I first heard about the Art of Living course from an Indian lady I met for the first time at a friend's lunch. As soon as I saw her, I was struck by her complexion, which seemed to glow with some inner radiance. She seemed to embody the Sanskrit word "shanti," which means "peace." After lunch, I summoned the nerve to ask her plainly, "How come you have such beautiful skin?"
She laughed. "I drink lots of water," she said. "And I took the Art of Living course some time ago. They teach you breathing exercises that are really transforming."
The Art of Living. I could use something like that--couldn't we all? I remembered reading some newspaper articles while vacationing in India about Indian beauty queens, advertising executives, and other bigwigs who raved about the course. Established in India by a man called Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the course now has followers all over the world. Courses are taught regularly in America, Europe, and Asia. So when I heard it was being offered in Manhattan, I registered right away.
There were about a dozen people in my course, sitting cross-legged on the carpet. Photos of the founder--a smiling man with twinkling eyes, a long beard, and dark, long hair--were placed in the room with candles and incense all around.
Azah told us to go around the room and introduce ourselves to each person by saying, "I belong to you." Although it felt gimmicky to walk up to perfect strangers and say, "Hello! I am Shoba. I belong to you," I did it anyway. By the time I was halfway through the room, I was grinning as I introduced myself, as was everyone else.
Every day, we were asked three fairly profound questions that we discussed later. On the first day, we were asked what we wanted out of life, what we were afraid of, and what we expected from the course. When some said they expected nothing from the course because they didn't want to be disappointed, Azah replied that expecting nothing was an expectation itself.
Such conundrums drove me crazy at first because it seemed like everything they asked was a trick question. For the first few days, I felt skeptical, and then angry, about questions like, "What are you responsible for? What are you not responsible for?" I had some unspoken questions of my own: What were they trying to prove? Did they think they could teach me the meaning of life in five days?
Eve or Azah gave short lectures about the questions. One subject in particular resonated with my Hindu background. Rather than trying to separate ourselves from others, said Eve, we should embrace them. "What if you just hate someone on sight?" I couldn't stop myself from asking.
Eve's thesis sounded like a Western version of an ancient Sanskrit saying, "Aham Brahma Asmi," which means, "I am Brahman." Brahman has several interpretations in Hinduism, but I always think of it as the universe, or the cosmos. My parents told me as I was growing up that "Aham Brahma Asmi" was the most profound concept of Hinduism, and one had to chant the mantra for years before getting an inkling of its meaning. Yet here we were, discussing the separation between self and others in five short days.
Discussions alternated with exercises drawn from yogic traditions. The first exercise they taught us was the Ujjayi breath, which basically involved taking long deep breaths that go all the way to the abdomen. However, the most important technique taught in the course was the Sudarshana Kriya. Before the actual practice, we were shown a short video clip in which the founder explained the tenets of Sudarshana Kriya, as well as the way to practice it.
The technique itself needs to be learned from a qualified teacher; Azah and Eve told us on the last day that we shouldn't casually (and improperly) teach this practice to our friends. So while I can't go into the details of the actual practice itself, I can describe it a little and tell you that it is profoundly relaxing.