Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

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.”

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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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Sri Sri Ravi Shankar calls for stress free South Asia (Times of India)

An Indian scholar who teaches people how to overcome stress by using the "art of breathing" called for making South Asia a violence-free society during a trip to Pakistan Tuesday. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who uses the double honorific of "Sri Sri" so as not to be confused with the Indian sitar maestro, is respected among a number of his students for guiding them to overcome stress through meditation and new techniques of breathing.

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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: Growing popularity for stress relief, spirituality (Jakarta Post, Indonesia)

In the last month, no less than three major spiritual leaders — Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Amma and Dadi Janki — have visited Jakarta and Singapore as part of their world tours. Known around the world for their powerful messages of peace and love, they attract hoards of followers and encourage hundreds to take up meditation and prayer regardless of religion.

Original article no longer available.

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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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