Create lasting happiness – tips from Ravi Shankar

Create lasting happiness – tips from Ravi Shankar

Take a Deep Breath

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Approach to Inner Peace Is Like Fresh Air to Millions of Followers

By Libby Copeland

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, July 5, 2007; C01

The guru comes to Washington and sleeps on the floor, as is his wont.

He tells a joke about the folly of material things and giggles and is asked why he smiles so much.

He answers with a question: Why don’t others smile more?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, in town from his ashram in Bangalore, India, for a U.S. tour, combs his wispy hair and smoothes it over one shoulder. He reports that he had oatmeal for breakfast. “With Tabasco,” he adds impishly.

Shankar believes that rhythmic breathing exercises, combined with yoga and meditation, can bring people inner peace, and he has been teaching this formula to millions since he discovered it 26 years ago during 10 days of silent meditation.

How did this discovery come to him?

“You write a poem, you don’t know how it comes to you,” Shankar says.

He is seated with nine followers around him, though he might not call them that. (“Followers?” he once said to a reporter, turning around. “There’s nobody behind me.”) They are from all over the United States — some are volunteers, some are staffers for his nonprofit, the Art of Living Foundation, which only recently acquired this beautiful old embassy by Meridian Hill Park as its national headquarters.

Most are dressed in white. They laugh when he says something clever or elliptical or cleverly elliptical, which is much of the time. As in, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, what do you read?

“Mind,” he says. “And spirit.”

His voice is soft and high, the tenor of young boys and old men. Though he sleeps sometimes two or three hours a night, he says, he doesn’t get weary. (Well, actually, what he says while grinning is: “Do I look tired?”) He favors expressions like “if mind is kite, breath is thread,” and “knowledge should be used as soap, for cleansing.”

Also, “truth is always contradictory.”

Why is that?

“Truth is not linear, it is spherical,” Shankar says. ‘so it has to be contradictory. Anything that is spherical is always contradictory.”

At the Art of Living’s new national headquarters, which was purchased last July and is still in the process of being cleaned and renovated, volunteers who during the day work for places like the World Bank and NASA have pulled weeds and Swiffered the floor in anticipation of Shankar’s visit. He comes about twice a year, fresh from tours of other countries, his schedule packed with courses to teach and speeches to give. (Today he is scheduled to speak in Washington at a conference for Indians sponsored by the Telugu Association of North America; he’s been billed just under another speaker, Bill Clinton.)

Shankar’s followers include a former sound engineer named Philip Fraser, who sold his worldly possessions to join his guru in India in the early ’90s. Fraser has been teaching Shankar’s breathing technique for 16 years. He lives in the new headquarters along with his fellow instructor and relatively new wife, Kasia, an extraordinarily tall and beautiful woman who gave up modeling after she saw a flier in a vegetarian restaurant in Warsaw advertising the Art of Living.

They practice their breathing every day. Philip Fraser describes the feeling this practice gives him as ‘something on the other side of happiness.”

The breathing technique Shankar teaches is based on the notion that just as emotions impact how people breathe, how they breathe can also impact their emotions. By controlling their breath, the idea goes, people can counter their stress and recover from natural disasters and violent surroundings.

Shankar, 51, was raised a Hindu, though he and his students consider his teachings nondenominational. When the Art of Living Foundation celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, it rented an abandoned airfield on the outskirts of Bangalore and reported a crowd of 2.5 million people. (In videos of the event, the crowd stretches from horizon to horizon.)

In March, the foundation was honored at the Kennedy Center, where Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) spoke of the “more than 20 million people” worldwide who’d taken Shankar’s programs. The Art of Living says at least 100,000 people have taken Shankar’s breathing courses in the United States. (Though in this country he is still often confused with the famous sitarist who knew the Beatles. They’re not related.)

Shankar also co-founded, with the Dalai Lama, among others, another nonprofit, the International Association for Human Values, which relies mainly on volunteers. A spokeswoman says the sister organizations have founded an orphanage for 200 children in Kashmir, built houses in South Asia, and offer vocational training in places like South Africa and Iraq. The breathing technique is taught for free in prisons in Taiwan, India and the United States, as well as to people in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

This, Shankar says, helps explain why here in the States, his six-session course costs $375.

“Charity cannot happen from an empty bowl,” he says.

Shankar describes himself as “nobody” and as “a child” and says that pride is pointless. He says he feels the pain of others acutely. (“He’s porous,” one of his followers says.) The veneration his students show him “doesn’t touch me,” Shankar says. “I don’t pay attention to it at all.” (Though sometimes the rose petals people throw get in his eyes, he has said.)

Best not to ask him what the meaning of life is. He has said that’s “like asking me to chew your candy for you.” Instead, ask him if he thinks the world is getting better.

Yes, he says. Though there is decay just as surely as there is progress.

“You know, nothing stays the same,” Shankar says. “There is night somewhere and day somewhere else.”