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Emperor of Air

Behind The Art of Living is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose followers compare him with Krishna and Jesus. But Shankar doesn't seem too concerned with fanfare or fortune, he just wants to keep spreading his simple message—all you need is love.

By Allen Salkin

The kriya requires breathing in and out through your nose in circular breaths without pausing in between the inhalation and the exhalation. During the retreat, this lasts about 25 minutes and is done in time with the tape of Shankar. The at-home instructions are to start with 20 long and slow in-out breaths, followed by 40 medium-length breaths and 40 small, fast ones.This 20-40-40 is done three times and lasts a total of seven to nine minutes. After that, you let the breath do what it wants for one minute and then finish with five long, slow "so-hums." We were told to allow our thoughts and emotions to flow, to deny nothing. After about 25 minutes, the breathing over, we were told to lie on our backs and then our right sides—which felt excellent. What descended then was the quiet empty space that meditation can bring. It was nice. Calm. But that night at home, I developed a hammering headache. We'd been told to avoid medicines if possible, so I resisted pills.

The headache lasted into the next day's class. DiSilverio said my condition was probably the result of my body purging toxins. Still, after the final class, I'd had enough detoxing and blissfully swallowed an ibuprofen, which brought relief.

I felt cleansed and clearheaded for days afterward, and most of the other students said they felt quite peaceful at the end. Some of them had endured stomach problems, and a few others had headaches. That might just have been caffeine withdrawal, but I left feeling that daily practice of the Kriya would probably be a good thing to do. According to DiSilverio, Shankar says you can't really see the profound benefits of the practice until you do it for six months. What put me off the most about the idea of doing it every day was the time commitment of it. For me, a busy New Yorker, it seemed like too much to do. But I am glad I learned the technique, and it is possible I will decide to try it out for a few weeks or months some time down the line—as long as the headaches eventually go away.

But The Art of Living is not all breathing. A booklet we were given to take home with us summarizes the Shankar credo: "One God, One Truth, One World." Here, in just 12 easy-to-read pages, are the "Eighteen Laws of Spiritual Life." Some are familiar self-help messages like "Stop blaming others and yourself," "Let go of the past," and "Have confidence in yourself." Some echo Buddhism: "Acceptance of the present moment," and "Impermanence." Others recall Judeo-Christian principles: "Trust the supreme and infinite intelligence which has formed this entire creation."

Dr. Frances Vaughan, author of Shadows of the Sacred: Seeing Through Spiritual Illusions (Quest Books, 1995), says the growth of movements like Shankar's, which borrows philosophies and practices from many Eastern and Western religions, shows the increasing popularity of "trans-traditional" perspectives.

"It means you honor all traditions, but you don't necessarily identify with any one of them," Vaughan says. Shankar's success may indicate that he is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the new century will bring, religionwise. As the Internet and cheap jet travel expose more and more people to different religious traditions, people may become more willing to cobble together a few ideas from here and a few from there to create spiritual belief and practice systems that work for them as individuals. For many people, the work Shankar has already done in synthesizing something fresh from many different sources may be enough. He brings an already-developed, easy-to-swallow, easy-to-follow system, and adds a bit of a twist, for those who want it, of himself as the enlightened guru. One needn't believe in his grace to find The Art of Living useful, but it's there if you want it.

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A precious description of AOL and Ravi. Just finished some basic course, loved it but dislike the cult things. Thank you. Greetings from a foreigner journalist in India!

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