How an engineer-turned-yogi stepped outside her comfort zone and learned to love a slower pace of life
Besides being a chance to slow down, the extra time afforded to us these past months has provided an opportunity for some of us to instill better everyday health and fitness habits.
But many of those who’ve made a career out of helping people to feel their best saw their businesses come to an overnight halt. The year started promisingly for in-person fitness classes, with subscription workout app ClassPass announcing a $1 billion valuation. However, the pandemic forced a huge and unexpected shift to at-home, online fitness. Lululemon’s recent purchase of home-fitness startup Mirror is proof that this trend is set to be more than a fad.
It’s easy to view the pandemic as a disaster for small business owners, but for yoga teacher Kamal Fanibanda it has been an opportunity for growth – personally and professionally. After leaving a successful career in aerospace engineering and starting her own business in Italy’s deep south, it comes as no surprise that this one-woman-powerhouse quickly adapted to these uncertain times. But for even the most motivated and productive of us, being forced to slow down is a tough, but valuable lesson. We sat down with Kamal to learn how she maintained her trademark zen-like calm, accepted the unchangeable, and transitioned to a new way of living and working.
What changes, if any, have you made to your environment during this time?
I’m lucky enough to work from home. My living room is really spacious with a beautiful view of the city, so it’s been my yoga studio for the past 3 years. The downside, of course, is that during the working week I have no living room. Thanks to the lockdown I have rediscovered my living room! In the past, I’d relax in the kitchen or my bedroom and use my living room only on weekends. I now feel like I have an extra room in my apartment and I’m finally living in my living room! This has been a big positive for me.
I also rediscovered my 2 balconies. I’ve filled them with flowers, plants, a deck chair to soak up the sun, and a barbeque. It’s so nice to sit outside now – this is something that I didn’t really appreciate in the past. Luckily the weather during the lockdown was glorious at times and so I created a little sunbathing area. I live 20 minutes from the beach, and it was painful not to be able to go during the lockdown, but I managed to get my vitamin D in any case.
I guess my apartment is more in order too, which is always a positive thing!
Teaching online was a massive step out of my comfort zone. But Yoga isn’t about being perfect, it’s about accepting who you are and being ok with it.
How does teaching yoga online compare to in-person classes? Have you been able to maintain a strong community and connection with your students?
Teaching online was a massive step out of my comfort zone. I’m camera shy and absolutely hate seeing myself in videos! I really had to overcome a big obstacle quickly and put myself out there.
In my previous job as a helicopter engineer, whenever my boss asked me to do a presentation my heart sank. I would go red, shy, make mistakes – I hated it! Luckily, I got over my fear of public speaking as soon as I decided to go it alone in the yoga world. But even though I now have the confidence to teach groups, small and large, the camera still scares me!
Pre-lockdown, social media made me feel like yoga videos should only be done by teachers who have the “perfect” body, outfit, or posture. So I’d never once thought about making a video. I didn’t think I could pull it off – it wasn’t me and it’s not my style to “show-off”. It was a little intimidating at first, to say the least!
Videos expose you completely. On top of that, you have to accept that anyone can watch your video and copy you in their next lesson. I know this may sound childish, but it’s true. I admit that in the past I’ve been a little possessive when it comes to my work! Publishing videos was a way of telling myself: “Get over it! Be an adult, grow up, and learn to share”. At the same time, I also had to acknowledge that my yoga isn’t perfect. People may judge and criticize, but I shouldn’t let that get to me.
But I realized fairly quickly that I just needed to be me! The mistakes that I would usually make in live lessons I made on video too. If my leggings and top didn’t match, that was ok too. I didn’t try to hide my imperfections – if I made a mistake on video I didn’t redo it – why should I? Yoga isn’t about being perfect, it’s about accepting who you are and being ok with it. I wanted people to get to know the real Kamal – my personality, style of teaching, and my character. One time my phone rang during a video, but I didn’t stop the video! I grabbed my phone, turned it off… laughed… apologized, reminded everyone to turn their own phones off, and carried on. This is real life!
As for building a community, at the beginning of the lockdown I created a broadcast group on WhatsApp with people who wanted to receive yoga videos on YouTube. I managed to get over 300 people involved!
The nice thing was that people invited their friends, so I made many new connections. They’re still joining me for classes outdoor and online which is wonderful! I admit that it hasn’t been easy maintaining my connection with all students. So many are working online now that the last thing they want to do is spend their free time on-screen. But I do have a group on Zoom, and now that I am teaching outdoors, my students are slowly returning. It’ll be several months before I’m back in (hopefully an even better) place to where I was before the pandemic.
There were also so many free videos online I imagine that many students experimented with different teachers – something which I have always encouraged. I didn’t want my regular students to feel under pressure to follow me.
In the back of my mind, I thought about my former career – how sometimes having a steady job is less stressful. I could have been working from home with the same salary if I had stayed. But despite all the setbacks that the lockdown has imposed on my little business, I wouldn’t change a thing!
When do you find it most difficult to focus? How do you overcome this?
Like everyone, there are times when I feel lazy or fed-up. When I feel that way it’s impossible to create a yoga video and teach! Yoga is all about making people feel great and giving them the energy they don’t even know they have. The aim is to finish the class feeling more relaxed, less stressed, and a little lighter than when you began. This is a time when people need that more than ever – including me!
Lockdown in Italy was tough and we had strict rules. Police on the streets checked why we were leaving our homes and handed out fines if the reason wasn’t valid. We even had to fill out forms to go and buy milk! It was intimidating and almost scary to leave home. I didn’t really go out for 3 months – only for groceries and to check up on my car that was parked a few blocks away. Friends told me to get out every now and then, but I had only one thought in my mind: “I want this to end as soon as possible so I am going to follow the rules”.
If I couldn’t focus I just let it be. I didn’t try to force creativity or happiness or positivity. We are so hard on ourselves at times, especially someone like me that made a decision to leave a good, safe, well-paid job and completely change their life. I felt directionless at times during the lockdown. I went from turning people away from classes as I had no more space or time, to working for donation or free.
However, I spent many hours in the kitchen creating new dishes, cooking traditional Indian family recipes that usually I never find the time to make. Cooking relaxes me, and I soon felt ready to return to my mat, and make another video.
How do you deal with the emotional aspects of productivity? For example, lack of motivation, feeling stressed or overwhelmed, feeling unsafe, etc?
The only way to deal with feeling stressed or overwhelmed was to accept the way I was feeling in that moment. I made a conscious effort not to be hard on myself. If I couldn’t find the motivation to do anything, I just let it be. I spent many overwhelming days at the beginning on my sofa, with a blanket watching endless TV, which I never usually do! I guess that’s just what I needed at the time. We all lost something in this pandemic – in my case, it was all work-related.
I’m used to working from home but as the weeks went by, yoga retreats that I had organized were canceled. This was hugely disappointing after all the effort I’d put into planning them. However, I’ve tried to stay positive and have already started to organize 2021 retreats and new projects!
Eventually, I started to feel comfortable in front of the webcam. I realized that the more “real” the videos, the more chance I had to connect with people. That’s always my goal when I teach – to connect with every single person in front of me.
As time went by, if I felt down, I would make a video to cheer myself up or do a meditation video to ground myself. If I felt the urge to go out and use up some energy I would do a power yoga video or something more energetic. I remember one day in particular where I just felt lost, I did a video where I just sat on the mat for 25 minutes, just breathing in silence. I sang a mantra at the end and ended the practice.
Someone I’d never met wrote to tell me that this video made him feel like he was in the same room as me and he could feel my energy! That’s when I realized that the videos were not only helping those who watched. They also helped me when I felt stressed, insecure, overwhelmed, or had excess energy.
Have you made any changes to your digital habits during this time? Why or why not?
I had to figure out how to use YouTube and Zoom quickly for work purposes, but it wasn’t difficult at all. The biggest change for me was having no phone for 6 weeks during the lockdown since it broke early on! In any other situation, I would have panicked since all my work is phone-based. But for some reason, I felt no need to repair it. Keeping in touch with friends and family via email and skype, I rarely used Facebook. I eventually fixed my phone in the final week of the lockdown.
I try to disconnect as much as possible, but with work picking up, my phone is my main source of communication again.
Also, since leaving engineering behind, I’d forgotten about the stress that goes onto the back, neck, and eyes after spending hours on a laptop. So I made sure to do a few videos for people who are working from home on screens!
The key for me as we slowly ease out of lockdown is to organize my time productively so I don’t feel that I‘m always busy. I want to maintain a slower-paced life.
Do you feel differently about how productive you need to be at the moment?
In the beginning, I felt like I had to do something every day. I felt almost guilty otherwise – and if I wasn’t motivated to do anything I felt stressed! But as time passed I started to enjoy the “easy” days. Eating at a decent time in the evenings, watching TV and films, reading. I had my yoga but went from teaching twelve 90-minute classes a week to a few 40-minute videos a week. My work slowed down drastically and as a consequence, my life slowed down. In many ways, this was positive – but definitely tough economically.
Now, I would like to maintain some aspects of this calmer pace of life. The key for me as we slowly ease out of lockdown is to organize my time productively so I don’t feel that I’m always busy. I’ve started to batch my lessons together in order to have more free time.
I’m also trying to enjoy this early post-lockdown period. When I reopen my studio I’ll soon be rushing around again! But I do want to live a slower-paced life and try to delegate more once things are back to some sense of “normal”.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is really struggling to find focus or motivation during this time?
Don’t stress about it – we all have good and bad days. Don’t feel guilty for not being productive. For the first time ever we are all living a similar experience and we are all learning to live in a different way. Be aware of when you are feeling down, accept it, and be easy on yourself – it will pass. You could even try a yoga video!
Don’t feel guilty for not being productive. For the first time ever we are all living a similar experience and we are all learning to live in a different way.
What are the rules or boundaries you have put in place for yourself regarding news consumption, social media, or both?
In the beginning, I found myself hooked on the news – I wanted to know all the numbers and facts. The whole world was suddenly talking about Italy – it was quite surreal. At that point, Italy had recorded the highest number of cases and deaths in the world, so family and friends from all over were worried about me.
As time went by I stopped watching the news. The situation in Italy was heavy, upsetting, and depressing and social media was full of fake news. I feel lucky to have been phone-less during this time – it meant minimal exposure to social media!
Now that the worst is over in Italy, I’m following the news about England and India where I have family.
What tools or resources have you found most useful during this time?
Zoom and YouTube as they allowed me to continue working! Even now I’m still using both tools.
Zoom has also been wonderful for connecting with people in different countries too. I’ve always been a fan of technology as a means of connecting people.
Do you think the practice and study of yoga prepared you in any way for these difficult times?
Many experiences (good and bad) in life prepare us for hard times. Yoga is just one of the many ways to give your body and mind a break and to be present.
There are 2 major things in my life that have made me the person I am today. The first is my experience with traveling extensively, many times on my own. The trip that really changed me and made me stronger, bolder, braver- was when I was 28. I left everything with just my rucksack, snowboard, and a one-way ticket! Traveling with no time limit and no destination, every choice I made was mine. I experienced hardships, as well as moments of pure joy and freedom, and have memories that will stay with me forever. Returning home 18 months later, I was a different person and much more prepared for life – real life.
Yoga has made me become more patient and accepting. Never take things for granted… all ups have a down, and all downs have an up. Nothing is stable, things can change in a second and we just have to ride the wave when it happens.
The second major change came when I left my job as an aerospace engineer and dived into the yoga world. At 40 years old I decided to become a yoga teacher! This huge decision changed me further still and continues to change me. I love my life and work, but I still feel I’m living the biggest challenge of my life every day. Yoga has made me become more patient, accept what is and what isn’t, never to take things for granted, never forget that all ups have a down, and all downs have an up. Nothing is stable, things can change in a second and we just have to ride the wave when it happens.
Yoga is easy to integrate into our daily lives. During this period people told me they felt happier and less stressed after yoga, and that they looked forward to my videos. It was something constant in their lives. Someone actually told me that they had cried every day during the lockdown and after a week of yoga there were no more tears!
When we are going through hardships it’s important to remember that there are small things we can do to help. Simple breathing exercises to help with stress, anxiety, insomnia, and for relaxation. Easy, gentle, slow-paced stretching can relieve tension, aches and pains, and help slow down racing thoughts. Energetic sequences get the body moving and help you feel more motivated. Even a simple daily meditation practice can be life-changing.
I really believe that whatever you are feeling, there is a yoga practice to help you feel better. Of course, yoga can’t make problems disappear, but dedicating time for yourself, moving the stagnant energy in your body, or simply being present in the moment whether moving or sitting still always helps.
Born in England with Indian origins, Kamal has a background in Physics and Aerospace Engineering. She left her office job at an International Aerospace Helicopter Company in 2013 after 12 years to follow her instincts. She went back to her roots in India to study Yoga and now runs a successful business teaching Yoga throughout the beautiful Salento region of Southern Italy and organizes events and retreats around the world.
If you would like to join Kamal’s yoga classes via Zoom please contact her via the social channels above!