As he directed about 2,600 people with their arms outstretched at New York’s Lincoln Center to exhale in unison on Sunday, spiritual leader Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar brought the crowd back down to Earth.
“This is called desktop yoga,” he said to laughs from the gathering. “You can practice it in your office—just make sure to warn your co-workers first.”
Mr. Shankar is the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, a Bangalore-headquartered nonprofit tackling stress through a series of what it calls Happiness Programs.
In Manhattan, Mr. Shankar was the face of the first International Yoga Day, celebrated at venues across the world on Sunday and initiated by the Indian government.
To mark the occasion, Mr. Shankar delivered a talk titled “Yoga: A New Dimension” in which he set out how the ancient philosophy embedded in the discipline applies to 21st-century life.
The 59-year-old’s foundation has centers in 152 countries teaching a blend of breathing techniques, meditation, everyday wisdom, and of course, yoga.
“In the early days, people would come secretly to practice yoga, worried about what others would think of them,” said Mr. Shankar.
“But fortunately today that prejudice is gone, the paradigms have changed. And with the United Nations declaring International Yoga Day, it is encouraging those who are a bit apprehensive to come forward,” he added.
Around 20.4 million Americans practice yoga and spend $10.3 billion on it annually, suggesting it is one of India’s most-successful cultural exports.
Even so, some of the new twists on yoga stateside, including “Doga” and “Snowga”, leave Mr. Shankar uneasy.
“If someone just cuts yoga into bits and pieces, it is not complete or authentic, that’s stretching it too far,” he said.
“The eight limbs of yoga have to be kept intact,” he said, referring to the steps that make up the discipline as conceived in Hindu texts compiled by Patanjali, who is often considered the father of yoga, circa 400 B.C.
Body posture and breathing are just two of the limbs required for yoga practice, according to Patanjali. The others include control of the senses and devotion and meditation on the divine.
“It’s not aerobics,” added Mr. Shankar. “It’s something that transforms your attitude towards people and yourself—a technology.”
So, is it religious? Mr. Shankar insists the movement is secular and dismisses the idea that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are using yoga to push a Hindu nationalist agenda.
“Yoga, Ayurveda, mathematics, the names of some English months…they all originate from Vedic traditions,” he told The Wall Street Journal ahead of Sunday’s event.
“But there is no belief system attached to all of this; it does not bar you from believing in a specific form of god or even impose that you must believe in god,” he added. “Newton founded the law of gravitation,” he said. “But that’s not considered a Christian law.”
The Art of Living Foundation is synonymous with Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing exercise that Mr. Shankar says was revealed to him after a 10-day period of silence on the banks of the Bhadra river in Karnataka over three decades ago.
It “suits today’s busy, busy world because we don’t have time to do much practice but we want the best results,” Mr. Shankar explained.
“It resets the rhythm within us so it enables us to have some of the deepest meditative experiences.”
Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal