“Yoga was my self-care, my therapy, my church. My first year in New York, my roommate would go to church on Sunday and I would go to yoga. After class was over, I’d go the office and spend the rest of my day working. I’d leave around nine or ten o’clock. That was my Sunday.”
Today, Rita Murjani is a NYC yoga and meditation teacher, an emerging leader in corporate wellness, and head of meditation content and strategy at Aduri – the first smart multi-sensory meditation cushion. In 2014, however, Rita was working in an intense career in investment banking and turning to yoga for stillness and self-care.
“My family is from India. I’m first generation; born and raised in the States. I grew up in Florida, with Hindu, South Asian immigrant parents. 99% was never good enough – was there extra-credit on the test? Our culture is really intellectual, very cerebral. As a result, I had a very strong overachiever gene. I still do.”
“Growing up, I wanted to be everything from a surgeon to an architect to a journalist. But, as an Indian American, you are (jokingly) given three professional options: doctor, lawyer or engineer. Anything creative was not an option. I went to the University of Florida to study to become a lawyer, but somewhere along the way realized that law school was not going to be for me. I got an internship with Goldman Sachs and started working in their private wealth division in Miami, deciding to go the financial route at school. It was interesting and challenging enough. I could buy some time, I thought, and earn a good living while I figured out whatever was going to happen next. I just knew I wanted to move to New York.”
Rita completed both her undergraduate and Master's degrees in four years. After graduation, she landed a full time role at Citi in Manhattan, where she would be working in the structured finance division. As Rita logged long hours and straddled multiple demanding roles, yoga became her mental reprieve.
Rita’s boss and team weren’t thrilled about the four week yoga teacher training program in India, but she went anyways. She started teaching her friends out of her apartment – then picking up classes around the city. Yoga was shifting in importance and gradually taking up more space in her life. When Rita realized something needed to go – and it wasn’t going to be yoga – she began to outline her transition out of her finance job into a career in wellness.
“Don’t just jump off a cliff! Take your parachute with you! For me, my parachute came in the form of boxing it, framing it, aligning my perspective. I reframed this whole thing as an experiment and gave myself a timeline. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t have to be what I do for the rest of my life. Because that’s really scary. This is my DIY MBA school.”
“When you go to MBA school, you know you have a certain amount of time and you make a certain investment in yourself – financially and in other ways. On the other side, you expect to have all these new opportunities waiting for you. So, I’m giving myself two years. I’m investing in myself. We will see what opportunities lie on the other side.
“I really took ownership of the choice I was making. I tried to plan as best I could. I formed an LLC and funded that company. Then I put some amount in a savings account. I was like, OK, I can pay rent for a certain amount of time. I didn’t want to be bogged down with the pressure of really being able to sustain a comfortable lifestyle. But I also learned how to redefine my own values.”
“Taking a little more from the school structure, I give myself progress reports every six months. I check-in and see where my energy is going, where I want to put more energy in, and what’s been coming from my current efforts. [This approach] has really eased my transition.”
Rita brings a remarkable practicality to her journey into – and around – the wellness space. For many people who are pursuing unconventional career paths in the wellness, spiritual or creative realms, this practicality can feel counterintuitive. If I’m setting out to be a free spirit, they ask, how can I be bogged down by a financial plan and well-mapped timeline? Rita believes yoga is more pragmatic than it appears.
“I wonder if the [counterintuitive nature of practicality] in the wellness world has to do with the view of what these practices are. If my practice is telling me to be a free spirit and go with the wind, then how am I going to plan for my life and live in New York City and feel ‘aligned’? Part of what Katonah yoga has done for me is really shown me that yoga is a technology. It’s a technique and a skill. Not just [something] for free spirits. It’s really structured and pragmatic.”
“Katonah yoga was founded by this incredible woman named Nevine Michaan, who lives in Westchester, New York. It combines traditional Hatha yoga practices with Daoism, Chinese medicine, math, sacred geometry, magic and metaphor. I’m a certified Katonah yoga teacher. Yoga changed my life. Katonah made it so much better. I’m a type A person, and the pragmatism of Katonah yoga has inspired and empowered me to be considerate and pragmatic in making decisions in my own life for myself. The Katonah practice was, in large part, why I was able to make this leap.”
“I’ve been ruminating on my connection to [this practice.] Katonah yoga is based on a traditional Indian yoga practice, but it’s influenced by all these wonderful things that make it even more rich and even more robust, a real holistic approach. In the same way, my family and culture has Indian roots, but I grew up in America and was influenced by all these other things. I’m a byproduct of this exposure. In that way, Katonah really hits home.”
“When I started teaching, I didn’t ever think I was going to be a “full-time” yoga teacher. That phrasing still sits funny with me now, because I’m not doing yoga full-time. I’m teaching my classes. I’m finding my niche in the corporate wellness world. I’m being entrepreneurial with Aduri. I’m trying to live the best life I can. If that means other things down the line, like working at a restaurant or being a hand model (which people have told me to do for years), then great. It’s about creating a system for yourself and feeding it.”
“Maybe [my adaptability comes from being] a byproduct of so many evolving, cultural forces. I was the only brown girl at a Baptist Christian school in the South. Then, I went to a very large public university. I never felt limited to one thing. My dad ran his own business for a very long time, and that entrepreneurial gene is common among those that are from the part of India that my family is from. Any identity I could have had was always evolving. Any identity I could have held on tightly to, the circumstances never allowed.”
As Rita’s identity continues to evolve, she is coming into a space where her physical identity holds more weight than it ever has before. The way she presents herself and holds space in the wellness world is valued very differently than her powerpoint presentations of corporate worlds past.
“It’s very different being in the wellness world after being in the business world. Body is not something that is addressed in corporate environments. I’d say for a long time, it was even masked. The way women’s business clothes were initially designed to be really boxy; to cover up. Women are really encouraged to behave like men in order to run successful businesses or to be successful in the corporate world.”
“I bought the business clothes. I dressed pretty conservatively. I didn’t think about my body. It was just there. Now that I’m in the wellness community and have a strong yoga practice, I have a much deeper relationship with my own body.”
“There are not a lot of South Asian women whose bodies are highlighted or presented in any form of media. Growing up, I never had conversations about my body; not even with my mom. We did a lot of other wonderful things together, traveling and beauty regimens among them, but self-care and the female body were not highlights of [the conversation]. I was left to figure out quite a few things on my own.”
“Now, I’m using my body in my work. If I’m adjusting someone, I’m using my own physical capacity to help the other person have an experience; to enable their own stability, capacity, or vision. Which is interesting, because it feels like, in an indirect way, I’m sharing my relationship with my body with a larger audience. In the way I choose to show up, in the way I hold my body, even in the clothes I choose to wear. People are viewing my outward appearance – my articulation of my anatomy – in a way that has never happened before.”
“[My physical appearance] also has an impact on the students who decide to show up to my class. I’m really glad to be an Indian American yoga teacher, teaching where I do. I notice in the classes I take, [particularly in the studios in Manhattan that are expensive to attend], that when the teacher is caucasian, the students tend to look like the teacher. And that’s fine. People go where they are comfortable. But, is it weird for them to have an Indian teacher when I teach? Do they think I’m going to speak in Sanskrit the whole time? I sometimes wonder what people think and expect, even if its subconscious, from a teacher that looks like, sounds like, carries herself like I do.”
“Yoga has always been a practice that is for the wealthy. If you are struggling to put food on your table, you don’t really care about achieving the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You don’t care about finding nirvana. Finding your purpose, or chasing your passion, is not on your priority list. What I’ve noticed, and I hope it continues to go this way, is that I’m able to attract a very diverse audience of students. My goal would be — by being able to hold space, by being in a “leadership position as a teacher, and by being a leader in the wellness world – to welcome a larger audience to show up to their own practice and to show up empowered in their own life .”