The bureaucrat yogi
Mr Madhavan Nambiar tells Rishi Rathod that the world needs to become aware that yoga is beyond physical movement; it is a wisdom tradition and a master class in conscious living
Mr Madhavan Nambiar, a former IAS officer, who has also been a Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, joined Life Positive’s advisory board in the year 2005. Ever since, he has been effusive in his praise of Life Positive’s content and has been taking keen interest in the spiritual programmes organised by us. His passion for yoga, spirituality and truth-seeking, made Life Positive decide to interview him.
After a few attempts, I finally got the opportunity to speak to him. His adherence to punctuality, his articulation of ideas, and his uncommon insights into the multifaceted tradition of yoga left an imprint on my mind. His reverberating metallic voice, robust due to his commitment to Vedic chanting over the years, added to the pleasure of hearing him speak with an unruffled poise that brought to my mind the ease of a yogi slipping into a seemingly difficult asana. During our conversation, I got to know of many of his sterling achievements and noteworthy contributions to society.
He has taught public policy for several years at the School of International Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University. He is on the boards of several global companies as well as a fellow at Judge Business School, Cambridge University. Furthermore, Mr Nambiar has undergone several years of intensive training in yoga during the 70s from the renowned Swami Rama of the Himalayas and has been closely associated with Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (an internationally renowned school for the therapeutic uses of yoga) as a trustee. Based on his years of experience with yoga, Mr Nambiar has customised several training routines to cope with everyday pressures. These techniques include physical exercises (asanas), breathing (pranayama), relaxation, and meditation. His experience with yoga is based on the stresses and strains of real life.
Below is the conversation.
Nambiarji, can you please tell us about your journey into yoga and spirituality?
Regarding yoga, I was very fortunate to be associated with Swami Rama of the Himalayas from 1970 till his passing away in 1996. At a fairly young age, I had an opportunity to work with him. During those days, he was in Rishikesh and then regularly in the Himalayas, where he did intense meditations, spiritual practices, and yoga, and I was blessed to have a very close association with him. I learned asanas, pranayamas, and meditations, as well as had glimpses of spiritual connections.
Later, when I came to the legendary Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, TKV Desikacharya, son of T Krishnamacharya, took me into his fold, and I am still involved as a trustee on the Board of Studies of Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. So that was essentially my spiritual and yoga journey with the great masters.
These were the two schools which greatly influenced me in my work as a civil servant as well as in health, healing and my personal growth. I have also done some sessions at the Bihar School of Yoga, one of the oldest yoga schools in Bihar. These things helped me shape my spiritual life immensely.
What are the benefits and insights that you have gained by practising yoga over the years?
I was a civil servant for 36 years with the state of Tamil Nadu as well as the Government of India. I held high-profile jobs that came with high level of stress, which would manifest in my physical body and affect my mental and emotional health. But I’m thankful for the kind of yoga that Swami Rama taught me—the stress management techniques. For this, he had devised fabulous packages of asanas, pranayamas, relaxation, and meditation techniques that helped me handle exceedingly difficult and stressful situations very well.
Can you name a few pranayama and meditation techniques that helped you navigate the stressful times? Are they relevant during the current pandemic times too?
Swami Rama had emphasised breathing as the core technique to fight stress. He said that when we are stressed, the immediate effect is on the breath, which later impacts the body. So, when we talk about yoga, there is a link between the mind and the body through the breath. For example, one of the techniques that Swami Rama taught me was that of diaphragmatic breathing. It is quite simple. You lie down and inhale and exhale through your diaphragm, such that when you inhale, the diaphragm goes up and when you exhale, the diaphragm comes down. You can do this for 10, 20, or 30 minutes. He also imparted a very simple series of asanas such as the Pawanmuktasana series where one does 15-20 minutes of body stretching, which he felt was great to keep the inner organs fit. He took me through a few simple pranayamas which most of us know, such as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), Ujjai, and Bhramari. According to my experience, these three to four pranayamas, along with diaphragmatic breathing, are incredibly simple yet effective breathing practices. During these COVID-19 days, there is enormous mental stress on all of us which will manifest in the body. If we can start doing what I just explained, we can surely navigate this pandemic successfully.
Swami Rama, additionally, shared some of his spiritual insights and knowledge from the Upanishads, but knowing about my extremely busy work life, he wanted to ensure that my mind and body remained fit so that I could do my work efficiently. He taught me a 61-point relaxation technique associated with 61 points on the body, where I would focus my attention to release all the stress. Along with this, he taught me 10 minutes of pranayama and Aum chanting to induce sound sleep. I felt my body was like a laboratory which tests several stress management techniques. I would sense stress and tiredness in the body and, accordingly, I would choose and adjust the exercises to relax myself completely. I would come exhausted and tired from my work and get into Shavasana and do diaphragmatic breathing, the 61-relaxation technique, and pranayamas to rejuvenate myself. That is, in essence, my experience with yoga as an officer and as an individual who wanted to ensure a work-life balance.
You have learned yoga in the 70s from the legendary Swami Rama. But today, every housing complex has one or two yoga teachers, not to mention different types of yoga such as Slim Yoga, Hot Yoga, etc. How do you see all this?
Thanks to the popularity of yoga, it has now spread all over the world. In fact, our prime minister, Modiji, is a great example of a yoga practitioner, even though he is touching 70. The kind of energy he radiates is remarkable. The important thing that I learned from Swami Rama and Desikacharya was that yoga is for the individual. It is a psycho-physical exercise, where the teacher must closely work with his student. A pupil will have a particular type of body or a particular type of stress and problems that require particular exercises. Some may need more meditation, some may need more relaxation. The younger pupils may require more vigorous asanas like Surya Namaskar as compared to older people. So the one-size-fits-all approach will not work here. Hence, it is not wise to teach yoga to large groups of 200-300 people, like it is done on TV.
The true essence of yoga is that it has to be rooted in the tradition laid down by Pantanjali some 5000 years back. We need to go in depth, do smaller sessions, and have a teacher-pupil rapport. People like Swami Rama and Desikacharya have taken their knowledge from this ancient text which is the rasa (essence) of yoga. Some of the modern-day yoga practitioners do a lot of practices which are more gymnastics than yoga because there is no body, mind, and breath connection. Yoga has become commercial; everybody takes one course and becomes a teacher. Having said that, I don’t want to comment on others, but we have to see that we go back to our tradition, our roots, and the teachers who are trained in that tradition. Yoga is actually a process. It is not that you do an hour of yoga and that is the end of it. Honestly, that one hour that you give to yoga, you have to be able to carry with you throughout the day. It must reflect in your everyday behaviour and interaction with people. Yoga, I would say, is essentially a way of life.
Swami Rama, with whom I was so close, once told me, “Don’t get into the guru business. I am giving you some techniques. Learn them and move on. When you walk on the path I show you, you are your own guru, and when you have a problem, you come back to me.” He was an absolute master. In fact, under laboratory conditions, he has stopped his heartbeat. He had mastery over his body.
Kindly elaborate on yoga as a way of life.
Yes, this is something I would like to emphasise. Yoga covers all aspects of human life: our relationships, behaviour, breathing, health, and meditation path. It is essentially a way of life and not just a technique. For example, during these COVID-19 days, it is imperative to contemplate and see what is stressing us and what are the fundamental things we need to correct. As a part of yoga training, at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, we have a powerful teaching session on Vedic chanting. This is immensely important for health and healing, and Desikacharya was a great teacher in Vedic chanting. My wife does a lot of intensive Vedic chanting, and when we practise at home with 10, 15, or 20 people together, it facilitates a healing process. At times, some even start sobbing while chanting, de-stressing and cleansing their system. This is our old tradition and very much a part of yoga.
You have understood yoga and mantra chanting deeply, but today, the situation is different. How can we make the current generation rooted in our spiritual tradition when they are so deeply influenced by social media?
So many things have happened in the last few months, thanks to all the disruption that COVID-19 has caused; everybody is now looking inwards. As they say, “If you can’t go outwards, you have to look inwards.” Looking inwards, everybody is now aspiring for solutions which are different from what has been happening. So, we have to see that the younger generation gets interested in holistic living, and yet, it cannot be pushed onto them. We have to do it gently. Firstly, we have to subtly spread knowledge and information through social media, on which they thrive. I think it is here that magazines like Life Positive play an important role in converting information to transformation in this atmosphere of negativity and fear over loss of health. So, I think if we can communicate this to the younger generation—through webinars, blogs, social media, and other platforms, and have talks, seminars, conferences where people share their experiences, like the way I am doing with you—it will turn the tide slowly.
I tell people that though I have led a very stressful life, with the help of great teachers, I have managed to handle the challenges well. These teachers were very clear about one thing: what is important is the message and not the messenger. So for the younger generation, we have to have role models who can guide them on the path. It’s all about role-modelling and knowledge dissemination.
We are yet not completely aware of the consequences of global warming and environmental degradation. Why is this happening?
According to me, two major reasons for this are the profit motive and an ever-growing population. We are building all kinds of structures close to the coast and the waterbodies because everybody is here to make more money. Obviously, with our large population, there is a requirement for more accommodation, so this is where we have to pause and think about every infrastructure that is coming up and question ourselves whether it is absolutely necessary and in harmony with nature or not. We keep degrading all the forest lands and waterbodies, which is causing floods. In this regard, legislation can’t do much. Change has to come about with the understanding and will of the citizens. The lesson here is to live very much in harmony with nature. It is not about yoga but about environmental protection, nature, and harmony between individuals.
I see the present calamity as the time for us to pause and think. Now people are becoming more conscious about living in harmony with nature and helping each other. This kind of thing will only happen if everybody has much more empathy, compassion, love, and concern for each other. Overall, it’s a question of attitudinal change, which will take time. But I think that these five-six months of pausing and thinking as well as articles that are being published in magazines like Life Positive will go a long way in making people reflect on their conditioned way of life.
Currently, in our society, polarity is building by the day. There is a war of words between the left wing and the right wing, between pro-national and antinational. This is creating an anxiety-ridden environment in society. What should we do to create a balance and deal with such a situation?
I think what is clear and deeply important is that we all have to build an inclusive society, including the political leaders and other stakeholders because they have a significantly larger role and responsibility. Social media generally is trending to become not so inclusive as there are lots of differences, bitterness, fake news, etc. This is now something that is going on endlessly, so I think it’s the right time for people to pause and ensure that there is collaboration rather than competition in creating a harmonious and peaceful society. The key here is to collaborate to work together and help the less privileged people who are struggling. The collaboration is a must for political leadership and bureaucracy to support the economy and industry. We must start a movement where all sections of society are supporting and participating in building a harmonious place to thrive for all.
If there were a few things you could change about child-rearing, education, and skill acquisition in India, what would they be?
Now with so many people in their 40s losing their jobs to the young generation due to COVID-19 and industrial recession, I think skill development is key and we have to make smart use of technology towards this purpose. We should impart technological education and distance education to youngsters in different avenues such as agriculture, animal husbandry, and farming so that they learn the latest technology from wherever they are or from a nearby area. This type of skill development will help employment and growth. This kind of skill training is already happening, but much more is needed to develop a skilled nation and for creating job-oriented growth.
At present, there is serious unemployment, which will lead to frustration, and hence we have to look at and create new opportunities. The industry and governments should sit down together and build a proper skill development platform for various occupations because there is no point having skilled people who get no jobs. The government has done a lot of work in sector-wise skill development, but that needs to grow. The new education policy is a welcome step in this direction.
What are your thoughts about the pandemic?
You see, the problem exists all over the world. We have a huge challenge, and I think we must work together very closely, support, and listen to the government because they are in the driving seat. It’s a big challenge that the nation is facing, just like an emergency—a war-like situation. With God’s grace, spirituality, and other things, we will come out of this. During this period, I think it is important that we are together and help people who are really struggling, like poor workers who don’t have money and people undergoing sickness. I think we all can play a role if we have compassion and empathy.
What is your experiential understanding of yoga as a spiritual process and its benefits to the yogi on the path?
Honestly, when I worked with Swami Rama on meditation, I always felt a great sense of calmness and well-being: that I am with higher powers. But it is essentially you who is invoking the Divine in yourself because, in yoga, the whole idea is ‘to link.’ Yoga is to bind to mind and body through the breath. It could also function on a higher level—the Atma-Paramatma. The journey should be enjoyable even if the destination is not visible. That is the essence of yoga, of good satsang, good comradeship, walking together on the journey. Here I would like to quote from Bhaja Govindam by Shankaracharya.
Satsangatve nissangatvam, nissangatve nirmohatvam,
nirmohatve niscalatattvam, niscalatattve jivanmuktih
Good people coming together and doing satsang results in non-attachment. The freedom from attachment results in freedom from desires. Freedom from desires gives us the necessary steadfastness or grounding. This grounding will take us to Jivanmukti, the final merging with the Divine.
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