Art of Living: Happiness is an Inside Job
A smiling middle-aged woman stands in front of a Georgia Tech classroom. It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday. By now, many students are preparing for midterms, working a night job or simply hungry after a long day of class, yet the room is packed. She asks everyone to write a small list of things that are stressing them out. Then she asks them to close their eyes. They do. The woman guides them through a short practice of breathing deeply. After a few minutes, she asks the students to gently open their eyes and read through their lists again.
“How does everyone feel about the items on their list now?” she asks.
Hands begin to rise.
“Definitely less agitated.”
“I feel like these are things I can deal with.”
This introductory event was held by the Art of Living, an organization founded nearly 40 years ago in India by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, no relation to the musician. Since then, the organization has brought its programs to 155 countries around the world.
The mission of Art of Living is to see love and wisdom prevail over hatred and violence. To that end, it teaches a breathing technique called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY), which it believes has a profound impact on reducing stress.
“The mind keeps moving between the past and the future,” says Sriram Iyer, a member of the Art of Living for the past 18 years. “Every time the mind moves to the past, we typically experience some emotion like anger, regret or guilt” although, he also acknowledges, we could also have happy memories. “And when the mind moves in the future, there’s fear, apprehension, worry.”
“Happiness is in the present,” Iyer says. “You cannot control the mind with the mind. The breath we have is in the present moment all the time. So using the breath as a tool, we can bring the mind to the present moment.”
This is where SKY comes in. The technique calms the mind and helps keep it in the present, reducing stress in the process.
“Using the rhythmic patterns of the breath, we can get rid of all the stressors from our system and get a true vision of who we are. We are not just a bundle of our emotions; we are not just a bundle of our feelings. We are much more than that,” says Iyer.
Iyer was drawn to Art of Living after attending just one session 18 years ago; he says it was one of the most profound experiences of his life. For others, the journey can take a little longer.
“Honestly, when I was in high school, my mom told me to take it, so I did it,” says Induja Kannan, a Georgia Tech senior in the classroom that Thursday night. As a high school student, she attended The Happiness Program, the entry point to Art of Living programs: “I didn’t really get into it then. At that age, sometimes you don’t understand the value of a lot of things.”
As a college sophomore, Kannan found herself at an on-campus Art of Living workshop that taught stress-reduction techniques, including SKY. And this time, for Kannan, things were a little different.
“When you know you need something, you will prioritize it more,” she says. As classes, social obligations and job duties pressed in, fitting the 20-minute SKY practice into the beginning of her day proved key.
SKY is taught in The Happiness Program, which spans three hours a day for three days.
Weekly practice groups are held at multiple locations around Atlanta. There are also monthly meals—“Anyone can come!”—and service trips. In the past, Art of Living members have volunteered in places such as New Orleans, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
“I wasn’t taught how to handle my emotions either in school or at home, and that is true for almost all of us,” Iyer says. “We are all made up of that one thing called love. Once we drop the stressors, once we drop these things that are bothering us, we are able to experience and realize that.”
The Happiness Program costs $395 for newcomers, $295 for students and $100 to repeat the class. For more information, visit ArtofLiving.org/us-en/Atlanta.
Photo: Sai Kalyan