BEING ME: Subba Vaidyanathan

MY STORY, MY CALLING

I am someone just like you, trying to live a better life and, in the process, making an impact on the world.

Photo: Renuka Vaidyanathan

Living my True Life, finally!

By Subba Vaidyanathan

My life has had humble beginnings, and over five decades, has witnessed many exciting and challenging times, perhaps like most of yours.

It is my belief that sometimes your life becomes a struggle only so that you can gain the wisdom and courage to live it the way it was intended to for you. Unfortunately, most of us remain unaware of this, and continue living in a state of stress, insecurity, anxiety, frustration, and even, fear.

Isn’t it empowering to know that in shifting this mindset lies not just our respective best lives but the very future of humanity and our planet?

The purpose

I still have vivid memories of the evening of January 27, 1978. I was in Coimbatore, a town in Southern India, a place with fond memories of enjoyable summer vacations with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. This evening, though, was anything but joyous. I was sitting in a traditional horse drawn cart next to my dad’s body, accompanying him on his last journey after he had lost his battle to a kidney ailment.

As a young boy of 14 who had just lost a parent, I looked inward and saw conflict— should I pay attention to the present tragedy or to the questions about how survival would look like in the near future? In that moment I felt a sense of purpose that gave me more power than any amount of empathy I would have received. The power of duty. A duty of a son towards his mother.

I submerged myself in studies, working day and night towards one single goal—get into the best engineering school to secure my future and that of my family. No time for teenage shenanigans or even for the study of ancient texts or philosophy, that I felt so drawn to.

For the next three years, till I made it to engineering school, my duty would remain my purpose and in that my energy to live through each day.

The drift

I made it to the best of engineering and business schools in India. I naturally went on to find a job that helped me cushion my life, and the challenge of survival passed.  India was opening to the world and turning into a land of opportunity. There was much to do and lot to achieve.  In the pursuit of success, I had little time to practice breath, meditation or any other childhood learnings. After all, there was no need for any of them. I was young, strong and living a life many could only dream of. Or so I thought.

As work progressed in the corporate world, I found myself heading large teams, and enjoying a high-flying lifestyle. But, for some strange reason, the rainbow always felt many miles ahead.  Success always felt like a future episode.  While my work responsibilities grew, I seemed to be searching for that elusive “something” that connected me with my career. To everyone, I was a success story, and yet, on the inside, I felt like a person lost in the dark woods searching for a way back home.  I had lost my rudder and there seemed no way out.

Many years on, as I reflected on this period of my life, I saw it as one where I had slowly drifted away from myself.  A time when my uncertainties within had tested every relationship.

The realization

It was the summer of 2000. I was now a family man, a banker working in the Middle East. I woke up to an early morning call from my mom. She wanted to first wish me on my birthday before sharing the news of her undergoing tests for cancer. Her voice was edgy and nervous and, a day later, we heard the inevitable. Trauma often brings back one’s purpose, and so it happened to me.

We went back to India to be around my mother during her time of crisis and support her through her treatment. The more time I spent with her, the more I realized I needed to repair my relationship with myself—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

I picked up where I left off at a naturopathy retreat I had visited a decade ago. During my mom’s path to recovery, I reconnected with and deepened my practice of yoga—movement, breath and meditation. It was also my first tryst with energy healing which played a huge part in her healing.  I also, finally, had the opportunity to taste the magic of our ancient texts.

It felt like a new beginning.

The practice

The banker in me arrived in Singapore on September 2001 when humanity woke up to a new world of global terrorism with the fall of the twin towers in New York. Asian economies were impacted as the dotcom bubble burst in the United States, and Asia suffered its own epidemic of a respiratory disease called SARS. It is in this environment that I was to experience business in Asia.

To sustain my performance at work in this challenging time, I started running marathons to keep myself moving, practiced yoga of body, breath and mind to untwist and refocus, and followed a raw food breakfast regimen to keep me energized and immunized.

I celebrated the end of 2004 with a three-day practice of solitude in silence: not in any Vipassana retreat but just by myself at home. It was something that I had decided to do while reading Karma Manual, a book by Jonn Mumford. It was to be a time to unplug from devices and connect with my questions, anxieties and beliefs.

Since then, I have observed this practice of meditation, nature walks, reflection and journaling in silence and solitude for 14 years. This annual time with myself helps me to restore inner balance, calming the storms of the year that was, and preparing for the times ahead. But more than anything else, this pause time gives me the space and ability to be with me, understand me, and in the process, grow me.

The gratitude

When I landed at London’s Heathrow airport on September 15, 2008 on a work trip, the immigration officer asked me a routine question—“Sir, where do you work?”. On hearing the word “Bank” in my response, she nonchalantly alerted me that “Lehman Brothers just declared bankruptcy”… and waited to see my jaw drop.

The financial crisis post Lehman, which started in the U.S. was a tsunami that knocked out people, companies, communities and nations.  I wasn’t to be spared either, though I lived in distant Jakarta, Indonesia.

The weeks that followed were perhaps the most harrowing I had ever experienced in my life. On one side, I was trying to keep my business afloat, and on the other, I was fast coming to the realization that my own bankers had ‘played’ the market with my hard-earned personal money. By the end of the year, a large chunk of my carefully saved investments had vaporized. All that I had studied, worked and saved for, had vanished into thin air.

On a dark night during that period of crisis, as I walked back home from work, I saw a man clearing a trash bin near my home. On an instinct, I bought him dinner, and as I did so, I felt something shift inside me.  At dawn the next day, as I got out of bed I felt drawn to go out and buy breakfast for all the men and women who were clearing the trash on my street.  That morning, in their smiles, I found my solace and in my appreciation of what they did for me every day. That was my new reality.

The calling

As my career brought me back to Singapore, I was ready to apply my learning of gratitude to my work place. As a leader, I thought I should demonstrate care for the people who worked for me just as I would for my family at home—I wanted to care for them as human beings.

Thus, began my ‘other life’ as I started to conduct corporate workshops where I contextualized yoga of body, breath and mindfulness to deal with the issues of the workplace—stress, back pain, insomnia, obesity and more. It was in these workshops and meditation sessions that I felt completely lost in time and totally immersed in sharing and training. In the growth experienced by my participants, I re-discovered myself.  

It was somewhere during this period that I found a deeper connection with the Yoga Sutras, what I regard as one of the most amazing work on the science of the mind and the art of living. The text has answered all the questions that I have had about life and living. And has foretold almost every work of contemporary psychology and self-improvement. Whenever I read it, meditate on it, write about it or teach it, I feel complete. It seems written for me and the only text I will need in this lifetime.

The Yoga Sutras compelled me to think deeper about my work. How long did I have to live a life that revolved around pay checks, appraisal ratings and annual bonuses? Isn’t my true calling about giving, sharing and coaching? Shouldn’t I be empowering people to live their authentic lives or even to just help them pause and reconnect with themselves?

And so, with support from my family and friends, I shrugged my fears and the need for external validation, bid goodbye to the high flying corporate world and mustered the courage to embark on a life that was authentically me.

So here I am today, living my true life, finally. My Life shops, that are based on the Yoga Sutras and use mindfulness and journaling, train people to live their best life, and in the process, start to dissolve stress, anxiety and anger.  Through this, we make the world a better place for all humans and beings.

I feel my journey has just begun.

Subba Vaidyanathan, with wife Renuka, founded a company called Sattvaa that runs “Being Me” mindfulness programs across Asia, and they also own the Being Sattvaa Retreat in Ubud, Bali .You can reach Subba at subba@beingsattvaa.com.sg

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