Is Art of Living a cult or sect?

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.

Warning signs

There are some facets of the organization that can raise concern:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


40 thoughts on “Is Art of Living a cult or sect?

  1. I was involved in the Art of Living organization in the early 2000s. I left the organization in 2006. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about the Art of Living but recently, I started watching the HBO series “The Vow” about the NXIVM cult. I noticed some similarities between NXIVM and Art of Living in terms of the method of indoctrination of its followers. I googled “Is Art of Living a cult?” and came across the blogs of Klim, Skywalker, and Obi Wan. Reading through them made me think that at least I should share my story to maybe help others. Someone might be having the same experience as me. I wasn’t in the Art of Living inner circle and I didn’t experience some of more severe abuses that others in the blog have, but I was particularly attached to the organization and the Guru and it took some time to detach myself, this is how it happened.
    I learned about the Basic Course from a friend’s roommate when I was going through a particularly vulnerable time dealing with the death of a closed loved one. I was just out of college in my early 20s. I remember my teacher was very chill and not a feverish Guru-hungry person. I don’t think she is that involved in the organization anymore, but I haven’t talked to her in a long time. I was looking for a place to belong and I found it in the Art of Living. The community was small and close knit. We went to Guru Purnima in Lake Tahoe and it was like camp for adults. I had lots of fun, did meditations, cooked with people in the kitchen, and sang at the evening satsangs. I enjoyed the talks given by the Guru and had a level of respect for the teachings but didn’t “fall in love” or get too enamored at the time. The people I was associating with were more focused on self-development rather than guru-chasing. All was well, then…DSN happened.
    I went to a DSN course in L.A. somewhere and remember being quite uncomfortable with the happenings on the course. I was shy and a “don’t rock the boat” kind of person so I just went along with what they asked of me. I remember going out into L.A. in the middle of the night to tell people about the Basic Course and try to get people to sign up. I was too shy to talk to many people though, so I didn’t get many sign-ups.
    After DSN, there was a shift in our AOL community. Before, it had been run by people who were a bit older and focused more on the practices and knowledge. There was a new influx of young folks who were now intent on growing the organization and were also more guru focused. I remember in addition to getting sign-ups for the basic course, now we were also trying to get people to come see the guru speak at events. I spent some time with some of the more senior level folks who had been in the organization for a long time and were closer to the guru. I started to see a feverishness and worship of the guru that I wasn’t too comfortable with, but I went along because I thought the mission of the organization was good and I still believed in the principles of the basic course. I didn’t feel too comfortable proselytizing and so I avoided it for the most part but sometimes I would go with people to hand out flyers. I did always feel pressure to try and get more people involved and when I didn’t help out with those activities, I felt like some folks disregarded me and didn’t really want to hang out with me because I wasn’t really part of the guru-club. After a while though, I started to believe some of the guru stories and got caught up in trying to get his attention (and failing, and feeling bad about it). Once I was singing at a talk and he came up to me to say I should sing a happier song. I guess my song wasn’t upbeat enough for the crowd. That was literally the only thing he ever said to me the whole time I was in that organization and yet I was so devoted to him for some reason…why?
    I was encouraged by my AOL community to take the TTC1 course. It was as others described it, sort of a boot camp. We were sleep-deprived and criticized. We had to take cold showers in the dead of winter. I remember at one point a girl who was experiencing a lot pain wouldn’t take medication because she thought it was all part of the test of becoming a teacher. We all went along with it happily because we thought it was all part of the process that SSRS had laid out to make us stronger. One thing that I remember that disturbed me was when the teacher told us how SSRS would inflate the number of people attending events. If there were 100 people, he would say there were actually 1000 people. I felt like this was a manipulation. If you hear that 1000 people went to hear someone speak, aren’t you more likely to think that person is more special than if only 100 people were there? That’s not right. It’s not ethical.
    My exit from the organization started roughly around the time of the Silver Jubilee (2006). I remember getting a letter from the organization thanking me for my donations to the Silver Jubilee celebration. However, I didn’t make the donation to that (I wouldn’t donate to a glorified birthday party for SSRS) rather I had donated the money to their humanitarian organization for kids. I was very upset that the money was not used as I intended.
    At around the same time, a friend and I had come across a book about Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh (a.k.a. Osho) that was written by one of his former followers detailing the inner workings of his cult and how he persuaded people to follow him. He was a very charismatic person and was able to get a lot of people to do some crazy things. Reading the author’s account, I could see some similarities between Rajneesh and SSRS. The friend I read the book with had volunteered at one of the ashrams and told me that SSRS had tapes of Osho in his kutir. I thought, “Why is an enlightened master listening to a cult leader?”. My conclusion was that SSRS was learning how to get people to follow him unconditionally and that he wasn’t enlightened at all. I went to a yoga retreat around that time in India and told the teacher that I had been involved in the Art of Living. He was shocked that someone who was educated, an engineer, could have fallen for such a con man. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. But smart people can be manipulated. Sometimes you just want to believe that someone will save you and answer all the unanswered questions you have about life and this world.
    I feel like I was lucky that I didn’t get more involved with AOL than I did. One of the things that helped was not giving up my career or all of my non-AOL friends. I encourage anyone who is involved with a spiritual organization to make sure they have a way to make a living outside of the organization and maintain contact with folks outside of the organization. You need perspective. If at any point the organization is telling you to cut ties with friends or family, that is warning sign.
    I have learned a lot from my experience with AOL. I am very wary about spiritual organizations that have strong proselytizing tactics. For a long time, I wasn’t involved in any sort of spiritual groups. My faith had been shattered. I didn’t believe in God or anything I couldn’t see or experience with my own senses. But I am a spiritual seeker at heart so eventually I gravitated toward some Buddhist mindfulness practices that allowed me to traverse my spiritual path on my own without needing a Guru to save me. I realized that we all have to do our own work on our own path. Others can offer helpful tools, but it’s never a good idea to give up yourself completely to someone else. Giving that kind of power to another human is never good. Power does corrupt people no matter how enlightened they claim to be. For spiritual guidance and advice, I seek out sources that are given freely rather than courses that you have to pay for. I don’t accept ideas and tools just because lots of others say they work. I try them out and see if they work for me. I don’t follow people just because lots of others follow them. I understand my path may be different than others and that is okay.

    1. MyExperience,
      Thank you for the interesting account.
      My experience was much more limited.
      I had trouble staying asleep due to anxiety issues. I came across an article about a study that showed that a SKY breathing course reduces anxiety by 40 something percent. I went to a course in Washington D.C.. I was treated well. I found the course to be too rigorous for a beginner ( most of the people who ran the place were young ). I found that it actually increased my anxiety. I ended up losing more sleep, so I quit before the last meeting. I told them about that experience, but they really did not know what to do about it. I asked for written instructions for what I missed, but they wouldn’t give it to me. I was offered a chance to repeat the course at a discount. I found those directions on the Internet and the articles about their court cases. I got the impression the organization was modelling itself off of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s TM organization. Take a technique part of the Indian culture, put it into secular wrapping for Westerners, hide information about what it actually is, and charge a steep price for people to learn it.

  2. jellybean could you kindly say more about ssrs publicly shunning people bringing the lawsuit? do you mean the NGT one? i have to say, i would shun? or criticize them too. I know the NGT head was very corrupt. and i personally feel AOL did good work in the yamuna area, as the river was not smelling in that region. That’s a big deal. It was smelling everywhere else. But i do agree with some of what you said. They are not very organised and seem to charge too much money.

  3. I have done the art of living course and had thought about signing up for a higher level course, but i am still not sure how I feel about the organization. It takes a lot of faith, but if you are like me who constantly think things through, then you might experience the same things that I am going to mention now. I feel like there is a big push go get more and more people signed up and take more and more money. The 3 day course can cost as much as $600 if you are in a big city like ours. They all treat Sri Sri as God I always feel like there is peer pressure to call him Gurudev and just praise him and his presence. They oversell the benefits and the volunteers make it seem so grand that I end up getting disappointed. They hang out together and if you are skeptical about their preaching, you can tell that they don’t really like you. Which goes against its own teachings. They charge so much $$$$$ and take advantage of people going through tough times. The rules are not very clear. Plus they make you do “Seva” which is basically volunteering for them and handing out flyers to make more people join and spend more money. It becomes a very close knit group where people are expected to think and feel the same way, which is not cool.

  4. Here are some few points for Art of Living. This is my experience of art of living:
    1. Its a Business to fool people
    2. There businessman sits at Headquarter at bangalore.
    3. They are fooling people by teaching them Sudarshan Kriya. But in reality they are just using ancient India Breathing Exercises and telling them its their exercise.
    4. Its actually Yoga they teaching and earning money
    5. They Don’t Pay full taxes as they dont give receipt in return of payment.
    6. And if someone has done Art of Living Course……They Know very well that Art of Living just force them to bring more people to their business.
    7. During their course the teachers give task to bring so many people to course or leave course.
    8. They force you to follow their Guru who has Damaged Yamuna River.
    9. In some courses they mentally harass people specially in DSN course.
    10. They will tell their guru who is a businessman is a lord.
    11. Whichever teacher bring more business will get more courses and money
    12. Its a organization of brainwashed followers.
    I was doing their fake Happiness Program after they brainwashed me that this is a good course ye wo. They charged 2500 rupees from me and during course asked for donations and bring so many people.
    I asked my frnd if he wants to join. but my friend’s financial condition was not good so I requested AOL to join him for free.
    One one hand they say we do this course to change the mindset of people and bring peace. on other hand they say “Bina paise ke kuch nhi hoga
    These are just businessman and fooling others so please stay stay stay away from AOL.

  5. People pay hourly fees of 35-40$ an hour for 1st/2nd grade maths in i-Level. Anyone can teach, But we still pay since it kind of gives them some seriousness in learning. AOL spends 10 hours atleast in 3 days course and charges accordingly as if you are learning 1 grade subject.

  6. I just came from The Art of Lliving retreat in Boon N C . My take is that Sri Sri is doing a wonderful job helping people to cope with the stress of everyday. Like everything life you have good and bad. There are people that becom obsess. Has nothing to do with Sri Sri. I am a normal American that have found great peace in my life though the teaching of this Organization

  7. Here is the address of AOL and its teachers twisting ancient knowledge to suit their greedy needs and prove their point. Here have a look at this blog:
    Here, the AOL teacher talks about “sanshy atma vinashyati” in the last line saying that anybody who is doubting Sri Sri and AOL are not being objective and that they will “perish” (vinashyati) as said by lord Krishna himself in Gita. However, a little research would tell you that sanshayatma doesn’t mean doubt. It means indecisiveness which says don’t be always in a confused state. Take a stand. Krishna told Arjun “it’s okay to be a skeptic or a believer. Rather being a skeptic is good as you are not following any knowledge blindly.” But LOOK… conveniently this teacher moulded the meaning as well as translation. This is not the first time that I have seen AOL teachers misrepresenting knowledge to conform volunteers into doing what they say. This blog will help you understand the meaning of “sanshayatma vinashyati” in more depth so that you have an objective view over this sacred phrase and its meaning

    (I don’t know about guruji being corrupt but a considerable number of current wave of AOL teachers… Especially among the experienced ones are definitely either brainwashed or brainwasher. Very judgemental and dictatorial of you don’t think like them. AOL in its earlier stages was not like this)

  8. Wonder how many enlightened masters travel in Mercedez Benz and always stay in 5 star/7 star hotels.
    How many enlightened masters involve in politics/closely have contacts with politicians and accept Padma Vibhushan awards.
    How Many enlightened masters conduct personality development courses/speeches ?
    Involve themselves in pseudo politics and religion and temples ?

    As per Shashtra’s Meditation/Atma Vidhya is not supposed to be taught by charging money/fees.

    But only on voluntary donations.

    But Sri Sri has patented the Sudharshan Kriya as if it is his own invention.

    There is one thumb rule and the thumb rule is Money,Fame,power and Sri Sri is definitely a Con Man and the poor gullible are falling for this ConMan and the Cult.

  9. I learned of AOL last week. Yahoo had an article about how some researchers measured impressive results for subjects taught the SKY breathing techniques.

    I’m interested in learning, but not in paying the $400 price for the 4 class course.

    My guess is that the class teaches standard pranyama ( yogic breathing techniques ) which has been around for thousands of years.

    The Yahoo article mentioned that they taught a sequence of 5 breathing exercises.

    Would anyone be able to list that sequence?

    I would like to be able to that and go to a garden variety yoga teacher to learn those things without the issues of this organization or the steep price.

  10. Many of the comments and the article does put light on the AOL situation. I had done AOL part 1: Happiness Course few years back. Back then I wasn’t compelled or forced upon doing any activity of the AOL. However this is how they normally act with anyone who is a first timer. But as time went on, AOL courses grew with more strength, and one of my friend (an AOL fanatic) asked me to do the ‘Sajah Samadhi’ course offered which I did. As what happens is, they make a Group of the people (on WhatsApp) as soon as every course ends. Soon, by coincidence or otherwise, I came in contact with more AOL people, and I decided to repeat the course. And let me warn you, the more you get into doing these courses, the more you are noticed and believed as being a volunteer. Soon, you get more absorbed and more addicted into the enumerable- Satsangs, Guru Puja, Basic Courses (which happen every month or so), Knowledge Sessions by Swamijis, Rudra Pujas etc, which I came accross. I am not saying they are bad. They were quite awesome and give you a great sense of relief and spiritual insight. But, only sad part is that you get sucked more into the organization, and I have experienced several people who have done to Bangalore and done the Advanced Course, which is the ultimate goal to be a perfect AOLer. I myself didn’t find the idea bad, given all the feverishness about SSRS and his guru powers, that these teachers convey you. They actually tell you to Flaunt about the “Guru” quite literally. Now agreed that he may be a gem of a person and his knowledge and practices are very beneficial, but which sane person would expect you to believe that and believe that the Guru is the ultimate you could ever need. One doesn’t sign up for the course to all of a sudden transform and become a Gurupholic.

    I myself am quite young and unmarried, and that’s their main Target Audience, the young and unmarried crowd, or the gullible people whom they can control. They very soon ask you to do seva, in the name of spreading about AOL. The more deep you venture into their courses, the more you are trapped in the net. I would request everyone, if at all you have done any of the courses of AOL, just stay put, and don’t go further, as the more you go the more entangled you’ll get, no matter how much good the knowledge sessions maybe, satsang, rudra puja or follow ups, as good and holy they may look like. It was my mistake that I attended these and soon fell into the trap, where I was made a volunteer without my knowledge, and made to spread the word myself and also follow guruji everwhere (on twitter) etc, I hadn’t signed to any of it. This all makes you lose the sole purpose of what spirituality or knowledge is all about.

  11. Having done some art of living courses, I was led to believe Sri Sri has some magical and divine powers. I met him twice besides attending maha satsangs in my city. The aura and mystic created around Ravi is pure propaganda. It took me years to realise that and I understood all the kinks in the chain that is the AOL people and organisation after I found my personal experience and dilemma echoed and addressed in Klim’s blog ( besides associated web pages that pointed out the dissemblance, between what they teach and the wisdom they impart and how they, these teachers and Ravi actually behave. Having witnessed it personally, it couldn’t be more contradictory, fake or hypocritical.

    My close association and fraternising with a popular and highly regarded AOL teacher and couple of followers opened my eyes as to how they manipulate “knowledge”; that the art of living thrifts through from every ancient and new age wisdom source to suit their own need and personal gain. Frenzied followers of the AOL are so brainwashed that many rationale minds would perceive them as ill. They believe they are on some elevated spiritual path and some derive a god complex though they would go to great lengths to convince you of their feelings, of humility and oneness. Anyone who doubts and questions AOL and Sr Sri’s brand of beliefs, fundamentals and wrong doings are said to be ‘not in knowledge’ or ‘stuck in the intellectual head’, which is laughable.

    Ravi Shankar is a good actor. He talks of being child like, he even likes to say that he is a child, but it’s all just an act. I once saw him being enthralled by microwave popcorn like a ‘child’, I cannot tell you how phony it was, his put on expression of wonder and amazement, “o how the corn pops!?” said in his trademark childish, effeminate tone, and having written some forgettable knowledge sheet or drivel on some topic inspired by popcorn.

    They twist sayings and proverbs to come out with new jargon or catchphrases to seem cool, and resort to every trick in the book, many that they publish themselves, to find takers for their new age, ancient philosophy based wisdom. Their moto ‘fake it till you make it’ aptly describes narcissists like Ravi Shankar and his fan following. Ravi Shankar and his family and trusted allies and close associates are laughing all the way to the bank by faking it and duping millions.

    That they have adopted thousands of villages and cured thousands of people with health problems is pure hyperbole and merely marketing spiel. I have never seen any miracle happen with my own eyes, but many glorious stories of miracle cures and Shankar’s gift of foreseeing the present future and such, are rampantly spread amoung AOL groupies.

    The worst thing they do is constantly badger you to do more courses to ‘walk the spiritual path’ for your better well-being, in order to collect more money and donations from you. In the advance course, a man who was trying to become a teacher, asked participants to shell out money, even after having paid for the course, so they can buy gifts for the advance course teachers, because he said, they are not paid well. How much money the wannabe teacher ended up collecting was not made known to the course participants then and neither was the money shelled out for the gifts bought revealed or even what it was. This is a mere example. There’s no transparency of funds collected and funds disbursed for charity they proclaim to carry out. No receipts were issued after signing up for courses or paying donations. I have yet to see the school for underprivileged children in Dharavi (Asia’s largest slum located in Mumbai) take shape after having donated a couple of thousand rupees for the same. I don’t think even a foundation brick has been laid, though they must have cleverly acquired some land, I’m guessing, after having read of their land grabbing and real estate acres buying formula under the guise of being an NGO while deriving concessions and incentives from the government.

    AOL and Sri Sri openly court rich and celeb followers to spread their fame and keep the unaccounted money coming from gullible and superstitious rich patrons. They are great at networking, often aligning with influential people, showing a bias towards them in order to curry favours and gain prominence. Ravi has a soft corner for flailing minds and famous celebs with questionable scrupules, he extols in their company and ranks them high as teachers. He loves staying in the homes of the mega rich, five star travel and staying in seven star hotels. He is so accustomed to the lifestyle, he must be an unofficial billionaire, growing his organisations is foremost on his mind as he is obviously addicted to power and making money by fraud and deception. Spirituality is a great business for Ravi while he and his bunch of swami cronies and ilk hone AOL like a cult to keep growing. Time will tell when they will be weeded out. For now, their brainwashed machinery do a great job to expunge from news media and internet searches, any criticism on the discrepancies in their organisation and any outlet that shows their unflattering side.

    More disclosures need to be made on poorly paid workers who manufacture their merchandise from oils to health drinks and water called shakti drop or the pricey spa like Ayurvedic treatment services they offer. Yes, you can get a hair spa at an AOL venture near Banglaore ashram along with your panchatantra treatment! They say the cost and logistics of running an ashram that feeds many devotees everyday is a lot, but it might just be a fraction of the money they get from just donations and commercial ventures alone.

  12. Its all business my friend..a business where you do not have to pay any taxes and u get free volunteers who will advertise ur expensive programs everywhere without taking any charges.They smile every time to attract customers

  13. HI..






  14. I was part of AOL for about 6 years and left about 4 years ago. Is it a cult? Definitely. Is it all bad? Absolutely not. I’ll try to give you an honest idea of what anyone can expect should they be curious.

    The Good:

    Lots of the knowledge, concepts and skills they teach for handling tricky life situations is very good and practical. The knowledge and wisdom of AOL is borrowed from numerous sources, and much of it is useful in the real world. You can get a really rich experience in knowledge and wisdom from the courses, but I didn’t agree with every spiritual aspect they taught. I really enjoyed that this was the first course I took to really get me to start observing my life rather than just reacting to everything around me.

    The breathing techniques can be very beneficial for some. The word “can” in the last sentence is very important, and I’ll explain why later. I’ve taken the breathing course many times and have seen it help people who were in some need of spiritual relief after a difficult life situation. They often teach these courses to veterans that have returned, and I don’t doubt that these breath techniques can be useful. Like the knowledge, these breathing techniques are not unique to AOL like they claim.

    The meditation courses are fantastic in my opinion. The Sahaj Samadhi meditation course was by far the biggest benefit I got out of AOL. Not everyone likes this meditation technique, so do what works for you, but I found it extremely helpful to learn the delicate art of meditation. Meditation is incredibly powerful if someone has the patience and skill to develop it within themselves. Yoga courses can be good too for those that like light yoga.

    The people you meet in the organization are a mixed bag like anywhere else, but I met a lot of really humble , sincere, hard-working people through this group. Many people on these courses are looking for something deeper in life than the hollow shocks of reality TV and iphones, and it’s nice to share that moment with these people on the courses.
    The Bad / Questionable

    The cost. For a “spiritual organization” there is a huge emphasis on enrolling as many people as possible while also increasing the cost of the courses. I’ve seen course prices quadruple over time as the organization grew. This definitely conflicts with their knowledge and wisdom they are teaching in all of their courses. If the world “desperately needs AOL”, then why are they making it impossible for the poor to take these courses?

    Sudarshan Kriya. The breathing practices they teach are taught without a full understanding of their power. These techniques are extremely dangerous for some individuals. I’ve known countless people who’s health deteriorated in very scary ways when they continued to practice Sudarshan Kriya and Pranayam. There’s a very long answer as to why this is that I won’t go into, but just know that these breathing techniques are not for everyone. AOL preaches that the breathing techniques are safe for everyone, and it is that own person’s fault if it any adverse effects occur. AOL also preaches that Sudarshan Kriya is a huge cure all for numerous health aliments, and this is not true. The breathing techniques need to be done with caution. Listen to your own body, and stop doing them if you’re feeling unhealthy with continued practice.

    Low pay. Most of the full time employees who teach and organize the course are paid very little and are always under constant pressure to force people into taking these courses. AOL is much more interested in expanding, like a lot of other businesses like Wal Mart, they don’t really care much about providing a livable wage to their employees.

    Lifestyle. They try to force a vegetarian diet on all of their employees. You’re also not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke or do drugs. While I personally have no interest in drugs, forcing this dogma on people isn’t really in line with what their organization teaches. I don’t see anything wrong if someone wants to enjoy a glass of wine on the weekend, as it won’t make someone impure or derail your spiritual progress. A true sign of a cult. Forcing a vegetarian diet on people can also be extremely dangerous. Again, listen to your body.

    Guru worship. One of the strangest things that you’ll notice if you go deeper into the group, is that there’s this belief that the founder is an infallible being like Jesus. Everyone is supposed to surrender to the Guru, worship him, pray to him, and make all of your life decisions through the Guru. You’re supposed to give up your small mind to the “big mind”, which is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. While I agree it can be good to transcend the small mind, I don’t think it’s healthy to surrender ones own judgment to another person. Also, many of the old time AOLers tell stories that he used to heal the sick and perform all these miracles. I never once saw a miracle while in AOL, and only saw a lot of people become sicker as time went on. You’ll have to decide if you think the guru is magical, but I’m convinced he is just a smart person with an interest in power.

    The lawsuit and censorship. Huge red flag. For a group that preaches “accept things as they are” and “seeing the value of other’s criticism” they sure don’t really believe this. AOL tried to sue the anonymous bloggers a few years ago because they were the first source to openly speak out about some of the questionable actions of the group. AOL lost the lawsuit, and it cost them a huge amount of money. AOL also regularly monitors the Wikipedia article of their group and deletes and edits it to make sure little or no criticism is written. This alone was a bad enough reason for me to leave the group. I couldn’t be part of a group that tries to intimidate or silence people who disagree with them or challenge them.

    While this is only the tip of the iceberg, I hope it will shed some light on what this group is really like. At the end of the day, it’s flawed like anything else, but that’s not to say you can’t get something good out of it. Just use extreme caution if you enter the world of AOL.

    1. Can you please elaborate on the people getting sicker with continued SK practice part?what kind of lifestyles did these sufferers have?Did they live on a non-veg diet?Asking because I really want to know

  15. And what if one simply receive the practices, goes off on their own, benefits from them, and has nothing to do with the politics of the org? If the practices are beneficial for one’s life and inner development, than why not do that?

    1. very well said , if one confines to breathing techniques and meditation that is more than enough and of course depending on health. I had been to AOL for advance course but did not find any teacher forcing anyone but only conveying about the benefit if followed. And also people suffering from various disease related to breathing or back problems too were not encouraged to undergo all the exercises, rather observe and do what their body permitted.

    2. You can do any yoga from any book/website/friend or guru on your own as do the vast majority of us who do the same in India. Like as in any other bodily practise such as exercise. Some yoga is better than no yoga in the same manner as some exercise is better than no exercise. This is what I and millions of common folk have been doing in India.

      That SSRS has a cult following is a phenomeonon that has nothing to do with yoga. It is the man’s persuasive personality and attitude which draws the crowds of his admirers. There is no obligation to be anyone to be devoted to SSRS. For example, I’ve learnt the Kriya from AOL.. and like millions of others I am no groupie. One can do yoga even whilst being cynical of SSRS. More commonly folk are not cynical, they are not cult-followers but like me they are ordinary folk with their own mind, who value their own health and individuality. I for one dislike the concept of being inseparably attached to a guru or subsume my personality to be in the shadow of a guru -however great. To me that would be irrational and also an unacceptable deviation from my own aspirations of fulfillment in life based on my own individuality and effort. This is the right natural way.

      Please bear in mind, SSRS is one of thousands of yoga gurus in India.. He’s not claiming that his way is the best or unique. His methods like that of any responsible guru are to merely guide the yogic aspirant to better health and happiness.

  16. AOL is really a cult.I am suffering the side effect of AOL.My daughter has left my house and she is not willing to marriage at her age 30.she is behaving like a heartless girl.Daily I curse RAVI SHANKAR and I know lots of parents would be also feeling like me.I know AOL has made my daughter emotion less but I have strong believe in my God that Ravi Shankar would be punished shortly.This is a Mother’s word.
    I simply hate RAVI SHANKAR & AOL.

    1. why blame sri sri for your daughter not liking you? Learn to love your daughter rather than hate Sri Sri. Is it somebody else’s fault that you did not know how to be kind and nice and helpful and friendly and caring to your daughter?

      1. Ummm. I have to agree with the previous comment. When one family member joins AOL they seem to lose interest in their families. The only love they have is for SRI SRI and the members of AOL. I have experienced this. When one devotes so much of their time to an organization it leaves no time for loved ones.. just speaking from my experience and also my child’s.. sorry to say but we both feel neglected and left behind.. as a matter fact it is caused our divorce and my 7 year old to want to live with me.. I will suggest to anybody with my dying breath do not join AOL.

    2. My sister has EXACTLY the same problem right now, she lost a lot of weight, she does not want to marry she is losing it’s feminity, and she is behav­ing like a TOTALY heart­less woman.

      We do not know what to do.

    3. I agree with u.There is only one God and we should worship Him and not every other godmen.and if ur daughter really wants to do seva….she should go to orphanages,old age homes every weekend and see who actually need help.While doing seva for this organisation, a person is unknowingly helping this Brand to grow and not the poor

  17. Thank you guys and it was interesting for me to read your carefully thought out comments. I’m an AOL devotee and accept Sri Sri as my guru (although it wasn’t a big deal to do that, it just naturally happened for me after 3 years). Also i think there is no pressure to see Sri Sri as your guru and he says it himself that you can have any guru you want and still participate in AOL things. I have thought that he was Buddha or someone high like that in the past but there’s really no way of knowing, and it doesn’t matter because I’ve seen and felt tremendous beauty and love being around him and that’s what matters for me (and not “believing” in him as my savior or something like that). His wisdom and techniques have helped me out a lot in life (not with everything but with more than I ever imagined) and I feel so much grace when I see him. I don’t believe AOL is perfect but it’s certainly a good organization. I’ll admit that Im not sure how good they are at taking care of their finances, especially with how international and volunteer oriented they are. It’s one thing for people to make financial mistakes but it’s another for people to perpetuate or manipulate them, if that’s happening. I’m happy to repeat AOL courses and feel very refreshed when I do so. I’ve taken the silence course 10 times so far and look forward to more. Some of the best deepest and most profound experiences I’ve ever had were on those silence courses during and between guided meditations. I also like to do other spiritual activities outside AOL. There’s a local kirtan group that I’ve started attending regularly, I’ve been learning some bhajans with guitar too, I go to a Methodist church sometimes, Hare Krishna temple sometimes, I want to learn Sanskrit and read more religious texts too. I’ve got my AOL group and do the sudarshan kriya with them regularly, usually once a week. I do kriya and meditation almost every day. I’m less angry, sad, and criticizing of other people now (and for the past 7 or so years) than I was before I got involved with AOL. I did my AOL course 7.5 years ago and now I’m about 28. I got interested in AOL in the first place because I heard I could become more creative, there’s some truth to that but I’ve also made some lifestyle changes too that influence that… becoming sober was a really good change for me too, I used to smoke weed everyday. I’m also glad to have converted to “vegetarianism” haha. I’ve thought about becoming an AOL teacher and think I would make a good one too but it’s expensive to take the teacher’s training course. I hope more people do learn sudarshan kriya and take the silence courses but I don’t like to push people into doing these things. so I just hope that people in general, whether with AOL or not, start practicing more meditation and that meditation and being all or mostly vegetarian becomes more of a part of the average person’s life because that will lead to a better world in my belief ( and opinion of what can really change the world, politics, business, and societies).

  18. My advice: participate in what is good for you. And only YOU know what that it is. Do not listen to teachers who proclaim that doing service for AOL is the “highest” thing one can do. It is the “highest” thing for THEM. That is why they are doing it.
    You do what your heart tells you. Make your own decisions and stick to them. You run the ship of your life.

  19. I was a teacher in AOL for over ten years and had lots of personal time with him. I struggled with the question of whether AOL was a cult or not for years. Eventually, I came down on the side of AOL being a cult. One of the main reasons I concluded that was the organizations underlying dishonesty.

    AOL is dishonest in on very fundamental way. It projects itself to the public as this wonderful humanitarian, educational organization that is spiritually oriented but free of the dogma and rules of religions. Sri Sri is viewed as this visionary spiritual and humanitarian leader who is the inspiration behind all the wonderful service projects that AOL does around the world. But once you are in AOL, a whole different myth is promoted (and it is never fully acknowledged as being promoted).

    The myth goes something like this: Sri Sri is one of the highest spiritual beings on earth. He was probably was Buddha, Jesus, or Krishna (or all three) in previous lives. He is a perfectly enlightened being who can not make any mistakes. If he seems to make a mistake it is viewed as either the guru testing his disciples or just the mysterious ways of the guru. Sri Sri knows everything and his grace can accomplish anything. All things are possible if someone just has faith in the guru and is fully open to his omnipresent grace. He will carry his disciples across the sea of delusion to enlightenment. I remember being told that Buddha enlightened 50 of his disciples and Jesus just 12 or so, but Sri Sri will enlighten hundreds.

    The unspoken goal of AOL is to help people to realize how great Sri Sri is and to promote faith in him. It is to turn them into real devotees of Sri Sri. I have noticed in my years in AOL ithat the main goal of the service projects is to produce devotees, true believers. It wasn’t enough that someone learn sudarshan kriya or meditation or that they were helped in someway by a service project and that was it. There was always a gentle (and if you took DSN a not so gentle) encouragement to get people to become real devotees.

    I use to think that this mythologizing of Sri Sri had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t saying he was perfect and an avatar of God. That it was just the nature of spiritual organizations to idealize their founders. I don’t think that any more. Looking back i saw that Sri Sri had plenty of opportunity to dampen down the deifying of him, but he never did. He may say some humble statement like “I am no different than you are. I am just like you.”, but no one really bought it because the real message is the complete opposite. I would be in the room with him and see how he would deceive people. People would come to him with all kinds of problems and Sri Sri would seem to magically know all about their problems. The person would be amazed as Sri Sri’s omniscience. What Sri Sri would fail to mention is that he heard about this person’s problems from someone else. He would let them think that he was all knowing.

    Sri Sri allowed the deification of him and in subtle ways encouraged it. He was very skillful at it. This myth of the guru is one of the main reasons why I think AOL is a cult and not a religion. Religions are very open about their belief system. AOL is very covert. The hidden belief system beneath the official party line is not so obvious and would never make it on their marketing brochures. You would never hear in a basic AOL course that Sri Sri is THE greatest enlightened master of all time and that to believe, serve and follow him is the fastest way to enlightenment, and that you are so fortunate to even hear about him let alone learn from him and serve him. If you don’t take advantage of this opportunity and follow him you are missing an opportunity that only happens rarely in many, many lifetimes. But this is what is believed in the inner circles around him.

  20. when i worry about if art of living is ‘culty’ it’s because i’m concerned with how they treat the people (i’m more talking the “regular” people who take the course, continue with the long kriyas, maybe the occasional silence course, rather than the teachers and organizers and people “on the inside” – they’ve got their own issues i can’t address). From what i see, organizers and teachers are repeatedly pushing for recruitment and for people to take more course, more course, more. That’s the “catch” at the end of every free event – “here’s some fliers,” “think of 5 people who you know will benefit from this course,” get them to join. i mean, it’s a great business model and not necessarily “a problem” in a different context. But here, when it’s wrapped up with this Spiritual practice and it sends the message this is the bargain – you do the practice, you work for us. That’s messed up. it feels like manipulation. i don’t want to recruit anyone i can, this barely works for me because i can manage to swim, but someone else might get sucked in too deep. i see many people go along with the whole charade and are taken advantage of for their meekness, which is not a good quality to cultivate in Spiritual practitioners. so in my eyes, Art of Living is failing their members by exploiting their inner weakness for organizational gain. (and meek submissive people probably aren’t that good at recruiting, anyway, so doesn’t seem like a great strategy for anyone).

    that said, could art of living be better? yes, if there was more focus on developing the people already there rather than on getting new members. more focus on teaching individual people what they need to heal rather than on pithy cure-all blanket statement sutras (“accept situations and people as they are” (fine, ok – i accept i must resist). and less manipulation, more honesty – even like, “come on folks, we gotta pay the bills”.)

    and Joe Schmoe, i appreciate what you’re saying about not taking the DSN course – i took that and it was weird, very ‘culty’ in the sense that i felt manipulated – i was told to go out and recruit people, strangers, friends, anyone, to join the Art of Living. The entire DSN course was structured so that, after some interactive role play the first couple days, over the next two, everyone “came up” with the idea to host a mega-course, with 1000 people and our task was to make that happen (Do Something Now, where Something = Sell the Art of Living). It actually happened, too – there was a mega course. But that’s what the DSN was for. Yes, people learned stuff along the way (what, i do not know). Toastmasters would probably be a better learning experience.

    I felt violated by my experience, still tricky to put into words how/why, but i felt i was manipulated into doing something i did not want to do (of course i could have said no, even though i wasn’t offered a choice, even though there was a room full of peer pressure, even though if i said no that was seen not being good enough for Guru, plus i had to rely on people for rides and was staying at an AoL teacher’s house (who wasn’t involved with that particular course) during the course, so physically it was not too easy to walk away…) very surreal, regrettable, still unprocessed experience for me. Although, i had a profound spiritual experience soon afterwards (felt very lifting, shifted, higher than a ceiling… was that freedom? lol.)

    all that said, the techniques are still the best i know, that’s why i go back. it’s kind of like being a drug addict in that way. it’s really good stress relief.oi vey.

  21. I think you first have to ask, why label something as a “cult”. We label things as a means to transmit an idea of many words in a single word. The key reasons for labeling a group a cult is to quickly transmit a sense of danger to anyone considering joining that group. The dangers being the group will ask you to:

    1) Cause violence to yourself or others.
    2) Give all your worldly possessions to the group.
    3) End current relationships with friends and family.

    There are many other “ideas” we may transmit or receive when using the “cult” label, but many of those could be applied to most religious and spiritual groups so I don’t think their presence alone necessitates the use of that label .. for instance:

    1) Belief in a leader that has achieved a higher level of spirituality or closeness
    to god.
    2) Requesting money from adherents and using that money to acquire worldy goods e.g. land and buildings.

    As you can see, the second group could be applied to most organized religions e.g.
    Christianity (and yes some people would label that as a cult as well), but they
    don’t really pose a potential danger to someone joining, so it isn’t helpful to
    label it as such. Also, Eastern religions are often about taking a spiritual
    leader aka “guru”, so the fact that SSRS passes himself off as a guru doesn’t in
    and of itself make AOL dangerous or a “cult”.

    So based on that logic, I think that labeling AOL as a cult is not an appropriate
    use of the label. Although they do display some “cult-like” attributes, those all
    seem to fall in the second group of attributes noted above, rather than the first
    and so I think it is a disservice to those who may get some value out of AOL to
    label it as a cult, in essence to try to scare them away from joining.

    As far as my experience of AOL, I did the level 1 Art of Living course several
    times, the level 2 Art of Silence course once, the meditation course once and the
    advanced DSN course once. I am pretty strong willed and I made it clear in all the
    courses that I already have my own belief system. I never felt any pressure to
    conform in any of the lower level courses, but in the advanced DSN course there was
    definitely a group think vibe (group pressure to see SSRS a certain way and to
    partake of group activities primarily benefiting AOL) going on which I found pretty
    uncomfortable, so I wouldn’t ever do that course again.

    I think that the breathwork and yoga you learn in the lower levels, while not
    individually unique, are packaged in a way that they are useful practices when done
    daily. I also found the Art of Silence course to be one of the most profound self
    growth workshops I’ve done, even though it was taught by a teacher, Michael
    Fishman, who I felt talked the talk but definitely did not walk the walk .. That
    should give you a sense of how good the workshop itself is if I had such a strong
    negative reaction to the teacher and yet found the workshop itself to be profound.
    I would do the Silence course again although not with Michael Fishman.

    As far as SSRS himself, while he seems to be articulate and have a good sense of
    humour, I can’t make out half of what he says (he has a pretty heavy accent) and
    the half I do hear clearly I found to be an incoherent, illogical mixture of other
    spiritual belief systems, so I chose to not accept him as a guru or source of
    wisdom. My experience was that you can participate in most AOL course/activities
    without believing in SSRS and the cost of most courses are in line with any other
    workshop you might take in the US or cheaper.

    So what would I recommend to someone considering doing AOL:

    1) If you are susceptible to strong teachings and are fearful that you would lose
    yourself in such a group as AOL, then by all means avoid it.

    2) If you are looking for ways to enhance your spirituality and to learn some new
    techniques which would be beneficial in your daily life, but aren’t looking for a
    new ideology, then do the L1 Art of Living and the L2 Art of Silence course but
    avoid the DSN course.

    3) If you are looking for a new belief system and don’t mind giving up some of
    yourself in the process, then AOL may be right for you. There are better groups and
    there are worse.

    You will be able to tell if AOL is right for you just by taking the L1 Art of
    Living course and you can walk away after that easily. If you’re intrigued and
    want to go a little deeper, then try the Art of Silence course. You can still walk
    away from AOL easily. You can also go back and do both course as many times as you
    want without having to immerse yourself in the philosphy. Avoid DSN unless you
    really like the group and are willing to take SSRS as your guru.

    1. I look at your 3 criteria for a cult and I think AOL fits it rather nicely. People do leave leave jobs and educational opportunities to work for AOL as a full time teacher. I remember being at the ashram in India and hearing that a new acquaintance of mine just got permission to become a full time teacher and live at the ashram. A fellow western friend upon hearing the news said “Oh well, another college education down the drain.” AOL in India has gotten many young people to drop out of their careers and education to work for AOL as a full time volunteer. I myself put off getting a real job or career for many years so that I could drop whatever I was doing and serve the guru. It wasn’t until I decided I had enough of volunteering that I went and got a job that was more than a token. I was 32 at the time.

      As far as ending relationships, I often hear of couples having very hard times of it because one spouse was giving way to much time to AOL and the other spouse was not a devotee or if they were they were not devoted enough. I experienced an unspoken pressure to put AOL first and family stuff second. Service to the guru took on an all important priority. How much you dedicated your time to AOL was a test of your devotion.

      The violence caused by AOL is not so obvious. But I think AOL mindset was a destructive mindset. I will point out a few examples of that. In one way it was destructive was the belief that the guru was always right. The corollary to that is that you are wrong if you disagree with the guru. Living under this belief, deteriorated much of the self confidence I had in myself. I also saw it in others. People wouldn’t make life decision without consulting the guru first. Decisions as fundamental as where should I live?, who should I marry?,what should be my career? Feeling the need to consult the guru for every major life decision is pretty destructive of a healthy, adult perspective of life. As the organization got bigger the ability to ask him these kinds of questions became less and less, but in the early days this was just par for the course. Of course, you would consult the guru. And you better follow his advice or something bad would happen to you.

      I could give more ways in which AOL fulfills your criteria of a cult, but I think this is enough to get people thinking.

      1. As far as I know Gurudev refuses to answer any personal questions.This is my first hand experience.His favourite one-liner is -choice yours,blessings mine!Be the question be pertaining to marriage or career or living wherever

    2. I speak from my own experience in India… I was practising yoga for 20 + years and then I learnt Sudarshan Kriya at an L1 course. It was reasonably priced and enhanced my yoga experience gleaned over years from many gurus. (India has produced dozens of respectable yoga teachers, much in the same way as Japan has given Judo gurus). I enjoyed much better health and energy. Sudarshan kriya is a very good thing. If pursued for health alone, it is well worth it. It also helps deepening your own religious experience no matter what your faith. SSRS needs to be credited for giving the world the Sudarshan Kriya. It is a pranayam technique that builds upon pre-existing methods such as Ujjayi and Bhastrika.

      That was before the local AOL people asked me to join up in the DSN course…..

      I thought it would be a higher level yogic experience. It was not. It was much higher priced and the so called ‘leadership’ challenges dished out as homework involved getting more people enrolled. The ‘teacher’ was quite aggressive about it and once threatened to walk out UNLESS we brought in the 5 enrolments, with the cash over a 3 hour period.

      This disgusted me as it is not appropriate for any Yogi to do this kind of aggressive hardsell. So I walked out and asked them to refund my money if they have decency. Most probably they will.

      If someone asks you ever to join up for an ‘advanced’ course please ask them explicitly whether getting more business is a part of the course. DSN is a bad idea. The basic course is excellent.

  22. This guy is a classic sociopath. Research sociopathy and you will understand. Most of his victims are too brainwashed and close minded (although they will tell you otherwise) to even make the connection.

    1. Those are strong opinions and broad generalizations without much evidence to back them up. Of course, I have not got any recent first-hand experience to contradict them. I know of several reliable people who do trust Ravi Shankar.

      1. Can u enlighten us Michael by your hard evidences that r provided to u by “reliable people who trust Ravi Shankar”. I don’t know that how reliable are these people but still it will be interesting to know there position.

        1. I strongly feel Ravi Shankar is not of integrity. I find him to be like a wolf in a sheeps clothing. He is not of integrity and does not work with a pure source of light. He has imbalanced himself with not doing his own healing work instead engaes in spiritual practices with neglecting his issues. I would not recommend going to any of his teachings or engaging in his practices. Why are you paying for a technique that had been around for lifetimes. If a person self appoints himself a guru like him this is a red flag. Hes just taking an area of need for people and making it a business. I do suggest trusting in your own freedom, choice, inner guidance and inner guru before you are blinded by this mans misuse of power.
          Trust and respect your own divinity!

          1. I taught with AOL for five years and was a devotee for over ten. Yes…it is a cult and I would venture to say spiritually abusive and manipulative. The big red flag for me was sitting in a teacher’s meeting and listening to Gurudev publicly shun and criticize the people bringing the lawsuit. This shocked me and broke everything I held to be true of him. Until then, I experienced him as enlightened. Another thing that made me leave was the dishonesty and low pay. I was paid survival rates for teaching and was just barely surviving. I also felt like things were never really forthright…how many people are actually served? Is the course religious or simply for stress reduction? What exactly are the charities served and how much is donated? None of this was clear. Also…numbers seemed more important than people. Manipulating people for higher numbers and manipulating numbers to seem more important. I was brainwashed into manipulating people and finally woke up and left. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life…but I didn’t feel integral anymore and I couldn’t not leave.

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