Art of Living Foundation

Huge crowd gathers in Buenos Aries for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Several newspapers report that a huge crowd gathered in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, on Sunday, to meditate against violence and stress with a Hindu guru.

The 56-year-old guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation is particularly popular in Argentina. Shankar is given the double honorific, Sri Sri, to distinguish him from the renowned musician.

Shankar greeted the audience in Spanish and guided them through a 30-minute meditation that included breathing exercises and prayers for personal and social well-being.

Shankar’s organization estimates Sunday’s crowd at a park swelled to more than 100,000 people, but there is no independent confirmation of the numbers.

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First-time meditators: how to achieve that perfect state of “ohm”

The other day, I was conversing with a friend, telling her about how I’ve been having a difficult time sleeping as of late. I’ll maybe sleep four hours a night — and this is coming from someone who typically requires a solid eight. The stressors of life have been, unfortunately, taking their toll.

“Have you tried meditating?” she asked.

In response, I shook my head “no.” I mean, really. How could my coffee-chugging, gum-snapping, neurotic-driven self quite possibly clear my thoughts for 30 seconds, let alone the length of a meditation session?

Instructor and Program Manager Jennifer Stevenson of the Art of Living Foundation explains that there are two types of stress: physical, when your body is overworked, and mental, which stems from the array of negative emotions experienced on a daily basis.

“We get angry about the past and anxious about the future,” she said. “Meditation gives you a tool to bring your mind to the present moment and break…

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the cycle of negative emotions.”Further, she details, meditation is stress-reducing because it focuses on the concept of “living in the moment.”

“Many times, we come across a problematic situation, and we easily get caught up in anger, regret or blame. These are negative emotions linked with the past. Or we get caught up in fear, anxiety and worry. These are emotions linked with the future,” said Stevenson. “And when the mind is caught up in the future or past, it doesn’t help us handle the challenges of the present.”

Michael Fischman, co-founder and U.S. President of the Foundation, encourages that those interested in meditation seek out the expertise of a teacher.

“Just trying to figure it out on your own makes it complicated,” he said. “There’s a law to mind and that is — what you resist will persist. The more you resist thoughts, the more they will persist. Meditation is a practical way to recharge and clear the mind.”

During the process, Stevenson advises first-timers like me to concentrate on regulated breathing patterns, which is linked to one’s mindset and emotions. You know how your spouse tells you to “take deep breaths” when upset? The technique works for a reason — you’re able to bring your mind to the present, placing yourself in mental control of a situation and thereby helping to wrangle those bursts of negativity.

If you find that you need to recite a particular mantra, Stevenson suggests the following: “I want nothing. I do nothing. I am nothing.”

With this advice in mind, I took a shot in meditating for my first time last night. I lied down on my bed, even stuck ear plugs in to muffle any outside noises, and focused on the sound of the rise and falls of my breathing.

How did it go?

Admittedly, I’m going to need a lot of practice. I say this, primarily, because I… fell asleep.

Despite my failed attempt, one should ideally meditate every day. Consider picking a set time, like in the morning before work to set the tone of relaxation for the day.

(Perhaps tomorrow I’ll try again, but in the morning when I wake up.)

“What I have found as the biggest deterrent to people not being able to meditate is that they don’t have enough time. However, when they start to meditate, they find they have more time, because they are able to focus and get more done,” said Fischman.

Additionally, meditation can occur anywhere — in the office, during the bus ride home or even during a hot shower after a long workday.

“You don’t need to be tucked away in the Himalayas on a yoga mat to meditate. You can meditate in almost all places. I’ve meditated on planes, park benches and in office conference rooms, to name a few. The best place is a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without any distractions,” said Stevenson.

Ultimately, being at peace with oneself translates to other areas of life, promoting generally happier relationships. For that reason, I plan to keep practicing the art, no matter the frenetic activity of the day.

“We are not taught effective tools, neither at home nor at school, on how to deal with stress. Meditation is a tool that we have innate within us to reduce stress. It brings a sense of peace within,” stated Stevenson. “And when you feel peaceful, you naturally want to share that.”

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Free your mind

Unable to cope with the mounting pressures of work, relationships and society, the urban youth is embracing the idea of spirituality. Narendra Kaushik explores new-age meditation systems that hold the promise of harmony and joy.

Om Parkash Prabhu (28), a social worker who also runs a travel agency in Mumbai, was stuck in a dark tunnel with no light in sight. His stress level had shot up enormously. He would often get headaches and chest pain, and had not slept for several months. But tests in three reputed hospitals of Mumbai and Pune found nothing wrong in his system. Prabhu, the only son of an agrarian couple from Sindhudurg, felt he would die a slow death. It was then that a friend of his, Radheshyam, a documentary film maker, told him about Vipassana meditation. The latter had just returned from Leh after doing a 10-day Vipassana course. Prabhu hardly had an option. He had already tried various streams of medicine and yoga.

Recently, he attended a 10-day Vipassana course in Mclaudganj, the Tibetan settlement above Dharamshala. And the consequences are myriad and nothing but constructive. “Finally, I am enjoying sound sleep. Besides, I feel much more relaxed now,” he says, singing paeans for Vipassana. Prabhu is even learning through meditation to take small setbacks into his stride. “When I was in Mclaudganj, a friend won over a girl I was pursuing back home. But I have no regrets. Let him have the girl, I have Vipassana,” he says, displaying poise of a yogi.

Like Prabhu, there are 10 lakh others who have benefitted in one way or the other from the Vipassana in over three decades. According to Dhananjay Chavan, a trained psychiatrist and senior Vipassana teacher, about seven lakh are below the age of 40. Such is the dominance of youth in Vipassana centres that Aseem Chawla (53), former head of a travel company who attended the course with Prabhu in Mclaudganj, felt like the odd man out. “I was the oldest person there. Youth is the ‘in thing’ in Vipassana,” notes Chawla, who lost his reading, writing and talking faculties after a stroke in January 2005, and is now on recovery mode.

Besides Prabhu, Chawla and about a dozen others, the rest of the 80 male and female meditators in Mclaudganj were foreigners from United States of America, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, Russia and other countries that have been rocked by recession, shutdowns and depression. And an overwhelming majority of them was young. Austin (25 plus) from Boston who sat for the 10-day long course lost his job as a waiter before he decided to go on the spiritual expedition. Armando Uribe (24), an architecture student from Mexico, opted to go ‘inside’ after his final examination before exploring the outer world. “I did my first course in Mexico. It helps in a big way,” he claims, looking calm and composed.

What attracts youth in hordes to Vipassana is its non-sectarian, scientific and action-oriented approach. Moreover, it is taught free of cost with charities taking care of boarding and lodging expenses. The technique owes allegiance to no organised religion and promotes no dogmas. P L Dhar, a senior Vipassana teacher and professor of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Delhi, credits the meditation technique’s popularity among youth and science community to its problem-solving potential.

“It is devoid of religiosity, rites and rituals. They (youth and rationalists) find it scientific. The spiritual discourses by many other gurus on the other hand, have a strong element of religiosity and devotion,” Dhar contends. He started doing Vipassana in 1985 and since then conducted several courses in Tihar central jail and other places. The popularity of Vipassana among the science community can be gauged from the fact that out of its 1200 teachers, according to Chavan, about one third are medical doctors, engineers, psychologists and psychiatrists.

The meditation technique that teaches one to be aware and equanimous in all the ups and downs of life is taught in over 150 centres in the country and abroad. An ancient technique, Vipassana was supposed to have got lost from India after Gautama, the Buddha, rediscovered it in 6th BC. S N Goenka, the principal teacher of Vipassana, who is credited with setting up the Vipassana centres, brought it back to India from Myanmar about 33 years back.

Practical tools
Like Vipassana, Art of Living — a spiritual NGO spearheaded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar — also enjoys large following among the youth in India and abroad. Over half of the seven courses run by the Art of Living are designed to help children, teenagers, college students and professionals cope with the expectations in studies, relationships and job. “The needs and demands of the 18-40 age group are quite different from the 40-plus. They are struggling to manage relationships and pressure of studies and jobs. We have practical tools to help them. This is what makes Art of Living attractive to the youth,” says Avinash Tiku, a young, full-time teacher with the NGO, who has taught Yes+ courses (course for youth) in Mumbai, Delhi, IIM Kolkata, Dehradun, Ludhiana and Solan (Himachal Pradesh).

Tiku claims that over 1,20,000 youth in the country practice pranayam and meditation prescribed under the Art of Living courses. Out of these while 60,000 are based in Mumbai, 20,000 come from Delhi. Bangalore, the high-tech metro, contributes over 7000 to the NGO.

The Art of Living, like Vipassana, has nothing to do with an organised religion. It is more of a personality development programme which helps one to de-stress. “There is no religion in it. It is spiritualism. It cleanses, empowers, increases energy level and tells one how to manage time,” says Tiku.

Shreya Saklani, who is pursuing post-graduation in Mathematics from IIT Delhi and has been practicing mediation for seven years, agrees with Tiku. Shreya asserts that regular meditation has upped her concentration and confidence level. “When I was in class 12, I was not doing very well. My mother told me about the Art of Living. I started off with a six-day course and have since done seven courses. It gives me clarity of mind and child-like energy,” she declares. Sumit Manuprakash from Ambala, who is a Bio physics research scholar in the IIT and who has been attending the Art of Living for four years, calls it a stress eliminator.

Nitin Arora, a research scholar in the IIT Delhi and teacher of Yes+ course, claims that meditation can cause miracles. Arora, who did his Masters in Computer Sciencefrom New York, cites his own experience: “I was hit by a bus in Bangalore. My jaw got displaced and I was on a liquid diet for long. The jaw was fixed on its own.” Arora feels that the meditation has helped him get over stage fright. “Earlier, I could not give presentations in class. And now, I address 100 students every day,” he avers. According to him, there are more than 40 Art of Living centres in Delhi and a good percentage of students in the IIT Delhi and the Delhi University practice meditation.

The Art of Living runs courses for children, teens, youth, corporate and other segments of the society in its dozen national and international centres. Besides, the teachers of the foundation teach yoga and meditation in various local centres, universities and other institutes of education. It has its presence in all metros, tier-II cities and even villages (runs Utsav programmes for rural youth). It runs basic as well as advanced courses. All its courses carry a fee. While the minimum fee is Rs 700, the maximum may run into several thousand.

Introspective approach
Unlike the Art of Living, Soka Gakkai, based on Japanese Buddhist sage Nichiren Daishonin’s (1222-1282) humanistic philosophy, is voluntary and involves no fees. Bharat Soka Gakkai (BSG), an affiliate of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), headquartered in South Delhi, is the nodal office of the International NGO in the Indian capital.

The primary clientele of the technique comprises youth. “We have 42,000 members in the country. Out of this 60 percent are youth and women. Since our focus is on inner-self, absolute happiness and stability, and the approach is introspective, pro-active and positive, the youth finds it attractive,” says Navina Reddi, Director General of the BSG. The system involves chanting based on Lotus sutra, considered the highest teaching of Gautama, the Buddha.

Though Soka Gakkai has its origin in Buddhist philosophy, the BSG does not believe in isms. “A person joining us does not become a Buddhist. There is no conversion here. We are an NGO working for peace, culture and education,” Reddi emphasises. The Soka Gakkai is more of an urban phenomenon with half of its membership coming from Delhi alone.

The BSG has hundreds of chapters in Delhi. Moksha Nagdev (23), a clinical psychologist in South Delhi who has been practicing the technique since March this year, finds it magical. Nagdev, who specialises in child psychology, was under a lot of stress and guided to Soka Gakkai by her teacher. She says the daily chanting frees her from evil thoughts and stress. “I have got my answers from the practice. I’ve got the right perspective. Now I believe in the power of the mind. The practice gives me my fuel to go through life. I am more aware of my feelings,” Nagdev claims.

Aparna (33), a woman entrepreneur who runs an interactive company in South Delhi, feels Soka Gakkai helps her tackle daily problems. Aparna has been a regular at it for around eight years. What appeals to her is that the system has no guru and does not worship a deity. Nagdev too calls it a ‘spiritual quest’ rather than a faith. The system prescribes no timeframe and is flexible when it comes to daily practice. But it takes no strangers because the Soka Gakkai volunteers meet at an individual’s residence. Reddi says that the chanting of Japanese mantra — Nam myoho renge kyo — may be practiced for 10 minutes to several hours.

Scientology, another system which claims to purge insecurities, painful experiences, self-doubt and despair, is relatively new to India (it arrived only in 2002). It has only a handful of centres in the country (Delhi, Patiala, Chandigarh, Kolkata, and Mohali –one is coming up in Mumbai). But when it comes to attracting youth, it has quite a lot to offer. It has courses on personality development, communication skills, relationships, technology and even ethics. It claims to decode the secret of success as well.

“We have the tools to help the youth. Our experts help people get rid of anger, grief and negative feelings through auditing. Forty to 50 percent of our 20,000 members in Delhi are young professionals and entrepreneurs,” says S Johnson Singh, Public Division in charge in South Delhi centre of Scientology. The fees of the scientology centres are on the higher side with a 25-hour long auditing course costing Rs 10,000.

On the face of it, scientology looks to be a complex practice. Shaily, PRO in the South Delhi centre, admits that a new candidate may find it complex in the first go but will find it easy later. “It is well-defined. There is even a way of how one should read about it,” she argues. According to her, people from all walks of life and age-groups are into scientology. A number of Hollywood film stars including John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Kirstie Alley are said to be promoters of scientology.

Although scientology claims to be a religion and even has a church of scientology in the US, Singh claims it has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion. “Ours is a non-profit NGO. We teach life improvement skills. Anyone can become a scientologist,” she says.

[Narendra Kaushik, Deccan Herald]
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Meditation and yoga heading to former LA Christian Science building

On Wednesday, the nondenominational Art of Living Foundation plans to rededicate the century-old Los Angeles church, which has been neglected in recent years.

A church in the West Adams district that formerly rang with Christian Science hymns is soon to resonate with such unfamiliar sounds as chanting and the voices of yoga teachers urging students to breathe smoothly.

The Art of Living Foundation plans to rededicate the century-old Second Church of Christ, Scientist and an adjoining reading room in a public ceremony Wednesday. The foundation intends to use the inner-city building for courses in meditation, as a research center and for conferences for “raising social awareness,” according to Rajshree Patel, the foundation’s executive director in Los Angeles.

The location at Adams and Figueroa boulevards, just north of USC, is a good match for the foundation’s goal of public outreach, Patel added. “We cannot isolate ourselves into one age group, one nation or one place,” she said. “The world does not function that way anymore.”

Founded nearly 30 years ago by meditation teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (not to be confused with the similarly named sitar player), the Art of Living Foundation is a nondenominational, nonprofit organization dedicated to meditation and emotional self-control as the keys to peaceful and cooperative living, Patel said. The organization teaches traditional disciplines including meditation and yoga and holds classes and seminars on issues ranging from world peace to emotional self-control.

Patel described the foundation as embracing the essential truth of all religions — “love, care, service and compassion” — while avoiding doctrinal issues. “Sri Sri says everybody is holding onto the banana skin rather than the fruit itself,” she said. The banana skin, Patel added, represents doctrinal differences among religions, and the fruit inside “represents the inner values of every religion.”

Although the former church is the group’s first permanent home in Los Angeles, the foundation and an affiliated program, Youth Empowerment Seminar, have been active in the area for 15 years, she said. The seminar is a meditation and yoga class offered to students of four Los Angeles high schools.

The course, according to Patel, “helps students learn about their negative emotions and how to control” them. Self-awareness is among the issues addressed in the course, she said. “When we are argumentative and upset, how can we turn those feelings around and make things go forward?”

“Students often start out saying, ‘This is weird. I don’t want to learn this,’ ” Patel said. But later, many say they don’t want to leave when the course is over, she added.

Brenda Pensamiento, assistant principal at West Adams Preparatory High School, a private school, said she believes that yoga and meditation may offer some emotional breathing room for youths living in crowded, sometimes violent surroundings. In some cases, “a student may be living with seven other people in a small apartment,” she said.

Meditation techniques “may help students find a place of their own,” she said.

New owner-occupants for the aging church are a welcome arrival in the neighborhood of vintage Craftsman houses, where empty buildings can become eyesores and symbols of neglect. In the two years since the Christian Science Church left the complex, taggers have defaced the back of the building repeatedly, and vandals have broken several stained-glass windows.

The sale of the complex in December reflected both a declining membership and rising maintenance costs, said Don Ingwerson, a member of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Southern California, which handles regional public affairs for the church.

Among those happy about the plans for the building is Mitzi March Mogul, a member of the historic preservation committee of West Adams Heritage Assn., a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting historic structures in the neighborhood.

“We are delighted with the new folks, who seem interested in becoming good stewards for the building,” she said. “We’re also very pleased that the church will be used for a religious purpose, because that was the original nature of the building.”

The church’s current neglect is a contrast to its original state in February 1910, when the $318,000 church opened. Closely modeled after the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, it was a West Coast flagship for the denomination.

“No expense was spared, from the gray granite and glazed brick of the exterior to the dome’s copper sheathing or the art glass window,” the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency wrote in its successful 1986 nomination letter to include the church complex on the National Register of Historic Places.

Designed by Los Angeles architect Alfred Rosenheim, with Albert C. Martin serving as the structural engineer, the “Italian Renaissance edifice was heralded as the largest and most elaborate of the denomination’s branches west of the Mississippi when it was constructed,” the nomination stated.

For the moment, the restoration work on the building is mostly cosmetic, Patel said, although the foundation plans to hire an architect and eventually renovate the building completely.

“We want to be a good neighbor,” Patel said.

[via LA Times]
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Relieving stress could be just a breath away (Ledger-Enquirer, Georgia)

Hilary E. MacGregor: New Age flute music plays softly as people file into an apartment in West Los Angeles, remove their shoes and seat themselves quietly on Oriental carpets on the floor. A picture of a bearded guru in white robes sits at the front of the room with a tiny offering of fresh flowers. There are 14 students, and they have come here to learn to breathe.

Known as the “Art of Living,” this intensive breathing course will last six days. The class has drawn people ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. There is a builder, a businessman, a masseuse, an acupuncturist and a Jacuzzi engineer. It includes some who are seeking relief from asthma, chronic pain and depression, and others who have come because they heard about it from a friend. One man came after seeing a flier at a Whole Foods market.

Students of the program say the breathing technique can bring greater awareness, a fuller and happier life, less stress, greater mental focus, and a bevy of other health benefits. But there is scant research so far to support those claims.

Now, a handful of doctors and psychiatrists in this country are touting the benefits of the special breathing technique taught in the course to help relieve depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and anxiety.

One of those is Dr. Richard Brown, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. After Brown published a book in 1999 about holistic approaches to depression, people from the “Art of Living” contacted him and explained their program. Impressed with what he heard, Brown later began recommending the program to many of his patients.

“Many of them were transformed,” Brown says. “I didn’t expect that.”

Brown eventually took the course, then started teaching the program to, among others, fellow mental health professionals in New York. He’s also become the program’s main spokesman in the medical community.

Earlier this year, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey on Americans’ use of alternative and complementary medical therapies and found that 12 percent of adults reported that they had done some type of breathing exercises in the past year.

Studies of yoga, which places a lot of emphasis on breath, have demonstrated its effect on reducing blood pressure, relieving anxiety and boosting the immune system. Eastern exercises such as tai chi and qi gong also incorporate focused and deep abdominal breathing.

But it is difficult to design a research study that would weigh the health benefits of purposeful breathing techniques by themselves.

The Art of Living is a meditation and yoga practice started by Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (he is no relation to Ravi Shankar, the Grammy Award-winning sitarist who rose to international fame when Beatles star George Harrison became his student). The 48-year-old Art of Living founder once studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru famous for teaching Transcendental Meditation. Art of Living’s Shankar says the centerpiece of his breathing program known as the Sudarshan Kriya came to him in 1982, during a 10-day period of solitary silence.

As Shankar tells it, during his time of solitude, he perceived that the different rhythms of breath had a connection with different states of mind. He came to believe that this practice could help people with their suffering, and so began to teach the breathing technique to others.

Today, the Art of Living Foundation claims that its volunteers have taught 2 million to 3 million people in 142 countries. The course includes 16 to 20 hours of instruction in a simple breathing technique that can be practiced daily at home. About 50,000 people have gone through the program in the United States, the foundation says.

John Osborne, president of the Art of Living Foundation in the U.S., believes the course has grown in popularity because it fits the needs of the times. The breathing, he says, offers a powerful way to counter stress, and the course’s spiritual lessons appeal to people who may be feeling a sense of alienation and powerlessness.

The program received a publicity boost after 9/11, when the Art of Living ran a full-page ad in the New York Times a month after the terrorist attacks, offering the course free of charge to New Yorkers. Ten teachers were flown in from around the country, and during the next several months, more than 1,000 people, including firefighters and police officers, took the course.

Before beginning the class in West Los Angeles, all students pay $250, commit to completing the course and sign a non-disclosure statement, promising not to reveal the contents of the course.

The technique “is simple,” Osborne says. He adds somewhat cryptically: “But if done wrong, people might try it at home and they might hurt themselves.”

The teachers, Josette Wermuth, an instructor at Los Angeles High School, and Phylis LeBourgeouis, a lab technician at the University of California, Los Angeles, tell the class to avoid alcohol for the duration of the course and to stick to a vegetarian diet.

There is a strong touchy-feely aspect to the course. The teachers seem to glow with happiness, and they never stop smiling. We begin by walking around the room, looking into one another’s eyes and saying, “I belong to you.” Over the next six days, we sit in small groups and talk about expectations, responsibility, happiness. The intimate philosophical discussions initially make some students uncomfortable.

On the first two days, we learn the “pranayams” three positions of sectional breathing. All three positions hands on hips; thumbs in the armpits, elbows folded out; arms folded above our heads involve inhaling, holding and slowly releasing the breath. Then we do a fourth breath work, called ‘bellows breath,’ in which we shoot our arms overhead to move energy through the body. The deep breathing of the “pranayams,” as well as the bellows breath, is based on ancient yogic techniques.

It is not until the four-hour weekend sessions that we learn the Sudarshan Kriya, the active breathing technique that is the heart of the course and is, according to the Art of Living Foundation, unique.

Before we begin, our teachers tell us our hands might grow numb, our body temperatures might drop. It is the middle of a stifling heat wave, sticky by 10 a.m. Someone opens the windows. Shankar, we are told, has decreed that the Kriya must always be done with fresh air.

With that, Wermuth slips in a cassette tape of the guru. From far away, Shankar begins to guide us through the breathing in his melodic voice. We breathe in cycles, slow, faster, fast, until it feels like controlled hyperventilation.

“The rhythm of the breath is linked to emotions,” Wermuth tells us. “There is a specific rhythm for every shade of emotion.”

At the end, we lie on our backs.

The second day, we do the Kriya, the effect is more dramatic. A few people cry. One man says his hand became immobile; another says he felt temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Our teachers don’t explain much about why this might be happening. But clearly, something seems to be going on.

Shankar recommends students carry on the breathing practice for at least six months. The daily regimen takes about 30 minutes.

By the end of the six-day course in West Los Angeles, some students already were reporting changes.

Rasik Raniga, a hotel manager who took the course hoping for relief from asthma, claimed he already was able to cut down on the use of his inhaler. Michael Miller, a home builder who said he had been feeling depressed, found himself feeling better after three days. Analilia Silva, a businesswoman who came to the course at the suggestion of a friend, described the change as subtle: “It’s like when you start exercising,” she said. “And you suddenly feel better but you don’t know why.”

Original article no longer available

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Guru fights stress with a breath of fresh air (IOL, South Africa)

Beth Duff-Brown, Independent Online, South Africa: To some it might seem strange that you would need lessons in how to breathe. Yet the worldwide trend of turning to intensive training in how to lower stress and finding renewed energy and clarity through Hindu breathing techniques is paying off.

The first breath of life eventually leads to the last exhale at death, but for whatever span that lies between, breathing is an unassuming, if essential, part of living.

It seems odd that one would need lessons in how to breathe. Yet people worldwide are turning to an intensive course on lowering stress and finding renewed vigour and clarity through age-old Hindu breathing techniques.

More than two million people, from students at the Art of Living ashram in southern India to the “techies” of Silicon Valley, Chief Executive Officers of Manhattan and prisoners in New Delhi, have taken breathing and meditation courses based on the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Shankar – who uses the double honorific of “Sri Sri” so as not to be confused with the Indian sitar maestro – has become the rage of New Age spiritualism. He was welcomed by US President George Bush at the Oval Office in May and asked to pray for Americans. He now intends to be the first Hindu spiritual leader to visit Islamic Pakistan to spread his message of love and peace.

Having lived for four years in India, where pollution, stress and existential angst often get the better of me, I was intrigued when invited to attend a truncated, 16-hour course held over two week nights and a weekend for $33 (R215). The six-day course can cost $250 (R1 625) in the United States.

I’m not a cynic, but I’ve followed the excesses of some Indian gurus. As I said to an American colleague on the way out the door: “I just know they’re going to make us hug each other.” We both moaned.

I was relieved when the Art of Living instructor, Sanjiv Kakar, turned out to be funny and sweetly secular. The hugs would indeed come, but at our own volition.

“Look at all of us from around the world,” he said to the 13 of us, a mix of foreign diplomats, Indian housewives, a couple from Boston, a Dutch mother and her teenage son.

“This is one of the positive by-products of globalisation. A lot of myths are being broken here – that the East is spiritual and the West is material. Here we are, one global family.”

We sat comfortably on white sheets spread over plump cotton quilts – except Amrit Choudhry, a 79-year-old grandmother, in lovely silk sari and dignified grey bun, who used a chair.

Kakar assured us that over the next four days, there would be no attempt to turn us into followers of Lord Ganesh – the elephant god adored by Indians – or to send us home with secret mantras.

“The Art of Living is not about conversion,” Kakar said. “Some things are the same everywhere: caring, sharing and leaving the world a better place than you found it.”

Shankar teaches that we are all responsible for one another, that human nature is one of love, but that stress, regret and anger suppress that innate goodness. The class begins by walking up to one another, introducing ourselves and pronouncing: “I belong to you.”

The premise of the programme is to perform sudarshan kriya every morning for 25 minutes. If that sounds like the approach of Transcendental Meditation, it’s because Shankar was a disciple and associate of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Sudarshan kriya, which Shankar says came to him during 10 days of silent meditation in 1982, involves rhythmic breathing to infuse the body with oxygen and help rid it of toxins and stress. Having taken Hatha and the more strident form of Ashtanga yoga, I was familiar with some of the techniques, which move from slow, deep breathing through the nostrils to faster breaths while placing your hands in different positions to move the oxygen down varying paths, and finally, rapid bellows of breaths forcing you to pump air in and out of your lungs.

Some in the class got dizzy and needed to lie down. I asked if this bhastrika, or “bellows breathing” wasn’t just a euphemism for hyperventilation, and was told, no, the giddiness comes from the release of toxins and negative thoughts. By the third day, several people complained of sinus headaches and nasal congestion.

Still, nearly all of us said we were thinking more clearly, sleeping better – I slept for nine hours on the third night, which any working mom will tell you is a rare gift – and generally had a sense of well-being and relaxation.

“As we go through life, the mind becomes rigid and set,” Kakar said on the third day. “Be like a child, be fluid. Only in innocence can you express love. This is the irony, this is the paradox: you need knowledge to recover your innocence.”

The breathing, combined with several minutes of meditation and some simple yoga stretches, does induce a sense of innocence and gratitude. So when Kakar asked us to perform some mind games, I wasn’t as reluctant as I had anticipated.

Sitting and looking directly into the eyes of Omer Ajanovic, a diplomat with the Bosnian embassy, it was at first disconcerting. But when we were told to ask each other, over and over, “Who are you?” and to respond with anything that came to mind, we realised we shared a common wound: deep regret over not having prevented some acts of cruelty we had witnessed.

The point, Kakar said, is to let go of anger and regret, to find acceptance and forgiveness and “experience the moment”. There were revelations, some tears, but little embarrassment.

The programme’s teachers offered free courses to about 1,000 people in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack, and 22,000 prisoners in New Delhi’s Tihar Prison have taken the course. The group builds schools and provides health care in rural India, among other projects.

There has been criticism that the $1,5-billion (R9,5-billion) Art of Living Foundation has not done enough to spread its wealth, but Shankar is generally regarded as honest and modest. Most experts on cults say his group’s practitioners have not been accused of abuse or excessive behaviour.

Shankar insists his only goal is to help people reduce stress, thus become better people.

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Breathing lessons: the latest New Age craze (Independent Online, South Africa)

Independent Online, South Africa: The first breath of life eventually leads to the last exhale at death, but for whatever span that lies between, breathing is an unassuming, if essential, part of living. It seemed odd to me that one would need lessons in how to breathe. Yet people worldwide are turning to the intensive Art of Living course on lowering stress and finding renewed vigour and clarity through age-old Hindu breathing techniques. More than two million people, from students at the Art of Living ashram in southern India to the techies of Silicon Valley, CEOs of Manhattan and prisoners in New Delhi, have taken breathing and meditation courses based on the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Shankar – who uses the double honorific of “Sri Sri” so as not to be confused with the Indian sitar maestro – has become the rage of New Age spiritualism.

He was welcomed by President Bush at the Oval Office in May and asked to pray for Americans; he intends to be the first Hindu spiritual leader to visit Islamic Pakistan to spread his message of love and peace.

A truncated, 16-hour course held over two weeknights and a weekend is for $33. The six-day course can cost $250 in the United States, though less for students and seniors.

The premise of the programme is to perform “sudarshan kriya” every morning for 25 minutes. If that sounds like the approach of Transcendental Meditation, it’s because Shankar was a disciple and associate of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Sudarshan kriya, which Shankar says came to him during 10 days of silent meditation in 1982, involves rhythmic breathing to infuse the body with oxygen and help rid it of toxins and stress. India’s ancient yogis considered fresh oxygen and calmness key to physical stamina, so breathing in tune with the rhythms of nature has always been an integral part of yoga. Having taken Hatha and the more strident form of Ashtanga yoga, I was familiar with some of the techniques, which move from slow, deep breathing through the nostrils to faster breaths while placing your hands in different positions to move the oxygen down varying paths, and finally, rapid bellows breaths that force you to pump air in and out of your lungs.

Some in the class got dizzy and needed to lie down. I asked if this “bhastrika”, or bellows breathing, wasn’t just a euphemism for hyperventilation, and was told, no, the giddiness comes from the release of toxins and negative thoughts.

By the third day, several people complained of sinus headaches and nasal congestion Read more

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Meditation classes for Tihar inmates (Times of India)

ANURADHA MUKHERJEE, Times of India: Yoga’s the new mantra of well being for terrorists and hardened criminals serving time at Delhi’s Tihar Jail. While meditation courses for undertrials have been in the news for quite some time, this is the first instance that the same “reformation technique” was being used for this high-security bunch.

Big-time names like Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar (behind the attack on Maninderjit Singh Bitta; several people were killed in the incident), Dheeraj Rana (main accused in the Phoolan Devi murder case), Ijaz Ahmed (Pakistani terrorist accused of causing the Lajpat Nagar blasts), Gafoor Ahmad (arrested in the Najafgarh encounter) and Afghan national Taz Sarbaz (said Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist) are among those who reportedly took yoga and meditation classes. “To begin with, we carried out the exercise with only 25 high security prisoners in Jail No 3.

The meditation course was conducted by Art of Living, which is a world-renowned body. Soon, all the high security prisoners will be included in the programme,” said a Tihar official. Encouraged by the positive feedback from prisoners, the authorities have also arranged sessions for the prison staff. “After all they, too, have to tackle very tough situations every day,” he said.

Although prisoners brought in terror charge are usually among the quietest lot in the jail, prison authorities felt this was one way they could let out their pent-up anxiety. “We have adopted a twin-pronged strategy for reformation — education and meditation.

Often education is not enough and as such some of these people are already well-educated. What they need is mental peace and probably refocusing of their thoughts,” the official said. Yoga lessons were initiated a couple of years back when Kiran Bedi was in charge of Tihar.

Over the years the lessons had a palpable effect on the residents, say officials. Instances of inter-gang violence within the prison, and riots have also been on the wane. “It is extremely important to maintain the mental well-being of the inmates given the kind of crowded environs they live in. Our sanctioned capacity is for 4,000 inmates, but over 12,000 prisoners have been stuffed here,” he explained.

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Indian stress-busters target Iraq

Soutik Biswas, BBC: If any country’s citizens needed de-stressing it would be those of Iraq.

Now India’s Art of Living Foundation is bringing yoga, meditation and breathing exercises to try to soothe a people rattled by war and continuing violence.

The Bangalore-based foundation whose stated goal is to “eliminate stress, create a sense of belonging and restore human values” has added Iraq to its 140 countries of operation.

About 15 volunteers, including doctors, are running medical camps using traditional Indian alternative medicine, and meditation and yoga classes to ease the strain on Iraqis.

The initiative began in September when seven volunteers arrived in Dillad, a farming village near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, and began an introductory session for residents.

About 30 participants signed up for meditation and breathing exercise classes – held in a private hospital in the area…

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