Spiritual sabbaticals – The New Indian Express

Many young successful Indians are exchanging vacation time to reboot their inner lives
Published: 03rd April 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd April 2022 07:33 PM   |  A+A-
The hurrier I go, the behinder I get,” says the White Rabbit to Alice. Our treadmill lives seem to be echoing the same sentiment. For those who find themselves at a crossroads, the conversation between the Cheshire Cat and Alice is eye-opening; Alice asks, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. Exactly at such junctures in life, people, especially after the uncertainty of the past two years,  are hitting the reboot button. Stop. Think. Swerve. To decide which way to go and what road to take. The most time-tested and tried action plan seems to use spirituality to figure things out. Just like Francesca Sipma did.
Sipma, a 36-year-old former New York advertising professional who slogged for top global brands, realised that she was sweating on the corporate treadmill. She decided to take a spiritual sabbatical a year ago. She travelled across India to Bali, Peru and other places and embraced spirituality to look inwards. Today, Sipma is hailed as a female disruptor by Forbes and Bustle, thanks to her spiritual entity HypnoBreathwork, which helps high achievers unlock their purpose. 

Closer home, 34-year-old Southern actor Samantha spoke about getting back on her feet after her spiritual sabbatical at Rishikesh in December 2021 along with her health-entrepreneur buddy Shilpa Reddy. While the details are sketchy, she says that spending a few weeks doing voluntary work has done a world of good. 
Just a few weeks ago, on Maha Shivratri in March, a young couple and IIT Madras alumni who worked for Shell in the US for 10 years graduated from the seven-month spiritual sabbatical programme Sadhanapada at the Isha Yoga Center, Coimbatore. While at the peak of their careers last July, they dropped everything to join the voluntary programme ‘to figure things out’. Clarity, they say, is the biggest takeaway after this sabbatical. Currently, they are working on the backend technology that enables the Inner Engineering programme of the foundation to become a viable remote programme. 
The verdict is clear. When in doubt, take a sabbatical. 
A vacation is just not good enough for everyone. For people who need a deeper overhaul, it has become too predictable to pack their bags and spend two weekends on a faraway beach. Taking a sabbatical to finish an academic course is so 2020. What’s appealing and perhaps most relevant today are spiritual sabbaticals. It is about rediscovering yourself where sadhaks spend a few months to one year rendering volunteer work and living as inmates in their places of choice. Ranging from a month to a year, these gap periods are helping people understand what they truly want out of life. A spiritual sabbatical, however, is about temporarily giving up your regular routine, but with lessons learnt. It mandates that you consciously uncouple yourself from all the things that you have been doing so far. It’s about disengaging and detaching oneself to press ‘Reset’. These intense lifestyle choices will positively disrupt lives to point towards a new favourable direction. “When in doubt, embrace a spiritual sabbatical,” says 35-year-old Swami Harsha, a hatha yoga teacher at the Isha Foundation. What Bollywood actor Nargis Fakhri who took one soon after the first lockdown. 

Growing work stress and the resultant restlessness is driving many people to embrace sabbaticals. Many spiritual entities have stepped in to create a school or course to meet the need of the saadhaks. These sabbaticals are professionally managed, timed and are intense. Mohanam Centre at Auroville in Puducherry, Isha Foundation in Coimbatore, Kanha Shantivanam near Hyderabad, Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh are some of the names that offer tailor-made courses for spiritual reprogramming. It seems to have become a worldwide trend after the marauding virus exposed the unforeseen transient nature of life and wealth. According to a report published in The Atlantic on March 25, many Silicon Valley companies have made spiritual care part of their daily routine to make their workers more productive. Corporates such as Google and Salesforce have roped in Buddhist teachers and established exclusive meditation rooms to enable employees  to connect with their authentic selves. They provide their senior team leaders with executive coaches and a manager called ‘spiritual adviser’.
Dying to Know, a 2014 documentary on Prime Video, is rated among the best films to watch to understand the impact of spiritual sabbaticals. It tracks the lives of Harvard psychology professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, a friendship that lasted more than 50 years. It chronicles Alpert’s journey to the East and his transformation into a spiritual teacher known as Ram Dass, and explores what both men think about the meaning of life and death. Swami Harsha, spokesperson of Sadhanapada 2022, a seven-month residential programme at the Isha Yoga Center, Coimbatore, says that the free programme allows a participant to take charge of their body and mind to live life joyfully and effortlessly.
The course designed by Sadhguru, the founder of Isha Foundation, helps them undergo guided yogic practices, meditate in powerful, consecrated spaces and get a chance to volunteer for Isha’s activities and become a part of a vision beyond oneself. “The recent events in the world have clearly shown the need for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Sadhanapada offers an opportunity for individuals willing to dedicate seven months at Isha Yoga Center for their personal growth. The programme begins from Guru Purnima (July 2022) and culminates in Mahashivratri (February 2023). Participants, age 18 and above, from all walks of life, can participate in this offering,” he informs.
In another life, the swami headed a food and wine startup in San Francisco in 2012. A few years on, he left his decade old corporate career to become an Isha Hath Yoga teacher. In 2018, he moved to India and took brahmacharya. Harsha handles the media and communication at the centre. The programmes 1,500 participants in four or eight-bed dormitories. Good news for the shopping addicts. They have their own supermarket on the campus and yes Amazon deliveries are allowed too. He feels that the last four years of the programme have had a transformative effect on the participants, which is why the centre gets applications in the thousands every year.
To take part in sadhanapada, interested participants must attend the Inner Engineering programme (a full course with initiation into Shambhavi Mahamudra Kriya). Due to the rigorous nature of the schedule and activity, it is also essential that participants are in good mental, emotional and physical health. Sadhguru, Founder of Isha Foundation, announces, “In your body, you must be stronger and younger, in your mind you must be sharper and much more stable, in your emotions, you must be very lucid, in your energies, you must be intense and stable. We want to bring these kinds of people to the world. These are not people who are going to come and live in the ashram forever, but we want to open the doors of the ashram so that after six months of being here, when they go back they must be more stable, clear and wise.”
The current batch of Sadhanapada comprises 1,100 participants from 59 countries, such as Canada and Macedonia. Many of them are professionals such as entrepreneurs, engineers, accountants, musicians, videographers, illustrators etc. The programme opened in June 2018 and is on its fourth year now. Sadhguru is keen to expand infrastructure that can host 1,000 participants per year. Most spiritual sabbaticals insist on a commitment of at least three weeks onsite to experience remarkable change. The food at these retreats is simple, vegetarian sattvik food. A typical day is dotted with prayers, satsang, yoga, meditation and silent contemplation. ‘While there is no ban on using phones, internet or social media, we actively encourage participants to fully immerse themselves in this deeply personal inward journey for maximum benefit,” says Swami Harsha. 
Meanwhile, Mohanam Village and Heritage Centre, Auroville, offers sound healing retreat for inner discovery, and a spectrum of individualistic activities like artisanal workshops with pottery, kolam, bamboo craft, musical instrument making, conscious experience tours etc. “Kolam retreat, a two-day women only retreat has spiritual significance. We have a Deeksha camp for youth, a sari revolution camp for igniting shakthi, Indo-African drum circle, bamboo living experience, yoga retreat, bamboo tree house workshop, bamboo furniture making and volunteering opportunities,” says 43-year-old Mohanam village and heritage centre founder and creative executive B Balasundaram.
Every person requires an objective and unique experience to secure path towards inner exploration.“Depending on factors such as availability of time, access to resources and interest, we can customise the package and experience. Curated tours can be designed for schools, colleges, companies and individuals accordingly,” informs 29-year-old Sahiti Divi, Director of Mohanam. Open for anyone above the age of nine, programmes can last for up to two months. The fee differs for programmes based on the duration and level (beginner or advanced). A two-week residential programme called ‘Rite of Passage’ costs `10,000. Such programmes are meant to spiritually empower sadhaks. “They get inner discovery, confidence, the path for next journey, fearlessness, creativity, self-inspiration and motivation,” informs Divi about the campus experience. 

How do such spiritual sojourns make a difference? Is giving up a regular lifestyle worth the effort? Akshay Kargwal, 32, Hyderabad, who graduated from the Sadhanapada programme in March this year says that it was an ‘I, me, myself discovery’ trip. Born and brought up in Hyderabad, this MBA finance graduate moved to Toronto, Canada, in 2010 and lived a fast-paced corporate life for nine years. “There is a stereotype for people who lost their jobs, had a breakup or experienced something profound who enter such programmes. On the contrary, everything was going great for me. I was living it up and had no pressing issues that turned me towards going on a spiritual sabbatical. It was a gradual process and I wanted to experience something intense when life is going great. So when I moved to India during the pandemic, I signed up for this. Best decision ever,” he says.
Kargwal is a Sadhguru follower who has already undergone the Inner Engineering course of the foundation which is how he got to know about the programme. Currently, Kargwal is back home in Hyderabad and admits to noticing a shift in himself. “The programme has made me calmer, more accepting, less judgemental, more resilient etc. These are the tools which I want to take with me in my next phase of life.” The finance wizard now wishes to become a social entrepreneur and solve real world problems. “I want to find effective solutions for challenges in the agricultural sector. Another topic on my mind is waste management and plastic recycling.” What did he miss the most during the programme? “Maybe dal and paneer. The food there is predominantly south Indian. But I guess, I could live with it,” he quips. He hopes to keep the spiritual vibe alive and plans to attend the two-month refresher course at the ashram in the final quarter of 2022. 
Tollywood actor 30-year-old Amala Paul says that her life was transformed after a break she took in the Himalayas. Soon after her divorce in 2019, she decided to probe her thoughts. She took up yoga and became a vegetarian. She even sold her Mercedes. It took her 24 years to understand who she was. Her break up with Tamil director AL Vijay, her husband of three years, provided the impetus to take her inward journey through a sabbatical in the Himalayas. However, she trekked across the mountain ranges and was not part of any voluntary programme. It was a break from showbiz. Even today, her go-to mantra is to take an intense spiritual break where she gives up things temporarily for the real Amala to resurface. In October 2021, actor Shruti Hassan shared experiences of her spiritual break. 
“I was really not able to differentiate myself from the characters I was playing on the screen. That’s when I had to discover the inner Goth in me and find my true self, in a way. Now, I’m a proud Goth. It represents a lot of me. Goth for me is about living in the gray. I don’t look at life as black and white or good and evil, or right and wrong. It’s all subjective, so for me, it’s about enjoying that in-between space. Even now, though, I get the occasional: are you a chudail (witch)? And all of these attitudes, to someone who presents like me, hark back to crazy stuff like witch-burning and the Salem trials and all of that.”
Parmath Niketan at Rishikesh is another space that encourages volunteer programmes to experience the bliss of spirituality. Sadhvi, who heads the ashram, elaborates on the multiple ongoing yoga programmes across the year for sadhaks. “Engaging in any form of sadhana (spiritual practice), like meditation, yoga or satsang (spiritual discourses), is not mandatory, although it is the key to ensuring your seva here is focused and meaningful. The synergy of our sevak’s (volunteer’s) positive outlook and energy helps us to excel in our mission to serve Mother Earth, Mother Nature and Mother Ganga,” she explains. Parmarth Niketan’s volunteer programme involves a living and learning experience in the ashram. Volunteers are requested to live on the premises for a minimum of three months to optimise the spiritual effects of their stay.
For full-time volunteers (who work at least six hours for at least six days of the week), the programmes offers full room and three meals daily. Yoga sessions, meditations, access to spiritual discourses are some of the perks of being a spiritual volunteer. Parmarth Niketan’s mission includes restoring the River Ganga, holding medical camps, protecting the girl child, promoting education and, enforcing sanitation and hygiene habits. “Selfless work is the best way to experience spirituality in its full form,” believes Sadhvi. She says, “These large-scaled and detailed projects are realized through the collective effort of our global family, comprising professionals, engineers, scientists, activists, spiritual leaders, environmental specialists and sevaks. The eclectic expertise given by such able minds and hands take our vision forward and maintain productivity and progress. We strive to ensure that the skill of our incoming family members (volunteers) is well channelised and that their stay is a fulfilling one.”
Kanha Shanti Vanam (KSV), a 1,400-acre spiritual facility located amidst the rural environs of Rangareddy district, Hyderabad, is a place that offers opportunities to anyone who is seeking peace, calmness, and contentment. Kamlesh D Patel, also known as Daaji among his followers, is a spiritual leader of Shri Ram Chandra Mission which runs the Heartfulness Institute at Kanha Shanti Vanam. On spiritual sabbaticals, he says, “Seekers embark on a journey to explore themselves and seek what they are looking for. To help them on this journey, we have many programmes that make the sabbaticals focused and more fulfilling. The Yoga and Wellness program is designed to offer all round wellness. Yoga helps people to find the spiritual balance along with improving their health.” The institute has a variety of empowerment courses. There is a CME or Continuing Medical Education program for doctors and nurses to enhance their performance.
Children under the age of 15 years can enroll for summer programmes such as Brighter Minds which improves cognitive functioning. CEOs and senior executives looking for a break from their busy schedules, can come to Kanha for the Kaushalam program. Customised modules for government personnel like sarpanchs, ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) workers, Anganwadi workers workers, and even high-level bureaucrats are organised. “One can just visit Kanha without being part of any of these programmes, just to enjoy the solitude, quiet and meditate, and to be in tune with their heart. Those who are new on the path of spirituality can take part in the New Seekers programmes. The Youth Seminars and the International Heartfulness Retreat Seminars are also helpful for one’s self-exploratory journey. There are also programmes for couples and parents to build stronger and resilient bonds with their loved ones,” he informs.
The mission has a Heartfulness Lounge where certified Heartfulness Trainers are available to walk interested participants through the first few introductory Heartfulness meditation sessions. The shortest duration of a programme is three days. The time depends on the nature of the specific programme. However, in Kanha Shanti Vanam, the duration often gets extended . The food and stay charges are inclusive of the cost for the paid programmes. “We have very generous hearts who donate to the Heartfulness movement. By God’s grace we’ve been able to make inroads into sharing peace and love with the world,” exults Daaji. He believes that every seeker goes to him with different desires.
“Some want a sabbatical from work. Some look for peace and contentment in life. Some practitioners come here to embark on the path . Finally, there are the seekers who arrive to stay in the lap of Nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Kanha Shanti Vanam is a forest in the middle of a city. This place is enveloped in greenery. This is where one can find peace and serenity. Spiritual awakening happens most naturally here,” Daaji adds. Though Vrinda Kunj in Vrindavan, a temple town 150 km away from New Delhi is not an idyllic setting like Daaji’s,  the programmes infuse spirituality into the volunteer programmes. 
For $5 a day, ($10 during non-Covid times), Vrinda Kunj has ongoing volunteer programmes round the year. The facility believes that immersive work is the best way to start the inward journey and calm internal chaos. Spokesperson Subhal Bhai reveals that the volunteer programme involves caring for the ashram’s lush gardens and improving the landscape of neglected medieval temples, using organic methods. Besides doing regular seva in the kitchen (shopping, cooking, serving, cleaning), volunteers are involved in environmental protection. “They collect trash from holy sites. One of the most bothersome sights in Vrindavan are beautiful ancient temples surrounded by plastic and trash. When we clean up a holy place, we endear ourselves to the temple-goers, pilgrims and perhaps even Lord Krishna himself! You can also help clean the sacred Yamuna River,” says Subhal.
He gives a glimpse of the typical 10-day programme at Vrinda Kung; “After the first two days of acclimatisation and settling down, volunteers will spend three hours in the early morning cleaning the Yamuna River. After breakfast, they attend a lesson in Hindi language instruction in basic terms, short phrases and important vocabulary to facilitate their stay in Vrindavan and make the volunteer work more effective. The next day’s activity takes place in a very ancient Hindu shrine adjacent to the Vrinda Kunja Ashram. They will participate in a ritual which is being performed daily for 5,000 years. In the afternoon, there are instructional sessions on Indian classical and spiritual music. The next day, participants will spend a full day in a nearby village performing volunteer service at a goshala and plant trees.” Volunteers have to apply at least a month ahead to confirm their participation. 
Prof Suresh Konisetty, who has been researching on spiritual retreats for his doctoral thesis feels that perhaps the rise in popularity of spiritual masters such as Dandapani, viral wisdom guru Jay Shetty and Robin Sharma has been a contributing factor to young people wanting to give spirituality a chance. He says, “The fast-paced lives which enable people to have too much too soon is robbing them of the pleasure of small things. Quick money, instant relationships, sex on demand have made everything seem attainable. However, your real self is not satiated by such shallow quick-fixes. Half-life crisis is now quarter-life crisis, prompting more to take up such spiritual sabbaticals,” he explains. The wheel is starting a new circle. The spirit is willing. So is the flesh.
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh: Spiritual retreats include morning prayers, yoga, meditation, chanting, satsang, spiritual mentorship and lecture programmes, kirtan, the world-renowned Ganga aarti at sunset, nature cure and Ayurvedic treatments. This can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months. Up next is the Special Navratri Spiritual Retreat from April 7-10. Registrations are open. 
Isha Foundation, Coimbatore: From Linga Seva to Devi Seva to skill-based and ashram volunteering, there are many opportunities here. Volunteers stay in free dormitory accommodation with free meals to work for events, campaigns, teaching projects etc that range from one to three months. Registrations open for Shoonya Intensive programme (with dynamic Shakti Chalana Kriya and Shoonya Meditation) from April 6-11. 
Kanha Shantivanam, Hyderabad: For top bureaucrats, CEOs, sarpanches, community health workers such as doctors and nurses. Meditation is one of their core practices and there is a session for new seekers to understand what they are looking for. The International Heartfulness Retreat Seminars is their self-exploratory programme. Their yoga and wellness programme duration ranges from 25 to 300 hours. 
“Seekers embark on a journey to explor themselves and see what they are looking for. To help them, we have many programmes that make the sabbaticals wholesome and fulfilling.”
Kamlesh D Patel Kanha Shanti Vanam, Rangareddy district, Hyderabad
“There is a stereotype that people who lost their jobs, had a breakup, or experienced something profound enter such programmes. On the contrary, everything was going great for me. I was living it up and had no pressing issue to turn towards a spiritual sabbatical. 
It was the best decision ever.” Akshay Kargwal, MBA finance graduate, Hyderabad
Mohanam, Auroville, Puducherry: More than 5,000 volunteers and workshops participants have been part of Mohanam and allied Bamboo Centre in the last five years. Activities involve being close to nature, arts, culture, heritage. There are bamboo food-related workshops, pottery and ceramic artisanal workshops, terracotta handicrafts, bamboo toy making workshops, tree-house building etc.
Vrinda Kunj, Vrindavan: They offer the experience of staying in an authentic Hindu ashram. Volunteer guests can experience chanting of sacred mantras, studying ancient Hindu scriptures, or practice yoga and meditation. Environmental consciousness campaigns, temple beautification and restoration, domestic works in the ashram are some of the seva activities they are expected to do.
Rachel Tapper, author of The Selfish Mom Project (2020) answers the question “what the heck is a spiritual sabbatical,” in her book. 
A spiritual sabbatical concerns removing the busyness of life and standing still with God. “Remember that we must fill our cup with all the love and spiritual is a huge part of that equation. You can’t just work on one of the love languages. You must work on them all equally. My prayer is that I can come back after this deep spiritual sabbatical with something amazing to share. That I can heal some old wounds, stories, and negative thought patterns. That I’m able to break habits and form new healing ones and in the process, I’m able to fully surrender to God and have some fun learning and experiencing new things.”
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