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Pursuit of Happiness

At peace with numbers
The key to cracking the markets is to calm your mind, says yoga fan Jyoti Vaswani, CIO of Aviva India

Mahithi Pillay

When Jyoti Vaswani started working in 1989 at just 19, the world of finance was a very different place. For one, the equities market in India was as nascent as Vaswani’s own professional career. By the time she started working full-time around 1993, the markets — and the Indian economy — had both been transformed. From the slow-speed environment she was used to, Vaswani was pitched into the demanding small-team, long-hours world of equity research. “This was a time without the internet, when sending an early morning Budget report to our fund manager meant waiting for the Union Budget document to be flown to Mumbai and us burning the midnight oil,” says the CIO and director of fund management at Aviva India.

Long hours at the desk and a longer commute meant obstinate aches and pains that Vaswani couldn’t shake off even with medical help. It was then that she decided to turn to yoga for relief. “Since I had no time for a class, a teacher from the yoga institute in my locality started coming home. Within a few months, I could see a difference not just in my physical condition but also in how I handled work pressures,” she says. “For a fund manager, performance is most important; we end up tracking Dow and Nasdaq in the middle of the nigh. So when performance is down and the market is against you, stress starts to get to you. Yoga came as a relief; with its help, I was able to deal with work when at work and home when at home. One world did not seep into the other.”

The ability to let go and compartmentalise tasks did not come easy, but was every bit worth the years of practice, says Vaswani. From half an hour on weekdays, she practises for close to one-and-a-half hours on weekends now, unless she is indisposed. “Though I avoid overtly strenuous asanas due to a bad back, I love bhujangasana and makarasana. At one point, my back problems were making even sitting at the desk difficult for me, though scans and x-rays revealed nothing. It was yoga that finally helped.”

From seeking out yoga teachers during holidays to learning about different asanas through books and TV shows, Vaswani has made sure she is in tune with new trends. And it has reaped rewards in unusual ways, the foremost being the 2008 crisis. “By 2007, I was convinced the market was in a bubble phase. I took a huge cash call and had to field criticism from all sides, since I was still sitting on cash as the Sensex went from 17,000 to 21,000. For three months till January 2008, I underperformed heavily, but my patience and calm paid off when the markets tanked in 2008. In less than a year, we went from underperformer to best performing fund. No matter how experienced you are, you will always spend sleepless nights when you take a tough decision, but you have to be calm and patient.” 

It is this lesson that Vaswani is now trying to communicate to her juniors — bright, talented young professionals who need to be nurtured right. “I’ve seen colleagues get obsessed with the markets, especially when they are starting out. This single-handed pursuit affects their sleep, state of mind and relations. I tell them that change is the only constant and what we need is to adapt ourselves to both booms and busts. Yoga offers the best lessons in this regard — to let go, to just be in the moment.” 

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