A little bit stronger

One day
The gym was filled with men
Big & brawny bodybuilders
Flexing their muscles between every set
In front of the mirror
In I walked & It started
The looks
Impatient sighs
Whispered chuckles,

“what’s she doing lifting?”
“why isn’t she doing cardio?”

I was in their space
I was using their weights
& I didn’t even ask for help ;)

They may be bigger
But they’re not stronger

We always have to
Push back
Work harder &

Prove 
Prove
We belong
Be it the boardroom or bench press
It is ours, too
Not a privilege but a right

Don’t let it unnerve you
Let them hover
Let them stare
Let them laugh

Work harder
Ignore, smile &
Keep your head up high

Let it fuel your fire
Lift heavier

They will try to knock you down
They may succeed
But you can’t let them win
By getting back up every-time
& coming back a little stronger

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The Ugly Truth about Body-Shamers

“You will be judged by those whose only accomplishment is judging”

The journey to getting fit isn’t just about physical endurance & consistency. On the path to greatness you will face a lot of opposition. Fitness is no different. Forget about injury, overcoming the temptation to cheat or increasing your muscle mass. The greatest and most irritating obstacle you’ll face is people’s reactions, judgements and non-stop criticism.

Examples:

“omg if you do more, you’ll disappear”

“please don’t lose any more weight”

“in my opinion you look better with a bit of weight, your face is more cute”

“bas hadiyan hai, mass kahan hai?”

“kamzor ho gay hai”

“thoda kha le, kuch nahin hoga”

& my favourite one:

“your back hurts ‘coz you gym too much”

How many times have I heard this & much more from some of my “well-wishers?” This is not just from annoying relatives by the way, but actual friends who are of a similar age (which really surprised me!). I get comments like this daily, if not every other day. I’m sure lots of you can relate.

At one point of time, I actually felt that maybe I had gone too far, maybe something was wrong and perhaps I wasn’t actually looking good. But then I asked myself one important question:

“How do you feel Sonal?”

The answer was crystal clear: Pretty fricking’ amazing!

How does it feel to wear clothes I never could before like bodycon dresses, shorts, figure-hugging gowns and not have to be conscious about flab sticking out?

Answer: Pretty fricking amazing!

How does it feel to be able to do 3 sets of chest-press where at one point I could barely lift my arm to change my clothes (due to back & cervical pain):

Answer: Out of this world.

The people who are judging you have no right (or even expertise!) to judge you in the first place. In fact, if you notice these same people will judge you and then ask you for tips on diets & working out. Does that seem like logical behaviour? They don’t like the way you look allegedly but they want to become like you? In essence, they are jealous and are projecting their insecurity in the form of offensive behaviour towards YOUR body. Not done.

I used to ignore these comments fake a smile and move on, but no more. The last time someone (who was clearly unfit) said this to me I finally broke the silence and asked him why he felt the need to comment on my body when I’m perfectly happy the way I am.

Do I go around saying “you’re unfit?” “you have a large belly”, “You should really watch your weight?” No. Because it’s called Body-Shaming – and that’s exactly what you’re doing to me! He actually apologized and said he was secretly jealous. This is not about “putting people in their place” it’s about standing up for yourself & what you believe in.

Don’t let other people’s judgments deter you for even a second or create self-doubt.

Keep grinding, focusing on yourself and your opinion is the only one that counts. It’s not just about aesthetics but how you FEEL. For me, there is no high in the world that can replace the feeling I get after exercising. Fitness is my drug & passion. If anyone tries to get in between me & it – well good luck to them 🙂

Let those comments be the fuel to your fire & help you lift an extra few reps at your next session!

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Fitness as a Religion?

I haven’t posted in a while. Apologies. But you would’ve noticed that I only write when I really have something to say, and don’t write for the heck of it. (Yes that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). This post is more spiritual in nature. I read the phrase ‘Fitness as a Religion’ yesterday and it got me thinking. What is the purpose of religion? One might say it’s to help find inner peace and establish a connection with God. How does Fitness fit in? Let’s go back to the beginning…

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As a kid, I would watch my mom pray twice a day and I never understood. How could praying to some supposed Guy-in-the-Sky make your life better? What was more astonishing was that she actually felt better after praying. Is she connecting to God? How come it doesn’t work when I do it? Am I not saying the prayer properly? Why isn’t He listening to me? I was sure it was because I wasn’t devoted or committed enough. He can probably distinguish between the “fake” prayers vs. the “real” prayers, I would think dejectedly as a kid.

So how did I attain that sense of peace? Now that I reflect on whatever I did when I felt, sad or alone – it’s an interesting observation. I didn’t derive a sense of peace from a religious site such as a temple or by praying alone as my mom did.

It would happen when I was outside, alone, running. Running in the woods, running by the ocean, running, running, running away from everything & feeling the power of my legs carry me away and open my mind up to complete freedom from the material things around me.

Due to knee and back problems, I can no longer run freely as I used to, but I realise I enjoy the same feeling when I work out whether indoors or outdoors.

It was only until much later in life that I began to think of God differently. I could never subscribe to the image of a white-haired, long-bearded man sitting in the sky watching over us. How could he forget about so many people, I would think. Or the hundreds of gods in Hinduism who represent so many different things. But which one should I subscribe to? It was only when I started reading, discussing & becoming conscious of the energies around me did I think about a divine spirit or cosmic force.

Many of us look outwards to connect to this force by relying on the wise words of a guru, a saint or maybe motivational speaker. The problem is when we start revering them rather than actually understanding what they are trying to say. The divine spirit is within us. God is in everyone. When it hit me, it really hit me. The prayers, the chants, the running/physical exercise (for me) – it was all just different paths that lead to the same point: a cliff overlooking a vast ocean. The ocean of truth. We’re all just drops. Single drops existing across the universe are isolated, alone and temporal. But when you become part of the ocean you are one and a formidable force.

When my mom was praying it wasn’t that some magical voice was telling her what to do or help her lead her life. She was channeling into her own inner strength connected to some cosmic force (maybe?) that was helping her become more positive as a person. More positive and ready to conquer life’s challenges.

Religion (for me) isn’t about connecting to a far-off God in the sky somewhere. It’s about tapping into the God within us, the energy within. This is mind-boggling because it means we as humans are capable of anything. & if you think about it, we really are. How many miraculous cases have we heard where humans have been able to surmount a challenge against all the odds, against all logic or probability. It’s called a miracle for a reason. But we are all capable of those miracles. It is us, who is responsible for those glorious acts. We are the masters of our destiny if only we can understand and harness this energy.

Why is it some people are so positive, so in control of their lives & absolutely in-tune with their surroundings? Or in other words “so zen”? It’s because they have learned how to channel that energy. Each religion is just telling us the same thing. The problem is we tend to get confused along the way and start thinking the path is the destination not a vehicle to lead us to the truth. In fact, we are so confused we argue about which path is the best, not realising they all lead to the same point.

Going back to fitness, I realise the most in-tune & connected I feel is when I’m exercising. No, it’s not just the endorphins. The connection between mind & body is undeniable. When we lift, we are lifting ourselves spiritually by reminding our brains about or amazing capability as humans. We are channeling into the inner god within us by performing miraculous acts. You don’t work-out (or paint, or meditate, fill in the blank__) only for the end-product but for the pleasure you derive while doing it. The feeling. The joy of being able to perform the act, in itself is a gift & a small reminder of what we are capable of as humans.

Hence, going to the gym or working-out outside, or doing yoga (whatever is your path) is my time each day to remind myself mentally & physically of the great undeniable spirit within me. It is not a luxury that I “make time for” it is a necessity to bring me closer to my god: the one residing within me.

Winning the Fight of Entrepreneurship & Fitness: different paths, similar principles

As 2017 comes to an end and I reflect on the last couple of years, I can’t help but realize that my journey as an entrepreneur and as a fitness enthusiast have a lot in common. Both reflect a journey that is difficult, requires a lot of learning and shift in mindset from the conventional way of thinking. To succeed in both, you need to be a fighter. When I first moved to India I realized two things: I wanted to create (not just work) & I needed to get fit. The 5 principles below helped me navigate both journeys.

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  1. Establish your goal 

The first step is realizing what you want to do. Keep in mind, this may change overtime and I think it should as you and your business evolve, but it’s important to have a starting point. You don’t need to focus on the how initially. Just establish the what. When I first moved to India I was pretty clear about the fact that I didn’t want to work a standard corporate job. I wanted to do something on my own. I knew the general area that I liked and wanted to explore. Similarly, I knew I had to address my poor health. I had been struggling with health issues in London due to the excessive working hours and a crazy hectic lifestyle.

  1. Everyone’s journey is different – there is no set path

You can read all the books you want about both topics, watch the Social Network a dozen times and stalk Fitness superstars on Instagram to see what they eat and do, but ultimately a lot of trial and error is required. Steve Jobs and his legacy are revered but we can’t forget about the struggles he faced; he was kicked out of the very company he created at one point! You need to be patient because it’s a process and you will not achieve success overnight. I first started working in the area of corporate training in Delhi. After meeting several potential clients and speaking to people I realized it was a highly oversaturated market and lots of companies were doing it in-house. I could either give up or differentiate myself and target a different space. I identified a huge gap in the customer-service skills training of major fashion brands. I decided to shift focus. After a dozen meetings and a few months I landed a contract with a prestigious global brand training the employees of their 20+ locations across India. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had professionally and I am still very good friends with a few people there and former Business Head.

When it comes to Fitness & Nutrition, of course there are tons of plans to choose from. But if your goal is to adopt a healthy and sustainable lifestyle (not just lose a few kilos before your cousin’s wedding) then you will need to experiment with different options to determine what actually works for you in the long-run. I’ve been through several different nutrition plans over the past year because I also have a sensitive gut. It took time to understand my body and realize what works and what doesn’t. Similarly, due to my back issues I can’t just pick up a workout template and follow it blindly. I need to customize it according to my specific needs. For example, I have realized that my workout routine is simply incomplete without yoga. The effect yoga has on me mentally and physically is incomparable. I cannot live without it.

  1. The struggle is real and you need to be relentless

This goes without saying, but I think it applies to both journeys perfectly. Behind each successful idea there’s 100 failed ideas. Don’t give up. Similarly, while it’s tempting to see people’s physical health transformations and think “why is this not happening to me?” you don’t know how many times that person tried and failed before sticking to his/her routine. We just see the outcome and compare it with our current state. Respect the journey. Also, be prepared to face opposition. Lot’s of it. I can’t tell you the number of aunties, uncles & even professionals who advised me to “just get a job” and “stop struggling” or “stop being obsessed with my diet.” Ignore, be patient and carry on. Your actions will prove them wrong. Those same people will come back to you asking you to help their daughter/son find a job (true story) and create a “diet chart” for them (true story).  Why do they say the best way to success is the stairs and not the lift? (Hint: it’s not because you burn more calories!) It’s because you need to go through the hardship of climbing each and every step in order to get to the top. If you take the lift up, it will just as easily come down. But if you reach the top after hard work and dedication, you won’t easily get back down. Even if you do, your chances of getting back up there are great because you fought your way up the first time.

  1. To move forward, sometimes you need to take 2 steps back

At one point I realized it was simply unsustainable for me to continue working without a proper team in place. I was getting burnt out trying to create a company as well as being involved in client delivery. I needed time to reflect. I took a break. I had the option to renew my contract with the global fashion brand but I didn’t. Trust me, for someone who has fought tooth and nail for every opportunity saying “no, thanks” and walking out the door is not easy. It requires a lot of guts and it feels damn good to make that choice but it’s scary! If I were thinking short-term which was tempting, I would see a loss of income of X amount. Thinking long-term, I left. Though it was unsettling I knew I needed to reevaluate and explore my options. Low and behold a few months later – I became a part of SQUATS. I had the freedom to create an entire vertical out of scratch (aligning with my entrepreneurial dream), but with the support of an entire team. Incidentally, my entrepreneur & fitness journey actually converged!

Similarly, as you would’ve read about in my previous blog post my health took a turn for the worst this year. I knew it was time to give in, stop exercising and focus on recovery in order to be strong enough to get back into the ring to fight another day. I’ve resumed my fitness journey again, but I know not to take my health for granted.

  1. It’s always a WIP (Work in Progress)

If you compare the CEOs / founders of major companies with fitness enthusiasts you’ll notice one thing: they never stop learning. You can’t afford to in either space. Your company and your body are continually evolving, growing, sometimes recovering from setback or illness. So how can you keep following the same strategy (or fitness & nutrition plan)? Although the initial stages in both cases are the hardest, that doesn’t mean you can get lazy once you reach your first target. I say first because as mentioned in point 1, your goal will and should change. You can only beat the competition if you’re at your best. In both cases I think the competition is always you. Whether it’s work, health or anything that matters to you, if you live each day knowing you gave it your best – there’s no regrets. Prepare each day like you’re going into the battlefield and you will always be on top of your game.

Transformation Alert: The journey begins now

“Success is my only motherf*cking option. Failure’s not.” No one said it better than Eminem did and with so much conviction. Following on from my last post (re: health challenges I’ve been facing this year) I’ve come to the conclusion that 2017 has been a pretty awful year so far. Or perhaps, it was a long way to fall from 2016 where so many exciting things happened: I was crowned Mrs. Asia-Universe; I became a Director at SQUATS (ironically a Health & Wellness company) and much more. The higher you rise, the harder the fall right? How do you get back up? The journey starts with a single step and I’m taking that step now.

The ugly truth: before this week, I hadn’t stepped inside a gym for 3 months. My diet has been severely inconsistent. There are 2 types of stressed people. Those who eat less and those who eat more. I’m in the 2nd category. Most of my old clothes don’t fit like they used to or don’t fit at all. It’s difficult and embarrassing to share the following but I need to hold myself accountable and this is the best way:

Current weight: 64kg (At the time of competing I was 58 :–/ )

Measurements in inches: Bust: 35; Waist: 28.5; Hips: 39.5 Bicep: 11; Thigh: 24.5; Calf: 14

It feels like rock bottom!

The good thing about falling is that once you’ve hit the floor there’s only one place left to go: up. The journey upwards begins now.

 

Today is the first day of WiN’s Transformation Journey program at Infosys. In other words, my first major account as Director of WiN. After I met the Infy folks last week, I felt like a fraud. How can I lead this journey feeling and looking the way I currently do? How can I inspire others, when I am not practicing the same principles I am advocating?

Therefore, today, with Infosys’ journey begins mine.

I’m committed to changing my lifestyle. I don’t have any particular weight or inch loss target in mind. My goals are to regain the strength I lost and lose some fat. I’m going to take it one day at a time.

I’m nowhere near able to complete all the exercises I should be doing. Whatever I can do has to be done with lots of care, slowly and with very little weight or none at all.

Here are a few important steps which are helping me get back into the flow:

  1. Establish a routine. I have severe limitations to my work-out but I am making it a point to go to the gym nonetheless every morning at the same time. This sets the tone for the day. I’ve always been a morning-gym person and thrive off the energy all day.
  2. A healthy and balanced diet is key. I’ve experimented with lots of options this past year as I struggled to get back on track. I’ve realised to choose the right nutrition plan, you have to really understand yourself, your reaction to certain foods and your lifestyle. Pick something which is sustainable for you.
  3. Go slow and steady. It’s really tempting to start going overboard your first few weeks as you get into the groove. But if you’re recovering from an injury or new to working-out it’s important not to go overboard and risk (re)injury.

 

I’ll share my tips and experience as I take this journey. I will also update measurements & photos on a weekly basis. I look forward to any comments or tips from those of you who are trying to get back to a healthy lifestyle.

Together, we can do this. Let’s end this (awful) year with a bang.

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What does it mean to be Wonder Woman?

What does true strength really mean? How do we get through adversity? And what does it mean to be Wonder Woman? The past few months haven’t been easy. I’m not one to publicly complain about personal problems (only social and political ones 😉 I just thought sharing my story might help me as well as those who are experiencing something similar.

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A few months ago I felt like I was on top of the world: getting Wellness Initiative up and running, jet-setting from one city to another for meetings, modelling when time permitted, meeting new people, writing my blog, working out, doing yoga and eating healthy (most of the time) and sometimes thinking up crazy schemes to save the world : ) I felt good. I almost thought I was Wonder Woman for a short while. But I wasn’t.

One day, I felt a peculiar pain in my neck and right shoulder. I didn’t realise why. Had I gone overboard at the gym? Did I strain something in my sleep? Was it too much texting on my mobile? Probably a combination of all. I thought, “it’ll probably go away in a day or two.” It didn’t. It got worse.

I don’t remember, or know if I have ever experienced such excruciating pain.

My entire neck, shoulders, upper spine, and even head seized-up and I couldn’t move. I’ve always had a bad back due to scoliosis but I was never immobilised like that before. This time the pain extended to my arms, to my lower back and my legs. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sit, and I couldn’t sleep.

You know that rush you feel when you’ve been working out hard in the gym and you can feel your progress? It might be that you’re able to lift a little bit more, or do an extra set? Or maybe you’ve finally hit your plank timing record. It’s a high. You feel as if you’re standing atop Mt. Everest; you’re invincible and can do anything!

Now, imagine the opposite.

Not progress but regress.

You go from lifting heavy to not being able to change your clothes without support.

You go from spending that one amazing hour in the gym, where no one can touch you, surrounded by hulks, to going to the hospital’s physiotherapy unit everyday. In the hospital you’re surrounded by people twice your age and accident-recovery victims. You hear nothing but screams of pain around you. One day, you join the chorus of screams, because you just can’t keep the pain in anymore. You can’t keep pretending it’s not that bad, because it is. It sucks.

Then, because you’re a Director of a Health & Wellness company, you come home to try and do some work and extremely fit people flood your social media with six-pack abs posting photos with captions like “Go Hard or Go Home!” “No pain, no gain!”

You feel pathetic. You can’t even turn your neck.

But is lifting hard and heavy true strength? Is being able to do a dozen dead lifts a true indication of your resilience? What does true strength mean?

In yesterday’s fitness session at Infosys, SQUATS founder JC said our muscles get stronger due to resistance training. Resistance meaning opposition, force, pressure. The literal definition of resistance is “the refusal to accept or comply with something.”

What happens when we face resistance in life? What if we are challenged beyond our capacity, and the test is, can we bounce back? Do we grow and get stronger? Or collapse under the pressure?

As my mom once said, true strength isn’t defined by the size of the weight you lift but by your ability to lift yourself up once you’ve fallen down. I’m nowhere near to what I was in terms of fitness or strength this time last year. But if I let this thought consume me (and it almost did) and give up, forget about my body – what does that say about me as an individual? Overcoming that darkness within and seeing the light when there really isn’t even a flicker in sight – that is what defines strength for me.

This was not written for pity, sympathy or even a pat on the back; it is purely to help me by sharing what I’ve gone through and maybe it will help anyone who is going through something similar. Moreover, I don’t pretend that my pain even compares to people who’ve experienced real tragedy: who have lost limbs, lost their eyesight or survived years of violence. I’ve had the honour to meet such women (yes, they are all women 🙂 who’ve not only surmounted challenges but have gone on to do amazing things! (Arunima Sinha; Preeti Monga; Rashmi Anand.) What do they all have in common? They are some of the most positive people I have met. Not just positive; they literally radiate some different kind of energy all together. It is unreal. You feel happy, at ease and inspired all at the same time in their presence.

Their stories make you realise a couple of things: 1) things can always be worse & 2) your life can turn upside down in a matter of seconds so be grateful for whatever you have. Being able to get up, go to the gym each day is a blessing. Being able to use all your parts freely, without pain and feel those endorphins is a gift. I can’t tell you how much I miss that feeling.

As I tell myself daily (and it’s a lot easier said than done) you cannot afford to lose hope or give up. You won’t just be stronger if you get through it you will be a different person. Like those women I met. That energy I felt, that power they emit – they are the real Wonder Women. Not because they have the perfect physique or can beat up the bad guys but because they are untouchable in a completely different way. Nothing and no one can stop them.

The goalpost may have moved for me. I went from wanting that ‘perfect body’ to just being able to exercise without pain. But it doesn’t really matter what the goal is. As cliche as it may sound it’s not about winning or losing or comparing your progress with someone else’s. It’s about staying in the game, no matter what. I’m definitely no Wonder Woman but I know if I aspire to be her, at least I’ll never give up.

 

Carving out your identity

One day I announced to my family and friends that I quit my ‘prestigious’ London job and was moving to India. Needless to say most people were in a state of shock. An interesting observation (one that hit me later) was that once I explained the reasoning behind my decision most of my non-Indian friends were supportive. The Indian relatives and friends, however, were dumbfounded. The question on everyone’s mind was “But why?” When I naively answered, “I’m in love and getting married” that confirmed their suspicion: “Yeh ladki to pagal ho gayi hai!” (This girl has gone crazy). What I discovered was that it wasn’t just the decision to get married but the fact that I was getting married in India, to an Indian that caused everyone to create a fuss. Firstly, they couldn’t imagine an ‘NRI’ moving back to the homeland and secondly how would I ‘adjust’ to an Indian household? I realized it’s because marriage (for women) in our culture represented sacrifice, compromise, a loss of identity and a de-prioritization of one’s dreams and aspirations for the sake of everyone else. For an ambitious girl, grown up in the individualistic ‘west’, all that marriage represented for women seemed like a direct contradiction to my upbringing and the values that had become pillars of my personality. And that’s because no one focused on the positives of marriage: love, companionship, support, and partnership.

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Why is there so much negativity associated with marriage in our country? Ironic, considering it’s a nation that’s obsessed with marriage in every possible way. Nagging Indian wives become the butt of jokes that men circulate amongst each other, mother and daughter-in-law disaccord is expected and reinforced through every Hindi TV series and a wife is not asked “what do you do?” but rather “you work?!” followed by “how do you manage?” Newsflash: married women work all over the world. They prioritize work because they choose to take it seriously. Guess what? Many of them have children and manage to keep their jobs too. The naysayers will claim “but Indian culture demands more of women especially wives and mothers.” Yes, we love to blame everything on the ‘system’ and while patriarchy is deeply engrained in our culture, how will we ever progress if we don’t think of solutions? Why are we so scared to ask questions, to challenge the norm and to create our own rules?

I’m reminded of when I had the honour to meet Sampat Pal Devi, the woman behind the Gulabi Gang. She was recounting the story of how the day after she got married (at some ridiculous age like 14) her mother-in-law chided her for eating with her husband rather than serving him first and eating later with the rest of the women. From the next day onwards she made it a point to eat before him in front of her mother-in-law to prove a point. For those who’ve heard her story or seen the motion picture know the consequences of messing with that woman. Setting the tone early on is important to establish the point that you’re not fine with the status quo and you would prefer to do things differently. This may not always be easy, hell most of the times it will be hard. But isn’t it worth fighting for?

Where do we begin? The issue for me is rooted in identity. Women are not perceived as separate entities in this country and it needs to change. This is deeply entrenched in our cultural beliefs. Ever notice that on official government documents a woman has to either fill out her father or husband’s name? Feeling a bit cheeky I asked a government official once why and his response “Aapki pehchan aapke baap ya husband se hai, Madam” Translation: Your identity is tied to your father (if unmarried) or husband. Oh, right.

Until the perception of women changes, what can we do? Should we just boycott marriage, brand ourselves as feminists and protest everyday? This is actually what some people think of when they hear the ‘F-word’. Designer Maria Grazia Chiuri might’ve made feminism fashionable, but the word is still thrown around like an insult by a lot of men (and women). No. We need to work on changing the perception by creating an identity for ourselves.

How? Start doing things for YOU. You might start by taking an hour out each day just for you to exercise or meditate or maybe write in a journal. But you need to start exploring yourself. What are your thoughts? What are your aspirations? What do you want to do for you? Maybe you always wanted to learn piano but never had the chance when you were younger. Or maybe you want to release the inner dancer in yourself and take up a jazz class. Now is the time. Once you start devoting time for yourself you will get greater clarity about what it is you want to do. Maybe you want to start working again just so you can feel like a productive and useful member of society. The advantage of working is having an independent source of income, which is important for any individual, regardless of their family’s wealth.

Here I’m reminded of when I attended my first concert as a teenager and asked my father for money. He had say yes without knowing how expensive the ticket would be. Once I told him the amount (after the concert) I was blasted for not knowing the value of money and being extravagant beyond our means. Did this mean I would never see a concert again? No, it meant that for the next concert I would have to figure out a way to earn the money myself. Once I did it my dad was actually proud of me for working hard to achieve a goal, even though he didn’t agree with my choice of ‘wasting’ hard-earned money on Janet Jackson. He respected my choice because once I had worked for it; it was my decision to make. This became one of life’s most defining moments for me. I realized that the ‘freedom’ to make your own choice comes at a cost.

As I continued to work hard to prove my worth I became seen as a respected member of the family who carved her own path and could hold her own ground. As a woman with a (relatively) conservative Indian upbringing, this feeling was priceless. My identity was my most prized possession and one that I had worked very hard to achieve.

When I moved to a new place and was surrounded by new people; I had to work even harder to establish that identity again. We all need to continually work on building ourselves. Sadly, in our society women need to work even harder. If you’re a stay-at-home wife and mom, your role doesn’t identify you as someone doing something substantial and unique, though it’s the toughest job in the world. If you’re okay with that and don’t give a damn about perceptions then more power to you. If you feel like it’s not enough, do something to change the status quo. Once you cultivate your own identity and work towards a specific purpose – you will never look back.

 

 

Keep Calm & Continue On – How to Find your Purpose

These days we are bombarded with the overused mantras pursue your passion, carpe diem and live your dream everywhere we look from incessant hashtags to coffee cups to best-selling self-help books. Figuring out your profession has become all the more stressful. Suddenly finding a job is less about stability and more about being awesome. It seems like the whole world is giving us the green light to create something new and become the next big thing. Amidst all this pressure, how do you discover your purpose? Take a deep breath. Take a seat. And watch LaLa Land.

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Not what you were expecting, I am sure. Well, I must be the last person on earth to have finally watched this film and I am really excited about it. I feel compelled to mention it here. A friend had warned me before watching the film “Don’t watch it if you like happy endings. It’s a TRAGIC love story.” Apart from the fact that she ruined the end for me – I disagree with that view entirely.

This isn’t a movie review so I won’t go into the enchanting cinematography, superb acting, or addictive soundtrack (ok you know I loved it). The point is about the theme of the film. If you perceive it as a love story it may be sad depending on your definition of love. If your idea of love is that it can only be realized when it is fulfilled in the conventional sense: marriage, babies, togetherness and forever after – then yes you will be disappointed. If you interpret love as a selfless state of being with no expectation of fulfillment (similar to Karan Johar’s central message in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) – then it’s not tragic.

But the point here isn’t about the type of love. It’s about something far more interesting. It’s about purpose. When you view Seb (Ryan Gosling) & Mia (Emma Stone) as two individuals who come into one another’s lives to fulfill a very specific purpose – it is a beautiful story. What makes it more heartwarming is that part of their broader purpose is to help one another pursue each other’s dreams. So if we shift the focus from fulfillment of love (what most people think) to love as a medium to help fulfill purpose, it’s a simple story, told in a remarkable way.

Now comes the million-dollar question which people often ask me.

How do I discover my purpose?

Sadly, we don’t all have Ryan Gosling in our lives. (That’s the real tragedy). Some people, like Seb & Mia are born knowing what they want to do but for lesser mortals like myself discovering your purpose is a journey. Here are a few tips that help me along the way:

  1. Trust your instinct

Your instinct may not be telling you something directly but think back to when you were a kid. What is it that you really wanted to do? It may sound crazy now but think about the few things you really imagined yourself doing. It may not be directly what you want to do today or feasible (e.g. astronaut) but if you can figure out what it is you think attracted you to that job in the first place it will give you a clue. As a kid, I used to get up in front of random crowds of relatives and start dancing, doing comedy skits or just trying to make people laugh. When people asked me what I wanted to do, I imagined myself acting, modeling, dancing and teaching. When I thought hard about this in the recent past, I realized all professions had one thing in common: expressing myself in front of an audience.

Pretty vague right? But good enough to start. Once I started working as a Management Consultant I realized that while a lot of my colleagues avoided public speaking like the plague (or were really awful at it) I enjoyed standing up in front of crowds and delivering presentations the most. I wanted to make them fun and engaging so people actually enjoyed listening to me. Another piece of evidence to reaffirm my hypothesis: I like ‘performing’ and am not afraid to speak in front of a crowd. Sharing knowledge and ‘teaching’ people also gave me immense pleasure. So I realized that whatever I did had to be meaningful and make an impact. My instinct as a kid that pulled me in the direction of performing and teaching was actually spot-on: I wanted to do both. I had just forgotten about it until I sat down and thought about it.

  1. Figure out what you don’t like doing

My various professional roles gave me a lot of time to figure out what I don’t like doing and this is important when on the path to self-discovery. For example, it was only after I worked in both fieldwork and research that I realized the latter was definitely NOT for me. Fieldwork was challenging and unstable but it was a lot more exciting than sitting at a desk. So I realized I needed to be on my toes and interacting with people, not staring in front of a screen for countless hours. If you are very self-aware you might know this already so make a list of what you don’t like doing. For others, such as myself, you may need to try out a few different things to figure this out.

  1. Be realistic

If you’re the type of person who cannot live without sustaining a certain lifestyle you need to be very honest with yourself. I know people who complain about their grueling work hours but when faced with the thought of giving up shopping, expensive dinners or lavish holidays – they simply cannot. And that’s totally fine but you need to accept that truth and know it will and should affect your journey. You can’t give up your job as an investment banker to volunteer at an NGO full-time if you’re accustomed to traveling first class. There is always a trade-off. When I started working as an independent consultant in India I loved the flexibility of setting my own hours, being my own boss and choosing assignments. However, I also dealt with the onerous task of chasing clients for payments, sometimes for months on end! The rigidity was gone but so was the steady flow of income. If you’re not ready to trade-in comfort for purpose then find a hobby instead. As Justin Trudeau recently said “anything worth doing should excite you, but also scare you.” Struggle is definitely part of the process.

  1. Be curious

Read. Write. Go to art galleries. Spend time alone. Talk to all sorts of different people. I used to have the best conversations with cab drivers in London all those nights when I would be working late. You would be surprised the stories I heard. One driver told me that he loved his job more than he could explain and it was a conscious career decision over other options. Why? Because he actually wanted a flexible work schedule in order to spend time doing the things he loved. For someone like me, stuck in an unending race, working 16-hour days and eating all my meals at my desk or in the backseat of a taxi on the way back from work, that was simply mind-boggling. People actually do that? I think I must’ve choked on whatever unhealthy snack I was gobbling at the time.

Point is you need to be inspired. You can’t force it of course but watching TV all weekend won’t help either. You need to get in the mindset to let the right energy flow. A dear friend of mine told me that the phrase ‘live your passion’ is overrated because passion is an emotion and is fleeting. You cannot be passionate about something 24×7, every moment of the day. Sometimes you will hate it. Instead, go where your curiosity takes you. My best ideas come to me when I am alone and I am in-tune with myself.

  1. Don’t stress too much

There is no guaranteed roadmap that will lead you to your purpose. The lucky ones seem to have woken up one day and had an Aha! moment. But for others, it’s an ongoing process. In the words of Mark Manson, you need to enjoy the struggle. Be open to the process – don’t just think about the final outcome. Each of the tips mentioned are actually tips to self-discovery. So while you may or may not find that one thing you want to do for the rest of your life, you definitely will discover a lot about yourself which will help you make better choices. You will also, if you allow yourself, have an amazing time on the way 🙂

As a woman I feel safe in Delhi

As a woman I feel safe in Delhi
I feel safe when…
I think twice about what I can and cannot wear
I refuse to go out at night alone
I avoid certain areas
I try not to draw attention to myself

Shrinking
Shrinking
Praying hoping
That no one should see
That I’m a woman alone
the audacity!
Yes, I feel safe in Delhi when
I cannot be me,
cannot be woman,
when I’m unseen

*Written in response to a friend who asked me ‘Do you feel safe as a woman in Delhi?’ for a campaign on Women’s Safety in India

Recent headlines:

Woman gang-raped and thrown out of car near Delhi 
http://www.ndtv.com/gurgaon-news/gurgaon-woman-allegedly-gang-raped-in-moving-car-in-greater-noida-near-delhi-thrown-off-vehicle-1714421

Murderous trio rape 19-year-old woman, throw her infant out of moving car
http://www.ndtv.com/gurgaon-news/3-allegedly-gangrape-woman-throw-9-month-old-baby-to-death-from-auto-in-gurgaon-1708307

Toddler who had just learned to walk suffers horrific injuries after 45-year-old neighbour abducts and rapes her in India
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4529700/Toddler-surgery-rape-neighbour-India.html

How to cultivate a winning mindset

Shortly after I won a pageant, I was invited, as a guest speaker to several events where the dominant question on everyone’s mind was ‘How do you win a pageant?’ Much to their disappointment I told people there is no way to ensure you will win. The question itself is wrong. You need to prepare a winning mindset instead. Your attitude plays a much greater role than how you look, even in a “beauty” pageant.

Many people think if they get their body intact, wear designer clothes, perfect some poses and memorize scripted answers, they are prepared for a pageant. Though beauty is one of the qualities judged people often discount the more important ones: confidence and grace. Beauty is defined by how you look but confidence and grace is defined by how you carry yourself.  While there’s only so much you can do to work on your physical attributes, the good news about cultivating the right mindset is that anyone can do it.

Here are 5 tips that helped me maintain my dignity and grace throughout the process. I should point out that I participated in two pageants in very different phases of my life. In the first instance I was poorly prepared mentally. I was able to use this experience to reflect and determine what needed to be done should I ever compete again. I was lucky enough to get the chance a few years later.

  1. Know your purpose

It’s essential that you ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing in the first place. Preparing for a pageant may feel like preparing for an exam, but unlike studying hard for an exam you cannot control the outcome in a pageant (or similar events like a job interview). You are being judged on a number of different variables that are very subjective. So if your only purpose is to ‘win’, remember that this is completely out of your control.  If you are continually worried about winning you will be stressed and it will affect your demeanor. I decided upfront that my purpose was to make the most of the experience, meet some great people and most importantly to try and have fun. With this in my mind, I didn’t let too many things bother or affect me and it was visible.

  1. Be unshakeable (the right body language)

This is perhaps the most important. The most nerve-wracking moment might be when you see the other contestants and start comparing yourself with them. ‘She’s fitter than me.’ or ‘She’s taller than me.’ Again: all variables out of your control. You know what’s in your control? Confidence.  Even if you don’t feel like the best, you have to project that image. Always. This is all determined by your body language, believe it or not. It’s about the way you walk, the way you stand, the way you handle every situation. I cover this topic at length in my sessions. Every aspect of your body should be screaming, “I was born to do this” without giving the air of overconfidence or arrogance. It is a very subtle line that you do not want to cross.

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(The photo on the left ‘Then‘ is from my very first pageant and the photo on the right ‘Now‘ is from the recent one. In both pageants my physical condition is almost the same. In which photo do I appear more confident?)

  1. Get a support network

It’s natural to doubt yourself and sometimes you need that extra push of motivation. Identify people on whom you can rely to help you through the times when you need it the most. Have their number on speed-dial. Sometimes a few kind words from a loved one is all you need. But don’t become over-dependent on anyone and remember that you are your own cheerleader. Before delivering any presentation, or speaking at any public event – I give myself a few minutes alone in the bathroom, look myself in the mirror and tell myself “You ROCK Sonal! And you are going to totally kill it!” It may sound silly but it works. Positive words emit positive energy.

  1. Think big picture

Always put things in perspective. Whether it’s a pageant or interview for the most amazing position you could dream of. This is just one instance in your entire life. Whether or not you succeed is not determined by the outcome it’s by what you make of this experience and how you leverage it. If you don’t win the pageant, maybe you’ve made some great contacts that will help you. If you don’t get the job, maybe this was the ‘test interview’ to help you prepare for the next big thing. In short, it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Just breathe.

  1. Celebrate & reflect

Too often we focus on our failures in an attempt to learn from them and not repeat them. But why don’t we give the same importance to our successes? We need to look back, record all the times we’ve done well and then think about the pattern that led us to the positive outcome. That way we can try and replicate. For me, I’ve realized that whenever I speak about a topic I’m really passionate about I actually enjoy delivering the presentation and make a greater connect and impact with the audience. I know now that I shouldn’t present on topics that I’m not too crazy about myself, even though they might be important.  Moreover, we need to take a minute to actually pat ourselves on the back for all our achievements before moving onto the next goal. Celebrate yourself.

Needless to say these tips are applicable beyond the pageant arena and can help you prepare for any important event in life. Whenever I need to overcome a daunting task I keep them I mind: whether it’s a job interview, a presentation, or even walking as a showstopper. Remember that your biggest and toughest critic is you. A quote I read recently elucidates this point beautifully, “Your most important sale in life is to sell yourself to yourself” (Maxwell Maltz). If you don’t see the star in you then how can you expect yourself to shine?