The Art of Living Foundation is one of the world’s largest non-profit organizations led by the spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The foundation is active in more than 140 countries and has reached out to hundreds of millions of people across the globe. The goal of the foundation is to create a happier and more stress-free society by uplifting individuals at the grassroots level through empowerment and breathing exercises. Apart from its international development projects, the main “service” of the Art of Living Foundation is its Art of Living courses. These courses span for a total of 24 to 28 hours during five to six consecutive days and cost anywhere from between $200 to $700, depending on the instructor and level of the course. The clientele of Art of Living courses are typically adults who suffer from personal issues and are looking to improve their lives.Here at Cornell University, an Art of Living course, titled the Art of Living YES+ workshop: Yoga, Empowerment, Service Plus, is offered for Physical Education credit. The course description highlights that this “six-session seminar provides you with powerful techniques for deep relaxation and meditation.” Apart from students who know about the purpose and mission of the Art of Living Foundation, this course attracts students — like me — who want to get their physical education requirement over and done with at the beginning of the semester. The course was held on campus in Teagle Hall and cost $225 to take. We were told on the day before the course took place that if we did not drop the course 24 hours before the first session took place, we would automatically fail and lose the $225 course fee.I entered the Teagle Multipurpose room in exercise gear the day the class began with an open-mind. I was ready to learn some yoga and meditation exercises and, most importantly, get the Physical Education credit I needed in order to graduate in the May. While I didn’t have very many expectations for the course, I did have a few, and let’s just say that the course was not at all what I had intended to sign up for. I left it six days later — after 28 very long hours — confused and shocked as to why Cornell University allows students to take the Art of Living for P.E. credit.The very first thing we were told by the instructors was that in order to successfully complete and pass the course, we needed to follow several rules. These rules included eating a complete vegetarian diet, abstaining from consuming caffeine or alcohol and practicing the breathing exercises we learned in class each morning when we woke up. Immediately, I thought to myself, “Now, this was not in the course description.” The entire course consisted of extremely awkward, soul-exposing activities and discussions. In order to introduce ourselves to other people in the class, we had to go around, shake hands, tell them our name, look into their eyes directly and exclaim, “I belong to you!” Other course highlights involved revealing our deepest, darkest secret to someone in the class (awkward), sitting knee-to-knee with fellow members of the class and silently looking into their eyes for several minutes (awkward) and group discussions about topics ranging from dealing with anger to having responsible sex (awkward). One particularly memorable discussion dealt with loving everyone for who they are, regardless of what they do and how they treat you. One student asked, “What if someone is emotionally and physically abusive to you? Do you still have to love them?” The response of our instructors was “yes.”The instructors assigned us daily homework, such as “make three friends tomorrow,” “do something nice for your parents” and “complete three random acts of kindness.” But when someone couldn’t complete the homework, for whatever reason (didn’t have the time, didn’t want to put in the effort or thought the homework was stupid and defeated the whole purpose of doing nice things for others, my reason) the instructors made us feel incredibly guilty. They wanted to present examples of how people fail to live life to its fullest or tend to put things off, but did so by making us feel as though we were terrible, selfish people, who needed to restructure our entire lives. When students of the course appeared to be unenthusiastic about the course’s ideals and activities, the instructors threatened to fail them on several occasions.Another aspect of the course that was uncomfortable for me and other members was that the $225 course fee was going towards contributing to the work of the Art of Living foundation. Though I was initially confused as to why I was paying $225 to learn how to breathe, I am especially angry as to why it was not mentioned in the course description that the course fee was essentially a donation to a non-profit organization. Donations are typically voluntary contributions, and honestly, if I had $225 to donate to any organization of my choice, the organization would NOT be the Art of Living Foundation.During the last session, the instructors (one of who was a full-time, paid employee of the Art of Living foundation) strongly advertised the next level of the course called the Art of Silence. The Art of Silence involves retreating for three days to an Art of Living Center and living in complete silence for a period of 72 hours straight. To quote my instructor, “the only reason you would even take the first course is so that you can move on to the more advanced courses.” Of course, they failed to mention that this advanced course is significantly more expensive than the introductory course.Although I have gotten my P.E. credit out of the way (contingent on them not failing me, which I realize is a definite possibility considering I am writing this article and also was involved in an outspoken revolt that took place during the 22nd hour of the course), I am very confused as to why Cornell allows the Art of Living course to function as a course that fulfills a mandatory graduation requirement for all undergraduate students. As an Art of Living graduate, I failed to become more relaxed, but rather, I am incredibly disturbed about the inclusion of the Art of Living Yes+ Workshop in Cornell University’s course offerings.
Original Author: Nishtha Ghosh