BOONE -- An international pursuit of inner peace has breathed new life into a large mountaintop retreat here.
The Art of Living Foundation, based in Bangalore, India, held what it called a "grand inauguration" Saturday for its International Center for Meditation and Well-Being.
More than 2,500 people were in attendance, ranging from local and state dignitaries to pilgrims, many from India, who were there to take breathing, meditation and yoga courses.
There also were those from the community curious about their new neighbor.
Spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who founded the foundation in 1981, helped dedicate the center. The foundation operates as a not-for-profit educational and humanitarian nongovernmental organization in 152 countries.
The property is the group's second international center in North America. It boasts 26 buildings, including apartments named after the world's largest rivers, a temple-like congregational hall and a cafeteria that offers long-range views from floor-to-ceiling windows.
"It has been the dream of many to open a place like this in the United States where people can discover how beautiful they are on the inside through the beauty of nature," Shankar said. "It is a place where reason becomes sharper, faith becomes deeper."
The property became available after the collapse of a $40 million initiative known as Spiritual Center of America, which completed work on the Heavenly Mountain Transcendental Meditation complex in 1998. It was one of the largest centers of its kind in the country. However, organizer and developer David Kaplan became disenchanted with the Transcendental Mediation movement and sold most of the 7,000 acres to the Laurelmor development. That development failed. Several Art of Living officials said the center is the reward for hard work, along with a few "miracles," such as being able to buy the property even though the group initially was outbid at an auction last September. The first winning bidder, Marvin Sault, defaulted on the terms of his $10.5 million purchase, so the foundation, as the second highest bidder, was able to get the property for $6.5 million.
The foundation also benefitted from a mild winter, which allowed the renovations to go quickly. The foundation said it spent nearly $7.3 million on the center over the past year, including $4.9 million on renovations. Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson and N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall praised the foundation for giving the community a larger place on the international map. Clawson said the center fits in well with Boone's environmental stewardship focus and projects it to be a significant economic driver once it begins hosting events. Travis Lionna, a Marine veteran, said the foundation's Project Welcome Home Troops was so important in his readjustment to domestic life that he joined the group to become a course teacher.
"Military training had taught me to be self-sufficient, but not relying on others left me feeling lonely," Lionna said. "Through this project, through the breathing techniques, I was able to break through my emotional numbness, to feel the richness to life."
Citing estimates that at least one U.S. military member commits suicide every day, Lionna said he became convinced his role was "to help those who survived the war survive the peace."
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Where: The International Center for Meditation and Well-Being is at 136 Virgil Day Road in Boone. Many of the complex's buildings have east-facing views of the escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains. From here, it's about a 15-minute drive to Boone, 7 miles away, with a primary road on the way going under the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Offerings: The center offers what it calls "art of living" courses," primarily breathing, meditation, silence and yoga, for those ages 8 and up.
Nilendu Srivastava, director of the center, said a naturopathy wellness spa will open by year's end. Within a year, the center will become available for corporate meetings, educational retreats, symposiums, events and groups interested in in-residence.