When I signed up for the intensive four-day "Art of Living" course in Modesto, I expected to learn some meditation techniques, practice yoga and maybe get some spiritual enlightenment.
I didn't realize I'd be getting to know more about the participants than I know of some of my closest friends, tapping into my inner child and joining in an impromptu dance party.
Started by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (a spiritual teacher not to be confused with the sitar player) more than 25 years ago, "Art of Living" classes teach students around the world how to release mental and physical stress, improve their health and enjoy life more.
There is no mention of religion or doctrines, only general advice about how to be happy. My class of about 15 included people of many faiths.
We gathered in a private residence on a leafy street in the La Loma neighborhood in mid-September. We would be together for four hours Friday night, eight hours Saturday and Sunday and finally four hours Monday night.
Those in attendance included professionals, business owners, educators, students, moms, artists and musicians -- with more than a few in hippie clothing and a smattering of Indians in traditional attire. Most were in their 20s and 30s. Some were looking for relief from health issues, others wanted clarity to deal with careers and relationships, and still others were just curious.
Our teacher, Rekha Kodialbail, who came from the Bay Area, was warm and welcoming and made us feel at ease right away with her gentle manner. We were encouraged to get to know one another quickly through a series of ice-breakers.
Because we promised not to reveal specifics of the course, I can't go into much detail of what happened. But I can give a general outline and offer some of my experiences.
The centerpiece of the training was sudarshan kriya, or healing breath. Sitting on cushions on the floor, we did a couple of 45-minute sessions of patterned breathing, alternating with long, medium and short breaths. The process reminded me a little of the Lamaze technique used by women during childbirth.
The purpose is to release stress and focus the mind on the moment. As a notoriously inflexible person since childhood, I had a hard time sitting in the lotus position for the exercise and my legs started to really hurt. The experience was intense and at times emotional as I released pent-up feelings, but it also was cleansing. By the end, I did feel relaxed, peaceful and content.
We also learned other breathing techniques and some low-impact yoga moves and stretches. Much of the rest of the time, we had discussions about our goals, needs, setbacks and fears.
Though it was awkward at first to be so open with one another, it also was freeing to share so much with strangers. Our teacher said she wanted us to remember that people face similar challenges in life.
Rekha also gave us some general advice for leading satisfying lives. As someone who avidly reads all types of spiritual books, I had heard most of the teachings before, but it was good to be reminded of them again. If there was an underlying theme, it was that everybody and everything is interconnected. We were encouraged to think of ways we could help one another.
But not everything about the course is so serious. It was also great fun, and there were times for games, dancing to Bollywood-type music and other play. At times, it felt like I was a kid again at recess.
I came away from the experience feeling nurtured and uplifted and a little better equipped to face the daily stresses of life. It was wonderful to meet such kind, interesting people and to take a break from the ordinary routine. I felt proud that the class was offered here in town and not just in the Bay Area. Since I attended the course, I've been doing a short version of kriya every night and it has helped me relax.
For people interested in expanding their horizons who are willing to break out of their normal mold, the "Art of Living" course is definitely worth checking out.
The next "Art of Living" course in Modesto is scheduled Nov. 14-16 at the home of Holly Neubuerger and Tim Lechuga, 148 Bonita Circle. The cost is $375 general or $200 students and seniors. Register at www.artofliving.org. For more information, call 404-7041.