Thursday, August 26, 2010

Guru Purnima 2010

The Art of Living Guru Purnima celebrations took place in Hartford, CT this year. Thousands of people gathered for a wonderful week of music and meditation, silence and celebration, fun and food and dancing and so much more. July 25 was Guru Purnima, a day that holds special significance for the spiritual seeker.

In Sri Sri's words,
"Among the 12-13 full moons in a year the Vaishakha full moon is dedicated to his (Buddha's) birth and enlightenment, Jyeshtha full moon to mother earth and the Aashadha full moon is dedicated to the memory of masters. This is Guru-Purnima. It is the day when the disciple wakes up in his fullness and in the wakefulness he can’t be but grateful. This gratitude is not of Dwaita (you and me), but of Advaita. It is not a river moving from somewhere to somewhere, but is the ocean moving within itself. So, gratefulness on Guru-Purnima symbolizes that fullness.

The purpose of the Guru Purnima celebration is to turn back and review and see in this last one year how much one has progressed in life. For a seeker, Guru Purnima is a day of significance, is a day of New Year. It is the day to review one’s progress on the spiritual path and renew one’s determination and focus on the goal, and to resolve what one wants to do in the coming year. As the full moon rises and sets, tears of gratitude arise and repose into the vastness of one’s own self.”

For me, Guru Purnima is an occasion to meet the global Art of Living Family. This year, people came from Argentina, Brazil, Suriname and Japan, among other places! It is like a family gathering where you meet distant cousins after months (maybe even years!) and after a moment of laughter and hugs, they don't seem like distant cousins any more - just close friends! It is such a festive atmosphere that one naturally feels so uplifted and celebratory. The Satsangs are magnificent with great music, spirited dancing, wonderful Q & A sessions with Sri Sri and general merriment.

To me, it always seems that the spirit of Guru Purnima can hardly be contained by the hotel/convention center any more, and the entire city comes to be imbued with this wonderful energy. Festivities go on late into the night, and it is not uncommon to hear the sounds of soulful bhajans coming from the hotel rooms long after the evening Satsang has ended.

Guru Purnima 2011 will be bigger, for sure. It will be hosted by another city, in another hotel or convention center. There may be more programs, more locations. But what will remain at the core of every Guru Purnima celebration, as it always has been, is Guruji. As he moves through crowds of thousands, blessing and comforting every person in the audience, bestowing his knowledge and wisdom on one and all, he teaches us in his own way how beautiful it is to walk the spiritual path and live the knowledge, every breath and every moment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An airplane conversation - it's not romantic, but it is juicy

Scenario: Saturday 6 a.m. Boston. January, 2005. Cold.

It’ll be nice to have a week off from work and to get some sun.

That was the phrase that played through my mind as I was about to head down to Florida to catch a cruise.

It was just another day though, really. I mean, I was still taking my thoughts with me, except it was now to a different location. If you asked me on a cruise whether I liked my job, what my chances of getting into medical school were, I would have still been a little depressed in thinking about these questions. I remember thinking to myself:

“Why do I feel like I’m having a mid-life crisis at 24!? I’m too young for this!”

I had graduated college that previous May and, at that time, I had finished up my senior year in which I was able to reflect a lot about life. I was writing a lot, reading a lot, and I suppose just being much more introspective. The Buddhism courses I took were phenomenal. For the first time, I started to view my mind not just as something that is fixed in terms of its tendencies, but as something more flexible and plastic. Being mindful of my thoughts was perhaps the toughest task I had ever attempted in my life. But, it was so incredible. I love to learn and so watching these thoughts offered me a chance to learn on a moment to moment basis what was really happening inside.

I remember the professor asking us: “How often do we feel like we are held captive by emotions?” I wanted to raise my hand, but I first looked around and saw that everyone else was looking around as well with their hands down. “It takes awareness to realize that we are not in control of our emotions.” This was a big realization for me in college.

And so since graduating, I had sort of fallen out of practice of reflecting on how things were going. How am I living my life right now? What are my interactions like with people? What am I learning about life on a daily basis? Starting work in Boston as a research assistant at a hospital after graduation, I found that I had not been creating that same space for myself to investigate my emotions..

Nevertheless, that early frigid Saturday morning, I boarded the plane, convincing myself that I would have a good time. I sat down and did what I always liked to do – keep myself busy. I needed something to intellectually conquer.

The man next to me also pulled out a book. The words “The Supreme Yoga” caught my eye. Then the internal dialogue began...yeah, that one yoga class I took at Boston Sports Club was pretty amazing. That’s pretty cool he’s reading a book about yoga.

So, we started to talk.

I was telling him how interested I was in Neuroscience and applying modern scientific methods to understanding techniques like yoga, meditation, and breathing, but didn’t yet have much experience with these techniques themselves. While talking to him though, I felt so uncomfortable. I was sputtering all of these words and I was in such a state of chaos! Here I was inquiring into the nature of these techniques and wishing to validate them, but yet I had no experience of them and my mind was in a state which was the exact opposite of what these techniques attempted to accomplish! What irony!

I had so much guilt and regret about past events in my life and so much anxiety and fear about the future, too. I was literally a pendulum swaying back and forth, with my mind living either in the past or the future.

The peace behind his words was so new to me. Everyone around me at work was so stressed out that it just became normal to be like that.

I wanted whatever it was that he had. I wanted that peace. I wanted his disposition.

He wrote down for me a few things on a small piece of paper which I promised to myself I wouldn’t lose. It had 3 phrases on it in neatly printed in black ink: “Art of Living course, Sudarshan Kriya, Yoga Vasistha.”

He then closed his eyes to meditate.

I couldn’t help but watch him. What was he doing? What is meditation? Was he really sleeping? Did he just close his eyes so he wouldn’t have to talk to me?

As we parted ways in Florida, I thanked him and told him I’d email him after I took the course.

On the cruise, that whole week, all I could think about was this course and my interactions with him. What timing! I had been looking for something like this!

Of course, the cruise had no internet and so the second I got back to Boston, I signed up for the course which happened to be one week later down the street at MIT. The rest is history. I emailed my friend on the plane, an Art of Living teacher from New York City, and eventually met up with him many times thereafter during courses and satsangs.

I now write this, a few years later, as an Art of Living teacher. The intervening years, the transformation contained therein, is the subject of another post. All I’ll leave you with for now is that the phrase ‘the state of your mind determines the quality of your life’ is infinitely deep because the process of investigating the mind and understanding one’s true nature is a journey that is ongoing. The more you investigate the nature of the mind, the more transformation that is possible. The more this becomes a priority, the faster the transformation!

A personal account of the Silver Jubilee, AoL’s 25th year anniversary

You know how there are those incredible moments in life that we wish we could capture and keep with us forever? How many times have you wanted to write about these moments or experiences and were at a loss for words? Every time you sat down to write about it, the words just didn’t capture the essence. And then it’s the old feeling of what’s the point in even writing about it anyway. It’s just an experience. I can’t recreate the experience for myself or for anyone else.

Well, years later, I’m sitting down again in an attempt to share one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. Part of the reason why I haven’t written about it in so long is because I’m still digesting it. It was a unique experience – one that showed me another aspect of life that I didn’t know existed.

Peace. Happiness. Without reason.

In February of 2006, I took a trip to India to attend a 2.5 million person meditation. This event was part of the Art of Living’s 25th year Anniversary.

I’m so glad I went. I laugh when I think about what almost prevented me from going. Studying for the MCAT exam. I had to honest with myself, which was tough for me to do at the time. I asked myself a question which I had known the answer to all along. When I am about to die, what will I remember…an extra week of MCAT studying? Or, this trip to India? Well, that was easy now wasn’t it. It’s amazing how tunnel-visioned I was at the time, but I suppose that’s what stress does – making it a little tougher to see all perspectives in a situation in the moment.

Let me describe to you the beautiful scenery of the Ashram. First imagine a tropical paradise, including palm trees, monkeys imitating your movements from tree canopies, an elephant roaming to and fro, a gentle cool breeze punctuated by a feeling of the sun’s strength, villagers cutting the tops off of coconuts for tourists to enjoy a nice a cool refreshing drink, mangos, papayas, pineapples, exotic lizards, thousands of people from over 144 countries smiling at you as you pass them by, gardens exuding an overwhelming fragrance, and enchanting, hand cut rock statues.

I should say a bit more about why I went to India in the first place in case this wasn’t clear. The Art of Living Foundation, an organization I joined about 5 years ago, had its 25th year anniversary celebration, culminating in a 2.5 million person “One World Family Silver Jubilee” event at Jakkur Air Field in Bangalore, India. This event lasted 3 days and included speeches from many dignitaries from across the world including Presidents, foreign dignitaries, and saints, among others. Many topics were addressed, all of which fell under the broad topic of human values & ethics.

The final day of the event culminated in a 2.5 million person Sudarshan Kriya and meditation. The Sudarshan Kriya is a breathing technique developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to wash away stress and negative emotions and to give the mind a much needed rest.

For one who has not experienced this technique, it’s hard to describe. Describing it comes from the level of the mind and the technique itself transcends the mind. These techniques are great to practice at home individually, but can you imagine the collective power of 2.5 million people doing this practice together? What about the effect on the global consciousness? I swear we even changed the global wind currents with all the breathing that we did.

At the event, people from Israel, Palestine, America, Iraq, India, Pakistan, China, and Tibet to name just a few of the numerous countries represented were all celebrating and dancing together! Where else on earth could you find this? What other type of event could bring so much bliss? It truly did feel like a one world family. Everyone put aside their identification’s and remembered that life is about celebration, not violence. It is no wonder that Sri Sri has been nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on multiple occasions.

Just a word concerning the logistics of the event – can you imagine putting together an event of this magnitude? As I had previously mentioned, over 2.5 million attended this event, however, only 10,000 of this 2.5 million stayed at the Bangalore Ashram. This ashram was only equipped to hold 3,000. Yet, it all seemed to just magically work out. Perhaps the biggest miracle of all was that only a few people of the 10,000 got sick. Can you imagine how many buses were needed to transport 10,000 people from the ashram to Jakkur for the Silver Jubilee three day celebration? Can you imagine the amount of vegetables that needed to be cut and scraped? Can you imagine all the traffic at Jakkur? Can you imagine sifting through millions to find a seat at the Silver Jubilee celebration? Can you imagine setting up millions of chairs for people to sit on? Can you imagine innumerable massive projection TV’s spread across acres and acres of land to televise what was happening on the stage (the size of a football field)? Can you imagine the amount of wire this would have necessitated? Can you imagine chanting “OHHHHMMMM” and how unbelievable the resonance of 2.5 million voices sounded together? Can you imagine all of the love and peace that emanated from this one spot on the earth?

I still can’t.

Like I said before, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this trip. I felt completely rejuvenated and am so grateful to have shared in this celebration. This organization, established in over 150 countries, is the largest NGO in the world. Although the focus is on service projects around the world, there are so many courses that you can take that are absolutely phenomenal. To become a teacher, you have to take most of them.

You can go as deep as you’d like with this stuff. Whether you’d like to do these breathing/meditation techniques purely for the health benefits (mental and physical), to touch upon spirituality, or to just learn about some very cool ancient philosophies, they will undoubtedly have a very positive impact on your life.

Translating and integrating this experience was easier to do while in India than once I returned to the US. Coming back to a way of life that involved deriving happiness from possession and continually adjusting my life to fit the expectations of others now did not seem healthy anymore given this new experience I had. I had experienced happiness from another angle. It wasn’t transient and empty anymore; it was lasting and full. It was a gratitude for being alive in the first place, for beginning to understand how conditioned I had been, for having been able to be a part of this experience, and for finally being able to write about it and to pass on it's fragrance.

Breath, Water, Sound - Boston (April 2010)!!

Something amazing just happened up here in Boston, Massachusetts. The Breath, Water, Sound course was taught at Hyde Park High School to about 40 kids who recently came from Haiti. Some had arrived before the earthquake, while others had relocated to Boston shortly after the earthquake.

The school was looking for a way to help these kids because they were traumatized and they didn’t have a way to process the emotions that they harbored. The kids needed a way to decompress. Talking about it helped, but it wasn’t enough according to the teachers and administrators.

The school felt that the Breath, Water, Sound course would empower students by providing them with tools to help them relax and manage stress as well as difficult emotions. The tools include breathing techniques, sound relaxation, meditation, and yoga.

The course is offered through the International Association for Human Values, an Organization founded by His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It works in concert with the Art of Living Foundation.

Though I was not able to participate and teach on this particular course, I made sure to check-in with the Breath, Water, Sound teachers to hear of their experiences. Justin (who flew in from California), Tejeswi, Jayshree, and Dhanashree all taught together.

Justin writes:
“The students were regular students, just with a very deep and rich outlook on life because of their experiences. They were still playful, still smiling and laughing, but underneath there were the worries and anxieties and all of the other negative emotions caused by stress. I laugh at it because I knew that these students were going to teach me more about life than anything I was there to give them. All it took was the LA LA meditation for everyone to accept that these breathing techniques were something they’ve never experienced. They wanted more. It was just the space they had been looking for, a quiet place where they could just forget about everything for a few moments. Their voluntary testimonies were poetic, feelings such as “floating in space, being released from jail, and finally free.” As a YES! for Schools teacher, I am used to teaching in a 5 week format. It was incredible to see how much transformation took place here in just a few hours. Everyone involved at Hyde Park noticed the shift and are excited to make these techniques available for the rest of the students and teachers. I am just grateful to be allowed to play a part in it!”

Tejeswi writes:
"It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life…In spite of being so young and having gone through such a traumatic experience, I was surprised to learn that most of them had such a positive outlook on life and most importantly they kept their smile. This was very inspirational. The course experiences that some of the students shared were amazing. I remember one of girls who said: “I used to be angry all the time...but after doing this technique I feel so happy. I want to feel like this all the time.” Another one who did not even say a word the 4 days we were there, said on the last day, “ I feel I was born again. I feel powerful.” I believe we truly made a difference in their lives…”

The school now wishes to teach this course to all 180 of their students based on the results of this select course for Haitian students and would even like to televise portions of it. Needless to say, the course was a great success and it can serve as an example for how other schools can model the integration of such programs into their curriculum. The adolescent years, in general, are a time of great transformation and stress. And, the way stress is channeled at an early age can often lead to beneficial or destructive behavioral tendencies that can persist into adulthood. All schools should consider including a program that addresses stress management.

Nice to meet you, I'm Rob

As a child, my two favorite activities included participating in tennis and piano competitions. At that time, the fun came in "winning" and not in the process of developing these skills. With time, I became less interested in beating my opponents per se, and more interested in understanding the nature of my mind while practicing and competing. I continued these activities while at Amherst College and pursued a major in Neuroscience. Though my Neuroscience coursework touched on many important topics, it didn't discuss this entity known as the "mind" in great detail. I found that the Buddhism courses I took were more relevant in this regard; they represented a seemingly ancient form of Neuroscience. I learned that by consistently observing my thoughts, I can more readily identify maladaptive behaviors and change them. It was essentially giving life to the concept of neural plasticity.

I applied to medical school for many reasons, one of which was to understand the clinical basis of meditation, yoga, and breathing techniques such as the Sudarshan Kriya and how they relate to brain function and well being. I am currently in my third year of medical school at Boston University School of Medicine. I have completed two separate research internships at the Massachusetts General Hospital which relate to mind-body medicine. While in medical school, I have also completed the teaching requirements to become an Art of Living YES!+ teacher and have taught at MIT and Harvard University. This course involves volunteering 25 hours to teach students breathing techniques that help them to manage stress, increase focus, and get the most out of their daily activities.

After I graduate from medical school, it is my hope to obtain a residency in one of Boston's many excellent hospitals, many of which have already incorporated a greater emphasis on the mind-body approach to treating various medical conditions.

Friday, August 20, 2010


A picture is worth a thousand words.

The picture above was taken at a RISE program conducted in Atlanta last year. The Refugee Integration and Self-Empowerment (RISE) program has been conducted by the International Association for Human Values, a sister organization of the Art of Living Foundation, for the Bhutanese refugee population living in the United States. On this program, participants get an opportunity to experience the effectiveness of yoga and meditation in relieving stress, anxiety, and negative emotions.

For many members of this refugee community, moving to the United States has been a stressful experience. Many feared that they would lose touch with their ancient culture and traditions. They wondered if they would be able to reconnect with other members of the community. They were apprehensive about raising their children in a new country. Some families were separated since some members moved to the United States as others waited in Nepal for the paperwork to be completed. There are many stories, some painful and some heartwarming. They will make an appearance in this blog.

For now, I would like to share two pictures. The celebrated Indian poet and writer Vikram Seth has a beautiful poem titled 'All Who Sleep Tonight', and this picture reminds me of the poem. This picture was taken as the participants of RISE were relaxing after the Sudarshan Kriya.

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above -
Know that you aren't alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

As part of the New Year celebration, a few Art of Living volunteers drove groups of Bhutanese to the Hindu Temple of Atlanta (Riverdale, GA) for a mini-celebration. Here, you can see them lining up to get a glimpse of the deity in the temple.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The What, When and How

I landed in Atlanta on Christmas Day 2003. Truly speaking, 25-Dec is one of the gloomiest days in the year in the United States - dull weather, a few solitary cars on the road, zero sunshine. When you're coming from hot, humid and crowded Mumbai, the contrast is striking. I was newly married and had come to the US on a dependent visa. I left behind a job, my family, my independence. It wasn't a very happy bride who landed at Hartsfield Jackson Airport that day. The days following were equally troubled. I couldn't travel anywhere by myself since I didn't know how to drive and there isn't much by way of public transport in the Atlanta suburbs where we lived. I couldn't get a job since I was on a dependent visa that disallowed me from working. I hated the gloomy weather and the perpetual silence (remember, I came from noisy Mumbai). I missed my family and India terribly. I spent days moping around the house. My poor husband was confused and had no idea what to do. The laughing girl he'd married a few weeks ago had transformed into a sad woman who looked like she would dissolve into tears any given moment. As funny as it sounds now, it wasn't funny at all back then.

Come 2004, and it felt like things were looking up. I learned to cook and the Internet was my teacher. I started a blog and began to write regularly. And then I attended an Art of Living Course. The yoga postures and breathing techniques taught on the Art of Living Course are simple to practice but they have the most beneficial effect on the body and mind. As I began to practice the Sudarshan Kriya (special rhythmic breathing technique taught only on the Art of Living Course) and other breathing techniques, I literally felt as if someone had wiped clear the windshield of my mind. And I could see everything clearer. I felt calmer, more relaxed, happier. It was almost as if I had taken a deep breath in and inhaled a load of fresh air, and with a long exhalation, I let out all the homesickness, stress, dejection and despondency.

It has been more than 6 years since I did my first Art of Living Course. And I am still reaping the benefits. Can I just say that at the ripe old age of 31, I feel far younger than I did at 25? Maybe I exaggerate but I also think that I look younger! Comparing photographs from 2004 and now, it feels like the years just fell off my face. It is truly amazing to realize what a profound effect these breathing techniques have on the body and mind.

So my journey began 6 years back and I have been walking ever since. Sometimes skipping, sometimes dancing, dragging my heels sometimes... but never a dull moment there is when you're on the spiritual path. And miracles continue to unfold.

About Me

For a large part of my life, I believed that music was my truest passion. It made me come alive in a way that I could hardly describe; it literally elevated my spirit and made me feel like I was walking on air. A few years later, it was writing that brought forth the same experience. As I started writing regularly, I realized what "flow" meant. I would look back at an old blog post or a piece of writing and wonder "Did I really write that? Wow!" Ever since I have begun my regular practice of Sudarshan Kriya and meditation, these experiences have become more common and now I have a better understanding of my own creative process. Earlier, I used to labor over writing an article - groping for the right words, trying to get the "flow" going, agonizing over how contrived it all sounded. And then it hit me that I just had to be ready when the writing was. And it was the same for music (I am also learning to play the violin). And cooking. I realize that it's the same energy that flows into all creative activities and processes. It is the same energy that results in an inspired piece of writing, a soulful piece of music, a delicious dessert. With my daily Sudarshan Kriya and meditation practice, the energy has been nurtured and nourished in the richest way possible and it manifests in everything I write, cook, sing, this blog post included.

Lakshmi Jagad lives in Atlanta with her husband. She is an instructor of the Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES!), a program offered by the Art of Living Foundation for teenagers. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Mass Communication. She also does freelance projects in the areas of media, communication, social networking, etc.