“You can experiment,” says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. “For a few moments, keep your body steady and keep your eyes steady. You will see, almost immediately, the mind will also become steady. The mind and breath will come to a standstill. This is when time stops. That is the state where you feel you could stay like this for a million years, where the mind freezes, like you put vegetables in the freezer and they stay fresh forever. This is the secret of youthfulness, the secret of bubbling enthusiasm, the secret of renewal of life. This is samadhi, steadiness.”
In the 30 years since spiritual leader and humanitarian His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar started the Art of Living Foundation, he has seen his programs become adopted on six continents and in 151 countries, with participation by heads of state, people in inner cities, prisoners and guards, cultural and corporate leaders, veterans, social and environmental activists, people in areas of natural disaster and conflict, and warring parties (who, in several places, have been inspired to lay down their arms). There is a biography about Sri Sri (as he is known) by well-known French journalist François Gautier, with the telling title, “The Guru of Joy.”
“There are really two kinds of activities that Sri Sri has inspired,” says Austin Myers, chairwoman of the Los Angeles Art of Living center, “Breathing and meditation courses for individuals, and service and relief programs for communities and people in trauma.”
Myers oversees a center that opened in 2010 in the historic former Second Church of Christ, Scientist building in the West Adams neighborhood near USC. A tall, thin woman, originally from Florida, she used to work full-time in the movie industry as a costumer, getting her start in the big leagues with the “Miami Vice” TV series, and working on many movies and TV series since then. She took the flagship Art of Living Course in 1997, but says that people have been taking the program in the Greater Los Angeles area since 1987.
“Some people are drawn to the Art of Living for stress relief or to improve their health or energy,” she notes. “And it has certainly helped me that way. But for me, Sri Sri himself was the hook. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times and has brokered peace between opposing political factions and even terrorists. And those things are important, obviously. But the love that comes through was the real key for me. Even my mother was drawn to that, and actually became a big proponent in her circle of Miami charity activists.”
Myers describes the Art of Living Course as Sri Sri’s “core program,” which includes a meditative breathing process called Sudarshan Kriya.
When someone attending a talk by Sri Sri complained that they felt peace in the meditation they had been doing for many years, but that it did not stay with them enough during the day, Sri Sri noted, “The Kriya and the small techniques that are done in the two-day program help one to bridge this gap,” explaining that with the breath, the effect is brought into the physical.
But apparently, the effect doesn’t stop with the individual. Myers notes that Art of Living volunteers were among the first on the scene after the South Asian tsunami, and that one researcher found that the approach they were using brought relief from post-traumatic stress disorder in as little as eight hours.
Veterans have had similar relief, she notes, pointing to a pamphlet describing veterans programs that are taught through a partner organization. It includes some comments from Iraq veterans, and a chilling quote from a Vietnam veteran named Noel Olsen: “If I could have been availed of this breathing 40 years ago, I feel that it would have helped my whole life and things would have gone a lot better. I know that I’m subject to flashbacks and re-experiencing things that I went through in the war. What the breathing has done is to take away the power of those flashbacks. I believe all veterans can benefit from taking the course and learning how to be at peace with what you may have done.”
Art of Living volunteers were also on the scene in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Art of Living was chosen as the stress-relief component in the Back on Track America effort that traveled the country helping to restore business and confidence after 9/11.
Environmentally, Art of Living volunteers have planted more than 10 million trees as part of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, trained more than 10,000 farmers in organic, chemical-free farming—resulting in increased production and income and reduced costs—while addressing the farmer suicide crisis in India. They also started a Haiti Reforestation Project to plant and nurture 1.5 million trees, in a country where 98 percent of the once-lush forests have been cut and 70 percent of the land is no longer cultivable. (Volunteers have helped bring relief after the earthquake there, too.)
“It is insensitivity that makes a person act callously toward the environment,” Sri Sri has explained. “If a person is sensitive, he will nurture the environment, thereby eradicating pollution.”
Myers adds that, “When people start feeling happier and their awareness starts expanding, their attention starts turning toward helping their world.”