Practising Yoga and Veda recitation enabled UAE-Based Lavita Dhar to reconnect to her Indian roots and find stillness in India’s chaos.

What does India mean to us Indians? When I began practising yoga (or some form of it) 20 years ago, I started with āsana practice and the first seven years of my practice were very poorly informed about the scriptures and the roots of Indic spiritual systems. My deeper understanding of spirituality blossomed when I spent one month in an ashram in the Himalayas on the banks of the holy Ganges. There I was introduced to mantras, Vedanta philosophy, teachings of the Bhagavad Gītā… It was a small ashram that could accommodate only 30 students. There were less than five Indians there. 

Incidentally, after the ashram, I moved to Mysore, and had the same experience. Indians studying and practising Indic Knowledge Systems were a minority. After eight years of practising and studying in Mysore, I joined Shantalaji’s Veda courses and again, Indians are a minority. I’ve been inadvertently judgmental about Western students and found myself questioning their practice and intent even though that has nothing to do with anyone’s spiritual progress and even though I know too well (as a non-Hindu practitioner) that Sanātana Dharma is a practice as much as it is a religion. It’s a practice that affects the practitioner regardless of who that practitioner might be. I’ve also been gently corrected by Shantalaji whenever my mind wanders in this reckless judgemental direction. It’s also difficult to judge when I see students and teachers from across the world excelling at Indic Knowledge Systems because they practise. Practise really is the only true parameter by which one can measure spiritual progress. 

Speaking to Dubai-based Yoga and Veda Recitation Teacher, Lavita Dhar, gave me a whole new perspective on this. Lavita might be Indian but she was born and raised in the Middle East. We have that in common because even though I was born in South India, I spent my childhood in Dubai and like Lavita, I discovered India through the study of Indic Knowledge Systems and not just because I was born here. 

Lavita’s exposure to yoga came from a foreign source and she embraced the opportunity without judgement. Talking to her, I understood just how much more one can learn when one stops seeing people through the lens of nationality, caste and gender. “I started yoga with āsana practice and it wasn’t in India. I’ve lived in Dubai my entire life and I do visit India every year but for the longest time, my understanding of spirituality was limited to its ritualistic aspects. I was exposed to the depth of Indic spirituality when I actually went to the West to study, and that’s where I got a taste of yoga. In fact, I was so mindful there about how much I knew. My friends in the West were a lot more informed about Indic spiritual practices and I learned a lot from them. A part of me actually felt bad because of how much I had to struggle to understand certain Indic concepts. But I do feel that as far as Veda recitation goes, some Indians might have a slight advantage simply because of the exposure to Indian languages. So phonetics might come a little more naturally to us. But if you’ve attended Shantala’s classes, you know that students from across the world recite Veda like the language comes naturally to them, too,” says Lavita. 

A Spiritual Awakening

Lavita’s initiation into spirituality wasn’t intentional because she feels she just flowed into Indic Knowledge Systems. It was more of a segue from non-spiritual sādhanā to spiritual sādhanā. She feels her effortless inclination towards yoga and breathwork happened because she’s been an athlete since she was young and swimming has been a lifelong passion. She understands the subtlety of breath and how to use breath to enhance performance in much the same way that yoga practitioners use breath to enhance their subtle body and intellect. “Breath was such an integral part of my training as a swimmer  how you breathe and when you breathe. It just so happened that at one stage the balance shifted, and I decided I want to pay more attention to my spiritual progress. I have always had an inquisitive mind and in addition to Indian philosophy, I was very fascinated by various cultures. For example, when I travelled to Central and South America, I became very interested in Mayan culture and I was always drawn to esoteric practices. Living in the UAE, I knew how Namāz is offered five times a day, and I always studied these aspects about different cultures and tried to join the dots and find similarities,” says Lavita. 

She studied yoga under the guidance of Swami Govindananda Saraswathi from the Sivananda lineage and he remains one of Lavita’s primary teachers. She continued to seek guidance from him and even asked for his blessings, which he willingly gave, when she embarked on her Veda recitation journey with Veda Studies and Shantala Sriramaiah. Like most things in her life, she found Veda Studies by chance and feels that, “the universe is pretty much at play when it comes to my intentions, and I always keep my intentions alive for the universe to guide me. I heard Shantala on a podcast while I was driving and when I got home, I looked up Veda Studies. I heard her rendition of the Rudram and even though I have been listening to the Rudram for years, her recitation of it just stayed with me. When I received a newsletter from Veda Studies about the Rudram course, I just knew I had to sign-up. I thought I was being ambitious to begin with Rudram, but Shantala was very encouraging so I did the Rudram and also the Foundation Course to establish the basics of recitation. I then signed-up for the first Indica Veda Studies Teacher Training Programme and the entire experience has been so profound. It enabled me to recite mantra the way I always wanted to but before this, I didn’t even know what that way was (laughs).”

Exploring Veda

I asked Lavita how reciting Veda and attending the TTC enhanced her spiritual progress. She says, “The best advice I received from Swami Govindananda Saraswathi is to ‘make everything you do a spiritual practice.’ So to me, spirituality has always been about integrating all four aspects of yoga (Bhakti,  Jñāna, Karma and Rāja) into daily life. What Veda Studies did is enhance the Bhakti aspect of my life to another level. It brought so much structure and awareness to my mind. When we recite, we use so many faculties — the way our mouth moves, the way our breath works, and we also have to pay attention to svaras, we need to learn the chandas — there are just so many aspects that need your attention and this practice enables the mind to do that much more. It also changed the way I look at nature. For example, even when I look at aspects of nature like the sun, I recall a mantra that Shantala has taught me that alludes to it. So reciting Veda has elevated my awareness by 100 to 200 percent. Teaching wasn’t my agenda when I started learning but when Shantala encouraged me to apply, and I joined the TTC, it changed my approach to all the learning I received from Shantala. It’s a very profound and thorough learning experience — we start with a revision of the basics and as each month passess, we delve deeper into the science of Veda and the meaning and essence of the practice unfolds slowly and beautifully. That training made me realise the value of prayer and how important it is to maintain the lineage and integrity of this practice.” 

A Discovery of Bhārata

Being born and raised outside India, Lavita would visit India every year but she felt truly connected to her culture after she started practising yoga and Veda. In the 80s and 90s, a lot of Indians migrated to the West and in this transition, a lot of Indic culture got diluted and lost in translation. “When I used to visit India growing up, it was all about connecting with family and I always looked forward to the food. I didn’t really pay attention to the culture outside home. Like so many NRIs, I only saw the chaos, the dirt and the noise but once I started practising yoga and Veda, I interpreted that chaos and noise in a completely different way. I started to notice the big banyan tree in the middle of a traffic jam, I started to feel the stillness in all the chaos. I see the layers and depth to India whether it is amid all the chaos or whether it is in the silence of an ashram by a river. It’s all still India. I even see how food plays such an important role in our culture — the way we cook, the way we eat, the way we use food to express affection. I stopped being that NRI who complains (laughs). In fact, now I look for the chaos because I know the silence I can find in its midst. Earlier, I felt that we Indians have no boundaries but now I understand the importance of connection and culture. I also understand why we do certain things in our culture like touch the feet of our Guru and elders, and it’s all so meaningful. My spiritual practices took me back to my roots and I am so grateful for that,” explains Lavita. 

She also attributes this understanding and connection to her teachers and feels it is essential to have the right guidance. “We are a culture that encourages questioning and I have understood how important it is to have a teacher who you can place your trust in completely and trust that they give you the right guidance. To have a good teacher is to know that you will be guided correctly and when you have the right guidance, you will flourish. A good teacher and a sound lineage can transform you and your practice,” advises Lavita. 

For further information on Lavita and her classes, email her at [email protected]