I’m not an athletic person by any means, but I try to moderate my toxins, eat clean, and lead a physically active lifestyle with daily walking and yoga. To maintain my mental health and well being, I take my prescribed medications and I practice mindfulness as much as I can. Basically, I’m a happy person and so grateful for all the wonderful people that I share my life with.
Spiritually, and in contemporary terms, you could call me a Secular Buddhist. Although, I enjoy opening my mind to all non-religious activities that deepen my spiritual experience. Anything and everything that allows me to understand myself, other people and the world around me better.
There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.
What I’m not an advocate of are any spiritual practices/rituals from organizations that manipulate and take advantage of people, that physically or psychologically abuse them, that make people endure activities against their will or that hold power over them.
When I witness these cult-like behaviors, my social injustice red flag is alerted and I become a
Just recently, my daughter and I went to a yoga and meditation retreat at the Art Of Living Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina. I found the center online and according to the Art Of Living (AOL) website, they offer several types of retreat programs (that include accommodations and food); such as The Happiness Retreat, The Silent Retreat, and many others.
Or you can book your choice of accommodations (which includes food) and then sign up for the different activities (such as yoga, meditation, spa treatments, and other classes) and pay as you go.
We picked the Silent Retreat because it was a perfect 5 days in length. We chose the retreat format because we didn’t want to worry about scheduling our activities when we got there. This seemed like a unique and complete program that would be ideal for a comforting, but active, and spiritually enlightening mother-daughter holiday.
“Your whole stay is carefully guided and crafted to give you as relaxing and transformative an experience possible. There’s morning yoga, nature walks in the mountains, delicious plant-based dining and a supportive atmosphere for your inner journey. It’s no wonder that many course participants refer to it as the ideal vacation for body, mind, and spirit.”
We arrived excited and eager to start our journey towards enlightenment. We were both a little nervous about what to expect from the workshop and for a chatterbox like me, maintaining silence would be an interesting and challenging experience. But, we both had intentions to embrace the unknown and ride it through the week courageously.
The retreat center is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is surrounded by lush green forests. The views were breathtaking. Sadly, the accommodations, not so much.
Read more about my review of the accommodations, spa, and other buildings at the AOL Retreat Center HERE.
Amenities aside, we were really there for the workshop, so I did my best to just concentrate on how grateful I was to be on a special holiday with my daughter. I was looking forward to what we were about to experience.
There are four main halls where the workshops are held. These are called the Vedas. (Historically, the Vedas are a collection of hymns and other religious texts composed in India between about 1500 and 1000 BCE.)
The Silent Retreat was being held in Veda 1 and when we walked into it, I instantly felt an uneasiness wash over me. The room smelled like musty carpet and faint body odor. The hall was bare except for yoga mats lined up in a circle, with meditation floor chairs placed in the center of them. What really got my attention, was the altar situated beyond the mat circle in the front of the hall. This shrine had a white tablecloth over it and a sole framed photograph of a man that looked incredibly similar to Jesus.
Shortly after an introduction from our workshop instructor, we were introduced to the photographed man (or to his picture, to be exact).
founder of The Art of Living Foundation.
I get really apprehensive and skeptical towards anyone who is worshipped on a shrine, especially when they are still alive.
Throughout history and still so frequently, we see narcissistic spiritual, religious, and political leaders that not only demand devoted following, but expect these followers to praise them to others. Some leaders even shadily promote recruitment of even more followers.
All of these types of leaders manipulate and take advantage of people, physically or psychologically abuse them, make people endure activities against their will, and hold power over them.
Although uneasy about my surroundings, I continued to take part in the workshop and hoped my “spidey sense” was maybe off that day, due to being in a new situation and environment. Was this just fear of the unknown?
Time passed quickly and before we knew it, the first class of the workshop was over for the night. I have to say, it had been okay. Both my daughter and I love group talk circles with personal skill-building exercises. These are opportunities to get out of the comfort zone and share with people you wouldn’t normally share with. It can actually be quite liberating and therapeutic. Much like group therapy.
The only issue I had with this situation was that unlike group therapy, each workshop participant didn’t have a chance to get personally introduced to each other. There was still a lot of nervousness and hesitation in the energy of the group.
Even after two hours of sharing in such a small space, these people were still strangers to me and I felt the workshop instructor held all the power. She spoke to the group in a too perfectly rehearsed way, like a salesperson.
What was she selling?
After a good night’s sleep and plenty of mountain air flowing through our window, I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to embrace the workshop once again. We had a wonderful yoga class first thing and then a delicious breakfast on the outdoor patio. Things were looking up!
The second class was similar to the first and we did more group sharing and personal skill building exercises. I’ve done all sorts of behavioral therapy in my life, so much of the information was familiar, but a great refresher. You can never do too much work at being a better person or at learning how to grow more. Again though, I had a sneaking suspicion that loomed over me and I couldn’t shake it. The instructor kept pointing at Sri Sri’s picture and once said loosely, “Whether you like it or not, you have just found your new guru.” That definitely didn’t sit right with me. What made things worse was that shortly after this they showed us a video about... guess who?
Yup, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
From across the room,
his picture leered at me as if mocking me.
On our own and during a break, my daughter and I both expressed concerns about this guru guy that was seemingly being pushed on us. We figured that the instructors were encouraged to promote the founder to all new participants. I guess it was all just part of the program. (Another flag)
In the afternoon class, as promised in the web brochure, they taught us some deep breathing exercises (Pranayamas).
As part of my mindfulness, yoga, and meditation practices, I’m a huge believer in using breathing to channel good emotions into the body and bad emotions out. I also try to focus on my breathing when I’m feeling hyper, stressed or upset and when I need to calm down or ignore my mind chatter. A few of the techniques I learned in this workshop were familiar and I know I will continue to practice them at home.
Actually, they seemed really familiar, which doesn’t surprise me because all these techniques (or slight variations of them) come from ancient yogic practices.
The AOL teaches a series of four breathing exercises and the final one being called (according to their website in 2017) the “Sudarshan (less frequently spelled sudharshan) is Sanskrit. Su stands for “proper” and darshan means “vision.” Kriya is a yogic practice that is meant to purify the body.”
(Note to reader: I edited this post on February 2019 and the link above no longer exists on the AOL website. Hmm. The updated information they provide about Kriya practice can be found here.
The weird thing though is that Sri Sri claims to have created the Sudarshan Kriya and has patented it as the SKY Meditation on behalf of the The International Association for Human Values or IAHV (also part of his foundation and empire).
In an interview, when asked why he patented it, he said, “…someone else was going to patent it. We patented it so we could teach. Otherwise, it would have become a commercial commodity in the US long ago. People started copying it and we stepped in... [we started teaching it] free of cost in prisons, free of cost in many places.”
It wasn’t free for me, my daughter, or any of the other participants of the Silent Retreat.
Again, I felt that some of the breathing techniques I learned at the AOL workshop were valuable but familiar and it’s just kind of sketchy that Sri Sri patented something that is (according to studies from Harvard) so beneficial to all people and before patenting, was pretty much free to all.
In all fairness to the ancient traditions of India and its people, it seems appropriate to keep these traditions safe from bio-piracy.
“India feels that it stands to lose its traditional rights over yoga and related ancient fields of study about medicine and health, and their possible revenue streams, if it does not act fast. Thus, India's Science and Technology (S&T) ministry is pushing for a more thorough patenting of the country's traditional knowledge base to prevent future misuse and bio-piracy. Yoga is one area that is being examined with considerable zeal.”
Yet, should only Sri Sri and the AOL be entitled to teach it and blatantly sales market the scientific research of its benefits on their site? I can think of several spiritual non-profit organizations that offer valuable meditation information and tools for free on their sites; mindful.org, headspace.com, marc.ucla.edu, franticworld.com, msia.org.au, secularbuddhism.com.
Far more humanitarian and much less capitalistic, don’t you think?
Either way, I personally didn’t feel comfortable doing the Sudarshan Kriya. In fact, during this meditation (where most of the participants in my group felt happy, light-headed, and tingly) my body felt incredibly uncomfortable, stressed, and kind of shaky. Some past trauma I had previously worked on in therapy was triggered.
It was very scary.
In hindsight, I’ve recently done a lot of research about this practice and most people feel elated during the exercise and when done correctly and over time, there are real mental health benefits. Too me, it was just uncomfortable and scary!
I tried to go out of my comfort zone and grow as an individual, but it only made me feel more disconnected from myself.
Looking back to our first days at the retreat, there were so many subtle warning signs that both my daughter and I felt about the place, and now they are so clear to us. With only a vegan diet to sustain us, they kept us in such a confining room with other people who were unfamiliar to us and each other. We were encouraged to intimately socialize with these strangers and share parts of our lives that were private (and maybe even secret). Then they instructed us to endure such physically and psychologically exhausting exercises and activities together. All of this combined left little room for personal space, individuality, or mental processing.
It felt like sensory deprivation.
This type of workshop reminded me of group Exposure Therapy. Yet, unlike group therapy, it was in an environment that was strange, with people (other than my daughter) that were strangers. I had little trust of the place, the other people, and the entire situation because I felt vulnerable, a little fearful of the unknown and that at any moment I could be manipulated or taken advantage of.
I was not in a safe place.
“Toxic stress, and early trauma runs rampant in more affluent and middle-class societies, and leaves a child with a nervous system that lacks internal safety and security – the perfect breeding ground for anxiety, depression, low self-worth, and addiction.”
After some sharing, I felt a little closer to the other people, but still, there was a distance between us. None of us had ever been personally introduced to each other nor had we had a chance to bond in the short time that we were there. Yet, we were urged to share intimate details about each other’s lives. My relationship with these people seemed forced and part of a resilience-building psychological experiment by the person who seemed to hold all the power over us-the instructor.
It was us (my daughter and I) and them (the other participants) against the powers that be.
*SKY consists of a specific sequence of varying breathing rates separated by brief periods of normal breathing. Strained breathing occurs in nature when an animal is defeated in battle. It inhibits activity, increases brain perfusion, increases attention and vigilance (via vagal afferents), slows heart rate, restores energy, prevents hypoxia/hypercapnia, and prepares the animal to protect itself.
The breathing exercises only heightened the situation for me as I felt more and more vulnerable, less and less in control of my surroundings, and extremely unsafe. After doing this type of breathing, when my body physiologically shifted and my brain released its *fight or flight response to my surroundings, the trauma I had endured in the past was triggered.
Physically, my body was reliving fear. Mentally, my brain was warning me to get the heck away from there.
If you’ve endured any sort of emotional trauma in the past, it is possible to experience a resurfacing of both memories and emotions related to that trauma during meditation. Your brain had adapted to help you function after the trauma, but as meditation changes its functioning, you may feel as if you’re taking 2 steps backward. The emotional upheavals and repressed memories related to the trauma may result in a psychological crisis.
One of the key elements to a healthy, productive, and ethical therapeutic practice (be it spiritually or with mental health) is working in a space that feels safe to process the experience, at a pace that is comfortable, and with a certified professional that can guide you through the experience in a safe and gentle way.
For me, this experience was far too intense, and luckily I already had tools to help me deal with the retriggered trauma.
What about all the other participants who also have past trauma or bad experiences with this type of exercise who don’t have tools to help them through it?
Sadly, and as far as I know, none of the “certified” instructors at the AOL are certified as medical or mental health care professionals. The only prerequisite that is needed for the instructor training is that all applicants must have taken the Happiness Program and practice Sudarshan Kriya and Sahaj Samadhi Meditation daily for a minimum of one year prior to applying for the TTC.
On the third day, (before eating and after a moderately physical yoga class) we were instructed to practice the Kriya meditation once again. This was where we took our leave. My daughter and I opted out of the Silent Retreat that day. We chose to do our own thing and make the best of our time there.
It took a few days to process our experience and gain a deeper insight into what the center was all about. At breakfast, on our final day, we spoke to a woman who had been a member of the AOL Foundation for many years. Unaware of our withdrawal from the workshop and eager to promote the foundation, she told us about how she (along with millions of others) follows Sri Sri all over the world spreading his message. She claims he had healed her (at a time when she felt powerless over her mind and body and had nothing left in her life to live for) and she said she has been "a loyal descendant" to him ever since. She enrolls her child in the AOL meditation camp every summer. She was not the only devotee we witnessed at the center, and not surprisingly because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has an estimated 375 million followers in 155 countries.
I believe that it's important to have faith in something bigger than myself. Otherwise, I would probably become a very ego-centered human being. Something spiritual and mystical that helps guide me through life, gives me hope, and keeps me inspired to be the best I can be.
Too much devotion to this something (or someone) takes our identity and power and human-ess away.
Just like everything in life, spirituality requires balance.
At the end of our stay, we did our final asanas, enjoyed our last breaths of mountain air, and used our non-silent voice, something that everyone should be entitled to, as much as possible. Choosing to be who we authentically were already, we felt enlightened and walked confidently around that place like we were
Namaste and buyer beware.
“As the Internet and cheap jet travel expose more and more people to different religious traditions, people may become more willing to cobble together a few ideas from here and a few from there to create spiritual belief and practice systems that work for them as individuals. For many people, the work Shankar has already done in synthesizing something fresh from many different sources may be enough. He brings an already-developed, easy-to-swallow, easy-to-follow system, and adds a bit of a twist, for those who want it, of himself as the enlightened guru. One needn't believe in his grace to find The Art of Living useful, but it's there if you want it.”
Tracy Bryan writes whimsical books for kids ages 4-12. She likes to tackle important and diverse topics that affect kids and their families.
Cult: A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.
1.1 A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.
1.2 A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.