Monday, June 20, 2016

International Yoga Day: Meditations on Meditation


Like many other great things that have come to us through the rich inheritance of ancient Indian art and culture, the origin of meditation is difficult to pin down to a single date of the Gregorian calendar (the current map of our oh-so-busy daily routines).

But never mind that. Let’s begin with mindfulness—the very essence of the life mantra that the Buddha, arguably the greatest teacher who ever walked on Earth, chanted for himself and one that he compassionately advocated for millions of his followers.

The four establishments of mindfulness help us see the interconnected nature of everything in the universe and nudge us toward attunement of our self/non-self dualistic instruments to the rhythm divine (or Nada Brahma, as per ancient Indian spiritual sages).

If that sounds quite a mindful, here are the four establishments: in mindfulness, the adept or practitioner tries to maintain awareness of whatever is going on in their “body, feelings, mind and objects of mind”. For instance, if you are breathing, you are aware that you are breathing; if you are feeling angry, you observe this anger and contemplate on the constituents or causes of this anger, how it arises, how it affects your breathing, how it fades, etc. (you do this without reacting to the anger or without abruptly trying to stop feeling angry); and so on and so forth. (This simplified explanation is based on Satipatthana Sutta as described in the book Old Path White Clouds by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh).

The basic idea of mindfulness is to detach ourselves from the perceptions and objects imagined or visualized by the mind and watch over whatever is happening with us as if we are an outside observer to all these phenomena. Gradually and with practice, we can begin to see the cause-and-effect reality around us and the dependent co-arising of everything that exists.

And let’s also not forget about emptiness or Sunyata, another construct of the grand edifice of meditation. In Buddhist references, it is also known as voidness.

So, thus far, you have these three key terms to juggle and tease: meditation, mindfulness, sunyata.

Stay with me a little more, before you run away to the noisy craziness of your life. I know you will. Why, I will (to my own box of craziness, not yours :) But it wouldn’t hurt to let the balmy breeze of meditation caress and smoothen your hair a bit before you put on your daily hat.

Before we talk further about meditation, be aware that just as the divine river of yoga has flowed continuously since eons, so has the ocean of meditation been churned for nectar for ages. And just as yoga today has scores of tributaries, with multiple streams (and “revenue streams” in a fast-commercializing world; see my post on the origins and significance of yoga), the ripples from the ocean-font of meditation have had their far-reaching waves of influence as well. Take chakra meditation, for instance. (Google it, I’m not giving you the link this time :)

One earnest request I would like to make in the backdrop of the apparent usurping of the eternal legacies of yoga and meditation by political and commercial entities. Like the Buddha had said, if someone points a finger to the moon to show it to you in its cool majestic brilliance, then you should not “mistake the finger for the moon.”

So, if the Modis and Ramdevs of the world happen to be, at the moment, “showcasing” yoga or meditation to the world at large, why mistake their religion-loaded or money-making follies for the supreme, everlasting mind-body-soul systems we all can practice and benefit from?

Without further ado, let me put down some of my *meditations* on meditation (a few are taken from my book, Strings of the Soul). So sit back, relax, read, and breathe easy:

“Meditation takes you away from the torrent of oppressive thoughts into the inexplicable joy of stillness.”

“Make your mind not a tangled cocoon of familiarity but a wide open sea, where the waves of free thought continually sweep the beaches of your imagination. And let these waves wash away your worries and keep the delta where mind meets body fresh and fertile.”

“Meditation is the process of setting yourself free from the prison of your own thoughts.”

"Meditation is the key to transforming your monkey mind into a monk."

Don’t try too hard to meditate, nor think too much about what really is meditation. Get a handle on your body, a grip on your mind and a bridle to your breath. Devise your own mantra if you haven’t found a worthy guru who can give it to you (in all likelihood you haven’t but in all possibility you can :) Be with yourself for as long as you wish in an inner atmosphere of freedom, trust and tranquility. Explore the visions of your mind, not with craving or aggression but in a blissful balancing of mind-body-soul. Dissect, analyze as much as you want but, gradually, finally, take a few quiet steps in making everything in the universe look one, look great, look whole.

The thorns pricking in your inner consciousness will begin to feel like rose petals. The turmoil of your feelings and sensations will subside to a gentle swing. And your heart and mind will aspire for something higher, much higher than you ever thought possible.

That, my dear, is meditation.

Meditation teaches you to hold infinity in the calm of your mind.


(Image credit: hdwallpaper4u.com)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

10 Interesting Business Use Cases of Internet of Things



The term “Internet of Things” often throws people, even in the technology industry, off balance. They begin struggling for definitions, explanations, market statistics and what not. There are those who throw multiple spanners in the works by citing security concerns (like they did with cloud). And then, those who generally do a lot of huffing and puffing.

Nothing wrong with that, actually. Any new or not-yet-mature technology segment goes through its own cycle of hype, hazards and hurrahs. So there’s no reason to treat IoT any different. Except perhaps that IoT is much bigger than a typical flavor-of-the-season type technology. (Without giving conflicting numbers but to keep things in some perspective, by 2020, billions of things/devices are to be connected and trillions of dollars in additional value will be generated.)

However, as the stats, standards and stumbling-blocks keep rolling in, the IoT pioneers and large ecosystem players continue to chip away at making it work. (Talking of chips, Intel has just bought Itseez Inc., an expert in computer vision algorithms and implementations for embedded and specialized hardware, an area of great interest to the chip giant for the automotive and video opportunities in IoT.)

I scoured the web for real-life business uses cases of IoT solutions from across different sectors and scenarios. Here are some interesting ones (including a few from India as well):

- Miami International Airport, one of the busiest US airports (over 21 million passengers in 2015) has deployed Internet-connected sensors and IoT apps to provide detailed information to passengers based on their location and needs (the MIA mobile app for Android and iOS relies on a network of 400 beacons that transmit location information throughout the airport). For passengers, the app provides personalized directions through to airport and helps them find restaurants, services and baggage carousels based on their location.

- ATI Specialty Materials, a world leader in the production of special alloys and steels for the aerospace, oil & gas, and medical industries, uses the ThingWorx IoT platform from PTC—which provides a real-time layer that connects with their manufacturing, quality, maintenance, and ERP systems and allows them to rapidly create role based decision support “dashboards” and interactive applications.

- Using AMC Health’s mobile patient monitoring solution, an active pregnant woman who needs to track her blood sugar can use a mobile device to communicate readings from her glucometer at any time and any place she chooses, and that information is stored securely in the cloud. Her care provider has 24/7 access to her information and can determine whether she, her baby or both are at risk. Using this information, the woman’s health care provider can provide more timely and appropriate care for the benefit of both mother and baby.

- Ward Aquafarms, a 1000-cage aquaculture farm in Massachusetts, USA, uses thermal radiometry sensor enabled cameras from Mobotix running on the Verizon IoT platform to collect and analyze data such as environmental and sub-tidal water temperature, chlorophyll values, etc. Combined with satellite imaging data and analyzed properly, it helps Ward in its commitment to efficient and sustainable seafood production.

- The cities of San Diego (California) and Jacksonville (Florida) are running trials that use LED streetlight technology to collect real-time data not only to manage lighting, but also to manage parking, locate and identify potholes and keep track of repairs to municipal streets.

- John Deere has fitted its tractors sold globally with sensors. This helps the company update the farmer if a moving part of the tractor or the harvester is likely to fail, around one month before the event. (The analytics behind the predictive framework is said to have been done by a Bengaluru-based analytics firm, TEG Analytics.)

- Technologies like IoT often find usage in the unlikeliest of places. Take the case of successfully impregnating cows, for instance. A system called Gyujo, which was developed by Fujitsu, uses a pedometer strapped to the leg of the cow to help figure out exactly when is the best time to inseminate a cow. For farmers, the importance of getting this right is huge. Artificial insemination success rates today are around 70% with a pregnancy rate of around 40% when the detection rate of when the cow is in heat is 55%. Pushing that detection rate up to 95% (the level of accuracy claimed by Gyujo) causes the pregnancy rate to shoot up to 67%. (A cow in estrus “walks around furiously” typically at night, which is what Gyujo helps determine.)

- Tata Power Delhi Distribution Ltd (TPDDL) has taken a few steps in the IoT realm with a smart metering project. To manage peak demand and manage grid stress situations better, the company is working on an Automated Demand Response (ADR) mechanism for commercial and industrial high-end consumers (typically, users of 10 KW and above). The IoT project was undertaken to demonstrate technological capability, understand customer behavior, provider for a case study for the regulator to work on differential tariffs and financial incentives, and also to understand the processes required for scaling up as and when the need arises. Having successfully connected a total of 11 MVA non-critical load of Commercial and Industrial HT-consumers (it achieved a Demand Response of 7.2 MVA load during a DR Event in the year 2014), TPDDL is now confident of having the process capability to extend the IoT initiative to a larger base of consumers.

- Sheela Foam, the manufacturer of Sleepwell brand of mattresses in India, has introduced the IoT technology to help identify and offer the right kind of mattress to its customers as per their body shape. Every human body is different and needs a mattress that matches the body posture and the pressure distribution while sleeping. The company has devised an IoT based solution that is fitted to the mattresses on display at Sleepwell’s various retail outlets. There are sensors attached to this special mattress, called Sleepwell Sensobed, which scan and capture the various body shape related parameters when a person lies down on the mattress. The data is then analyzed and used to suggest perfectly matched mattresses to individual customers.

- IBM is using a slew of technologies, including IoT-based solutions, to digitally transform the Rashtrapati Bhavan in India. The company has created the business architecture and operating procedures, implemented the technology platform and solutions, and is managing the entire technology deployment. (The scope includes smart, eco-friendly solutions such as energy management, water management, waste and horticultural management, and security systems.)

The above is but a tiny representation of the humongous IoT ecosystem that is getting built even as I write these words. In all probability, the “thing/everything” part would be subsumed one day and we might refer to the Internet of Things simply as, well, the Internet.

(Image courtesy: IoTDisruptions.com. This blog post first appeared on dynamicCIO.com)


Friday, April 29, 2016

Tinker, Juggler, Mathematician Guy: Claude Shannon Doodled by Google

Google's doodles, just like its profound search box, have been a constant source of rich and curious information for quite some time. And they are already celebrated much in the media.

Still, I found the most recent one, on a guy called Claude Shannon, quite interesting not only to note but to write a blog post as well. And while the doodles have of late been slipping in quality and creativity, this one seems to have put the shine back: what with a cute cartoon of Claude juggling zeroes and ones bang in the middle of the letters that make up Google, dissecting it into GOO and GLE.

I also felt embarrassed, nay ashamed, that I had to refer to the pioneer of information theory and unarguably a great mathematical genius, as "a guy called..." in the above para. Time.com headlined its piece on Shannon as The Juggling Unicyclist Who Pedaled Us Into the Digital Age.

Now, that's indeed quite a fitting and interestingly written tribute!

Let's look at how some of the other media sites and scientific portals describe him in their articles (post- as well as pre-doodle celebrating his birth centenary):

Without Shannon's information theory there would have been no internet (The Guardian)

Claude Shannon: Tinkerer, Prankster, and Father of Information Theory (IEEE Spectrum)

Claude Shannon: Reluctant Father of the Digital Age (MIT Technology Review)

Celebration time for Gaylord's Shannon, who 'changed the course of human history' (PetoskeyNews.com)

Keep doodling, Google!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Big Data Tech behind Times Internet’s Native Ad Play - Colombia


Not many people may know it, but one of the largest publishers in India, The Times of India Group, is also home to one of the largest publisher-owned ad network platforms in APAC. The Group’s digital venture, Times Internet Ltd (TIL), runs one of the most complex and sophisticated ad serving operations, in addition to hosting the editorial content for multiple sites (internal as well as partnerships).

Around a year back, TIL had launched its own native ad platform, called Colombia. (Native ads are personalized ads that are shown to the web users based on their past browsing history, interests, etc., and are usually text ads as opposed to display/banner ads.)

Given the growing global trend of more and more brands putting their money on native ads, platforms such as Colombia are gaining increasing significance in the media world. The platform ensures similar user experience across mobile and web.

I recently spoke to Sumit Malhotra, Head – IT, TIL, to know more about how they developed Colombia, the technology behind the platform and challenges associated with what Sumit calls a “big data recommendation system.”

It would be pertinent to note in this context how the TIL ad network has grown in the past two years, which is nothing short of exponential—from serving around 40 million ad impressions per day in last June to a peak of 500 million impressions/day this month.

Besides serving ads from its own marquee properties, TIL has tie-ups with third party ad networks like Taboola and many others. So the ad inventory that is served through Colombia comes from a number of sources, all of which need to be integrated tightly with the TIL platform for serving to the user—who could be sitting and surfing in any part of the world. 

The key, says Malhotra, is to provide a consistent experience to the audience with as low latency as possible (often, the native ads are served in 100 to 150 milliseconds but, in any case, the threshold has to be kept below 500 ms).

“Otherwise, the user will have either scrolled down the page or moved on to another site (without seeing or clicking on the ad),” he says.

The biggest challenge for any ad network today is to deliver an ad at a low latency. To do so, it is important that calculations and permutations related to which ad is to be served to which user profile are based on the recommendation of the big data system—Colombia in TIL’s case—which is run in-memory rather than on disk.

Talking about the challenges, Malhotra says, “Another challenge is that suppose a user is coming from the US and hitting our servers in India, so the travel time for a data packet is quite high; we need to take it closer to the audience. And since every ad is personalized, that is a big challenge.”

Part of the low-latency challenge is solved by having multiple ad server clusters in different geographic regions of the world. TIL has its servers hosted in different geographies and uses a mix of public cloud options and its own data centers. “This helps us serve ad requests within specific regions,” he says.

Another very notable and significant thing is that TIL has custom-built its own big data engine using open source tools and technologies—all done in-house by its 100-plus technology development team.
It took slightly over a year to build Colombia and then another 9 to 12 months to roll it out fully across the board for all online properties.

“Colombia was launched about eight months to a year back. And given that the infrastructure is huge, we had to roll it out to all the properties, 40 different brands across Times Internet. So the deployment also took time, as the technology needed to be integrated with the publishers as well. And after rolling out, you understand the issues and then scale it up slowly,” says Malhotra. Now it is fully deployed not only across all TIL properties but with the third parties as well.

The key benefit is derived from “the complex algorithms that help us run highly targeted campaigns,” he says.

Native ad platforms are one of the primary reasons why today’s users get the sense that if they go to particular kinds of sites (sport, technology, housing, etc.), the ads that accompany on the sites that they visit next are mostly related to the content they had just viewed.

“Given that it’s a personalized ad network, we need to do in-memory data recommendations. For maintaining low latency, we cannot afford to do any calculations on data that goes to the disk, all calculations have to be done in-memory,” says Malhotra.

Malhotra says that most components of big data analytics systems today run on bare metal servers rather than virtualized ones, as the virtualization adds another layer to the process and increases the latency. With the scale and complexity that TIL operates in, he says, “we cannot survive any virtualization overhead.”

On being asked why TIL didn’t go for a branded big data analytics platform (from known large vendors), he had this to say: “Because those vendors cannot give you that kind of personalization in-memory at this rate and at this kind of a size/scale. So for example, if we are using, say, 300 servers for our open source solution, it would require 600 or more servers to do the same things on vendor products.”

Also, Malhotra is of the opinion that if one uses a vendor product, one gets locked on to it and it also takes away the flexibility.

So it looks like TIL is not going to take the outsourcing route in the near future.

To keep its ad network in good health, TIL also has to do a lot of monitoring of how the ads are being served across different geographies. One, to check if a consistent experience is being delivered to the user; and two, whether a campaign is not surreptitiously trying to deliver some malware to the end user’s device (in which case the campaign is stopped and/or blocked.)

For this, TIL uses a mix of in-house resources as well as tools from third-party providers.

The challenge now is that, sometimes, the traffic at multiple sites can peak at the same time, which requires a different kind of scalability.


(Note: This blog post first appeared on dynamicCIO.com)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Experiments with Sudarshan Kriya, Pranayama and Meditation


I have been meaning to write this post for some time but kept myself in check. After my previous, broader post on yoga, I became increasingly aware of the complexities involved in explaining things to people who come from different backgrounds and may have their own interpretations, prior experiences, prejudices, misinformation or vested interests about certain things. (Just as I may have about certain other things myself :)

Healthcare is big business in the US (running into hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars) and India seems to be headed inexorably onto the path of creating its own healthcare chimera in the image of the (mostly broken) US healthcare system. A system that is in cahoots with Big Pharma, which in turn is in bed with Big Hospital, which in turn is fueled by Big Insurance—all ultimately burdening the tax-paying middle class, most of whom are finding it difficult to keep up with high premiums, costs of drugs, diagnostics and doctors’ fees.

But as I saw the flames of greed engulf a growing nation in its laboratory of money-making, as I saw Indian intellectuals turning their back on or even cocking a snook at the traditional systems of health, wisdom and well-being such as yoga, pranayama and Ayurveda (ironically, the West is increasingly opening its arms to all of these)—and as I completed over two years of regular daily practice of pranayama + meditation—I could no longer stop myself from putting pen to paper, to use the idiom.

The idea of this post, let me state upfront, is not to boast of my own prowess or anything (I have barely scratched the surface of what the accomplished masters such as Swami Sivananda, BKS Iyengar or T Krishnamacharya achieved through decades and decades of unwavering practice). Nor is the intent to pull down other systems of mind-body control, healing or working out (such as running, gymming, tai chi, Pilates and the like). Further, while I have pointed to the Hindu roots of yoga in my previous post, the intention here is not to promote any religion but just to share my own personal experience and how it helped me heal—with nearly 80% success (and counting)—my peculiar condition and general ill-health. (More on that in a short while.)

Furthermore, in the backdrop of the very recent occurrence of the World Culture Festival organized by the Art of Living and the criticism (as well as accolades) it has drawn from various quarters (since what follows mentions Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing technique patented by AOL)—let me state that while I promote the Kriya, I usually do not subscribe to the pressure tactics often employed by AOL volunteers to enroll for more and more courses all the time.

And I have my own set of criticisms for its very intriguing founder, Sri Ravi Shankar. For instance, if I got a chance to meet him in person, I would ask him, “Guruji, why did you have to patent the Kriya, which is actually a recipe based on ancient breathing routines otherwise known to millions of people? Why is the Kriya not taught to the poor for free? (If it is, where?) And, why, oh why, did you or your devotees had to sell commercial goodies like Sri Sri bhujiya at the WCF venue?” (bhujiya is a kind of Indian snack that would hardly be considered healthy by AOL elders or Ayurveda practitioners.) Besides the health aspect, there’s the commercialization angle too: Why do modern day babas and gurus need their own brands and businesses?
  
The idea of this post is primarily to share what I did and how I benefited from the breathing regimen. Sudarshan Kriya, of course, is not my first introduction to pranayama or breath-control (see the related post, Beyond Asana: Yoga…), but it has helped me connect with my own self each day in 30 to 40 minutes of quiet, quality time. And along the way, open up a whole new path to introspection, self-discovery and the healing mechanisms that reside within our bodies and hence within easy reach of every individual.

I started doing Kriya over two years back and, gradually, appended my own rituals of meditation to the recipe prescribed in the AOL course I undertook (in earlier  times, it was called the Basic Course and later renamed to Happiness Course). But the additions I made to my routine are recent in nature and I made them almost spontaneously, without consulting any AOL teacher. Nevertheless, I now have my own concoction (that I do not intend to patent or sell!) of sitting down quietly each morning, taking deep breaths and meditating for a while.

I am thankful to AOL for being instrumental in helping me restart a healthy journey, yet I do not bow to any living personality with complete trust in their virtues or saintliness. It has been my firm belief for quite some time that we must try to be our own guru in these weird, Kalyugi times when real gurus are almost impossible to find. (See my related post, Sex and the Guru.)

So, how did I happen to do the AOL course and restart on a journey that I left unfinished while at school? (As a student, I used to do yoga and participate in several group yoga competitions as well but left practicing when I started on a professional career through a curious animal called “job” :)

Here it goes…

Circa 2010: I was returning home in my car after a busy day at work. Suddenly, I felt as if a particularly vengeful mosquito bit me in the leg and bit with all its might. I instinctively scratched the “bitten” part of my leg—only to find a succession of such piercing mosquito bites on my hands and torso as well. I struggled with keeping the car steering steady as I tried to swat the skeeters before they could suck a not-so-inconsequential amount of blood from my body.

The above episode repeated itself several times with me in the next few months—in the car, in office, at home, and while on the bed, tossing and trying to sleep. Quite often, these were not your typical mosquito bites, with patches of rashes and itching: for me, it was more like pain mixed with itchiness and even a little bit of tickling. Unable to find any mosquitoes or other insects around when this happened, I used to wonder what exactly was happening and why.

For the first few months, this was little more than an inconvenience. I just ignored it. But then, gradually, it became more frequent and bothersome (the frequency of its occurrence went up from, say, once or twice a month to half a dozen times). Also, I had more and more trouble sleeping at night and, besides the itching component, there were sharp needle-like jabs, especially in the extremities of my fingers and toes.

Roughly one-and-a-half years passed like this.

Then, sometime in 2012, the sole of my right foot caught some allergic infection or something. The skin near the toes started to peel off and there was intense itching as well. I consulted a dermatologist, who suggested getting a blood test done, and also asked me to check if I had diabetes. When I took the test results to a doctor (a reputed M.D. degree holder), he told me that while I was not diabetic, I was “close to being one.”

Now, this doctor did advise me to control my diet and so on, but he said there was nothing much to worry about. I think I must have been alarmed on my own in those days, for I quit taking sugar or sugary foods after that. (I had almost forgotten about my foot allergy and just applied the ointment that the dermatologist had prescribed; in about two weeks or so, the foot healed.)

During those days when I stopped my sugar intake (of course, what I mean is intake of any artificial or added sugar), I happened to notice that the tickling-itching-needling thingy did not occur even once. Why was that so? Upon going over my eating habits, I realized that refined/added sugar was the only thing I had completely eliminated from my diet. But I couldn’t have been too sure that sugar was the cause of all that itching and mosquito-hunting. (In those days, it so happened that my bed mattress got infested with bugs and I was almost convinced that it was those rascally bugs that attacked me at night and immediately scampered away when I switched on the light or hit myself in different parts, wherever the itching took my hand!)

Anyway, to test out the “culpability” of sugar, what I did was alternated between having refined-sugar-as-usual days and no-sugar-at-all days. Around one month or so into this experiment and lo and behold! The culprit causing misery to me was sugar indeed! The tickling-itching-needling returned exactly on the days when I had sugar (in tea, biscuits, cola, sweets, etc.)

I also did some frantic searching of my condition and its symptoms on the web. The two terms that I came across that I think most closely resembled or described what I was going through: “sugar intolerance” and “peripheral neuropathy”. If anything, I was extremely intolerant of sugar! The advice offered on many of those medical/health sites included avoiding or going low on the “substance” causing that needling/itching—in my case, the sugar.

So I stopped taking refined sugar; I only took it once in a while to check whether it continued to affect me or could it be that the situation would improve or change on its own. Each time, I met with 100% results: “No sugar for you, Sanjay!” It was like this voice echoed in my mind along with the return of the symptoms on “sugar days”. With the passing of time, the itching/needling impact of sugar escalated: it took only 20 to 30 minutes for the symptoms to show up. (In fact, some of my friends who knew my condition joked with me that I could be useful to scientists in accurately testing whether an edible substance had refined sugar in it or not! Curiously, sweeteners like honey or jaggery did not have an ill-effect on me.)

Once, on the advice of my well-wishers, I decided to see a good endocrinologist and seek his help. So I went to one of the most reputed and well-equipped hospitals in Delhi and consulted its esteemed endocrinologist. When I came out of his room, I had a largish sheet of his prescription pad in my hand—on which he had scribbled not one, not two, not three but 5-6 different kinds of diagnostic tests, in addition to some tablets and dietary advice.

I recalled the doctor’s clinical lack of interest or empathy with my condition, mixed it with the greedy haste he had displayed in putting down all kinds of expensive tests, and considered it in my mind together with the amount of wasted effort and money I would need to shell out, if I were to go along with his prescribed course of action.

I quickly and quietly came back home.

Some more time passed.

August, 2013: I had started going on morning walks to a park nearby for the past few weeks. One day, as I was making my way back to the gate of the park, I noticed a couple of my friends who were promoting the six-day basic course of AOL alongside the organization’s banner under a tree. Before I could think whether to avoid crossing their path, one of them caught hold of my arm and started talking about the course animatedly.

I must have shown some interest, for the same day, two of them visited my home and sweet-talked not just me but my wife as well to begin the AOL course that was to start on the 13th of August.

In hindsight, I will always remain thankful to both of them, not necessarily for introducing AOL to me (of which I was aware) but of becoming the nimitta (a Hindi word that roughly translates to “something that is instrumental in something bigger or more important”) for getting me restarted on a journey of self-discovery, inner healing and spirituality.

Given that Sudarshan Kriya is patented and I, just like millions others, signed a non-disclosure clause that prohibits teaching it to others (only approved AOL teachers can do so), I would not divulge all the details. But if you really ask me, it is quite simple and comprises three major steps: first is a series of specialized breathing in certain postures (the type of breathing is called ujjayi breath); then bhastrika and finally the (inner) chanting of the mantra “Soham” in a certain series of rhythms.

Coming back to my personal experience, while the course began on August 13, the Kriya itself was taught the next day, when all the participants performed it under the tutelage of an AOL-approved teacher (in my case, Kavitaji, whose soft voice and wise words continue to echo in my ears till date).

The first-time experience of doing Sudarshan Kriya had an effect on me that thousands of others have described in a similar fashion: it was like an inner cleansing. One felt lighter, better, happier than before. Done in a soothing, calm environment, the breathing exercises resulted in much improved circulation of blood all through your body, and the pleasantness in the mind was accentuated by chanting of the mantra (the chants were actually emanating from Sri Sri’s voice captured and played on a tape-recorder kept nearby; on our part, we were required to simply say “Soham” internally).

We were told beforehand that a lot of people cry immediately after the Kriya, especially on the very first occasion—and there were many who did cry that day too. But it was all spontaneous, uninhibited, open crying, as if to wash away the barrage of repressed thoughts and feelings. I could not see any shame in that crying, only an admission of our humanness and the necessity of giving vent to human emotions once in a while.

As the AOL course came to an end, there was a sense of bonding and commonality among the participants, one that rested on the understanding that most of the things we crave in life are short-lived, even nonsensical. And that anyone can be happy, should be happy, if a certain positive attitude to life in general and the people around one in particular could be maintained.

After the course, there were a few occasions on which I participated in what AOL calls “Samoohik Kriya” (Kriya done together). And several times, we were told about the advanced, higher or even more beneficial courses from AOL—but I have stuck to the basic one thus far, trying to implement some of the noble sutras in my daily life (the sutras were prescribed during the course and basically were ethical/moral tenets on the lines of being non-judgmental of others and leading a do-gooder life).

(Craving, even if it is for more and more AOL courses, is not a good thing I believe :)

But this post is not entirely about AOL and how it operates, so let me move on with the rest of my experiments with the Kriya and pranayama.

As I advanced in my own practice of Sudarshan Kriya, I noticed that my inner confidence, calm and strength grew as well. In my morning sessions, after the Kriya came to an end, I began to sit a while longer, meditating.

Now, meditation is a “loaded word,” as one of my friends put it recently. And there is already enough confusion about it amongst lay persons and practitioners of this mystic art alike. I, too, do not claim to be an expert in meditation. Yet, I sincerely believe that in over two years of regular practice supplemented by reading of literature on meditation, I have come to a stage where maybe I can share a few things that can be of use and value to others. And that’s all I can offer at this point in time—my journey still continues…

Meditation is a kind of unravelling the inner beauty of our being. As I have noted in my book Strings of the Soul, “Meditation takes you away from the torrent of oppressive thoughts into the inexplicable joy of stillness.”

It is my belief and experience that just as there is no single way to discovering the Truth, there are multiple ways in which one can meditate. The commonly shown picture, in which a person is shown sitting cross-legged in a relaxed position, hands resting on the knees and eyes closed, is one way to meditate—but so is the way in which a person is just walking quietly in the woods, admiring the birds and the beasts and other creatures or phenomena of nature.

And then there is the mindfulness meditation that Buddha taught, in which we shine the wisdom of our mind on the interconnected nature of everything that exists around us: this is because that is; this could not be because that wasn’t so, and so on. (If you were to compare it to modern management theory, you may perhaps find a parallel in “root-cause analysis.” But meditation is not only analysis, it is a lot of synthesis as well. To me, it is a process in which the cycle of analysis-synthesis comes to a stage where the universal unity of everything and what the Buddha called “emptiness of the self” is experienced.)

The point is, there are different kinds of meditation and they may be better suited to different situations. But the essence of meditation, in my opinion, is the inner silence deep within us and accessible to all of us—a source of infinite wisdom, energy, understanding… (Some of these ideas may sound mystical or esoteric, but at the experiential level, they are indeed very simple. Maybe I’ll come back with a longer piece on meditation some other time :)

Speaking of my individual experience, besides have a calming and joyous effect on the mind, the Kriya and meditation practice gradually but surely cured the physical symptoms of itching/needling I used to have after consuming sugar. As of the writing of this post, I have only slight problems (less intense itching and no needling sensation) and that too only if I really gorge on sugary foods—a rasgulla or two is perfectly all right!

Also, there are other additional benefits I have seen: earlier, prior to my regular practice, I would be afflicted with severe flu/cold at least three or four times a year. But in the past two-and-a-half years, this obnoxious condition has affected me only twice (and both times, healing occurred much more quickly, with barely any antibiotics.)

Needless to say, I’m now a walking-talking proponent of pranayama (not necessarily Sudarshan Kriya but any breathing routine for that matter), meditation and holistic living. The logic is simple: Why go for those umpteen diagnostic tests or risky surgery when a regular dose of ancient wisdom will do? Sure, pranayama would take longer and require more discipline on your part, but it will most likely offer lasting cure rather than symptomatic treatment and do so with fewer chances of relapse.

But remember, I’m not saying that the modern medical systems or hospitals are not required at all: I wouldn’t dare suggest deep breathing exercises to a man who has just been in a road accident and needs immediate medical attention. But I wouldn’t shy away from advising him to do a little bit of meditation later on, to remove, say, any residues of trauma the accident may have caused.

Never the one to force my ideas on others, I would rather let people discover the benefits that pranayama and meditation can bring to their lives in their own ways and at their own opportune time. Why force negatively when you can convince in a positive way?

The least I could do, however, was to write this rather long (though I hope non-boring) post.

Thank you for reading.