Table of Contents
Breathing like a pressure cooker
The first time I learned about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was on an annual visit to India when my daughter was three. We woke up around 5:00 a.m., still groggy from jet lag, by sounds of puffing and wheezing – as if a pressure cooker was stuck in the middle of a steam release cycle.
My daughter hopped out of bed immediately and rushed towards the noise. She found her grandmother in the living room, seated crosslegged on a cushion on the floor, her face a mask of intense concentration. Her hands were on her knees as she expelled rapid and vigorous breaths out of her nose.
“What are you doing?” asked my inquisitive child.
My mother ignored her. When she didn’t receive an immediate reply, my daughter did the next best thing thwarted three-year-olds do when confronted with an intriguing, new situation. She crossed her legs and began imitating my mother, huffing and puffing, until her grandmother burst out laughing.
The Sky Breath Technique
My mother was practicing Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing technique she learned after joining Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Course. Over the next twenty years, she remained a staunch advocate of the enormous benefits of its practice and philosophy. She attended weekly sessions at a neighbor’s house across the street where foundational concepts—the practice of breathing and meditation, along with yogic exercise were reinforced. The community setting fostered a sense of spiritual camaraderie.
Fast forward twenty years and the Art of Living philosophy has burgeoned into a massive tree with branches spread across the world, touching the lives of over 500 million followers in 180 countries. It has inspired more than 1 million volunteers, all of whom are just as passionately committed to its practice as my mother was.
At the core of this philosophy is Sudarshan Kriya, or the Sky Breath technique. It uses the ancient yogic concept of harnessing our breath, the basic foundation of life, to heal ourselves from physical and emotional stress. What makes it particularly effective is the combination of Sky Breath and Meditation with Satsang and Seva. A Satsang gathers a community together for spiritual growth, while Seva is volunteerism to help the needy. Both are essential elements in the Art of Living course devised by its founder. The unique emphasis on the health of the community as a whole has led to the program’s immense popularity over the years.
“There are over 100 peer-reviewed studies which have demonstrated the effectiveness of the Art of Living’s techniques in lowering stress, enhancing the immune system, increasing levels of antioxidants, and lowering cholesterol, as well as reducing blood pressure and promoting deep restful sleep. All this is documented and verified,” says Reshma Dangol, Art of Living’s regional head in Washington DC.
Global outreach for peace
As the program gained worldwide popularity, one of the main objectives of the organization became global outreach—the promotion of world peace through the path of individual, inner peace. Sri Sri Ravishankar placed an active emphasis on reaching out to populations in crisis and using techniques of individual stress relief to help create a stress and violence-free society, especially in conflict zones.
“We can’t achieve a lofty goal like World Peace without peace within the individual,” says Sri Sri. “That’s where our meditation and breathing techniques and our sense of one community gathering comes in. I have this idea…a world without violence. If we could instill pride in being non-violent, in being compassionate, in being helpful to others, our lives would take a new direction. And this should be our unwavering commitment.”
The Srijan program
In pursuit of this goal, the Art of Living brought its Kriya techniques to prison populations through its Srijan program (Social Rehabilitation of Inmates in Jail and Aiding the Needy), starting with Tihar jail in Delhi in 2010. The program has expanded all over India and has improved the lives of over 120,000 inmates.
Sri Sri has also been pivotal in brokering peace deals between warring factions around the globe, in India, Africa, Syria, Iraq, and South America. President Santos of Columbia thanked him for his role in brokering a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the left wing, terrorist faction FARC.
In 2022, he kicked off Art of Living’s “I Stand for Peace” campaign from the United Nations office in Geneva. It has involved thousands of people, diplomats and political leaders, who have pledged to work toward bringing peace in conflict-ridden areas. When the Ukraine crisis unfolded, volunteers from the organization helped rescue 6,000 Ukrainian civilians, including 1,200 students trapped in the war zone.
World Culture Festival
Another wildly successful initiative of the Art of Living’s global outreach is the World Culture Festival.
“It is a bringing together of cultures to demonstrate the oneness of humanity, of our existence here on earth together,” says Sri Sri.
The festival – a three-day fiesta of meditation, spiritual lectures, cultural events, food, and fun from all over the world is a United Nations of the spirit. There are song and dance performances, art shows, fashion shows, and group meditation exercises. It reinforces the central message of the organization—oneness and unity of the human spirit.
This year’s festival kicks off in downtown Washington DC on the Mall from 29th September to October 1. It has garnered a tremendous amount of attention in this politics-riven capital. House members like Nancy Pelosi and Ro Khanna, as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser, have enthusiastically endorsed it. It is the fourth such festival held in an Olympic-scale global, cultural village, with 180 countries represented.
The festival requires pre-registration. Over 300,000 people have registered which indicates it will be an event that will make a significant impact on the nation’s capital, and not just on the traffic.
For more information on how to attend, go to www.ArtofLiving.org