In conversation with sports scientist and psychologist Shayamal Vallabhjee, whose new book ‘Breathe Believe Balance’ gives you the insights you need to get and feel better and stay that way. Oh, and also the benefits of bromance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work, how we play, and most importantly, how we deal with ourselves. It’s been hard, no doubt, and it has forced us to rethink ambition and happiness. On one level, we’ve become more resilient, but on another, we have understood our intrinsic vulnerabilities.
I, for one, have never really bothered about wellness (because there’s nothing single malt won’t solve) but, like everyone else, I’ve begun to think about long-term physiological and mental health. That’s the first thing that drew me to this book, ‘Breathe Believe Balance’. The second? I’ve known the author, Shayamal Vallabhjee, for years. He’s not a trainer, he’s not a coach, he’s not a motivational speaker—he is all of those things, and then some. A sports scientist with a master’s in psychology, he has trained with monks and worked for more than 20 years with elite sportspersons.
Vallabhjee has been speaking about holistic wellness long before it became fashionable. His approach combines science and ancient spiritual practice to develop lasting wellness protocols. We’ve worked on creating special features for elite sportspeople, in association with Herbalife (where Vallabhjee lends his fitness and nutrition know-how) and that’s when he took me through the process. I had a ringside view of how the biggest achievers in the world treat their bodies and minds, and how common folk like me could use some of those tricks.
With this book, Vallabhjee has put these ideas in the public domain. It’s as much a guide as a book and, given its runaway success, I just had to catch up with the man to get behind the scenes, pick his brains, and get a few ideas.
I’ve picked up a lot of about ‘balance’ from you. How would you explain the concept of balance?
One of the biggest mistakes you can make about balance is the myth that it needs to resemble symmetry. All my research about balance in nature, astrology, cosmology, chemistry, and other sciences have taught me that balance needs three things. First, it needs to be fluid and dynamic and embraced in this nature. Second, it is asymmetrical. And third, the integrity of the fulcrum (the point on which something balances is all-important). When you understand these three factors, you can begin the journey of trying to navigate your balance in life.
Why should anyone care about balance? A lot of us may already feel our lives are just fine.
I am going to give you a spiritual and philosophical answer. Balance represents the mid-point and the middle path, as Buddhism refers to it. The mid-point is often that place which is devoid of ego. When you’re in the middle, the need to fit in or stand out disappears. The emotional attachment to your position disappears. In the mid-point, the ego melts away, and you give yourself the chance to answer the question “Who am I?” Balance is, thus, critical for spiritual upliftment and the process of discovering one’s true self.
Your concept of holistic wellness takes into account the environment and a person’s internal systems. Do I necessarily need to have a six-pack, or be able to hold my breath for 60 seconds, for it?
Yes, my Balance Model has four verticals: Body, Mind, Relationships, and Environment. Under the environment vertical, I speak of the internal (mind) and the external (everything you can see, touch, smell, taste, and hear) environment. I highlight the importance of ensuring that your environment is designed to help you optimise your goals. Concerning your breath, your ability to hold your breath is directly proportional to your pranayama practice and not your aesthetic. Holding your breath is vital to still the mind, which is critical in the process of self-discovery.
I love how the book moves between seemingly simple ideas but has a larger message. Can we call this an amalgam of your years of study and practice?
Absolutely. This book is my entire journey of self-discovery, from growing up in apartheid to deep diving into human physiology, then transitioning between modern psychology and spirituality, all in the pursuit of understanding myself and my relationship with my environment. I use lessons from two decades in sports, my life as a monk, realisations from thousands of hours of therapy, my conversations with scientists, doctors, spiritual masters, and so much more.
Fitness is something that everyone chases, and I remember you telling me fitness is not an abstract concept. It is science. What are your three most important pointers for staying fit at any age, with holistic wellness being the end-objective?
With holistic wellness as the lens, these three things are essential for a healthy, happy life. First, for longevity, you need to control the inflammation in your body and your glycaemic variability. Second, a component of weekly resistance training is vital. Resistance training has numerous benefits including pain management, stronger tendons and ligaments, higher bone density, alleviation of chronic diseases, and more. Last, but most importantly, you need to be mentally stimulated every day. Through work, reading, hobbies, etc. When cognitive processing slows done, physiological functioning follows close behind.
One of the aspects of the book that struck me as super useful is its interactivity. Will you do a full-fledged workbook, maybe as a supplement, with questions and exercises?
Yes. The entire book is designed to be a blend of reading plus thought exercises that help you better grasp each of the concepts I am presenting. I wanted this book to be a guide (in every sense of the word) in someone’s process of self-actualisation.
In Chapter Six “Engineering Your Environment”, you tackle issues that manifest themselves on many planes. What about these current times, when everything seems surreal and the lines between home/office, work/leisure and family/cohabitants have become so blurred?
These times that we are in probably highlight the importance of what I say in that chapter more than ever. I speak on the external and internal environment. If you do not invest time in cultivating your internal environment (mind), you are at the mercy of your external environment. We are seeing that right now. People who have not spent time understanding themselves are being impacted by the uncertainty around them. Those with deep spiritual practices, who understand themselves, are better equipped to cope with the external changes. This is the relationship between you (internal) and the external environment.
There was one thing in the book that threw me: Will the concept of the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) continue to hold good in the long run? Will it not tire me out?
It will not tire you out, because you use this formulation during the conscious awareness component of skill development. When a skill is transferred to the fast, automatic subconscious mind, the OODA Loop becomes irrelevant. It is a technique that is used to reprogram the subconscious through the conscious mind.
Remember how you showed us some killer moves for the fitness series we did with Herbalife? Are there three moves for balance?
Yes, there can be. First, understand which of the four verticals is your stabilising point. When you know where you are anchored, you know how hard you can push yourself in other components. Second, don’t look for symmetry in your life’s balance. Symmetry is misleading. Balance is asymmetrical, fluid, and dynamic. Third, the secret to finding and maintaining balance in life is mindfulness. The balance is at times so delicate that without being mentally and emotionally present, you easily tip the scales.
You seem to connect the tangible and the intangible. Was this always the plan?
I would love to say that it was, but the truth is, there was never a plan. I was mindful of every experience, but more importantly, I was curious about certain gaps in knowledge that each experience brought with it. Filling that gap, questioning the answers—that’s what always drove me. In hindsight, it all seems to have dovetailed quite nicely—but that is serendipity, and I can’t take any credit for this.
Okay, purely for back-jacket readers who may pick it up but never read it, what is the book’s ultimate takeaway?
You have unlimited potential, but the only way to tap into that potential is to understand and discover yourself. This book shows you that no matter what you have achieved in life, you have achieved it while operating sub-optimally. Can you imagine what you could achieve and manifest if you started tapping into your innate potential?
Finally, you’ve taught me never to seek validation but to be mindful of why I’m seeking validation in the first place. Does that make you Yoda, and me your Padawan? Or am I my own Yoda and Padawan?
This is a beautiful thought. You are your own Yoda and Padawan. That is a secret to life. You can be the actor and the audience in your life. You can also be a student and your guru, if you understand that your key to tapping into the infinite ocean of knowledge is within you.