Note to readers: Morning Stars is a series of interviews with achievers across fields about their morning routine and how they get ready for the day ahead. Mornings bring optimism and a fresh start. And how we spend them sets the tone for the day.
Neerja Birla has taken up the cause of mental health in India in earnest. As founder and chairperson of Mpower, which offers counselling, diagnosis and treatment to those with mental health concerns, Birla has spoken openly about her experience of postpartum depression, despite belonging to a gilded layer of society which is usually too image-conscious to reveal personal vulnerabilities.
Having a healthy routine is key to mental and physical well-being. Birla, wife of billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla, knows this only too well, and begins her day with pranayama and a workout. Excerpts from an interview:
Are you a morning person? What do you like, or not, about mornings?
I’m an early riser and very much a morning person. I start my day with pranayama and meditation, going into my exercises. This helps me get my mind clear and collect myself before the humdrum of life begins. Knowing that the day is going to be hectic on multiple fronts, I really like the peace and tranquillity of the morning. Watching dawn break, hearing birds chirp and seeing the sky light up with the colours of the sun is therapeutic for me. I always feel I’m witnessing the birth of a day.
How many hours of sleep do you need?
Around six-seven hours is necessary. I try and sleep by a fixed time. But, even if I get delayed in going to sleep, my circadian rhythm or internal clock ensures that I wake up in time for the magic hour.
What would mornings be like at college or university? Can you share a funny anecdote?
I was like any other student. I’d wake up a little groggy, pull myself together and get going for the day. Reaching in time for the first class was always a bit of a frantic endeavor. I do look back on my college and university days with a sense of nostalgia and fondness. That was a carefree and happy time in my life, just as it is for everyone else.
Do you reach for your phone for news/messages right away or do you stay offline for a while?
I am guilty of being impatient to see my phone! But, also, my daughter Ananya is traveling and not at home with me. So, the moment I wake up, I like to check on how she is doing and try and catch her.
What are the two or three things you do in the morning that are important for you to start the day on the right note?
Pranayama, breathing, meditation and exercise are extremely important to me. The down time I get in the morning, the time with myself, keeps me collected and prepares me for the whirlwind day to follow. Touching base with Ananya completes it for me.
What is your regular news source in the morning?
I do not have this compelling urge to start my day with the breaking news of what’s happening in the world. Not at all. In fact, I prefer to keep my mornings uncluttered and personal. As I mentioned earlier, they are my time with myself. I prefer focusing on knowing what is happening in my mind.
What do you like to see on the breakfast table?I am not a breakfast person. I follow intermittent fasting, therefore my first meal is close to lunch.
Are there two or three cities that you worked in and know well? If yes, what did you like about mornings in those places?
Whatever country or city I have gone to in my life, mornings are always about the magic hour and sunrise. I like to spend that time of tranquility with myself, no matter where I am. I prefer following my morning regime wherever I am. I do include a morning walk to add to the magic.
Any song or tune that you like to listen to in the morning, or which captures the morning mood for you?Listening to the Hanuman Chalisa and Shivohum is a ritual that sets the tone for me. Very soothing and calming. I love listening to different renditions.