A spiritual leader with an enormous international following is visiting Juneau this month — with 1,000 followers in tow.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s devotees will be arriving by cruise ship on July 31, likely greeted by local community leaders and officials at a ceremony still being planned as of Thursday.
Shankar, who was once named by Forbes Magazine the fifth most powerful person in India, will lead one paid event to teach breathing and meditation techniques. The trip is part of a West Coast tour, that also includes San Francisco and Seattle, which have sold 6,000 and 3,000 tickets, respectively.
The Art of Living Foundation, a nonprofit education and humanitarian organization Shankar founded in 1981, is also planning workshops in Juneau in September. Foundation organizer Sara Fix, who’s been in Juneau for several weeks along with two other representatives for Shankar, said the foundation has a presence in nearly every major city in the world. The Art of Living Foundation has taught classes in Fairbanks for three years now, Fix said, and Juneau was a logical step.
“Alaska is the Last Frontier. He likes to go where he hasn’t been before,” Fix said.
The visit is an attempt to teach locals how to live stress- and violence-free lives, the group’s representatives said. The foundation sent three representatives — Fix, Arvind Goel and Sharmila Udiavar — to Juneau ahead of the trip, and they have been talking to locals and promoting Shankar’s visit.
Goel said he’s hearing from locals about drug abuse. He thinks Shankar’s meditation practices can help.
“What we have heard from our friends in Juneau is there is this opioid thing that has come up of late, and the peace and the harmony is disturbed because of that,” Goel told the Empire. “This is the need of the hour, that these techniques are implemented and we can connect back to our source, where we feel a sense of belonging and mental health wellness.”
The Art of the Living Foundation’s main product is breathing courses — basically techniques to hyperventilate — and meditation techniques. It works with a sister foundation, the International Association for Human Values, to implement humanitarian projects and service initiatives.
When asked, Goel said the Art of Living Foundation is not a cult. Some members do give their lives to working for the foundation, like Udiavar, a scientist and mother of five, and Fix, who once worked for the executive branch of the Oregon state government. But the trio stressed that they don’t pressure people to join the Art of Living full time. Shankar’s teachings are meant to apply to everyday life, they said, not to convert people or gain power over them.
“I think it’s a wrong understanding,” to compare Art of Living Foundation to cults like the sannyasin devotees depicted in recent Netflix documentary “Wild, Wild Country,” Goel said.
Since its founding in 1981, The Art of Living Foundation has expanded to 150 countries. Company materials provided to the Empire claim that Art of Living’s 2016 World Culture Festival in New Delhi engaged 3.75 million people in meditation at the same physical location.
Fix, who has worked with the foundation for decades, grew up in Spokane, Washington, and said she was of a generation well acquainted with New Age religious practices. Fix also studied to be a nun. She said she started work for the foundation because she felt she could do more “service-wise” with Art of Living than in the convent.
“The thing that struck me is that it’s very mainstream. No one is expected to leave their job, no one is expected to leave their home or leave any of that,” Fix said.
The guru will lead a group meditation at Juneau-Douglas High School Auditorium 6:30-8:30 p.m. July 31. Tickets ($42) can be purchased at alaskameditates.org, at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center or at Hearthside Books.
Fix said Art of Living is still planning its continued involvement with the Juneau community, but that the foundation is “here to stay.”