By Beth Duff-Brown
To some it might seem strange that you would need lessons in how to breathe. Yet the worldwide trend of turning to intensive training in how to lower stress and finding renewed energy and clarity through Hindu breathing techniques is paying off.
The first breath of life eventually leads to the last exhale at death, but for whatever span that lies between, breathing is an unassuming, if essential, part of living.
It seems odd that one would need lessons in how to breathe. Yet people worldwide are turning to an intensive course on lowering stress and finding renewed vigour and clarity through age-old Hindu breathing techniques.
More than two million people, from students at the Art of Living ashram in southern India to the "techies" of Silicon Valley, Chief Executive Officers of Manhattan and prisoners in New Delhi, have taken breathing and meditation courses based on the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Shankar - who uses the double honorific of "Sri Sri" so as not to be confused with the Indian sitar maestro - has become the rage of New Age spiritualism. He was welcomed by US President George Bush at the Oval Office in May and asked to pray for Americans. He now intends to be the first Hindu spiritual leader to visit Islamic Pakistan to spread his message of love and peace.
Having lived for four years in India, where pollution, stress and existential angst often get the better of me, I was intrigued when invited to attend a truncated, 16-hour course held over two week nights and a weekend for $33 (R215). The six-day course can cost $250 (R1 625) in the United States.
I'm not a cynic, but I've followed the excesses of some Indian gurus. As I said to an American colleague on the way out the door: "I just know they're going to make us hug each other." We both moaned.
I was relieved when the Art of Living instructor, Sanjiv Kakar, turned out to be funny and sweetly secular. The hugs would indeed come, but at our own volition.
"Look at all of us from around the world," he said to the 13 of us, a mix of foreign diplomats, Indian housewives, a couple from Boston, a Dutch mother and her teenage son.
"This is one of the positive by-products of globalisation. A lot of myths are being broken here - that the East is spiritual and the West is material. Here we are, one global family."
We sat comfortably on white sheets spread over plump cotton quilts - except Amrit Choudhry, a 79-year-old grandmother, in lovely silk sari and dignified grey bun, who used a chair.
Kakar assured us that over the next four days, there would be no attempt to turn us into followers of Lord Ganesh - the elephant god adored by Indians - or to send us home with secret mantras.
"The Art of Living is not about conversion," Kakar said. "Some things are the same everywhere: caring, sharing and leaving the world a better place than you found it."
Shankar teaches that we are all responsible for one another, that human nature is one of love, but that stress, regret and anger suppress that innate goodness. The class begins by walking up to one another, introducing ourselves and pronouncing: "I belong to you."
The premise of the programme is to perform sudarshan kriya every morning for 25 minutes. If that sounds like the approach of Transcendental Meditation, it's because Shankar was a disciple and associate of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Sudarshan kriya, which Shankar says came to him during 10 days of silent meditation in 1982, involves rhythmic breathing to infuse the body with oxygen and help rid it of toxins and stress. Having taken Hatha and the more strident form of Ashtanga yoga, I was familiar with some of the techniques, which move from slow, deep breathing through the nostrils to faster breaths while placing your hands in different positions to move the oxygen down varying paths, and finally, rapid bellows of breaths forcing you to pump air in and out of your lungs.
Some in the class got dizzy and needed to lie down. I asked if this bhastrika, or "bellows breathing" wasn't just a euphemism for hyperventilation, and was told, no, the giddiness comes from the release of toxins and negative thoughts. By the third day, several people complained of sinus headaches and nasal congestion.
Still, nearly all of us said we were thinking more clearly, sleeping better - I slept for nine hours on the third night, which any working mom will tell you is a rare gift - and generally had a sense of well-being and relaxation.
"As we go through life, the mind becomes rigid and set," Kakar said on the third day. "Be like a child, be fluid. Only in innocence can you express love. This is the irony, this is the paradox: you need knowledge to recover your innocence."
The breathing, combined with several minutes of meditation and some simple yoga stretches, does induce a sense of innocence and gratitude. So when Kakar asked us to perform some mind games, I wasn't as reluctant as I had anticipated.
Sitting and looking directly into the eyes of Omer Ajanovic, a diplomat with the Bosnian embassy, it was at first disconcerting. But when we were told to ask each other, over and over, "Who are you?" and to respond with anything that came to mind, we realised we shared a common wound: deep regret over not having prevented some acts of cruelty we had witnessed.
The point, Kakar said, is to let go of anger and regret, to find acceptance and forgiveness and "experience the moment". There were revelations, some tears, but little embarrassment.
The programme's teachers offered free courses to about 1 000 people in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack, and 22 000 prisoners in New Delhi's Tihar Prison have taken the course. The group builds schools and provides health care in rural India, among other projects.
There has been criticism that the $1,5-billion (R9,5-billion) Art of Living Foundation has not done enough to spread its wealth, but Shankar is generally regarded as honest and modest. Most experts on cults say his group's practitioners have not been accused of abuse or excessive behaviour.
Shankar insists his only goal is to help people reduce stress, thus become better people. - Sapa-AP