When Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi opened her first branch of Illuminations in 2011, mindfulness, meditation, learning how to process feelings and emotion and even the very idea of therapy itself were definitely not mainstream.
The founder of the first wellbeing center in the UAE has since added two Dubai locations, several abroad and another in Abu Dhabi that opened last year.
“I spent about a year in India and wanted to pursue a spiritual way of life. But this was 2005, when people were not aware of mindfulness or healing,” she said. “I couldn’t find a space where like-minded people were coming together. I would talk to people around me about the science behind sound and healing and meditation and they were fascinated so I started bringing over my teachers from India to conduct seminars and one-on-one sessions.”
After about a year of organizing events, Soniyaa decided to make a full-time profession of it. She trained as a clinical therapist and then one day the idea for Illuminations came to her in the shower.
“Everything happened very organically,” she says. “I didn’t have a plan, it was all nudged along every step.”
Soniyaa has watched attitudes change radically over the years but, as she tells The Livehealthy Podcast, she is still very much about “doing the work.”
“At Illuminations we help people regain control and take charge of what’s going on and to spot the triggers,” she says. “But like everything, it takes discipline. Life will take you away and give you a thousand excuses not to do it.”
So how do you ‘do the work?’ Soniyaa gives Livehealthy six tried-and-tested ways to get started.
1) Focus on inner versus outer
Most people try to control their external world but you can only control your reaction or response to it. If I see someone doing something I’m not happy with, I can respond based on my fears and set off a chain reaction, or I can step back and reflect on my own emotional baggage. I don’t have control over the other person but I have complete power to take charge of my thought process.
That’s where ‘the work’ comes into play.
2) Let the bad feelings pass
It’s not an easy wave to ride. Your mind will try and take you away from the present but no matter what comes in or out, let it pass. Within 30 to 45 minutes you will access peace. Don’t try to be positive or happy – feel your emotions, don’t try to run away from them. We all have bad feelings and if you fight them, they get ten times worse. Anger is a sign of feeling helpless so try and analyze when you felt helpless before in your life. It’s not about stopping the emotion but about feeling it and giving yourself time to express it in a way that’s healthy.
People take their anger to an external space because they can’t resolve it internally and then it sets off a chain reaction and becomes toxic and affects your children, your relationships, your productivity at work.
3) Realize happiness is an inside job
We always think external things, like a better job or a partner, will make us happy. It’s the great illusion of the Promised Land. But you can have everything and still have negative emotions. Regardless of what’s happening outside of you, you are in charge of what happens inside.
No one can provide you with contentment. It’s still possible to feel lonely in a marriage, to feel a lack of gratitude when you have everything or have nothing and be happy. When you’re quiet in meditation, that’s where you can address whatever is taking you away from your peace.
4) Practice daily
Like anyone else I get caught up in the general busyness of life. It’s easy to forget about yourself and not give yourself the time to meditate. But I found that if I stopped meditating for a month or two, I was a lot more anxious. Then when I took it up again, the change in my contentment levels and state of mind was dramatic.
There is a power in focusing on a daily spiritual ritual. We have about 60,000 thoughts a day and the majority are repetitive and more than half are negative. The patterns of those thoughts drive our lives and we need to spend time reflecting on those patterns.
I close my eyes, practice breathing for 20 minutes and every day I go for a walk or listen to a mantra – whatever allows me to reflect. Breath is the bridge between the external and the internal world. We live externally but if we want to go within, breath work is the bridge. There are many types of breathing, each with their own principles.
5) Become a scholar of your mind
I was about 19 and at college in London when I lost a friend in a car accident and it hit me very hard. It made me think about how impermanent life is. This was a person with dreams and ambitions. There was a space where this person was. His clothes and his smell were there but he wasn’t. It was an existential crisis of sorts. Security, control, everything we hold on to – it’s completely redundant. There is no such thing and we should live every moment to our potential and our authenticity.
My friend had given me a book, Many Lives, Many Masters by Dr Brian Weiss, which introduced me to the metaphysical world, near-death experiences and what happens when we die. It also talks about hypnosis and regression and I wanted to explore that further so after graduating I went to India and met a teacher and doctor who focuses on regression therapy and hypnosis.
He explained the power of the mind, how you create your own experiences and how once you take full responsibility for everything in your life, you have the power to change it. He completely transformed my perception of the mind and spirituality and I started reflecting on my own experiences.
6) Remember to breathe
Put your hand on your stomach and take a deep breath. Your stomach should move outwards. When you exhale, it should go in again. This is how children breathe. Within five minutes, it will take you to stillness and peace.
Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi was a guest on The Livehealthy Podcast on April 28, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.