I attended a YES+ course from the Art of Living foundation a few days back. It was a different experience for me, and I have queued up my observations about the course and AOL in this post.
First, a little bit of history…
A few years back, there was a big ‘Art of Living’ (let us call this AOL henceforth) gathering in the grounds of Anna
University in Chennai, where the new age guru – Sri Sri Ravishankar was answering questions from devotees. I had attended this gathering too. Though I call myself an
avowed atheist, and strongly go by the principle that there is no god, I normally like to attend these kinds of sessions. There are two reasons for this: One, there could be something good to pick up from anybody – be it a godman, or a professor of Physics. Second, a lot of people come to such gatherings, and it is a nice place for watching people. The yoga and breathing exercises taught that day were good, and I decided to attend something like this in future too, if I get a chance.
So, here I was called to attend one of the preview sessions for the YES+ course. It was a lecture on the glory of ancient India, titled “My country – My valentine”. I would not want to go into the details of this session. To put it plain, it was unbearable. The presenter was dangerously biased, with lot of attitude, and needless to say, I hated the session to the core. Another issue was, there were some crazy people in the audience who would clap and cheer at every pathetic idiocy which was passed on as a joke. It was irritating, and I was not convinced at all why I should attend the YES+ course.
Then, I thought, this person could just be one odd-man out, and the whole of the AOL group did not seem to be so dumb and prejudiced. I went through some stuff on the web, talked to friends, and read views for and against AOL. Finally, I decided to give this course a try.
Now, coming to the course itself…
Putting it in a nutshell, I have mixed feelings about this course. There are positive and negative points. I would go over the positives first.
The YES+ is a five day course, with each day taking up 4-5 hours of your time. I am pretty sure, at the end of these five days, you would not feel your money has been wasted. The course is usually scheduled to fall across a weekend, so that it is convenient for all. During the course, I was asked to visit the AOL international centre (called the Ashram) a couple of times, which, though unplanned, was a good experience in itself. The course is a mixture of yoga, breathing exercises, meditation and some interesting lectures.
First, some yoga exercises are taught in the course which, I feel, are really worth learning and practising. These exercises work out the body and give a sense of accomplishment, especially to people like me, who lead a sedentary lifestyle. By the end of the yoga exercises, you feel tired and exhausted. But, after a short period of doing nothing, the energy comes back and you are more active than you were before. The meditation is good, and relaxes the mind a lot. You feel peaceful after the meditation sessions.
As far as my limited knowledge in yogic exercises goes, doing these exercises regularly goes a long way in maintaining a healthy body and stress-free mind. I would embrace such practices whole-heartedly and plan to do such exercises in the days to come… 🙂
There was a guy called Bawa (Khurshed Baltiwala) who gave us lectures and answered participants’ questions. He was there all five days talking to the participants. This guy knows his onions, and spoke exactly what the young teenagers wanted to hear. He was quite convincing, and most people I saw, serious about the course or not, enjoyed his sessions. He claims to have taught courses for 18 years, and it was evident in his wise handling of the participants’ queries. He was, for most part of the course, not preachy and tried to reason out with the audience. Another guy called Dinesh was always accompanying Bawa. He spoke less, and trained participants on a few Pranayama techniques.
And the Ashram… it is a nice, peaceful and serene place, especially in the evenings. The whole place has been landscaped quite well, and is pleasing to the eyes (even my lenses :). They have a magnificent meditation hall which has two floors above the ground floor. It has been built with cantilever beams, with no central pillar for support. The mantapa is ideal and quite appealing for yoga and meditation purposes. We had our course for a couple of days there, which was more effective than doing it at the other venue.
The Ashram serves food to its visitors every day. Though the food is bland and nothing much to talk about, the fact that it is served for all without discrimination is worth mentioning. Especially on Sundays, a large crowd comes to the Ashram from the city (Bangalore is 20 kms away) and engages in group bhajans (called Satsang). Food is served for them all in stainless steel plates, which you are expected to wash yourself after the meal. I liked this part quite well.
Though I have a pack of negatives to say about the course and the organizers, I have to emphasise on the fact that doing the course gives an overall feeling of wellness and feel-good attitude. It does not harm you in any way. Except for idealogical and practical disagreements, I feel the course is not bad at all.
Now, let us come to the negatives…
The course is overpriced! I know places that teach yoga for a fraction of what AOL charges, and is nothing different from the yoga taught here. They claim that the ‘Sudarshana Kriya’, which is their USP, is a magic of sorts, which is the be-all and end-all solution to all problems one can face. I have a strong feeling this is a marketing gimmick, and just over-hyped to draw people to the course, though the AOL might claim otherwise. Of course the meditation has a calming effect, but nothing dramatic as the AOL team wants people to believe. The course teachers try hard to convince you that you are experiencing something out of the world, when in reality, you just feel a bit calm and dizzy like you have just gotten out of a sleep. I don’t say it is totally worthless, but I say it is hyped.
Let us look at the guy ‘Bawa’. Though I said this guy steals the show at AOL courses, all of what he says, I have read umpteen times in Self-help books available in any ordinary bookstore. He doesn’t speak anything new. He is wise, learned and speaks of generally good things only. However, be it lectures on life, relationship, attitude or whatever, he sounds too cliched. For a teenager who is trying coping with a lot of peer pressure and teenage issues, or for a normal person who is under lot of stress and depression, he might sound like a god-send and just the right and amazing person with solutions to all issues. But, that just means you are not smart enough. If you are well read, and have done your homework, you know he is just trying to be smart. And if he has indeed taught at AOL for 18 years, I am not at all surprised that he is an instant hit among the young crowd.
For the initial couple of days, listening to Bawa was a pleasure. But, on the next days I lost interest as he was totally predictable and became a shrewd marketer. His proposition of the YES+ course as the supreme elixir for a good life and repeated canvassing for the same without convincing proofs, did some damage to his image, and a few sensible among the audience did feel the way I felt. Again, the course had little mention of religion and Guru-worship initially, but subsequently, it all converged into spirituality, religion, rebirth, punishment for bad karma, and lots of Guru-praising which left a bad taste in the non-believer that is me. I should say at this point that I am an atheist by principle, and this could be the reason why I can’t take these things in the way they are given.
Another major complaint I have is, AOL promotes herd behaviour. There is no place for individualism, or at least that is the end feeling you get. You have to be a group and do things in a group, which might not be healthy as far as teenagers are concerned. There are these group leaders who are members of the AOL, who try to influence you a lot in thinking the way they want you to think, and it looks like they succeed in this very well. The young adults desperately want something to hang on to, and the volunteers promote AOL and Sri Sri to them, which becomes an instant hit. Although AOL says, Don’t be a football of others’ opinion, all of what they do and promote are contrary to this, and the teachers want you to comply, no questions asked.
For instance, when Bawa is asked simple half-baked questions, his face brightens up and he makes witty comments. He takes the opportunity to lecture on the agenda he has on hand. But, when he is confronted with practical issues and difficult questions, he tried to brush them aside politely, and makes sure the person who asked the question looks foolish in the eyes of others around him, that he feels embarassed to have asked the question in the first place. After a few questions, it is not difficult to see that everything Bawa says comes back to promoting YES+ and hailing the Sudarshana Kriya, rather than giving real-life solutions. Again I would say, he is smart, and with 18 years of AOL experience, this is child’s play for him.
I have another point to make. A lot of the participants in the AOL’s courses are repeat audience, since AOL wants people to do their courses again and again. And, the sad and irritating part is, a lot of these people act like zombies, with fake, and out of place enthusiasm, and I-am-eager-to-please attitude. These people are the ones that go gaga over even cliched jokes and one-liners, for which normally you can’t even manage a smile. They clap and cheer every now and then which idolizes the teachers. These people promote the herd attitude, and you are made to feel out of place if you think otherwise.
Also, I have listened to the Guru – Sri Sri a couple of times, and I have a feeling, that he proposes too simple solutions for complex problems, which might be good to be said and heard, but is too far from reality to be pragmatic solutions. You are made to float in utopia till you get out of the ashram and have a taste of reality. On the Sri Lankan issue, the Guru says, “You will soon return to your homes in peace”. Nice to hear. But on what basis is he telling this? He makes it look like some one broke up with his girl friend and is worried about loneliness, when in reality hundreds of people are dying on the streets of Lanka caught between warring sides. Again, I have never been among followers of any Guru, and I strongly detest blind faith and worship, and that might be the reason I felt totally out of place during the course…
Okay, so what is the conclusion???
Having said all this, do I recommend this course or not?
Should you do the course, or not do it?
The answer is ‘yes’. I would definitely say ‘Yes’ to YES+ for anyone. Every course has its pros and cons, but this one is definitely worth giving a shot. But take it with a pinch of salt. The experience could be different for you than it was for me. AOL is not that bad… it is just hyped. There is always something to take home from everybody, and there are lots to take home from these AOL courses too. This course will leave something for you to remember, whatever be the ideology you might belong to. I have definitely learnt some things from this course, which I feel would be useful for me. However, what I don’t approve of, I just reject.
There is a YES+ advanced course, which I would want to do sometime in future, which is a 5-day residential course. Who knows, after that, I might become a disciple of the bearded Guru, and might end my blog saying ‘Jai Gurudeva’. But for now, it is just a bye… 🙂