The Art of Living – A Personal Experience

I am cynical of religion in general and Godmen in particular. I am very suspicious of anyone who claims or institutionally organizes claims to be closer to the Divine than the rest of us plebians. Not that I can do much given my suspicions. I simply stay away.

However, word came down that the Sudarshana Kriya Course taught at the Art of Living Foundation (AOL) was worth trying. A friend in Singapore told me so after a couple of beers in a bar behind a Borders bookstore in Singapore. That was after a second cousin who is deeply involved with the AOL, teaching courses and trying to convince people that breathing right will put them on the road less traveled but more fruitful, had been trying to get me to try it for a long time.. Her attempts to get me to do the Sudarshana Kriya course were met with my initial polite deflections. She didn’t stop trying to persuade me till I clearly told her that I’d do what she wanted me to, if she did what I wanted her to – and I wanted her to stop dishing out unsolicited advice. My friend convinced me to do what my cousin wanted me to do – I enrolled in a Sudarshana Kriya course. Below is how I feel about it three weeks after participating in the course.

There are two aspects to the course – the physical part and the psycholo….okay call it what it really is – the brainwashing part! I’ll deal with these two separately.

The physical part of the course consists of two parts – an initial set of breathing exercises which apparently prepares one to do the Kriya itself. The Kriya consists of a series of rhythmic breathing sequences and ends with a meditative rest. The entire process takes about half-an-hour to do. It’s now been about three weeks and I do it more or less everyday. My sense is that I was taught the mechanics pretty well – though I don’t have independent confirmation of how well I’m doing it. Maybe I’ll ask my cousin to evaluate my technique the next time I’m in India! And my guess is that I’ll keep doing it till I know it’s doing no harm, or am certain that it will do no good.

It was the other part of the ‘course’ that was troubling. Many a tip on how to live well was passed along. Some of the stuff made sense – you can only control your actions. But some stuff was debatable – don’t worry about a person’s intentions, because as the Guruji would say, it only causes tension! My trouble was not that it was debatable, but it wasn’t debated. The course instructor would state a proposition, preface it with a “You know” and end it with a “Right” in a sing song way. And the six or seven of us course participants would nod in agreement. There was no discussion, just acceptance of wisdom, even when there was none.

You don’t understand, you say. Let me give you an example. On the final day we were told, “You know, have you noticed people who do seva (service) but not sadhana (live right) do not seem happy, – have you noticed? Right?” And we all, once again said, “Yes!” Actually that’s not the whole truth. This time I objected. I not only disagreed with the notion that those who did seva but not sadhana were unhappy, but really didn’t know how to identify whether or not people who did seva did sadhana, to have an opinion on the need for seva and sadhana to exist for one to walk the path of bliss. I went a step further and protested that the my fellow students and I were acting like a cult, and told the instructor that he was being profoundly judgmental. “Do you know what a cult is?” thundered the instructor who earlier had advised us that we may show anger, though we must not be angry. He carried on, “The Art of Living is not a cult, and you are being judgmental!” I never accused the Art of Living of being a cult, so the response was quite revealing. And when I got the ‘you are what you are accusing me of being’ response, I felt like I was having one of those occasional conversations with my spouse.

The other part was the massive public relations drive on behalf of the Guruji. We were told how the Guruji was our instructor’s idol – “I idolize Shri Shri.” And there was good reason to. For it was the blessings of the Guruji that led to a series of completely improbable (actually impossible, but who’s keeping track) series of events, that got our instructor to go to India to do the teacher’s course – I won’t bore you with the details, but the invisible hand of the Guruji did play a role! Another time the Guruji played a role was when our instructor once told his boss that he would work from home when he had AOL affairs to attend to, did no work, but was given a bonus of $7,000 for his good work. No prizes for guessing who was responsible for this sequence of events! But the most bizarre story was about his mother who came to the U.S. and got very sick after eating out. She had a miserable night and in the morning the instructor on his way to the local drug store thought within and asked his Guruji why his mother was going through this suffering – if she was in India a doctor would come and see her at home – after all they came from a well to do family in India. He then called a friend who suggested he call a doctor. And the doctor insisted that he will come and see the patient at home on his way to the hospital. This story may well be true. What I find troubling is the sense that someone far away was listening to the anguished plea and responded. I’m simply left to ask, why weren’t the good wishes and positive energy not used to make sure that the mother didn’t get sick in the first place? Like all the others, this time even I stayed silent, and nodded my head. Happy to be a trouble maker a couple of times, but even I don’t overdo it.

Much more of a not so complementary nature can be said about not so subtle attempts to present the AOL and the Guruji in positive light. But I think I’ve made my point. Suffice to say, my problem with all forms of organized religion/spirituality was reconfirmed. While it is possible that either for real or psychosomatic reasons good comes out of these institutions, the level of sycophancy and personal attribution of power and powers to some of our fellow humans boggles the mind. I’ll never understand the worship of other humans, but I am happy to see if breathing a certain way will have a positive impact in my life. If it will, I’ll carry on breathing in purposeful fashion.