For most Westerners, it may be hard to accept the Art of Living Foundation and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as just a simple breathing practice for health, well-being and self-improvement. You can also find Indians who are disenchanted with Art of Living and its approach. For some, paying to learn common pranayama practices seems an abuse.
Certainly, the Sudarshan Kriya breathing practice and Sahaj Samadhi meditation are taught without obvious theological trappings, but the classes do require you to accept some initial premises (adopt a vegetarian diet during the course, don’t wear leather while practicing, understand non-violence as a Gandhi-like expression of universal values) if only to be open to the full impact of the practice. An evangelical Christian might take offense at some of these gestures.
If you participate in AoL activities through an Indian community in your city, you may find more religious expressions surrounding the group practice. At Maja Kriya (“big cleansing”), the group may watch videos of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar interpreting pages from sacred Hindu texts, like Ashtavakra Gita, after doing the kriya. Devotion to a personal teacher or guru (or swami or other term) is particularly prevalent in Hindu culture. The size of his or her following, ashram or donor pool is just another manifestation of grace — but you could say that about televangelists here in the States. Art of Living has a huge following in India, and that gives Ravi Shankar a lot of political sway, which I have not seen him use conspicuously. There’s little doubt that his charities and non-profits do a lot of good. His organization has worked hard to associate with other world spiritual leaders and public figures to show that Art of Living is acknowledged as a non-threatening institutions.
There are some facets of the organization that can raise concern:
- The Art of Living Foundation and related enterprises stretch around the world and collect donations to do good works. This kind of multi-pronged institution is not easy to run, and relying on volunteers can be a formula for disaster so it needs professional managers. Its transnational nature means that it may be hard to detect financial abuses or siphoning of funds into private purses in one country or chapter. But India is producing a generation of managers who are capable of handling an organization the size of the Art of Living Foundation.
- Members of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s family play a leading role in running the foundation and subsidiaries. That can be another formula for disaster because criticizing a relative’s poor management skills might be seen as an attack on the guru.
- In an organization like AoL, gatekeepers control access to the charismatic guru, and dissidents or critics don’t rise up in ladder quickly — or at all.
- In the early years, Art of Living only had a few physical installations to maintain, but that is changing. There is now a Nation Center in Washington, a major center in Southern California and an ashram in North Carolina (The Boone Center – International Center for Meditation and Well-being), to name just a few now in the United States. This trend can create the kind of hot-house environments that can become prone to abuses.
I open up this page to visitor feedback because I have seen in comments on other pages that some people are expressing concern about cult-like traits in Art of Living. I can’t provide confirmation one way or the other since I have not been to a meeting in several years, but during my early association I never felt that I was being cornered into participating in the introductory classes or in the group practices. Any one can do a web search and find links to sites that are critical of AoL business practices. A person deals with the Art of Living Foundation on an individual basis and may eventually integrate into a community (university campus, ethnic groups, charity work, etc.), which is still a partial vision of the whole organization.