Regeesh Vattakandy: Battling depression - an inward journey to happiness through yoga

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Welcome to the fourth episode of the Good Karma interview series!

Regeesh is the founder and chief teacher at Aayana Yoga in Bangalore. Over the last 5 years, he's grown Aayana into a very popular yoga center in South Bangalore.

I was keen to understand what makes Regeesh tick, why he was keen to teach yoga and finally, why he founded Aayana.

In about 60 minutes, Regeesh took me on an international ride spanning multiple life-changing experiences. I came out of the interview inspired, with the hope that I can discover myself as well through my own yoga practice.

Listen to the full interview below.

NOTE: This is part 1 of the interview. Here is Part 2.

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[Disclaimer: Aayana Yoga is a customer of the Good Karma CRM product.]

Childhood

Regeesh hails from a small town in Kerala, a couple of kilometers from Mahe.

He fondly remembers the camaraderie in the close-knit community there.

Helping each other was a way of life. Whether that was moving a fallen coconut tree from the road or helping people build their houses or serving water as a 6-year-old in community functions.

Learning comes from 4 places: Your school, family, yourself and society. I’m fortunate to have grown up in a such a wonderful, generous community.

It was a very low pressure, stress-free life. A far cry from the kind of busy schedules that kids have today, in a city like Bangalore.

According to Regeesh, there are pros and cons: While he certainly enjoyed his childhood and treasured the countryside atmosphere, the lack of awareness and good role models generally results in lower aspirations among people.

Folk music was especially popular. Groups of people would sing together while working in the paddy fields or during weddings.

This meant that work was never really "work" - everyone looked forward to it, since it was an opportunity to get together with others.

A contrast to today’s reality..

We took a momentary de-tour to talk about how things are today in his village.

Would a child growing up today, be able to enjoy the same kind of community, close-knit atmosphere?

Unfortunately not. A lot has changed in the last 25-30 years.

His village hardly resembles what it used to be. Urbanization, construction and deforestation have changed the landscape.

The collectiveness is now gone. We’ve now become global citizens in isolated families. We’re exposed to everything, but not connected.

A desire to be special

[After that slightly depressing de-tour, we switched back to his growing up days again. :)]

Quite early on, Regeesh was attracted to Swami Vivekananda.

It was Swami’s incredible reading speed and photographic memory that captured the mind of young Regeesh.

He remembers wanting to stand out as well, to show his own individuality. And was now keen to develop special skills of his own.

[If you’ve already connected Swami Vivekananda’s focus on yoga in his teachings and Regeesh’s eventual career as a yoga teacher, kudos to you :)]

Rational thinking

From the age of around 10, rational thinking started taking a strong root in his mind.

I stopped paying attention to anything that I could not verify for myself.

He was influenced by ideas from two sources:

  • The communist ideology prevalent in Kerala, and

  • The Bhagavad Gita

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Both the communist ideas and the Satsang lectures (at the nearby temple) seemed rational to him. He would let go of anything that didn’t make sense to him and only retain what he could confirm himself.

More to life than the mundane..

The spiritual discourses he was listening to, also had another significant impact on him.

The discourses gave him hope that there is more to life than the ordinary. That he could or should pursue his dreams and go beyond the mundane.

This helped accelerated his search for being “special”. Especially since this is something that he’d already been craving for a child.

The striking of the match.. 

Somewhere around the 11th grade, Regeesh got news of yoga classes happening in an adjacent town.

He instantly saw in this the opportunity to pursue his dream of being special using the very tool that Swami Vivekananda had always taught: Yoga.

Together with a friend who was also keen, they started practice.

It wasn’t easy to reach the classes. After school, we would walk the 3-4 kilometers stretch everyday - up and down.

Feeling high.. 

After the first couple of months, his friend lost interest and discontinued classes.

Which meant long lonely walks back and forth from the yoga sessions.

So, what kept him going? Why was it still motivating?

I felt high after every practice session. Almost like I’ve had a drink or two.

He was already quite flexible at the time. So each practice session was an opportunity to learn new asanas, discover what he could do with his body.

To add to that, he was given the time and space to practice at his pace.

[Mind you, this is the early 90’s - a time when organized yoga group classes were unheard of. Instead, you could walk in anytime, practice for as long as you wanted and the teacher was there to guide you when you needed help.]

Depression

He was 17. The walks to the practice sessions were getting increasingly more boring and lonely. So he stopped classes after 6 months.

He continued practice at home, but eventually that stopped as well.

Life got back to “normal” again..or so it seemed.

18 months rolled by. While things were fine on the surface, he felt increasingly feeling sad and confused.

I later realized that I was actually (clinically) depressed at that time.

As a 19 year old, he had a very difficult question running in his mind: “What am I going to do with my life?”

What would his life’s work be? He couldn’t imagine doing anything that he’d seen others doing. Whether that was teaching [in an academic institution] or being a doctor or whatever else.

Every situation I imagined, gave me a sense of suffocation. I felt so small and compressed.

The turning point

Looking back to the time he had attended those yoga sessions, Regeesh realized that what he was feeling now was in stark contrast to what he had felt then.

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He remembered how he had felt elated and expanded after each yoga practice session.

So it was a no-brainer to restart Yoga practice again.

For most of us, we might describe this bit as a turning point.

But for Regeesh, it was much more than that.

If yoga could take me from unhappiness to happiness, if it could help me so much..it could help others too.

And that was when it was clear that his life’s work would be to teach yoga.

The second innings

Regeesh now knew what he wanted: A more organized training course in yoga - to help him get started on his goal of teaching yoga.

He found just such a course near his hometown.

The sessions were only once a week, but did that deter Regeesh?

Not at all. I would practice at home every single day. Multiple times a day. In the morning and the evening. And I felt so...good..after each self-practice session

[Listen to the audio closely here - and you can feel that joy in Regeesh’s voice even today :)]

Just like in the first innings, all he needed was a match to re-ignite the fire inside him. The rest as they say, is history.

“What? Yoga teaching as a career?”

That was the kind of response he got from the teachers who ran the yoga training course. Beyond seeing yoga teaching as a hobby, no one encouraged him to pursue it as a full time profession.

It was clear that he would not be able to make his dream come true by staying back at his hometown. He was ready to leave home, but had no clue where to go.

These were the pre-internet days with little information available about what was happening even in a nearby city.

Mysore - one of the traditional yoga hot-spots, is only a 5 hours drive from Mahe. But Regeesh wasn’t aware of it.

Yoga in an Ashram

While the lure of yoga was quite strong, Regeesh also felt a strong desire to stay in an ashram atmosphere. His goal was to find a place where he could learn yoga and meditation inside an ashram.

[I didn’t confirm this with him, but perhaps it was to avoid going back and forth - between the peace he felt during practice and the “noise” he felt when he wasn’t practicing. Staying in an ashram setting would provide him with a peaceful atmosphere 24/7].

Did he find what he was looking for? Yes. He would eventually move to Munger to study at the Bihar School of Yoga.

The long wait

But it took another 5 years of obstacles, waiting, twists and turns - before he finally found himself at Munger.

  • An severe affliction of jaundice.

  • Grad and post-grad at the local university [Yes, Regeesh has a masters in English Literature as well :)]

  • Financial difficulties

  • Enrolling [and then quickly un-enrolling] for a Trascedental Meditation course

  • A year at the Amruthandamayi Ashram - This was a nice experience, but with very little yoga practice

Bihar school of yoga (BSY) 

But during that whole time, Regeesh never once took his eye off the ball. His goal was to move to Munger and he finally made it.

He still fondly remembers how he first discovered the institution, when he chanced upon a brochure.

I clearly remember the black and white brochure from Bihar School of Yoga, Munger. It had 3 courses listed - Yoga psychology, yoga philosophy and yogic science. Most of all, it was in an ashram setting. Exactly what I wanted. Just perfect.

When the stars finally aligned, he took a 3 day journey to Munger, Bihar and reached the university for the first time.

It was exactly as promised. A peaceful ashram atmosphere. Just what he was looking for.

Regeesh enrolled for a 2 year program in Yoga Psychology.

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How was the experience during those 2 years? Its best that you listen to the audio to hear him talk about his experience at BSY, Munger.

Here’s the highlights that I took away:

  • The days would start at 4:15AM, with asana classes at 5AM

  • The focus of the asana classes was on increasing awareness - using the body merely as a tool to train the mind.

  • Pin drop silence: No-one but the teacher was ever allowed to speak during the asana sessions

  • Punctuality and discipline:Entry to classes were closed a couple of min after the scheduled time

  • Seva: Everyone was expected to serve. Whether that meant cleaning the toilets or working in the library to check books for spelling errors.

  • Fasting: Breakfast was skipped for 4 months in a year

It was a transformative experience for Regeesh. Just what he needed to start his journey of teaching yoga.

Singapore

Things started to fall in place after the 2 year course.

A teaching position vacancy opened up in Bangalore - when a yoga teacher friend of Regeesh’s was planning to move out of the country. Regeesh took up the job and move to Bangalore to teach there for 6 months.

But soon another opportunity came up in Malaysia.

There would be 15 days training at Singapore and then eventually a permanent teaching position at Malaysia.

Regeesh moved out of the country for the first time.

The 15 days at Singapore opened up a whole new world for me. It was so different from what I’d taught so far. Far more intense - with a variety of different styles - Vinyasa, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Hot Yoga and Hatha Yoga

Another key difference was the way classes were scheduled back to back - all the way from 6AM to 10AM.

[This may not be surprising for readers from India - but about 15 years ago, this was still unusual in India].

How did Regeesh handle this big change - from traditional to “modern” yoga? His answer was interesting:

It was a big change, but its real. What’s the point in resisting it? I just went with the flow.

Kuala Lumpur

Once the training was done, Regeesh moved to Malaysia. It would be 4 years before he would return to India.

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He taught yoga there for the largest wellness chain (at the time) in South East Asia.

The classes were big - could accommodate up to 75 people at one time. It was so popular that 15-20 people would come all the way to the class and have to return home for lack of space.

Since the class was so big, they give me a microphone, but I never used it. I used to shout out instructions to the whole class. I preferred that

It was wonderful to teach such a large group of people - all moving together. Regeesh particularly enjoyed the Hot Yoga classes were especially nice.

Hot Yoga was a little unpleasant at first, but you get used to it pretty quickly.

Bangalore

Toward the end of his stint in Malaysia, Regeesh had teaching other teachers.

This skill proved handy when he returned to India. He joined a yoga center in Bangalore and continued to teach both practitioners training other teachers as well.

Unfortunately, that yoga center shut down operations after a while.

Aayana

And that was when Regeesh decided to open up Aayana Yoga in Bangalore. He wanted to a place to teach yoga in his own style - bringing in both the old and the new in one place.

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I wanted to combine the importance of awareness I learned at Munger and the high intensity yoga I learned in Singapore and Malaysia. So..I started Aayana.

Part 2 of the interview 

Here's part 2 of the interview. Regeesh and I discussed a bunch of more things including the following topics:

  • His own views on yoga - and how it has evolved over time

  • His perspectives of various schools of yoga: from the traditional to the modern.

  • The difference between asana in Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga

  • The importance of using Asana practice to evolve spiritually

  • Rapid fire questions: His tips for practitioners, teachers and other budding yoga center founders

How to contact Regeesh

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