It seemed odd 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 vigor and clarity through age-old Hindu breathing techniques.
More than 2 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 spirtualism. 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.
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 weeknights and a weekend for $33. The six-day course can cost $250 in the United States, though less for students and seniors.
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 will.
"Look at all of us from around the world," he said to the 13 of us, a mix of foreign diplomats, Indian housewives, a yuppie couple from Boston, a Dutch mother and her teenage son. "This is one of the positive byproducts of globalization. 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 gray 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 chubby elephant god adored by Indians - or to send us home with secret mantras. Though Shankar is a devout Hindu, his message is not religious.
"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 program 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.
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 knee-to-knee 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 respond with anything that came to mind, we realized 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.
But the Art of Living should not end there, Sakar said. It's also about community service.
"You go into deep meditation and you fall deep into love," Kakar said. "So, what are you going to do with it? We celebrate and give it away through service to others."
The program's teachers offered free courses to some 1,000 people in the wake of the 2001 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 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 never been accused of abuse or excessive behavior.
Shankar insists his only goal is to help people reduce stress, thus become better people: "Masters don't need any favor from you. They just take off that anguish and garbage which you cannot lift off yourself. All enlightened masters on this planet are garbage collectors."
By Beth Duff-Brown