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Do you remember the last time you sat intentionally in silence with your friends or family unless you were unwell or upset?
Once a week, for 12 hours straight, I turn my phone off along with my outside voice.
My dad gets nervous, “What if someone needs to reach you?” I joke that I am not an emergency room surgeon, so I can afford to disconnect and disengage. In those 12 hours, I don’t speak, don’t check emails or social media, don’t read, don’t watch anything on television or the iPad, and don’t eat or drink. The only thing I am allowed is water and, maybe, some herbal tea.
I look forward to the tranquility every week. It’s been part of my weekly self-care practice for a few years now.
This vow of silence, known as maun vrat in Sanskrit, wasn’t an alien concept to me. I grew up in an Indian home and had heard this term used often in conversations. But I didn’t really see anyone practice maun vrat, aside from my nana (maternal grandfather). He would eat his meals in complete silence, find pockets of quietude during his day, and use his words like they were finite and precious.
My nana was calm and unfazed by others’ opinions of him. His words never hurt others. He could be in a room, surrounded by people, yet not allow anyone to burst his protective bubble. At six feet-plus, well-built, light-skinned, and an extremely handsome man of few words, my nana was also the only one I knew who had a daily yoga practice. My last memory of him—a day before he died—was that of him doing Hanuman asana.
Decades passed, and I started to study Ayurveda. In the first few months of the program, our teacher told us about the role and importance of doing maun vrat. That it was a part of our curriculum. The entire class freaked out. Asking New Yorkers to not swear while crossing the road or roll our eyes in the subway or chew on something while watching television—that was just cruel! Was this some voodoo practice? No words or food or beverage or social engagements or books or writing from one Friday night until Sunday evening? I thought I would probably die because unspoken words would build a cobweb inside my mouth and suffocate me.
My husband and a few friends, who knew about the maun vrat at school, joked that I wouldn’t last, that 36 hours of quiet would drive me insane. I believed them because I am, maybe was, known for my insatiable appetite for words.
The night before maun vrat started, I ran into a gregarious senior of mine from Ayurveda school. She shared a story that changed my life forever:
The first night of her maun vrat, on her way back home from school, a car almost ran her over. Because she wasn’t allowed to speak, she couldn’t react. No foul words. No middle finger in the air. No narration of what had transpired. She confessed that she had never felt more in control of her life. One incident didn’t send her hormones and temper raging. Her mind and adrenals weren’t driven up the wall. Sure, the incident was scary, but she was okay and that’s what mattered. In silence, she found perspective.
When maun vrat started for my cohort in Ayurveda school, I walked in holding my senior’s story tight. I listened to every word that poured out of my teacher’s mouth. I thought of my nana and his demeanor. That night, after class, when a few of my classmates and I got inside the subway, everything felt different. Instead of cackling about what had transpired in class or complaining about our work week or shimmying to music, we sat as a community, holding each other up in quietude. No books. No phones. No whispers. We rooted for each other as we embraced silence. When I reached my subway stop, I experienced centeredness like never before. I noticed I was way less tired compared to other Fridays when I would return home from school.
Our Ayurveda teacher had asked us to follow a few specific procedures to maximize the effects of the maun vrat. It was humbling to wake up and watch the sunrise and bow my head with humility. I practiced gentle yoga but didn’t take a picture for social media. There was no reliance on instant gratification or external validation; instead, I processed the moment intimately and marveled at the beauty of mother nature. I felt a deep connection to the world around me.
At the end of 36 hours, we took pictures of our faces—we had also taken pictures before starting the maun vrat as part of our before and after shots. I shared them on social media and people started to ask if I had done something different. Apparently, my face looked fresher, my skin was glowing, and there was brightness in my eyes. I had noticed the difference in my mind, but hadn’t paid attention to the physical body.
My husband remarked that something inside of me had shifted. I was still and aligned. He found the transformation so profound that he asked if he too could join me for maun vrat every week. We keep the vow of silence for 12 hours because it is more easily manageable given our demanding lives. But we stay honest and do the maun vrat during a weekend day.
So how did this 36-hour vow of silence make so much of a difference?
When you don’t talk for x number of hours, you allow your mind and body deep rest. It teaches you about self-control in an over-expressive world. When you don’t watch TV or read or check emails, you are lowering your state of stimulation. You don’t react, so your adrenal glands relax. Remember the constant fight-or-flight syndrome that can lead to massive exhaustion and burnout eventually?
The maun vrat allows your vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system to relax. Being relaxed makes us aware of our behavior. When we chat incessantly, we aren’t mindful of what goes inside our body—both thoughts and food. By observing maun vrat, you start to pay attention to all the mindless and emotional eating. You acknowledge the triggers. You eat when you are hungry, not when cortisol creates a false sense of hunger. The not eating part allows the digestive system to take a break for a change. Every time that we put food or beverage in our mouth, our organs are put to work. If we need rest, why wouldn’t our internal organs?
Honestly, in the beginning, keeping my mind quiet was a real struggle. I kept trying to shut off my inside voice. Staying away from technology, meditating, listening to my inner voice, and living in alignment with my thoughts didn’t come overnight. Silence can be so loud! That dark space where all our fears and insecurities and anxiety and creative blocks reside? Maun vrat forced me to face those demons head-on.
Slowly, I accepted that when we constantly talk and communicate, we abdicate our true strengths and struggles. We deny our inner voice what it deserves. The practice of yoga and meditation helped with the transformation tremendously. The combination reiterates the art of persistence and acceptance and living in the moment. They also help release stress. So much of our anxiety comes from worrying about tomorrow instead on focusing on today, and so we create a vicious cycle of stress.
Keeping this vow of silence has been extremely beneficial for my writing, relationships, and overall wellness. When thoughts arise, I observe, not judge them, so there is a lot of peace within. I feel less angry and out of control when things go awry. I don’t assume everything is being done to me, also known as “personalization.” I know when I need to leave a conversation or room or relationship without being dramatic about it.
It’s amazing how well I sleep when I keep maun vrat. Every cell and organ and emotion that makes me has had the chance to detox and rejuvenate. When I approach my writing the next day, it comes from a reflective and focused space.
I also believe that maun vrat has brought me closer to my own self. Self-care has become integral to who I am. Instead of fearing the million thoughts in my head or feeling alone in my own company, I have befriended the thoughts and the solitude. I can actually sit with a blank mind on some days. I treat me-time as a sheer gift. Because I show myself compassion, I am authentic in my compassion toward others.
“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it.” ~ Chaim Potok