Spiritual leader Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to visit Portland

Spiritual leader Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to visit Portland

Jun. 28—International spiritual leader and Art of Living founder Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar will visit Portland for the first time Saturday for an event at Merrill Auditorium, his only planned public appearance in the United States this year.

Shankar, who began the Art of Living Foundation in 1981 as an educational and humanitarian movement, is known for developing and teaching holistic health practices, including meditation and breathing, in the name of creating a more peaceful society. The nonprofit has centers in 180 countries and a Maine chapter with 150 members.

“We’re very excited that he’s coming,” said Stephanie Rand of Falmouth, a spokesperson for the Maine chapter, which offers programming for stress management and trauma relief, including in partnership with institutions like the University of New England College of Osteopathy, the Maine Correctional Center and the Center for Grieving Children.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity for people to experience meditation with a meditation master. It’s so different than doing it on an app, and doing it in a group is so different than doing it alone,” said Rand, who first encountered the Art of Living in college at the University of New Hampshire and had such a positive experience that she went on to help the organization reach 120 college campuses in the United States.

Last year, Shankar toured the U.S., visiting over 30 cities, though none in Maine. Neither Rand nor Dan Cashman, who is doing public relations for the event, knew why he decided to come here this year. Shankar also plans to go to St. Louis, Missouri, to speak at a private event for the Physicians Association and make a visit to the Art of Living’s ashram in Boone, North Carolina, but neither of those events is open to the public.

Shankar is expected to speak Saturday about stress and tendencies of the mind, as well as lead a meditation exercise and a question-and-answer session. In addition to his teachings, Shankar is known for mediating peace in Sri Lanka, Iran, Venezuela and Colombia. He has received 39 awards from various governments for his philanthropic efforts.

But critics of the Art of Living Foundation have accused Shankar of commercializing spirituality, and some former employees and participants have called for the organization to be more transparent about where its money goes. Critics also contend that gurus are not meant to amass money or power in the ways Shankar has and condemn the organization’s focus on making money and increasing registration, saying that core Hindu values are often pushed to the wayside. Classes and programs offered through the Maine chapter cost between $125 and $1,500, though programs for veterans and people in prison are free.

Manas Ram, the volunteer international program director for the Art of Living, says the accusations are unfounded.

“If you really look at what you get versus what you pay for, there’s no comparison at all,” he said. “And in the areas where the program is needed, Art of Living does free programs … I think the foundation’s depth and breadth is so broad that it caters to almost all types of people, regardless of their financial background.”

Many of the organization’s workers and supporters are volunteers.

“People are doing this because they believe in it and because they know it helps others,” said Dr. Roople Unia, neurologist at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick and an Art of Living participant. “They use a lot of money that they raise through teaching courses or from donations to help out in various parts of the world with disaster relief or building schools.”

Rand volunteers as the state coordinator but also has a paid role with Art of Living as the director of operations for the SKY Campus Happiness Program.

“Who would have thought that this extracurricular activity that I did as a freshman has changed my whole trajectory?” Rand said. “I think the meditations we did in that program really did slow my mind down, so my thoughts weren’t racing anymore, and I noticed all these other benefits. There would be a lot less anticipatory stress. I was OK with conflict and confrontations.”

Among the Art of Living’s teachings is the SKY breath meditation, a specific technique Shankar created involving a combination of various breaths to calm the mind.

“Coming from a medical standpoint, what it does is activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and calms the fight or flight down so that you can enter the rest and digest mode,” said Unia, who learned the breathing technique when she was 16 and has been involved in the organization all her life. She recommends the meditation methods to patients who prefer to try something different than prescription drugs.

“Instead of cutting one tree after another, if there’s a way we can sharpen the ax first, then your effort goes down and the result improves,” Ram said of Shankar’s practices. “I think meditation with Gurudev is really like sharpening the ax, so you can really be successful in your life without having to go through a lot of stress.”

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