Meetings with Remarkable Gurus

Finding a peace and tolerance through a simple, shared exercise: breathing


It is hard for a thoroughgoing skeptic to admit this, but maybe we all need a guru, or least need to try one.

In the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh traditions, a guru is a teacher and spiritual guide—a dispeller of darkness, according to the Sanskrit roots of the word—and in some sects of these traditions, the guru is respected almost as much the truth, wisdom, or God that he leads the disciple to. I suppose my wariness about gurus comes from seeing them being idolized by their followers, particularly those in the West, and, to be even blunter, from seeing many gurus behave like the worst sort of charlatans. Elmer Gantrys of the East dispensing pearls of wisdom for big bucks, if you get my drift.

Given my natural disinclination to seek one, I came to my guru—actually, my gurus—by pure serendipity. A persistent public-relations person for the grandiose-sounding Art of Living Foundation called me up one day not long ago and asked if she could come in and explain the work of the foundation and its founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I tried to put her off with an indefinite maybe. It would all depend, I said, on whether I could make time in a busy week. But she persisted and showed up, and I found time.

What followed was at first the usual sort of meeting between journalist and publicist. She told me what her group and Ravi Shankar did—impressive work, it seemed, promoting peace and goodwill among all peoples, including in some pretty conflict-ridden places. Baghdad was one.

The way Ravi Shankar and his followers go about promoting peace and tolerance also sounded interesting, if odd: They teach people how to breathe. Yes, how to take in and expel air, following a structured progression of rhythmic breathing patterns.

"Is this like meditation?" I asked.

"Sort of," she said, "but it's different. It's breathing."

Curious, I asked her if she could show me how. That would take time, she answered. But I could come to her organization's center in downtown Washington and she would teach me.

Then came the moment of uncertainty, curiosity doing battle with skepticism, wanting to know more coming up against the fear of losing an evening—several evenings, it turned out—to entangling commitments leading Who Knows Where. But a nagging inner voice persisted: How can you write about religion and matters of the spirit without occasionally visiting different traditions? You can't just be distant observer. So I heard myself answer: Why not?

What I learned the following few evenings I am bound by my word not to tell, apart from the fact that I was made to foreswear meat and alcohol during the days of my training. It was nothing altogether original. Adepts of Kundalini yoga may know many of these rigorous breathing techniques. It was nothing esoteric or mysterious. It did not come with too much philosophical baggage. But it was, each time I did it, deeply affecting—stirring up emotions, memories, thoughts and nonthoughts and leading me, by the end of each session, into a profoundly meditative and receptive state.

I met other people who came to the center. Many were South Asians familiar with the Vedic-Hindu traditions on which much of this breathing methodology was based. Others came from other parts of the world, including Turkey, the Czech Republic, and the United States. One was a former gang recruiter from a tough, inner-city school, radically transformed by a few sessions of the breathing technique that Art of Living teachers taught at his school. Many were devout Christians or Jews or Muslims who found the Sudarshan Krya (as this breathing regime is called) a means of reconnecting with experiential core of their own beliefs. For them, it was a spiritual exercise. For the nonreligious, it was a means of calming and centering the self. It was many things to many people—and yet a mysteriously unifying and connecting experience.

As luck would have it, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar came through town a few days after I completed my training with the woman I now consider my guru. She arranged for me to meet with him, and we sat down in a private room, with a few of his followers, and we talked for about 15 minutes about many things, large and small. He is a short man, with long, flowing hair and a beard. His voice is rather high, and his usual expression is mirthful, almost mischievous or bemused. ("People don't smile enough," he told me at one point.)

One of our topics was the difference between religion and spirituality, and why the former seems to lead to so much bellicose division in the world. To Ravi Shankar, all religions have a deep spiritual core that connects to the cores of other religions. But almost inevitably, followers of religions begin to take the outer husk or skin of their religion as the most important thing. And it's the contents of the husk that divide and distinguish the religions, sometimes to the point of vicious mutual hostility.

That came as no great revelation. I've heard the same thing said many times, particularly by people who have formulated a cool disdain for all religion and religions. But Ravi Shankar did not dismiss religion. He simply suggested that it was too easy for religious people to scant the deeper spiritual core, the very center of faith that connects with that of other faiths. And to him that was a tragedy that he was quietly trying to counter through his teaching.

"But why focus on breathing," I asked, "when there are so many techniques available in your tradition, including meditation and other kinds of yoga?"

Ravi Shankar's answer was brief and deceptively simple: "Breathing is so uncontroversial. We all do it."

He was right, of course, about the boundless ability of humans to make almost anything controversial—or suspect or heretical. Didn't Pope Benedict impugn the practice of yoga as a narcissistic pursuit? And don't many Muslims condemn music (even the music enjoyed by Sufi Muslims) as evil and unlawful? No doubt it is possible to find something wrong about breathing, particularly breathing mindfully, but it is one of our few undeniably shared pursuits as living beings.

I asked Ravi Shankar if his message didn't boil down to a very basic one: "World, take a deep breath."

"Yes," he answered. "And smile a little more."