(All names changed to protect identities)
They are there everywhere in Bangalore. Public parks, temples, busy market areas, schools and colleges. Perhaps the only places that they have left out are the traffic signals, bus terminuses and railway stations.
They call themselves “AOL” (art of living) volunteers. They are out there to market Sri Sri Ravishankar’s AOL programs – ‘Sudarshan Kriya’ in particular. They proclaim that their mission is noble. Their goal is to ensure that every Indian learns the art of breathing properly to manage stress. There are absolutely no issues with this effort – however these programs do not come for free. What is more intriguing is the “mode” of influencing people to enroll for the course.
The strategy is simple. If you are taking a morning walk in a public park in Bangalore, a young man will approach you – “Sir, will you care to spare a few minutes for meditation?” If you agree, you will be led to a grass bed in the park.
A team of three (of which one of them will be a young woman) will welcome you with a bewitching smile and a radiant glow in their face. One of the team members will then proceed to teach you pranayama, bhasrika and other deep breathing techniques. Even as you wonder why someone as young as them would want to impart yoga for free, you will be awakened from your stupor by an audio cassette from which Guru Sri Sri Ravishankar’s voice will flow out.
“How are you feeling?” the young woman will question you after the session. As you thank them profusely, a sheet of paper will be thrust on to you to fill up your name and contact details (including your Email address). The next 10 minutes are spent by the team giving details about the next AOL Sudarshan Kriya course. “Hurry, before registrations close”, they chorus.
The aggressive marketing tactics adopted by these modern messiahs of yoga can make even Buddha lose his sang froid. Their strategies are similar to those employed by the much-maligned telemarketing/ call center employees. Like the latter who will badger you with requests to avail a home loan or a personal loan or a vehicle loan, these volunteers will insist that you attend the AOL basic course for Rs.1000/-. They have pamphlets with them that they distribute freely and they also give their mobile numbers so that you can contact them 24 x 7.
Who are these volunteers? What drives them and energises them to take part in aggressive marketing of the AOL Sudarshan Kriya course? What do they gain out of this exercise? Why do they need to resort to such pesky methods to influence people to join the AOL course? As Guru Sri Sri Ravishankar is a brand by himself, should not people get attracted to AOL courses, the moment a notice is put up? Stressed souls must be flocking to these sessions just like bees swarming the flowers, isn’t it? If yes, then why this need to market yoga so aggressively?
Jayachandra Hegde, a devout follower of Mata Nirmala Devi, who conducts the Sahaja Meditation course free of cost, at Vignan Nagar says, “The young volunteers of AOL are mostly geeks from the IT industry. They are probably the employees who are on the bench and as they have little else to do, they become volunteers of AOL to battle boredom and monotony”.
The intention of this article is not to deride the AOL Sudarshan Kriya yoga technique. All of us know that proper breathing techniques lead to release of fresh oxygen to our brain and promote positive thoughts in the mind. Thousands have benefited from the Sudarshan Kriya course. But then where is the need for this sort of aggressive marketing?
Gazala, a home maker who attended one such AOL courses says, “The 6-day course is too good. Sudarshan Kriya is a good technique to battle stress and deal with the vagaries of day-to-day affairs. You are taught to “respond” instead of “reacting” to situations. But once you take part in the course, the volunteers collect your mobile numbers along with the fees and they keep calling you to introduce participants for the next course. I can’t believe that the so-called IT professionals call people at 11 am, 12 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm, on working days; if this is true, then when do they carry out their official duties”.
Ramachandran Pillai, a senior citizen who lives in G M Palaya recounts his experience. “ In the 6 day course that they conducted, two boys from the IT industry used it as a training ground for themselves in public speaking by cracking jokes incessantly before and after the AOL program. Beyond a point, it became jarring. Yes, the course was useful no doubt, but the last day of the course was terrible.”
On prodding him more, he reveals, “The AOL foundation in our area does not have provision to offer even water to the participants. We were lucky that toilet facilities were available. They instructed us to carry food with us for three persons on the last day of the course. Both I and my spouse are senior citizens but my spouse managed to get up early in the morning and prepare food for three persons. During lunch hour, I was aghast to see the amount of food being wasted. Some intelligent participants bought a bunch of bananas and saved themselves the trouble of cooking something that was going to be wasted anyway. The program organizers had the gall to inform us that all the leftover food will be taken by the security guard in the building. It was disappointing”.
Another participant Maya Nair says, “The AOL Sudarshan Kriya course is fantastic and a great stress buster. It helps you in dealing with anger clinically. But you are well advised to avoid the last day of the course. You are forced to buy gifts for other participants. If you forget to bring a gift, then you have to purchase a gift from the stall that they put in the venue. The gifts that are sold in the venue are all AOL knick knacks – CDs, books that are priced so exorbitantly that they can leave a deep chasm in your pocket”.
Maya adds, “The post lunch session on the last day of the course was awful. They kept running videos to show us the path traversed by Guru Sri Sri Ravishankar – which was more like a documentary about AOL. Then suddenly from nowhere, a gentleman cropped up and started distributing pamphlets for another course – something called DSN – “Divya Samaj Ka Nirman”. The course fees? Only Rs.4750/- for a 5-day course that includes breakfast, lunch, tea and coffee. “This course will transform your life” proclaimed the individual and exhorted the participants to clap for him. The only thought that crossed my mind at that point of time was how another man’s misery is capitalized by others to build wealth for themselves.”
Is the revered Guru even aware about all these tamashas that go on in these courses? Howsoever good the course may be, the truth is that the AOL course is only for the affluent. How many of these volunteers have visited orphanages and old age homes? Why can’t they conduct courses at a nominal fee? If the aim is to make the entire country stress-free, then why not target some of the mofussil areas and conduct such courses for a bare minimum charge?
Interestingly, one of the participants asked them (the organizers) about the next level of course that was to be conducted in the AOL ashram at Kanakapura. The organizers read out the course fees along with the tariff for the rooms in the AOL Kanakapura campus as though it was a 5-star hotel.”It all depends on your budget”, said one of the AOL teachers.
The other chinks in the armour? The opulent ashram that has been built on a sprawling campus looks more like a star hotel than an ashram. The famed “Visalakshi” mantap (also called as the “divine meditation hall”) is simply not accessible for the less fortunate. But NRIs are lucky to meditate in this hall. There is round-the-clock security near this hall.
There is a retail store in the Ashram where all products are priced exorbitantly including the ayurvedic churnas, powders and hair oils. It is claimed that almost everything that is sold in the store is an output of cottage industry and that all the sale proceeds are directed to charity.
Quality of some of the toilet soaps sold in the stores is poor and you will be disappointed more because you end up paying more for something that is really not worth it. The only good thing (that has a charitable intent to it) about the ashram is the “annadana” scheme where free meals are served. But don’t you dare ask any of the security guards in the ashram about the same. They will end up misguiding you!
Divya Ramesh, a resident of Boisar in Mumbai, became an ardent devotee of Guru Sri Sri Ravishankar. She followed the footsteps of her husband who is in the Navy. She has two grown up boys and she has become a AOL teacher to spend her time productively. The only problem is that she has to “catch” participants for the course. “But I thoroughly enjoy being an AOL teacher. My husband is away in the ship for 6 months in a year and being associated with AOL helps me fight stress, boredom and monotony of day to day life” she remarks with a twinkle in her eyes.
The mission of redoubtable AOL foundation is a noble one. Learning the correct technique of breathing comes at a price. This is perfectly fine and acceptable considering the fact that in urban areas, people seldom appreciate things that are available free of cost. However, a line has to be drawn in terms of milking the AOL brand.
A CD of the guru’s discourse on meditation that runs for 30 minutes is priced at Rs.299. Books are priced exorbitantly too – plus there are bulk discounts too if you buy an entire pack of books authored by the revered guru. The claim that everything that is collected from the sale of CDs/ audio cassettes/books or the amounts charged as course fees is pooled for charity seems to be a bit far-fetched.
But one thing is for sure. For out-of-work IT geeks, the opportunity to do “seva” as an AOL volunteer offers solace and respite like no other. Sai Ram (not his real name) claims that he works for Wipro as Application Support Specialist. But he is on the road promoting AOL 24 x 7. A gentle prodding reveals that he is an engineering graduate from the 2011 batch who is yet to receive a confirmed appointment letter from Wipro.
“I prefer spending my time doing ‘seva’ as an AOL volunteer. You must do the “DSN course”. It is an excellent course. You must attend it Satya Sir. I will send you a text message immediately giving you details of the “DSN” course. You can also come for a “shivling” pooja at Basava Nagar tomorrow at 6 pm. You can get all your wishes fulfilled by attending this pooja” – Sai ram rattles off even as I look at him amazed by the extent of his involvement as an AOL volunteer. He is au courant about all the future AOL courses.
Now this one is for the readers.
I had posed a question to one of the IT-geek turned AOL teacher – “ We are living in a world that is full of violence. AOL advocates non-violence, kindness, love, simplicity etc. If all that we had to do was forgive everyone for the hurt that they caused to you so that you can release the pent-up mental blocks in your body, then life would be far too simple. People will continue to hurt you and you will continue to forgive them. If this principle was the successful foundation of a life well-lived, then the purpose for which the ‘Ramayana’ war was fought or the battle in Kurukshetra “Mahabharata” was fought is rendered futile. Lord Ram could have easily forgiven Ravan. Lord Krishna should have avoided the decimation of the Kauravas by asking the Pandavas to forgive their cousins.”
The AOL teacher who was dumb founded at my question replied meekly, “Sir, if you attend the Sudarshana Kriya course, you will have your questions answered”. An intelligent but evasive answer isn’t it. Any comments?