Mallika Sarabhai explains how dance and yoga gave her a new lease of life

I started learning yoga at the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1974, while spending a year there trying to figure out if I wanted a life as a movie actress. Kaivalyadhama was founded in Lonavala in the late 1920s to spread the yoga teaching of Swami Kuvalayanandaji. Swamiji had extensively researched yoga and modern science and taught these methods for health and healing. Soon it became apparent that more and more people who wanted to learn were coming from Bombay. They persuaded Swamiji to set up a branch in Bombay and it came into existence in 1932. In the 1970s it was the place to go to learn yoga.

At Shreyas, my school in Ahmedabad, we were taught all about holistic living, but somehow yoga was never part of it. Dad used to do asanas at 5 am, an ungodly hour for me, so I was rarely aware of it; Amma, never. So I wasn’t really exposed to yoga growing up.

In Bombay, I was getting bored and restless listening to endless useless “star” movie scripts and needed to find some more interesting occupation. By then, my interest in wellness and fitness had taken hold, and I felt I wanted and needed something that engaged my body. Yoga had intrigued me and I felt it was a good opportunity and a good time.

So I signed up for Kaivalyadhama. The few months of learning were a lot of fun and I looked forward to arriving at the institute every morning. Once back in Ahmedabad and while I was doing my PhD, I used to dance a bit and do asanas in my room, but I wasn’t really engaged in dancing or yoga outside. era.

In 1976, I broke up with the Kenyan man I was engaged to. I was heartbroken, even though the decision to end the relationship had been entirely mine (and oh, so correct). I went into a deep depression and more or less locked myself in my room. I felt abandoned again, once by dad and death, now by a man I loved and trusted and never expected to give in to an overbearing mother. I couldn’t help but tell myself that I could never trust men – a feeling I constantly struggle with, even twenty years after a very rich and committed relationship.

Our home, Chidambaram, in Ahmedabad, is on the banks of the Sabarmati (actually it was. Now
the Sabarmati Riverfront project has moved the river away and a highway borders us!). My room had a glass wall overlooking our lawns and the river. My favorite chair is a tall one with armrests that can fit a laptop or computer and a seat that’s wide enough to meditate cross-legged. It was passed on to me by my great-aunt Anasuya Sarabhai, friend and colleague of Mahatma Gandhi, the woman who fought for labor rights in 1918 and founded the first trade union in India, to dad and then to me.

I spent four months of nothingness sitting in this chair, my legs resting on the windowsill, staring at the river and asking why? Why did dad die? Why did this man let me down? And then, in a Eureka moment, I woke up one morning with just one thought: “All I want to do is dance.

Amma had never tried to persuade me to pursue a career in dancing. Smart Amma. So finding him through a wave of grief and mourning was a godsend for her and me. She, too, had felt lost after Dad’s death. Even the dancing had started to seem pointless. But seeing me commit to it was a second run for her and we immersed ourselves in the work together. I started relearning the rare Kuchipudi dance pieces that my amazing guru, CR Acharyulu, had taught me, and that’s when I realized I had to get back to regular yoga.

The many sculptural poses that form the backbone of Kuchipudi require a very flexible body and spine, and I haven’t found anything better than asanas for this. CR Acharyulu was a shishiya (disciple) of the guru credited with transforming the dramatic dance form of Bhagavata Mela Natakam into the solo Kuchipudi we know today. This guru, Lakshminarayan Shastri, had two favorite students, my master and the much more famous Vempati Chinna Satyam.

Master came to Darpana in 1953, sent by Amma’s friend, art lover SV Venugopal (then officially working for Lux Soaps). Amma had created Darpana about five years earlier and was looking for traditional gurus. Venugopal thought that Master, who also had extensive knowledge of Shastras and Andhra shadow puppets, would be a good choice. Master was invited to join Darpana and arrived from Elluru by train, a trip interrupted by many stops and many telegrams to Amma saying, “Arrived xx. To rest. Will be newly arrived soon.’

His English was amazing in its ability to conjure up the right images through the most bizarre use of words. Including always calling Amma ‘Sir’. I inherited from him at Darpana and started learning from him when I was fifteen. He was one of my main sources of knowledge about our myths and legends, Shastras and texts. Her joy in dancing was perhaps what infected my Kuchipudi style the most.

Several years later, in 1999, I decided to introduce a yoga class for all Darpana artists, no
just for the flexibility, but also as a pooling in the common consciousness each morning that I felt like
required in a performance company to work closely and creatively in a team. We’ve been doing this five days a week ever since. And on tour wherever we are, as much as we can.

My yoga practice has evolved from one that loosens muscles and makes the spine more flexible to one that promotes wholeness and well-being and now, more recently, rehabilitates worn and torn muscles.

Until recently, we have always had trained teachers at Ashram Shivananda in Ahmedabad.
Then, five years ago, after hearing and reading a lot about Iyengar yoga, I invited a teacher to come for a two-week workshop. I was surprised to find that while there were Iyengar yoga classes in Budapest and Melbourne, there were none in Ahmedabad. The charming Aarti Mehta, trained with her siblings by Guruji Iyengar himself, came to teach the workshop. She, her sister Rajvi and brother Birju have run the main Iyengar centers in Mumbai for years and are brilliant teachers. I loved what this type of yoga did and its body healing possibilities with props.

Since then we have held many Iyengar yoga workshops and they have also started online classes for students in Ahmedabad. Jyoti Patel from Shivananda Ashram taught us Darpana, and we alternate between Iyengar and Shivananda styles, sometimes doing quick asanas in what is called power yoga.

Through confinement and the time after, where often my dance practice does not take place, and through a period of post-illness rehabilitation, it is my hour of yoga that gives me the power to face each day, physically and mentally. My body really misses the weekend. Yes, I could do my asanas without a class, but doing it in a group has a lot of positive points, and a particular energy.

Dance has become my go-to place for all moods and emotions – to celebrate, to cry, to vent anger and frustration, to feel alive, to feel strong, both emotionally and physically. And I’m not necessarily talking about Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Often I turn the music on loud in my room and dance like I’m at a party or a disco.

I love learning folk dance in our folk and tribal dance center, Janavak, founded in 1980. At the beginning, we invited a family from a different tribal community to come and work with us for a month, learning not just their dance and music, but their traditions, why they did things the way they did, why they believed in certain things, what their customs and colors meant.

I remember inviting the family of the now famous Kalbelia dancer, Gulabo, in 1986. Gulabo and I had two-year-old children. We heard stories from her mother-in-law and learned from her. I still love doing the Kalbelia dance. My personal repertoire ranges from Gonds and Ao Nagas dances, to Bihu, Sambalpuri, Purulia Chhau and more. And Flamenco, which I learned for three months in New York, while performing at the Mahabharata. Each style does something different for the mind and body. Some are mystical and slow. Others vibrant. Others make your adrenaline pump and still others are aerobic and beautiful. Everyone tones differently. Everyone affects mood differently.

Today, science has proven time and time again that dancing releases oxytocin, serotonin and other “wellnesses”
chemicals in the body. Even if you don’t feel like dancing, the physical act of dancing, with music, makes
you release these chemicals and you feel better, happier, more optimistic.

Excerpted with permission from In Free Fall: My Life ExperiencesMallika Sarabhai, Speaking Tiger Books.