Tag Archives: Art of Living

Schooling, Art of Living style


As mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I travelled south of Bangalore to visit the premiere example of an Art of Living School. AOL has 175 schools across India, with the goal of providing free, quality education to poor rural children.

The school that I was visiting has been in existence for 22 years. It was the first school started by Sri Sri and is considered the model for all of the others. By Indian standards, it seemed like a typical school. 60 children to a classroom, designed in a traditional format. The children learn Kanada, English and Sanskrit and follow the prescribed state curriculum.  They start at age 5 and go all the way up to the 10th standard. Also, the children who choose to get more education than 10th standard can stay and move on to the 11th and 12th grade pre-university school that is right there on the campus. They also teacher the women especially to be tailors so that if they do not carry on with their education they can have a trade that will earn them a good wage and not have to be servants.

The main difference between this school and other schools is that first thing in the morning these children participate in a meditation for 20 minutes. They start the day with silence and pranayama (breathing). I tried to ask if they had done any studies showing the benefit of beginning a school day with meditation. The principal didn’t quite understand me, but he did say that they have very few disciplinary problems and the kids are ready to learn. I imagine that 20 minutes of mediation makes a huge difference in how the day goes in a school. Heck if we all started the day with 20 minutes of silence and breathing the world would be a different place (so why don’t I ever seem to be disinclined enough to sit in silence, I ask my Quaker self?)

When I was visiting the 10th grade was taking their ever important 10th grade exams. The principal interrupted the exams for me to come in to the classroom. The students were working on geometry problems. I was so embarrassed to be interrupting! 10th grade exams are EVERYTHING IN India. They determine your entire destiny. I did not want to bother those kiddos!  I left quickly and sent s many positive vibes as I possibly could. At least I was pleased to see that the exams were open ended questions—not just multiple choice like in the U.S.!

After the 10th grade rooms, I visited other 7th, and 9th grade classrooms busy with school work—primarily social studies (learning the rules of local government) and Sanskrit).  Each classroom had approximately 60 students. Very common for Indian schools. Mind boggling if you’re used to U.S. schools.

In each class that I visited I introduced myself very simply. “I am from the United States. I am a professor there. I have come to learn about your school!” And then a couple of times I tried to ask them questions like,

“What do you like about your school?”

“Everything!” they would shout.  (Although in fairness I was standing next to the principal when I asked the question).

“What would you change about your school”   A girl responded, “Everything has changed since I have come to this school.”   That was a powerful moment. Maybe worth the two hour drive through traffic!

The school serves children from 24 villages surrounding the Ashram. I asked how they choose who comes and they said that they do not. They serve any child in the 24 villages who wants to attend. No charge. Busses pick them up. I asked if the parents also receive training, especially in the kriya and AOL meditation. The school sends facilitators to the villages to give trainings to the parents in a form of meditation. All parents of the children in the school have attended these workshops.

The school also serves children from Manipur, a region from the north. The children from Manipur were rescued from child trafficking and brought to the Ashram to live permanently. Most often, their parents had tried to sell them away to prostitution, child labor, other nations, and so on. These children were kept separate from the other children because they were taught as English being their primary language and the other children were primarily taught in Kannada. English was not their primary language back home but whatever their language was, they would not be speaking it much more.  The girls from the “English medium” classes ‘(below) were the most talkative.

“Tell us a story about where you come from!” one said. I wasn’t ready for that, but I told them that Penn State had 40,000 students and that the American football games would draw crowds of 110,000 people. But even though I said American football, they still thought I meant soccer. The principal said, “These boys won the football championship this year! And the girls won national championships in Tae Kwon Do and will go to Dubai to compete!”  Sports are offered at this school—government schools offer nothing.

I could tell that some of the boys were trouble in the English Medium class (aka Northern kids who were almost sold into slavery). It is not a surprise given their experience. But in each class the principal would walk in before me and the kids would stand up and say “Good morning sir!” and salute him! I never saw that in any other school here. But in the English medium class, the boys in the back row were VERY, VERY slow to get up and I could tell the principal was deciding whether it was worth the fight to make a fuss about it. not wearing the uniforms either!

I spoke with the principal a while as well plus a very nice woman who worked in the central office back at the Ashram. The principal had been the head of the school for 16 years. He had lived at the Ashram for 12 and then got married and moved to al local village. I usually can talk to the principal for hours, but this guy didn’t have all that much to say.

The woman was more talkative. She came to AOL right out of college. She had visited the ashram as a guest and ended up staying to work with the schools. She said, “I always knew I wanted to serve.” AOL wasn’t her plan but it seemed like a good fit. She serves as a link between the local schools and the board of trustees. Each month the schools must write a report back to the Ashram (That seems like a LOT of reports. Quarterly would be sufficient if I was in charge). Her job is to synthesize those reports and share them with the board. Plus she is involved in ongoing needs/issues for the schools, which are geographically all over the country. I asked her if they faced trouble finding qualified teachers for all of the schools—an issue for all of India. She said that they prefer to hire Art of Living people. They approach volunteers that they think would be suited for the job and also they train poor people to become teachers in their own villages. They are paid a good salary, she said, but the goal is also to help to change the lives of adults as well who could become great teachers.

I left the school feeling disappointed. While the school’s banner says “Values-based education” I didn’t seem much different other than the kriya. Certainly it seemed to be a “good” school, in that the kids seemed to be much happier than in some of the other schools that I have seen. The principal and central office woman emphasized that the school provides quality education throughout in ways that the government schools don’t care or have the resources to do. The facilities were not much different than the government schools, but the vibe did seem much more positive. I cannot comment on the quality of the teaching.  But I left wondering what more they could be doing they that aren’t doing. Why they don’t try to stretch the boundaries any more than they do?  I get the sense, much like the government schools in some way that the focus is on providing an education to all. Not so much about changing how we thinking about schooling. Although there does seem to be an emphasis on quality here that I do not see in the government schools.

The Art of Living: Cult or cultural sensation?


Some days it is just helpful to repeat to myself, “I am having a cultural experience. I am having a cultural experience.” Saying this little mantra is especially helpful when things don’t go as planned. Today I visited the  Art of Living Ashram to see their schools in action. I’ll write about the schools tomorrow, but there’s too much to think about regarding the AOL movement first.

Art of Living is a massive worldwide phenomenon headed up by the guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (“known as Sri Sri to his followers). At the heart of AOL is the value of meditation for health, quality of life, being with others.   It was founded in 1981 by Sri Sri with the vision of creating a stress-free, violence-free society. Its website and wikidpedia say that it has reached out to over 300 million people in over 150 countries with its various programs.  Sri Sri was named by Forbes Magazine as the fifth most influential person in India. You can’t be in India right now and not know who this guy is. Given all of this attention to AOL,  I figured it was important to understand the hype behind the beard.

AOL is extremely popular with young urban professionals in Bangalore. You can drive through town without seeing a banner with Sri Sri’s face on it.  It is so widespread worldwide even that I actually took an AOL course in State College years ago when I was searching for a meditation class. I learned a series of breath patterns called the “kriya” Basically, it is 20 long breaths, 20 medium size breaths, 40 short breaths repeated in several cycles. If you stick with it, you really do feel your mind cleaning and you feel much calmer.  According to Wikipedia’s AOL site,  mental and physical benefits are reported in independent research studies on AOL kriya practice, including” reduced levels of stress (reduced cortisol—the “stress” hormone), improved immune system, relief from anxiety & depression (mild, moderate & severe), increased antioxidant protection, and enhanced brain function (increased mental focus, calmness and recovery from stressful stimuli), among other findings.”

The rest of the teachings that happened during my class that weekend reminded me a lot of Eckert Tolle kind of things—useful concepts. But for me, I have to admit that the overall vibe was annoying. Mainly it was because the instructor had no sense of time. Class would be from 10-2 and he wouldn’t let us out until 3:30 (and he takes your watches for the kriya, so I had no idea I was an hour and a half late and Todd was waiting outside to pick me up!). So, for a busy mom of 2 a group that has no sense of time is simply not an option. But I wondered if it was just this instructor or AOL in general that was not sitting well with me.

I have met many people in Bangalore who attend AOL groups around town. The Ashram itself is located south of the city. With the horrendous traffic, it took me two hours to arrive there. Upon arriving, it was hard to realize just how big this place really was in size.  Truly immense. A village unto itself. I was interested  in the opportunity to walk around.  The reception area  gave me a map. Turned out the distance between the locales on the map was 20 minutes!  The campus has everything from massive meeting spaces to many dormitories. A massive dining hall. Several book stores and souvenir shops of AOL materials. The center piece is a lotus flower shaped building where the evening meditation occurs.

I was directed toward the lake and to the Radha Kund area where boys were trained to learn how to chant. Sri Sri himself was leading a chanting session until noon. I should have hopped an auto because it was a good half an hour walk over there and it is HOT these days!  I finally arrive very sweaty . The chatting hall was packed.  Looking through a window, I could see Sri Sri seated at the center on a throne of sorts. People were sitting outside with their eyes closed listening to the chanting. I was hot and tired so I sat down and did the same. Here is the irony of my life. I am at an ashram that is supposed to bring peace and calming and all I can think about is how I literally sprinted through the heat to get to this building and that I need to leave in the next 45 minutes to trek 2 hours back home to pick up the kids. But okay, breathe for ten minutes, Dana!

Then I noticed why these folks were staying outside. They wanted to be on the handshake line when Sri Sri left the chanting area. You knew he was coming because these young kids/disciplines (?) came down the road  beating drums and they brought a beautifully painted elephant up to the receiving line as well. (No photos were allowed inside the ashram and I was afraid they’d lock me a way if I tried! But the website has tons of photos. ) Sure enough, out comes Sri Sri—very Jesus like in the white cloth and long hair. Very calm presence. Very gracious with all of the onlookers.  He spends some time nuzzling the elephant. He is highly idolized, with people lined up to just see him, touch him. All giddy to have a look before he got sped away in his car.

At this point I was going to visit the rare cows further down the road called Goshala. But it was ridiculously hot. I was wearing the wrong kind of clothes, and I wanted to get something in my stomach before I took the two hour drive back. So I walked very quickly (again as others are sitting and meditating, there’s me, hustling it across the campus and down the dirt roads). I found the dining hall, bought my ticket for 20 rupees, kicked off my shoes and headed inside. It was a massive space, with dal and rice being scooped out of buckets onto tin plates (very traditional Indian way of serving  food). Long lines of thin carpets were on the ground and it looked like you got your tin tray and sat on the floor. Sure, why not? Cultural experience, I repeated. But then the guard said, “No no!”  And pointed me to an area that was hidden by partitions. Back there you had the same food but there were Western tables. Honestly, I thought the floor idea was more fun but all the non-Indian people seemed to have chosen the cordoned off area. So then I worried that the food may have been prepared differently. Perhaps it was extra sanitary back here  for our lame Western stomachs. And indeed there was bottled water back i this area. So I figured I should play it safe and eat back here so that I don’t get sick. I ate in silence listening to people at my table whisper about the vastness of the universe. Then it had to wash off my metal tray at the sink. I then caught an auto rickshaw back to the main gate because I wasn’t up to walking the 20 minutes back!

And that was my day at the Art of Living Ashram.  I was hoping to be swept away by the peaceful ness of it all. But the place just made me a little grumpy. I wasn’t inspired to sit still or be quiet as I am when I’m around Quakers. It just felt weird.

Some folks call AOL a cult. I don’t know. They don’t encourage you to change your life or drop out of society or to give massive amounts of money or anything like that.  And I think most importantly in their favor, anyone is welcome and the teachings are encouraged to fit within wherever you are in your life. You aren’t expected to give up your beliefs or religious background to learn these teachings. According to Wikipedia,”Shankar teaches that spirituality is that which enhances human values such as love, compassion and enthusiasm. It is not limited to any one religion or culture. Hence it is open to all people. He feels the spiritual bond we share as part of the human family is more prominent than nationality, gender, religion, profession, or other identities that separate us. According to him, science and spirituality are linked and compatible, both springing from the urge to know.”

And I do respect the large focus on charitable acts that the Ashram does. I’ll write tomorrow about the numbers of schools he has built in poor areas. Plus AOL has a huge focus on empowering rural women. Plus projects on prisons, environment, peace, disaster work. rural development, youth leadership.

Yet, there is this cult of personality of Sri Sri for sure. And something of a cultish feeling in how people gathering to meditate/do the kriya seem to act. While some say that AOL is a pseudo religion that teaches relaxation but also that it is okay to aspire to be rich and you don’t have to change much of your life as long as you de-stress.  Others swear that the kriya has really changed their whole outlook on life. For me, I don’t think that the teachings are that different than any other relaxation practice. But I’m sure AOL folks would strongly disagree. And I have friends from home and here in Bangalore that swear by AOL.

Whatever it is, it is taking India by storm. And parts of the rest of the world as well. And something this big, it’s important to learn about it!