Siniša Ubović can’t stop smiling. He is a glib, self-deprecating Serbian actor who dances as rapturously as he talks. I can imagine him in pulp hero roles—kind of like a Serbian Mithun Chakraborty. After years of trying to find the role of his dreams and running a failed restaurant business, he read Louise Hay’s The Power Is Within You, and awoke in solitary epiphany: “A blonde American woman had the secret to my happiness." A few years later, he became a Heal Your Life teacher, the first in his country.

Ubović was a coach at a two-day Heal Your Life (HYL) international seminar titled “Beyond Your Limits", held in a suburban five-star hotel in Mumbai recently. I was in a group of around 20 people who attended, my introduction to group therapy. My post-cancer rewiring journey sometimes takes me to weirdly euphoric and animated surroundings.

At the end of his session, Ubović broke into dancing, to a beautiful Serbian song. “Breakthroughs" seemed close.

A best-selling motivational author and pioneer of the self-help wave in post-Cold War America in the 1990s, Louise Hay founded Hay House and a life coaching method that certifies teachers across the world to help facilitate life-shakings—moving out of debilitating habits and stagnancy. HYL, which has millions of followers around the world, has transformed entrepreneurs, sportspersons, artists and survivors of life-threatening diseases. Ubović specializes in “change-making"—he breaks change down into phases, like making the decision to change, resisting it, others’ responses to the change, and the changed life which, in his words, sounds sublime.

If you, like me, are not in the habit of sharing personal details of your life with strangers, something like an HYL workshop is a daunting, awkward trial—you want to run away from it, except you have to parachute directly into the inner life of those strangers. The introduction took me right back to 1989 when I was 15, at my first dance party, and expected to dance well to Wham! numbers.

At the warmly-lit, carpeted basement room where “Beyond Your Limits" unfolded, we had to walk around and hug each other, intentionally bump against each other and huddle in groups of three and four. We made affirmations, discovered patterns in each other’s lives, made an elaborate life map to follow, dotting it with big dreams and micro resolutions, ate lunch together (with a paper stuck on our chests that had the purpose of our lives written in big, bold letters) and learnt a radically improvised Pranayama technique that required us to breathe through our mouths. The mic got passed on, as stories about intercontinental shifts, parental neglect, loneliness and the inability to find love, overeating, dealing with the aftermath of cancer, and professional and artistic blocks poured out. Some people sobbed, some stayed away from the mic, some talked resolutely about pain—the teacher or facilitator of each session ensured we stayed on course. One exercise was to call up three of our closest friends and ask them in private why they were our friends. “What’s wrong?" one of the friends I called asked, and when I said it was for self-improvement, she sounded alarmed, “Darling, that’s ridiculous."

Every person seemed to have at least one and up to three central conflicts or patterns that blocked them from surpassing the “limits". Once the patterns were identified, we got tools to break them and to believe that the future is eminently malleable, no matter how malfeasant the present. The fundamental principle of Hay’s writings is self-love. Both days, we had to carry a small mirror along with us.

Hay’s book You Can Heal Your Life has been a popular read in India for many years. It has featured in best-selling lists across the world several times. Shashank Gupta and Sneha Shah, both in their late 30s, are HYL master teachers and started Isra in 2013. They organized this workshop and do so regularly across the country, including a teacher training programme every year. There are more than 1,500 HYL teachers across 72 countries, including more than 200 in India.

Shah was struggling to recover from Bells Palsy (a condition that causes one side of the facial muscles to become weak or paralysed) when she picked up a copy of Heal Your Life, lying on her bookshelf. “Every part of the book made sense to me. I realized that I was an adult still operating from my childhood beliefs, fears and experiences. Pleasing others, suppressing anger for years and being the ‘good girl’ seeking others’ approval, took a toll on my body and mind," says Shah. She shared the book with Gupta, who was then down with severe sciatic pain which made it hard for him to even get out of bed, and both went to San Francisco for the HYL teacher training programme in 2012. They are now married.

Our workshop had three couples as coaches or facilitators: Shah and Gupta, Ubović and his wife Aleksandra Ubović, an author who specializes in the psychology of emotional eating and body-emotion connections; and Lucia Giovannini, author of 12 books, including the best-selling A Whole New Life: Discover The Power Of Positive Transformation—she is a former supermodel, a psychology graduate, a champion of animal rights and veganism—and her husband, Nicola Riva, a doctorate in law and psychological counselling.

Giovannini, based in her home country Italy and Bali, says she travels for workshops frequently across Europe and Asia and can sense a need in people everywhere to belong to communities based on how they feel—beyond work, family and social groups.

My takeaway from this workshop: They really do break barriers of profession and ideology, and connect people at a rudimentary level of emotional and existential struggle.

HYL is one of several self-development workshops Indians are increasingly signing up for. The most popular is the San Francisco-based Landmark Forum—a platform that works with large groups of 20 and above, assuring participants of big breakthroughs. It has been growing exponentially since the 1990s, in India too. In April itself, there were 10 Landmark Forum workshops across Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Ludhiana and Akola.

I spoke to around 10 people who have completed Landmark or HYL workshops, most of whom requested anonymity. Most said their relationships and work life changed; the most common breakthrough seems to be that they are aware of why they respond to a tough or hostile situation and people in a certain way. They learn how to change their reactions.

A 37-year-old film-maker and cinematographer says: “Landmark changed the way I think about my work. I opened my mind to collaborating with people I thought were too different from me to understand me. I found that liberating. After that, success came very easily."

Not everyone finds such workshops useful. A 75-year-old lady based in Bengaluru, whom I interviewed about her experience at the Landmark Forum, says she found the teachers “preachy and patronizing". She says she walked out of a session when she was prodded to share intimate details of her life.

Film-maker and actor Himanshu Malik, director of the film Chitrakut, says his experiences with self-help groups and workshops convinced him they are “spiritual Amways"—commercial brands that promise personalized miracle cures.

A 43-year-old Kolkata-based curriculum designer who works with various schools in the city says that while she saw some benefits—like recognizing some impairing habits and patterns about herself—at the HYL workshop she attended, two days of self-introspection drills couldn’t replace sustained one-on-one therapy. The workshop, she believes, wasn’t worth the money. These workshops cost anywhere from 11,000-25,000, depending on the number of days and the level of work involved.

Priya Pathiyan, a Mumbai-based independent lifestyle writer and bespoke city guide, enrolled at a weekend Landmark workshop in 1996 at the insistence of a friend. She remembers people bawling on the stage in seismic breakthroughs and what the Forum calls “telling it like it is". “Landmark insists on groups. So you make a group at the workshop, and you are expected to work like a support group for each other thereafter. People can become clingy. They call you at any time, when they have a breakthrough. It soon became a nuisance," Pathiyan recalls.

For my workshop, I eventually got those three close friends to tell me why they were my friends, got through the two days, and even had some fun. A pattern did emerge for me: I believe everyone is inherently good, and I have a calming effect on everyone except myself. It’s Jean-Paul Sartré who said, “Hell is other people."

The tools I have from “Beyond Your Limits" are at work. But I won’t be signing up for another anytime soon.

For information on Heal Your Life workshops, visit Isra.co.in, and for Landmark Forum workshops, Landmarkworldwide.com.

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