I have always wanted to visit India. There is something about it that has always intrigued me. What is it about this country—so full of dichotomies—with millions of people living in extreme poverty alongside millions of wealthy people, technology companies emerging everywhere, Bollywood stars, the Taj Mahal, delicious food, colorful scarves, rubies and pearls, and sacred cows walking down the street?
I was especially excited that one of my large clients offered me the opportunity to run leadership seminars as part of advancing women in technology. Numerous Indian women have attended my seminars in New York, throughout the United States, and in London, so I was thrilled at this opportunity to deliver my programs in four cities: Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad, with Delhi and Agra thrown in for fun. I was eager to see what India had to teach me and share my learnings from 20+ years of work with women leaders despite some trepidation after recent reports calling India the most violent place for women as well as personally suffering with dysentery while visiting other South Asian countries.
Upon my arrival, I was met by my driver who placed a floral lei around my neck—before I even learned how to pronounce his name—and had cold water waiting for me in the car. During check-in at my hotel, a cheerful staff person introduced herself and offered Masala tea. I felt like I was in a country of mind readers who know exactly what I need. Is it the spiritual vibe in this country?
My first yoga class was held the next morning in the backyard of the hotel, which was bursting with green bushes and flowering trees. Our instructor informed our group of three female students that this would be an Indian type of yoga, slower and more spiritual. We stopped periodically and he would instruct us to listen to the birds and feel the wind. India seems to be whispering and nudging me to slow down and be present. Of course, old habits die hard, as soon as the class ended I rushed off to get ready for my morning tour of Old and New Delhi.
Later that night I had dinner with one of my fellow yoga students who lucky for me introduced herself before I rushed for my morning tour. We had a wonderful engaging conversation over an amazing Indian meal.
Ah India, the place that reminds you to slow down and listen to the wind blow…
The next day was my first day of work in Mumbai, which reminds of New York on steroids. We began with a brief conversation with the ten female leaders of the initiative in India. After eight months, the women were frustrated with their lack of progress, despite their impressive achievements: over 700 women enrolled, support of senior leaders, and many successful events. I shared my perspective that cultural change takes at least 2-3 years. Given that this is the first real generation of women who are working in mass in India, change will take time. This was a revelation as 2-3 years seems like an eternity to them.
During the seminar, we had lively and heated debates. The women were constantly cutting each other off—which reminded me of the Mumbai traffic. No one took offense, and everyone was open to the others’ ideas. The women’s warmth and generosity of spirit was inspiring.
However, the challenges in this emerging economy are vast for women. To advance their careers will require them to lift their heads and expand their networks by building relationships with a wide variety of people. Culturally, networking is challenging. It’s still a “man’s world” with networking done over after-hours drinks, which is not appropriate or comfortable for most Indian women.
Later that day, right after dinner, my stomach was upset, despite being very careful with my food and drink. After an uncomfortable night with little sleep, I had no energy and a packed day’s schedule with two seminars, a 90-minute drive each way on terrible roads. Yet all my classes were filled, so I decided to grit my way through my last day in Mumbai.
My driver saw how sick I was and said he had shortcut to the training site. We turned down a road that resembled an abandoned parking lot with trees in the middle of the road, broken pavement, and crater-like potholes everywhere. It was jammed with cars, buses, tok-toks, and motorcycles–all honking and jostling to get ahead with that impatient morning rush attitude, Indian-style. Cars and motorcycles passed on the wrong side of the two-lane highway as the weather alternated between raining and pouring. After all that, my driver couldn’t find the building! We asked random people and security guards and finally found my location. My driver could not apologize enough. I could only smile and say, “No worries.”
Of course, I was late and had to confess that was not feeling well, but I would try my best. Despite my efforts, I soon became dizzy and sat down to deliver the two seminars, delegating many of the activities the participants.
To my delight, the women were all gracious, lovely, funny, and warm. I realized how far I have come by making myself vulnerable, which made me accepting and self-compassionate: “Today will be good enough.” The participants were happy, and my client expressed her gratitude.
As I gratefully made my way back to my room that evening, a young man from the hotel restaurant asked about my stay and offered to make me a special “farewell” breakfast the next morning, saying, “No problem, we can’t let you leave hungry!” I was touched by this, and by all the small moments of kindness I experienced in India from my clients and hospitality professionals.
The next day was my flight to Bangalore. The airport had a shop of handmade Indian crafts, and I went crazy for the colorful shawls. I tried on everything and fell in love with a woven shawl featuring all the colors of the rainbow and my new favorite animal, the elephant. I had fallen for Ganesh the Hindu God of good luck—and who can’t use a little luck?
After a day of rest and soup, I was ready for my next two classes. Bangalore seemed more conservative than Mumbai. Some of the women arrived in brightly colored saris which was uncommon in Mumbai. The questions they asked focused on the same challenges faced by many women, such as, “I cannot go to networking events as I have young children and need to get home.” Women’s independence and men’s inclusiveness are huge barriers to career growth for the participants.
These women are curious, hungry, and open to learning. We addressed one of their major challenges: women in the Indian culture want to please. My participants want to know how to manage that impulse in the workplace. I introduced one of my favorite words, “discernment,” and said that they may not be able to please all the people, all of the time.
My ideas were mostly greeted with gratitude, A-has, and some warm smiles. I felt a responsibility to empower these women—they do have the relationship skills to succeed, but they need to become more discerning and savvier. This idea resonated and energized the room.
The women’s authenticity and curiosity helped me to stay in the moment and tap into my intuition, creativity, and humor. I told all kinds of stories—new and old, laughing often. India was bringing out the best in me.
During my weekend break between cities, I took the opportunity to practice yoga in its birthplace of India, since I have been doing yoga for 20 years. I traveled two hours outside of Bangalore to the Shreyas Yoga Retreat.
The weekend started with meeting an Ayurvedic doctor–they wanted to understand my yoga and meditation practices, since they consider them inseparable. I shared my simple practice of a weekly yoga class and 15 minutes of meditation a day, mentioned my knee tendinitis and a torn rotator cuff, and shared my goals: to deepen my mediation practice and get more out of my yoga practice given my injuries.
The doctor told me that most people are not very self-aware. They know something is wrong but don’t know where to start. In contrast he said, “You know you need grow to strengthen the core given your injuries. You need to make sure you are using your body properly.” And, that while I have a simple consistent 15-minute meditation practice, I could benefit from deepening it. He said that I seemed to know myself. So glad to be recognized for it—it felt like one of the nicest compliments of my life.
Based on their recommendations, I signed up for a private yoga session and meditation coaching. One early morning class was followed by a nose cleaning exercise. Despite being taken aback by the idea, the instructor encouraged me to follow him and the others. Using a neti pot, the yoga instructor demonstrated pouring warm water into and out of our noses. We all leaned over an area with stones and let the snot drip!
This was another reminder that yoga is not just stretching, it is interconnected to your health—and your nostrils are critical to breathing!
Later, during a private yoga session. I was completely blown away. I have been doing yoga for 20 years with good instructors. But my instructor, Kena, pointed out that I was not standing strong, needed to straighten my legs, use more core during the poses, and my breathing was too shallow. I realized that since my knee tendinitis two years ago, I have become afraid to stand firm on my legs. As he gently stretched my legs, I realized that I have recovered from my knee and shoulder injuries and I started to feel a foot taller and very flexible.
Ken would playfully tap my stomach to remind me to breathe deeper. At one point he lost focus and we both started laughing! The most amazing part is that when I take slow and deep breaths throughout the poses, I felt my muscles slowly stretch out. I felt like I have been short-changing my yoga for years. I had to journey to India to be reminded of the importance of the breath!
The yoga session prepared me for my private mediation/breathing session. My instructor described that we were going to be led through a deep breathing/relaxation exercise. I laid down on a soft matt and she made the room pitch black. She guided me through relaxing each muscle while breathing slowly and deeply. She reminded me periodically not to fall asleep—that is not the goal. Once I became relaxed, she asked me to share a word or phrase that I could use in my mediation–a state I wanted to live in. The word that came up was acceptance. I continued to breathe slowly and felt deeply accepting of myself and possibly a little more of others with whom I have a negative relationship. Curious to see how long this can last…
In class the next morning, I realized how different yoga can be while breathing deeply in the poses. I stretched further, longer, and felt more peaceful. Those wandering, negative thoughts were pushed out!
Following yoga, I attended a group meditation and chanting session. At the end, the leader asked if we had questions. One woman from Saudi Arabia asked for lectures on various topics. The instructor told her that he would prefer to answer questions. Then he could feel the group and answer accordingly—he didn’t plan what to share today, he felt the group’s energy and led intuitively.
His message focused on the importance of quieting your mind, as that will make you happy. Otherwise, the mind is always racing and tends to focus on the past. Personally, the past two years have been very difficult with the loss of my parents (within seven months of each other) and estrangement from my siblings, his message reminded me of why I need to keep breathing and meditating.
As I walked back to my little hut, I decided to take my new techniques into my work life—and try to be truly present and let the group’s energy drive me as I lead my next seminars. I left energized to experiment.
Later I traveled to the final city on my trip to India, Hyderabad. Here the weather was actually lovely–around 70 Fahrenheit, with a little rain each day. This is the largest technology city after Bangalore, and similar to Bangalore in that it is more conservative than Mumbai.
The participants were all welcoming, warm, and lovely women. A special treat was that my host/client was finally able to participate in the session. She had a big A-ha moment as she realized she was not very Organizationally Savvy. I commiserated with her and told her that I was not naturally savvy, and had learned the hard way.
She–like many of her technology colleagues–thought that facts alone should be enough to convince a powerful leader even if there was no trust. Silence took over the room as the women struggled to comprehend that a new way of operating would be necessary to continue to grow their careers. I started teasing my host/client that if I could learn, so could she…. The room became lighter and more playful.
I came to India to help these women in technology grow their careers and much to my surprise, I left more connected to myself, others, and the larger universe. Why? Being around these warm, welcoming women reminded me of the power of women’s gift to transform – we all just need to believe in this power.
India’s generosity of spirit and holistic approach to yoga and life helped me to slow down. Breathing in and out during yoga helped me be more present while delivering the training, which in turn helped bring out the best in me.
I left India feeling lighter and more optimistic, ready to carry those feelings back to New York, along with my new friend, Ganesh.
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