Sat, Aug 04, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Indian New Age guru busts stress with breathing

He calls breathing "the forgotten secret of life" that can bring inner peace

AFP, NEW DELHI, INDIA

Founder of the non profit spiritual organization Art of Living (AOL) International Center Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in 2006.

PHOTO: AFP

Dozens of people are crammed into a small room, lying on the floor and breathing in rhythm to the loud whooshing sounds coming from the mouth of India's leading New Age guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The eager crowd is learning a stress-busting technique that the perpetually smiling Shankar - dubbed by one Indian magazine as the "fastest-growing guru in the marketplace of happiness" - says he discovered meditating 26 years ago.

"Stress makes the vision narrow - it doesn't allow you to think clearly or take the big decisions," Shankar, the founder of India's Art of Living movement, said.

"And, of course, you can't be happy," he adds.

With India's economy booming, Shankar and other New Age gurus have become increasingly sought after as overworked Indians seek new ways to cope with the pressures created by their materialistic lifestyles.

"Many people who come to us suffer from stress overload. They live pressure cooker lives. They need a way to decompress," says Sanjiv Kakar, program director for the movement, which offers courses tailor-made for executives.

The telegenic Shankar hopscotches around the world to help out stressed-out A-listers. He once spoke at the ultra-exclusive World Economic Forum in Davos, where political leaders rub shoulders with the elite of the business world.

He says his program of short, medium and long breaths has been taught in 145 countries to at least 20 million people over the past quarter century.

Shankar - a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who famously taught "transcendental meditation" to the Beatles in the late 1960s - says his goal is to make the world happier by showing people how to breathe properly.

He calls breathing "the forgotten secret of life" that can bring inner peace.

"For every emotion there's a corresponding breath, so when you're angry you have short fast breaths and when you're happy you take long deep breaths," he explains. "By breathing in certain rhythms we release negative emotions."

Breathe to stay young

The guru, who tacked on the second honorific Sri to his name to distinguish himself from the Indian sitar master Sri Ravi Shankar, also says his breathing program "keeps you young."

"Don't I look young?" Shankar, 51, asks executives at a retreat outside the capital New Delhi with an impish giggle that punctuates most of his sentences.

Indeed Shankar - the prototype of a guru with white robes, shoulder length black locks and black beard - looks in fine form for someone who says he gets by on just three hours of sleep a night.

Critics accuse him of offering nothing but Bobby McFerrin-style "don't worry, be happy" platitudes.

But he has nevertheless developed a big following among India's upper crust - liquor baron Vijay Mallya and former Miss Universe Lara Dutta are fans - with his laid-back message that people do not have to be poor to be spiritual.

While critics also label him "guru to the rich and famous," Shankar defends the right of the wealthy to inner peace.

"The Indian system does not say you have to take a vow of poverty to be spiritual. It is interesting to see that in the West, the basic ingredient of spirituality is to take a vow of poverty," Shankar says.

Renuka Narayanan, religion editor of India's Hindustan Times newspaper, says the Art of Living's "basic product is about peddling yoga," labelling Shankar as "syrupy but genuine."

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