lot about Iyengar yoga, I invited a teacher to come and take a two-week workshop. I was surprised that while there were Iyengar yoga classes in Budapest and Melbourne, there were none in Ahmedabad. The lovely Aarti Mehta, trained with her siblings by Guruji Iyengar himself, came to teach the workshop. She, her sister Rajvi and brother Birju have been running the main Iyengar Centres in Mumbai for years and are brilliant teachers. I loved what this type of yoga did and its possibilities for healing the body with props.
Since then, we have had many Iyengar yoga workshops and they have now started online classes for Ahmedabad students as well. Jyoti Patel from the Shivananda Ashram has been teaching us at Darpana, and we alternate between Iyengar and Shivananda styles, sometimes doing asanas fast in what is called power yoga.
Through the lockdown and the time after, when often my dance practice does not happen, and through a period of rehabilitation post an illness, it is my one hour of yoga that gives me the power to face each day, physically and mentally. On the weekends my body really misses it. Yes, I could do my asanas without a class, but doing it in a group has many positives, and a special energy.
Dance has become my go-to place for all moods and emotions—to celebrate, to weep, to vent anger and frustration, to feel alive, to feel strong, both emotionally and physically. And I don’t necessarily mean Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Often I play music loudly in my room and just dance as though I was at a party or a discotheque.
I love learning folk dancing at our folk and tribal dance centre, Janavak, founded in 1980. In the early days we invited a family from a tribal community, a different one each time, to come and work with us for a month, learning not only their dance and music, but their lore, why they did things the way they did, why they believed in certain things, what their customs and colours meant.
I remember inviting the family of the now famous Kalbelia dancer, Gulabo, in 1986. Both Gulabo and I had two-year-olds. We heard stories from her mother-in-law, and learned from her. I still love doing the Kalbelia dance. My personal repertoire goes from dances of the Gonds and Ao Nagas, to Bihu, Sambalpuri, Purulia Chhau and more. And Flamenco, which I learned for three months in New York, while I performed in The Mahabharata. Each style does something different to the mind and the body. Some are mystical and slow. Others vibrant. Others make your adrenalin pump and still others are aerobic and beautiful. Each invigorates differently. Each affects the mood differently.
Today science has proved repeatedly that dance unleashes oxytocin, serotonin and other ‘feel good’
chemicals in the body. Even if one doesn’t feel like dancing, the physical act of it, with music, makes
you release those chemicals and you do feel better, happier, more upbeat.
Excerpted with permission from In Free Fall: My Experiments with Living, Mallika Sarabhai, Speaking Tiger Books.