Spreading ‘mental hygiene:’ Spiritual leader visits Juneau

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar brings meditation into the modern world

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the Sealaska Heritage Institute gifted Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with a Chilkat robe. The gift was a “Blanket of Knowledge,” based on the design of a Chilkat robe. The story has been updated to reflect this.

 

People were out of their seats even before they saw him, ready to give the meditation guru a standing ovation.

When Sri Sri Ravi Shankar appeared on the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium stage moments later, a thunderous applause greeted him. He smiled and waved as he walked in a flowing white robe with a purple trim. When he sat down on his wide yellow blanket that was placed on a couch in the middle of the stage, his white tennis shoes were visible.

He smiled as he looked out into the crowd of locals and people who had come with him on his Alaska cruise.

“Ready to meditate?” he asked.

Shankar, whose Art of Living Foundation has centers in more than 150 countries, has traveled the world promoting his approach to meditation and yoga. The foundation, a volunteer-run humanitarian and educational organization, was founded in 1981.

Tuesday was the first time his travels had taken him to Alaska.

As he sat backstage before the show, Shankar said his form of meditation is the meeting of ancient and modern. He explained that nearly 40 years ago, he spent 10 days in silence. At the end of the 10 days, he said, the meditation approach came to him. He also said he incorporated ancient yoga and breathing techniques.

He was asked multiple times during the program about how to make time to meditate. He said if people make time to do simple tasks such as brushing their teeth every day, they can make time to meditate.

“That’s dental hygiene,” Shankar said. “Meditation is mental hygiene. You’ll just see that it fits into your day.”

Shankar, now 62, is a meditation guru for the modern world. There are multiple phone apps for guided meditation and spiritual wisdom, including the official Art of Living app that he promoted during his talk Tuesday. When he attended a presentation at the Sealaska Heritage Center on Tuesday, more than 50,000 people watched live on Facebook. During a backstage interview, Shankar had his iPhone next to him.

His Twitter account has four million followers — and follows nobody.

“Technology is there to bring comfort to people and to bring better communication,” Shankar said in an exclusive interview with the Empire before the event. “It’s up to us how we use it. If we get addicted to it, we are making technology users. There’s nothing wrong in using the technology, but don’t let the technology use your whole time. We need to be connected in real time as well.”

The issue of addiction also came up multiple times in Sri Sri’s comments in Juneau. He said his meditation can work almost instantaneously to treat drug addiction. He said it can only take a couple days of regular meditation to rid someone of the desire to use drugs.

“They feel energy and enthusiasm within, and so don’t need any external intoxicant to take them into a high,” Shankar said. “Also, there’s a relief from the sadness and sorrow that a person carries in his mind or heart. When that is gone, you don’t require something to help you forget that.”

Attendees at Tuesday’s group meditation didn’t go quite so far as to say the meditation cured medical issues, but said daily meditation can relieve stress and help their relationships with other people.

Juneau resident Corey Peratrovich said he’s recently gotten interested in meditation to help with anxiety and interpersonal relationships. Holding two of Shankar’s books after the program, he said he was encouraged by the environment in the room.

“It’s good to see that I’m not the only one out there thinking that we need to take time and redirect our focus and breathe,” Peratrovich said.

[PHOTOS: Spiritual guru leads group meditation]

Shankar acknowledged that there’s sometimes a perception around spiritual leaders and gurus as not being genuine. Documentaries such as Netflix’s recent “Wild Wild Country” that delve into cult-like spiritual groups can taint a larger perception, Shankar said.

“What I’m saying, there are certain people who are a blemish in those fields,” Shankar said when asked specifically about the documentary. “There are some doctors who do unethical things. They steal kidneys away from people. Even in spiritual field, among the priests and these people, there are some people who misuse this field.”

Shankar tries to dispel this perception, working with political, religious and social leaders around the world to help drive change. He added a few new social leaders to his list on this trip, as he attended a welcome ceremony at the clan house at the Walter Soboleff Building prior to his program.

Multi-cultural dance group Yees Ku.oo performed for Shankar, with songs in Tlingit, Haida and the Tsimshian language Sm’algyax. SHI President Rosita Worl presented Shankar with a “Blanket of Knowledge” based on the design of a Chilkat robe, thanking him for spreading his message of peace to Juneau.

Shankar, known for being spontaneous, planned to end his program with meditation. Instead, he started with it. For half an hour, he led a guided meditation session that began with rapid movement and ended with about 20 minutes of stillness.

During the movement portion of the session, he encouraged people to move their hands first and then their whole bodies. One man in the fourth row moved his shoulders forwards and backwards, like a football player shrugging off tacklers in slow-motion.

Later on, as everyone in the auditorium sat still, Shankar directed them to breathe out together while saying “oh.” The room vibrated as everyone breathed in unison, and the air seemed to buzz for a few seconds afterward.

After 30 minutes, he directed people to open their eyes.

“Was it good?” he asked, almost sheepishly. A contented murmur ran through the room, and Shankar raised his right hand and gave a thumbs-up.


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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