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Emperor of Air

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The face of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, guru extraordinaire of the explosively expanding yoga and meditation practice called The Art of Living (AOL), is more lined than it appears on the covers of his dozens of books, CDs, newsletters, Web sites, and postcards. Today the twinkly-eyed, black-bearded “guru of love” is in New Jersey, in the bridal suite of Royal Albert’s Palace hotel, wiping his hands and waiting to be interviewed. His white robes are made of a fine, opalescent fabric that shimmers slightly.

He begins speaking in a cheerful, slightly bleating Indian-accented voice about his favorite subject. “Love is the only superior power on the planet; love has the healing power. It can heal mental, physical, and spiritual illnesses.”

His simple message—a light blend of Eastern religion, meditation, yogic stretching, and breathing—is catching on big. Tens of thousands of Americans have taken his classes that feature the breathing technique he calls Sudarshan Kriya. Five years ago, his ashram in India was attracting about 5,000 overnight guests a year. Now, more than 25,000 annually check in for retreats at the 60-acre center that attracts up to 5,000 visitors a day when Shankar is there. Worldwide, more than a million people in 136 countries have taken his introductory course. He spends about 60 days a year at his ashram near Baden Baden, Germany, 40 days at AOL’s ashram near Montreal, Canada, and 150-odd days on the road, giving satsang (spiritual talks), everywhere from Atlanta to Singapore. The Art of Living may be the fastest growing spiritual practice on the planet.

“The organization is growing at such a fast rate,” says Prashant Rajore, the administrator of Shankar’s ashram in India. “In India itself, we have doubled in the past year. We have doubled the number of our teachers; we have doubled the number of our volunteers working in the villages.”

The Ashram

To understand the vastness of AOL and ponder the question of why Shankar, why now, leave New Jersey for a moment and head to a spread of rocky hills on the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Here, high above a vast valley of rice fields and banana trees, a mammoth new building is rising into the sky. Pillars as thick as elephants swirl upward, supporting gymnasium-wide slabs of what looks like the biggest wedding cake the earth has ever seen.

This ornate confection is made not of whipped cream, eggs, and flour, but of concrete, gold leaf, sweat, and hard cash. When it’s done, the main floor will hold 3,500 meditators, all breathing hard and fast, then slow and deep, for Shankar. The extraordinarily grand temple, perched dramatically on the pinnacle of a hill overlooking the vast valley, isn’t just for show. Asked why they were building it, my ashram tour guide said simply “We have outgrown the old one.” The old meditation hall, a flat-roofed, white-walled, one-story building, was built about a decade ago and can hold only about 400 people.

On the next hill over is the dining hall, where vegetarian meals are ladled out. That’s where, five months before my interview with Shankar in New Jersey, I met James Latimer, a 29-year-old former British Telecom client manager who is now a landscaper at the ashram. Latimer had taken a basic course in England in 1994 and now is one of many Shankar followers who believes his guru has something supernatural going on. “Someone special has come to earth,” he gushed, eyes bright. “In The Art of Living, there are people who think this could be Krishna, this could be Jesus.” You’d think that such talk wouldn’t sell well with Americans, who are wary of charismatic gurus, familiar as we are with the well-chronicled excesses of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Baba Muktananda. But it does.

“Following a guru appears to be a quick way toward personal transformation,” says Robert N. Sollod, a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University, who has published works on the psychology of religion. “People are looking for that.”

Perhaps Shankar’s growing success can be explained by the strong appeal many spiritual searchers find in someone whose practice promises to solve all problems. “There was a moment when he just locked on, looked me in the eye, and stopped . . . and I went into that classic description of pure bliss, pure peace, just everything was light,” says Nancie DiSilverio, who first heard Shankar speak in person at a satsang in Connecticut in 1992. “It happens because he’s established in being, and he runs around in unbounded space-time. In his presence, if you can let go, that’s available.” What Solland is describing is transmission, or shaktipat, a longstanding phenomenon among gurus and their disciples.

Truman State University professor and Shankar follower Lloyd Pflueger explains that in the Hindu tradition the main reason people see an enlightened guru is not just to listen to words of wisdom but to actually receive the “radiation” from the guru’s presence. “Whether or not you are noticing the sun, the sun’s rays are permeating the skin and changing it. It’s like that when you’re in close proximity with the source of spiritual radiance. Just being in the presence of the master can touch something in you beyond words, beyond logical discourse. It can be either partially or totally decisive or transformative in your spiritual growth.”

Pflueger says that Shankar’s presence is a more valuable tool for transformation than what the guru actually says. “I feel Sri Sri has a very strong radiation. It’s not constant. It’s like a peacock. It’s not all the time when the peacock spreads his feathers, but when he does, you can’t ignore it. I’ve been around Sri Sri when the feathers are spread in various degrees, but there are times when I’ve felt I would physically melt from the spiritual radiation I was feeling from him.”

Shankar’s teachings are cherished by his followers, who marvel at the ease his methods bring them. “What Shankar is emphasizing is the experiential component of religion,” says Michael E. Nielsen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University. “Its advantage is that you can have the results right away. Most Western religions, Christianity and others, have developed all these elaborate belief systems that try to explain things in a rational way and make people feel better.” According to Nielsen, if you try to understand things through experience, the proof is in the pudding. “You do the practice and the stress leaves you and you feel better. It promises a very satisfying and immediate thing. You can feel better without relying on someone else to explain it rationally and without relying on the promise of heaven later. What Shankar is teaching is very appealing to people for this reason. Someone could be an agnostic or an atheist and still get something from Shankar’s philosophy—that the individual has within them a greater sense of intelligence.”

The Man

Shankar was born may 13, 1956, in Tamil Nadu, India. His father, Venkat Ratnam, was a scholar of languages and now does charitable work. Mother Vishalaskshi died in 2000. The couple chose the name “Shankar” because May 13 is the birthday of ninth-century Hindu saint Adi Shankara. Ravi, a common name, means “sun.” In the early 1990s, Shankar met the famous sitar player Ravi Shankar, who complained that the holy man was unfairly capitalizing on the name the musician had made famous. Soon after, the guru added the honorific “Sri Sri.”

There are two legends about Shankar dating back to his childhood that followers readily recite to demonstrate his divinity. As a baby, Shankar was rocking on a large swing hanging from four iron chains. The swing suddenly fell to the ground. His father says it was a miracle the infant wasn’t injured; physics dictates the four chains should have fallen into the center of the swing, but they fell outward instead. Then, as a 4-year-old, Shankar is said to have recited passages from the Bhagavad Gita, a holy text he had never even read.

As a boy, Shankar refused to play soccer with the other children, saying, “These feet cannot kick anybody, let alone an inanimate ball.” Instead, he spent time writing poems and plays, and studying. He graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore with a science degree and was offered a job in a bank. He turned down the offer, following a spiritual path instead, eventually traveling to Rishikesh to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru famous for popularizing Transcendental Meditation (TM).

In 1982, Shankar entered a 10-day solitary period of silence, during which he says the centerpiece of The Art of Living, the Sudarshan Kriya, was revealed to him.

The Teachings

The centerpiece of the AOL program is the Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing technique that promises to cleanse the body and mind, eliminate stress, and restore focus. To find out more about the kriya—and because American Art of Living functionaries said they wouldn’t let me interview Shankar unless I did so—I signed up for a four-day, 16-hour introductory course
in Manhattan, two months after I’d visited India. The course was taught in a Holiday Inn conference room, not far from the original Macy’s department store. My teacher was Nancie Di-Silverio, one of the 200 or so AOL instructors in the United States. The Southern California native was one of a dozen teachers flown to New York after the September 11 attacks to head free AOL classes, which normally cost $250.

DiSilverio asked us each to introduce ourselves to the other 13 students by shaking hands, looking in each other’s eyes, and pledging, “I belong to you.”

Then we men and women, ranging from dewy-eyed newlyweds to gray-haired grandmothers, were given lessons on taking deep Ujjayi breaths and asked to consider what each of us wanted out of life and out of the course. By hour three of day three, we were deep into the Sudarshan Kriya, breathing like pumping bellows through our noses, eyes closed, slightly dizzy, hearing DiSilverio beseech us: “Put a smile on your face—even if you have to fake it! Smile.” The air being sucked in and puffed out was ice cold, flowing in from a window open to the January chill because Shankar has dictated that the air must be fresh when the kriya is taught. On a cassette player in the corner, Shankar’s voice intoning “so-hum” set an unrelenting breathing rhythm: Soooooo (breathe in)-hummmmmm (breathe out ). The pace is slow at first and then quickens like a runaway train: sohumsohumsohum . . . .

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.

“This is what seems to be happening in terms of people’s spiritual quest, a journey that leads them to different practices and traditions,” says Vaughan. “We have these teachings available now, and we didn’t used to. People don’t necessarily stick with one their whole life. They try different sources, particularly because the opportunity is there.”

The Medical Opinion

AOL teachers are quick to point out that one needn’t believe Shankar has special powers to benefit from his kriya. They eagerly point to medical research, a subject that is the province of Ronnie Newman. Newman’s full-time job with AOL is touting the kriya’s tested health benefits—for cancer, depression, HIV, and other illnesses—to medical schools, science conferences, universities, and whoever else will listen. She’s a real pro, in command of her material. “The study ÔMajor Depressive Disorder with Melancholic Features’ found that Sudarshan Kriya was as effective as drug therapy,” says Newman, who received a Masters in human development from Harvard in 1980. “An EEG study found that practitioners of Sudarshan Kriya experienced low-frequency alpha waves . . . and what’s even more striking is that the brain was also producing beta, which is indicative of sharp concentration. The system was relaxed and simultaneously alert.” These studies were done in India; Newman hopes her lobbying will spur more research in the United States.

At a New Delhi symposium in March on Sudarshan Kriya, Pranayama, and consciousness, organized by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr. Richard Brown, a Columbia University psychiatrist, said the kriya’s rapid breathing causes the release of the same hormone released during sexual activity.

“If someone’s well, it helps them deal with everyday stress,” said Brown, who wrote the book Stop Depression Now (Penguin/Putnam, 1999) about meditation and herbal treatments and who regularly refers patients and colleagues to AOL courses. “But if someone’s depressed or has post-traumatic stress disorder, the breathing can also be astonishingly helpful.” Brown says the breathing may, scientifically speaking, be “a kind of controlled hyperventilation” but believes “it’s quite mild, which is why the side effects [like my headache] are nothing to worry about.”

But Sollod, the psychologist from Cleveland, isn’t so sure. He said the kriya may be similar to holotropic breathwork, a once-trendy hyperventilation technique that promised psychological and physical benefits. “For some people it uncovered buried subconscious material that they weren’t able to deal with. It was a practice that was claimed to be natural and without risk, but it did cause casualties among some people.”

The Love

Shankar’s organization practices the charity he preaches. Near the Bangalore ashram, an AOL-funded school provides 650 poor children from illiterate families 10 years of free education and daily meals. AOL executives say they are doing similar charitable work in some 3,000 villages. Another new construction project at the ashram is a vocational school that will teach villagers how to become tailors. The AOL is accredited as a nongovernmental organization in special consultative status with the United Nations. In the United States, the nonprofit group Prison Smart has spent roughly $250,000 in recent years teaching Shankar’s techniques to prisoners.

Shankar flew into New York in January to participate in the prestigious World Economic Forum. As an invited religious leader, he was accorded the same status as South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and President of the World Muslim Congress Abdullah Omar Nasseef. The night before his appearance at the forum, Shankar gave a satsang at a synagogue on the Upper West Side for 2,000 people who paid $10 each. A band played Indian songs to warm up the crowd, and then he arrived in white flowing robes, holding flowers and walking sprightly down the center aisle before ascending the stage and carefully clipping on a microphone. He answered a few questions from the audience: “Do you think gurus should be treated differently from other people?”

“Just as a normal human,” Shankar replied. “Just as a dear friend, nothing more.”

“Will you ever marry?”

“I don’t think I’ve grown up. Child marriage is prohibited. Maybe if I get older, I’ll consider it. But do you really need to get married to raise a family? You simply have to consider the whole world your family.”

A video camera caught his every utterance. Shankar speaks English, Tamil, and Hindi fluently. He answered some questions with care and others with playful laughs. One person asked: “Can you explain the mind-body connection?” This is a subject Shankar has written on and talked about extensively. But this time he answered only, “Yes, they do seem to be connected, don’t you think?” He smiled and soon announced, “Enough questions, I think. Let’s meditate, shall we?”

Afterward, I was led up to the stage to meet him. After a satsang he will stand for hours, shaking hands, touching heads, and smiling at anyone who waits in line. We shook hands, and I said I hoped he would find time in the next two days for an interview. After I stepped down, I was told by a cadre of teachers that I couldn’t have an interview. Sri Sri was busy preparing for his speech at the economic forum—and I hadn’t taken the basic course yet.

The Lesson

Three months later, the medieval-looking, ash-white Royal Albert Palace was teeming with Sri Sri followers, most of whom appeared Indian. (The Manhattan crowd in January had appeared mostly non-Indian.) The sound of chanting and the scent of curry wafted through the corridors, and piles of shoes filled the corners near the main conference hall.

I was led to the bridal suite. Shankar asked how I was. I told him I was a little hung-over and had not slept because I’d stayed up all night for my birthday party. “Your head hurts?” he asked. “Come here.” He held out his hands. I knelt down in front of him. He put his fingertips on my temples and the top of my head. This was a strange way to begin an interview, but why not try an empirical test of his healing powers?

He moved his hands on my head for 15 seconds, then lifted them off. “Better?” I backed away, then slid into the chair, trying to gauge what I was feeling.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Do you believe you can heal people?” I asked.

“People say it makes them feel better,” he replied. His brown eyes were wide, his face open and easy to stare at. He was a very pleasant person to be around.

I asked him if he understood that Americans are somewhat distrustful of gurus, especially those who claim supernatural powers. Was he worried that he’d be grouped with people like Rajneesh and Koresh?
“I don’t put a label on myself,” he said, moving his hand across his forehead. “I’m just an absolutely natural and free person. I’m 100 percent free. I have no titles. I have no labels. I have no chains binding me.”

I asked him why he was celibate and wasn’t he ever tempted to try sex.

“There is no such compulsion or need that has arisen. . . . This time around on the planet I’m meant to do some work,” he said. “I feel that there is so much love all the time, vibrating; love is all the time there. There is no need for me to find love and joy in something, an act.”

I asked him how he had the patience to greet every person in the room after a satsang. “When there is so much love, you can greet. Love always energizes,” he answered. “Why shouldn’t I meet everybody if my meeting everybody brings them some relief, some solace, makes them feel happy?”

Finally, I asked him about his strategy for winning new converts, about whether the new meditation hall was part of that strategy, and how he felt about the billboards of his face that were going up in India. “I’ve not thought about those things,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

The Exit

After shankar left the room, he was swamped by admirers. People fell to the ground and touched his feet. They held up their babies for him to touch. A man was led up to him by a teacher, and the man said, “I’m lost, I don’t know what to do. I’m lost. I need help.” Shankar told him to take the basic course. He looked to the teacher and told her to help the man enroll.

More and more people closed in on Shankar, but he had to leave to speak at the evening satsang. The music was getting faster and louder and more frantic with his expected arrival. He sauntered into a fancy walk-dance step, snapping his fingers in the air. It allowed him, with a smile on his face, to benignly glide through the throng and into the conference room. I said to the event coordinator, who had sat with me through the interview, that the dance step was an impressive move, a good way to get through the crowd without hurting feelings. “It’s so much worse in India,” he said. “It’s not a life most of us would want to live.” But it is the life that Shankar believes he was born to live.

As I stood there watching him accept the adulation of the crowd, I thought back to the last question I’d asked him when it was just the three of us. Before I turned off my tape recorder, I said there was one more thing I wanted to ask, a question just for myself, not something that I had to ask him for the article. I don’t believe that Shankar is a god or that he can heal a headache with his hands, and I haven’t done the Sudarshan Kriya since I finished the introductory class. But Shankar struck me as an awfully kind person who was teaching a form of yoga that many people believed was helping them, and he wasn’t asking them for lots of money or to do anything else for him. After months of poring through his financial records, interviewing his followers, and reading his writings, this reporter was ready to ask Shankar a heartfelt question.

“Is it luck that you’ve found the right thing that allows you to feel like you are at all times being your best person? Because one can go through life and be the best person one can, and always choose the good thing to do, the right thing to say, the compassionate thing. But at the same time, I sit at my desk every day, and I’d like to be expressing myself from my heart always in my writing. But I have to write some stories I don’t care about to earn a living. How do I bring together what I want to do and what I have to do?” Shankar seemed to sharpen, more on his ground now. He summarized the sum of my ramblings:

“Are you saying that in your business you are sometimes asked to do things which are not right?” I thought about it.

“Basically, yes,” I said.

“If you stick to truth, you won’t lack for anything.” he replied slowly. “I started a school with 175 kids. People thought I was crazy. It’s difficult to feed two children in India. I had no money. I took a school that was bankrupt, which had a loan on its head. When you have trust in God and your spirit, I tell you this, everything will fall in line. When you think all the time how do I feed myself, then you’re in trouble, but when you do some good job in the world, there will be a million people ready to feed you with desserts and the whole meal.

“People who were around me, my family and friends, wondered why I was taking the responsibility for poor children when I have no steady income at all. Okay, they said, you have some money for two months, but what will you do for the third month? But when we started doing, it would come right at that moment when it was needed. Now we are running 100 charitable schools in India. Some in tribal areas where no one else will go. Twenty years. And in each school we have about 1000 children. It’s very gratifying when you see children who would never have had an education, and now they come up with a good education and smiles.”

The interview was over and I watched him leave the room, dancing his way into the main hall. A chair was waiting for him on a stage with a microphone. Thousands of people were there because they wanted to hear what Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had to say—a simple message of trust, hope, and love. I got into my car and drove in silence all the way home through the rainy night. When I got home, I slept like a rock.

Allen Salkin is an investigative reporter living in New York City.