Exclusive: She donated an island to Baba Ramdev
Sunita Poddar says she lost 10 pounds in just a few days when she used meditation and yoga techniques offered by Baba Ramdev, four years ago. She pauses for a few minutes. "I have regained some of that weight in the last few months," she says. "I think I got caught up in my work."
Sunita, whom Baba Ramdev addresses as Mataji, is becoming one of his biggest advocates in the Western world.
"I should not be offering an excuse for putting on weight," she says, chatting with this reporter in one of her offices at a 24-hour care centre in Glasgow, Scotland, which she runs with her husband.
The couple have five such centres in the city and serve more than 400 senior residents. "One of the biggest lessons I have learned from Swamiji is to own up one's actions."
Poddar, 49, who cajoled her husband into buying her a little island near Glasgow, last year, so that she could donate it to Baba Ramdev, won't reveal how much she weighed before she began yoga.
"I was too very fat. I was too sickly and uncomfortable with myself," she readily admits. She suffered from hypertension and a host of illnesses.
"Obese is the right word to explain my condition four years ago," she says, speaking in a curious singsong accent that mixes Indian and Scottish English. "When I lost about six-and-a-half kilos in six days, I felt like I had gone through a miracle. I continued to lose more. I threw away the tablets (I was depending on). I felt the kind of joy a mother feels when she sees her first born."
There were many other benefits, she adds, "Even though I had been involved in business for many years, I was still uncomfortable with speaking (in public) or even addressing our corporate board. Now my self confidence has grown in every direction."
She was taking more than 12 different tablets each day, she says, often resulting in horrible side effects. "I don't want to go back to the old days," she asserts. "I must tell myself that I should lose weight. I cannot be a good role model otherwise."
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Image: Baba Ramdev worships on Little Cumbrae during a hawan to bless the island
'The work we will be doing on the island is for the benefit of humanity'
They plan to turn the island into a yoga retreat run by doctors trained in Ayurvedic medicine. The retreat will help even those who do not have funds.
"Millions of people across the world are learning free from Swamiji thanks to his television show," she says.
The Poddars were featured in more than a hundred publications, including The Guardian and The Times, London, across the world when they donated Little Cumbrae island to the Ramdev trust.
Says Poddar, "We have received a lot of publicity, but we are just starting in our mission to build the ashram and other facilities. And we feel strongly that more people ought to know more about our endeavour, and the difference it is going to make."
"The next big step for us is to start raising money across the world for this enormous mission," she adds.
"We need help not only from the Indian community, but also from the mainstream community. The work we will be doing on the island is for the benefit of humanity. The process is taking time as we want to make sure everything is streamlined, and there are no mistakes, scandals or personal agenda."
She is Baba Ramdev's contact person in the United Kingdom, and also his translator, spokesperson. A trustee of his Patanjali Yog Peeth, she says, "Swamiji used to call me Sunitaji, but when he made me a trustee three years ago, he began calling me Mataji. It also shows the amount of respect he has for women and mothers in particular."
The Poddars have three children: Deepak, Arti and Puja. "They are as enthusiastic about this mission as we are," she says.
Image: Baba Ramdev performs a hawan on Little Cumbrae island
How Sunita Poddar became one of Baba Ramdev's most ardent followers
She also offers yoga classes and helps train volunteer teachers who have taken up the Baba Ramdev Yog Path.
"The UK trust has trained over 2,500 teachers, many of who have gone back to their own countries to carry on Swamiji's mission," she says.
"In Britain alone we have over 1,500 trained teachers all volunteers and many coming from non-South Asian, and non-Hindu backgrounds, conducting over 200 weekend and summer classes."
A tall woman with warm eyes and a gentle smile, she isn't going to talk much about the business. She is, on the other hand, going to talk about how she went from being a cynic to one of Baba Ramdev's most ardent followers. She radiates a serenity as if she has been meditating for hours.
It is a busy week for her because her husband, who runs the senior citizens facilities with her, is away in Brazil on a family holiday.
Poddar says about four years ago a cousin had given her a DVD of Baba Ramdev's yoga postures. "I was sceptical," she admits. "I did not care to watch it."
A few months later, Baba Ramdev arrived in Glasgow at the invitation of the local Hindu temple in which the Poddars are involved.
"I went to attend the event and something amazing happened. Mind you, I had still no real interest in knowing more about Swamiji. I was not looking for a spiritual master or guru either."
Image: Sunita Poddar with Baba Ramdev on Little Cumbrae island
'Swamiji was offering food for the soul'
Born in Mumbai in a Marwari family, she grew up in Kathmandu, where her family had established a business and frequently visited the Pashupati temple as a child.
"But I think it was written that I would be drawn to the wisdom and yoga of Swamiji."
During the discourse, the guru's eyes caught hers and she felt something mystical happen.
"I began paying attention to him. I also perceived deep humanity in his voice and his concern for the well being of people, be they Hindus, Muslims, Christians or even atheists made a big impact on me."
"What I was hearing from him was far different from the religious discourses I had heard. Swamiji was offering food for the soul and the body. He was telling us we could, with the help of yog, take our lives in our own hands but we must do it with humility."
Soon, she was on her way to an event Baba Ramdev's followers had organised in Harrow, part of greater London which has thousands of people of Indian origin.
"My daughters came with me, and so did my 70-year-old mother-in-law. It was an all-girl group representing three generations. We told ourselves if nothing comes out of the event, we could say that at least we had an outing and some fun in London."
The four women returned to Glasgow convinced that Baba Ramdev was offering hope to a new generation of seekers.
When she lost weight after her first time at Baba Ramdev's camp, she got more involved and got "my own teaching certificate because I wanted to help others."
She was not worried, she says, about the controversies swirling around her guru, who has reportedly claimed that yoga can cure cancer and other life-threatening ailments.
"Swamiji should be answering the complaints against him," she says. "I believe he is not against Western medicine. I am sure he believes that we need Western medicine to some extent, especially in diagnosing diseases."
Image: Sunita Poddar with her husband Sarwan
'Every day, every moment, he is concerned about making this world a better place'
When Baba Ramdev and his followers performed a hawan on Little Cumbrae to the sound of bagpipes and the accompaniement of Indian classical dances, the British media also featured interviews with non-South Asians who are drawn to Baba Ramdev's yoga.
Manchester management consultant Eric Ross, who has been doing yoga for three months, told the BBC that Pranayama yoga is already helping his diabetes. About the claims of yoga treating cancer, he declared: 'I believe it 110 percent. It's been going on for thousands of years but it's new to Westernised people. I'm going to India so I can learn how to do it myself and teach it. We can cure ourselves from within.'
Sunita Poddar accompanied Baba Ramdev to Washington, DC a few months ago when he was a special guest at the American Association of Physicians of Indian origin's annual convention. If he is against Western medicine, he would not have gone there, she insists.
She was also impressed after her early encounters with Baba Ramdev in Harrow and later in Hardwar, she asserts, by his compassion. "Every day, every moment, he is concerned about making this world a better place."
As for the allegations that Baba Ramdev is making millions of rupees through his yoga camps and health products, she asserts: "Swamiji doesn't have a bank account. He sleeps on the floor. He eats steamed vegetables twice a day. Even in the bitter cold he wears the same clothes as he does in the summer."
Image: Little Cumbrae island has a few buildings, a castle in ruins, a mansion, a lighthouse and cottages
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons
'Can I have it as my birthday gift?'
Among Baba Ramdev's most compelling observations, she says she is beholden to the following:
'Yoga is the universal and scientific philosophy of self-realisation and healing. Our personal life should also be full of austerity and self-control and a complete sense of denunciation.'
She said the movement had been looking for a large facility in the UK and she began, without telling anyone, to look for a property.
When she heard through a friend an island was on sale, she decided to take a look. Her husband was in Toronto at the time.
"I was on the island on my birthday last November," she says. "As I stepped on the island, I felt spiritual stirring. I felt serenity. I felt as if I had been there many times before. It was something karmic. I called my husband and told him I had to tell him something important."
"He was in the middle of something important. 'Can't it wait?' he asked. I said, 'We must talk.' I then told him about the island. He wanted me to wait till he returned to Glasgow.
I said, 'It's my birthday. Can I just have it as my birthday gift?' He said, 'Okay', and I put in an offer. I have been married since 1977 and I have hardly asked my husband to buy me anything," she adds.
Sunita's marriage to Sam (Sarwan) Poddar was arranged by a relative. "She (the relative) had no son of her own, and Sam happened to be related to her," she continues.
Sam's father was a doctor, a general practitioner in the Glasgow area. She was 18 when she came to live in Glasgow soon after the marriage. Sam's family had migrated to Scotland when he was four.
'His parents had to teach me everything,' she has said in earlier interviews. 'I didn't know how to use a washing machine when I came here. We had servants at home, you didn't do housework.'
"I made Scotland my home, but India always remained in my heart and my soul," she adds.
Her father-in-law would have been happy had Sam become a doctor. But Sam went into engineering.
Many years later, Sam met with one of his father's patients who had a home-care business. When Sam heard that the man was trying to sell his business, he decided to take a plunge into something he knew very little about.
"Sam thought he could somehow be connected to the medical field," Sunita Poddar says with a chuckle.
Sam resigned his engineering job in 1982 to run and expand the new business. Sunita had been running a gas station then. She too decided to join Sam.
Image: Baba Ramdev performs yoga
The ripple effect
Baba Ramdev's message will be heard beyond the little island, she says. She believes his teaching will have a ripple effect.
"If one person benefits from Swamiji's teachings, he or she will teach ten, and then the ten become 100, 100 becomes 1,000 and 1,000 becomes one million, and the million will lead into one billion. This has been happening. I want it to happen faster and involve more and more people."
As the interview concludes, one of her assistants brings a tempting tray of Scottish biscuits. Poddar's eyes widen as she offers them to me.
"Won't you have one?" I ask her. She is clearly tempted. "I don't think I will," she says firmly.
Image: Aerial view of Little Cumbrae island