2016-06-30
The most frustrating part about the Art of Living course is that it attempts to do in one week what Hindu philosophers take years to achieve. The name itself is ambitious, and the actual course is more so. Not only does it teach students about yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques, but it also introduces them to concepts like suspending judgment, seeking union, and letting negative energy go. Can a course really impart the essentials of profound Hindu thought in a mere five days? Well, yes and no.

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.

Most courses begin on a Friday evening and run for five days. My course in Manhattan cost me $250 and was taught by a man called Azah and his assistant Eve. Azah and Eve had a serenity about them, a stillness of the eyes that I had seen in people who have practiced yoga and meditation for years.

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.

The course also stressed precepts common to many religions, such as the importance of suspending judgment and releasing other people's negative energy. If someone criticizes a business plan of yours, for example, it's crucial to let that negative thought go. "Let it roll off you like water from the lotus," we were told.

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.

Sudarshana Kriya revolves around the breath. Its power lies in the way that you breathe, in certain rhythms of breathing that are taught, and the length of the practice, which took about 45 minutes of continuous breathing techniques. During the exercise, Azah and Eve kept saying, "Don't suppress any emotion. Whatever you feel, let it out." Some people began sobbing as they did the practice; others began laughing. There were reactions the next day too. One member of the group said she'd slept better after doing the breathing exercises, while another said he'd slept worse because he'd had such vivid dreams.

Did all this work for me? Though I didn't feel the urge to sob or giggle during the breathing exercises, something did happen to me halfway through the course. My anger melted away. Suddenly, some of the things they had said and repeated throughout the course began to resonate for me.

On the last day, Eve led us through a visualization technique where we started by imagining ourselves as a tiny cell that became larger and larger till in the end, we encompassed the universe. While I might have thought this corny or gimmicky when I first started the course, I found it immensely soothing as we did it on the last day. I felt, if only for a moment, at one with the universe. Aham Brahma Asmi, indeed.

So what had happened? As so often occurs, I think the main reason I changed was that I replaced skepticism with surrender. During the first days, I approached the teachings with rational skepticism, wanting everything "proved" before I would accept it. When I surrendered to the breath, I was less worried about this. As my body relaxed, my mind expanded.

On the last day, when Eve said, "Now imagine yourself growing bigger to encompass the whole earth, then the atmosphere, and the galaxies, and the stars, and the outer galaxies," I literally forgot that I was a separate human being and imagined myself as a nebulous mass that encompassed the whole universe.

I wish I could say that there are lasting effects. I wish I could say that I practice the Sudarshana Kriya every day like they told us to. But I am afraid I don't.

However, I do know this: If ever there comes a time in my life when I am totally frazzled, stressed out, at my wit's end about what to do, I now have a secret weapon that will help me come out of it. I know that if I practice the Sudarshana Kriya for a few days--continuously--there's a chance that all my worries will melt away, as my anger did during the course.

I may just get that "shanti" glow after all.



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