Spiritualist whose methods focus on breathing, meditation is headed to Indy

Indianapolis Star/July 7, 2008

In a world wound too tight, Shalin Desai believes the guru coming to Indianapolis on Tuesday has found a way to unbind the knots.

Desai, an engineer from Indianapolis, is one of millions of people around the world who follow the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar -- an Indian guru who is a rising star among Eastern spiritualists.

Desai, 27, starts each day with 20 minutes of special breathing exercises and meditation developed by the guru. And for the past three years, he has been teaching those skills at seminars in hotel ballrooms and bank conference rooms around Indianapolis.

"His vision of a stress-free, violence-free society is very practical," Desai says of the guru's teachings.

Shankar, no relation to the famous sitar player, boils down many of the world's problems to a failure to understand how breathing can help people cope with life's everyday stress. He has taken the message to war zones and prisons and devotees in 140 countries. His largest audience, at the 2006 celebration of his Art of Living Foundation's 25th anniversary, drew 2.5 million people.

The guru's audience at Indianapolis' Scottish Rite Cathedral is expected to be much humbler -- perhaps 1,000 people.

But his ability to draw a Midwestern crowd at all testifies not just to Shankar's popularity but to America's increasing embrace of meditation and a spirituality that sometimes ventures far afield of traditional Sunday-morning preaching.

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly half of all Americans engage in meditation at least once a month. While meditation is a broad term that may be defined to include traditional prayer, Pew researchers say their findings suggest otherwise -- that the meditation once confined to practitioners of Hinduism or Buddhism is heading into the mainstream.

The proliferation of yoga centers is one marker of meditation's growing popularity.

But Chad Bauman, an assistant professor of religion at Butler University, said it goes beyond a desire for stress reduction to changing attitudes about institutional religion.

"I think there is a move in the American public away from religion to spirituality," Bauman said. "People all over will say 'I'm not religious, I'm spiritual,' which means that people feel free to explore their own spiritual path."

Justin Fiore, who checked out an Art of Living introductory class July 1 in Carmel, would fall into that category.

Fiore, 34, was raised Catholic and said he feels he has "a strong spiritual side and a relationship with God." But these days he rarely goes to Mass. He decided to try an Art of Living meditation class led by Desai because he is searching for ways to reduce the stress of work and family.

"Where I am at in my life right now I need something that is going to produce results," Fiore said.

His sampling included 30 minutes of breathing exercises -- raising and lowering his arms, eyes closed, while breathing forcefully through the nostrils -- and a toe-to-head relaxation drill.

When it was complete, Fiore declared that he felt "refreshed," so much so that he planned to look into a six-day Art of Living course and perhaps even take in this week's teaching by Shankar.

Rather than see it as something contradictory to his Catholic upbringing, Fiore sees it as an enhancement of his spirituality.

"I am strong enough in my faith that it doesn't threaten me," he said.

Rejecting labels

There have been other Indian gurus who have achieved broader worldwide appeal.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Bhagwan Rajneesh developed a large international following and lived in Oregon for a time before he was consumed by controversy and scandal. He died in 1990. The still-living and more revered Sathya Sai Baba has a large base of enthusiasts despite having rarely left India.

Butler's Bauman said that Shankar, like the others, has rejected the label of being Hindu or religious even though he has drawn heavily from the Hindu practices of yoga and meditation and Hindu terminology. Sri, for instance, is a title of respect roughly equivalent to "Lord" that is at times applied to Hindu gods and goddesses.

Even so, gurus like Shankar tout their teachings as techniques that can be used by anyone of any faith.

"These groups sort of reach back into ancient India and draw forth those things which are relevant to the modern world," Bauman said.

"For a non-Hindu, these things look very Hindu," Bauman said. "But for many Hindus they look more like spiritual techniques."

That refusal to identify as Hindu while employing some Hindu aspects is no problem as far as members of the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana, located on the Far Eastside, are concerned. Kumar Dave, a member of the temple's executive committee, said many local Hindus appreciate Shankar's teachings, even though they aren't overtly religious.

"He is a great teacher, a great leader, and we welcome him," Dave said.

Generally speaking, the traditional Western view of Indian gurus is that of fountains of great wisdom.

Then there is the anomaly of comedian Mike Myers' character in the film "The Love Guru," in theaters now. It has been deemed by many Hindu groups as denigrating.

Bauman said Shankar's Art of Living unusual because it goes beyond meditation to include a social service arm that is engaged in prison ministry, conflict resolution and poor relief. Shankar's Art of Living has also done some impressive marketing, he said. And unlike many others, Shankar is a guru who has been willing to tour the world to promote his ideas.

"He has a more prominent profile than many other Indian gurus," Bauman said.

Many options

Yoga and other forms of meditation have been gaining wider acceptance for their health benefits, even showing up in hospitals.

The audience for Tuesday's event will pay $25 to $50 a seat for the 21/2 hour presentation, which is scheduled to include Shankar leading a meditation and speaking on "practical wisdom."

More common are the 22-hour courses held over six days that are offered periodically. They cost as much as $375 and allow for free weekly hourlong follow-ups.

For Desai, a native Indian with a background in Hinduism, the entire Art of Living philosophy is about using breathing to influence emotions, rather that the other way around. Practiced in the morning, he said, the techniques can influence a person throughout the day.

When people are troubled by their past or worried about their future, he says mediation can bring them back to the peaceful present. And he is convinced that wars can be stopped and inmates reformed through this sort of mental anger management -- change that comes one breath at a time.

"You've heard it said that you should take a deep breath before you say something in anger," Desai said.

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