Our last port of call on Semester at Sea was India, and I was ‘persuaded’ by my wife to sign up for a Spiritual Yoga course, a good six-hour dive from Fort Cochin where we were docked. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, although the pre-tour instructions made the trip sound a little daunting – no alcohol, vegetarian food only, no speaking during meal times, no Internet, 5 hours of yoga and 2 hours of meditation a day, no photography, only two meals a day… and the list went on. However, I have to say it was one of the highlights of the voyage so far, and I was particularly impressed with how spirituality has been packaged and sold to the masses.
Located at the foot of the Velliangiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu, the Isha Yoga Center is the brainchild of Jaggi Vasudev, or Sadhguru as he is widely known. The modern-day yogi and mystic is a charismatic man whose vision for harmony and well-being for all takes him across the world to address prestigious global forums and conferences, speaking about issues as diverse as human rights, business values and environmental responsibility. He has been invited to the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit, the House of Lords in the UK, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and IMD Lausanne, Switzerland.
Surrounded by thick forests, and situated right next to the Nilgiri Biosphere reserve, the ashram was founded by the Sadhguru over two decades ago, and is administered by the Isha Foundation. One major attraction of the center is the Dhyanalinga Yogic Temple, a meditative space that is said to be the first of its kind to be completed in over 2000 years. The temple does not ascribe to any particular faith and is available to all irrespective of their religion or nationality. It is open everyday, including national or cultural holidays, from 6am to 8pm, attracting thousands of visitors from all over the world. Many of these visitors take part in Nada Aradhana, an offering of sound to the Dhyanalinga that includes an ethereal blend of vocals, singing bowls, drums and various other instruments. The offering takes place twice daily from 11:50 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. and from 5:50 p.m. to 6:10 p.m. These are the only times of the day when the usual silence within the temple is broken.
The ashram is also the location for major cultural events. For example, in an endeavor to preserve and promote the uniqueness and diversity of India’s performing arts, the center annually hosts Yaksha, a seven-day festival of music and dance. Various eminent artistes perform at the festival, culminating in the night-long celebration of the Mahashivarathri festival - one of the biggest and most significant among the sacred festival nights of India. This night is considered the darkest night of the year, and celebrates the Grace of Shiva, who is known as Aadhi (first) Guru from whom the yogic tradition originates.
The Isha Center offers all four major paths of yoga – kriya (energy), gnana (knowledge), karma (action), and bhakti (devotion), drawing people from all over the world. Other programs include Inner Engineering, designed by the guru to ‘establish a deep and lasting transformation.’ Over two million people have completed the program to date, all seeking advertised results such as improved mental clarity, increased energy levels, relief from chronic ailments, deepening of interpersonal relationships, and greater peace and joy in everyday life. Another program offered by Isha Education is INSIGHT – The DNA of Success, a practitioner-oriented leadership course that draws upon the experience of several highly successful business leaders who have built and grown world-class organizations. Along with Sadhguru’s guidance and involvement, other resource leaders in past programs include Rajan Tata, Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons, and Dr. Prathap C Reddy, founder of Apollo Hospitals.
Isha Sacred Walks is another branch to the guru’s portfolio of product offerings, promoted not as tours, but ‘a possibility for deep transformation’. The Himalayan Sacred Walks is one example, comprising two weeks of meditation, treks and camping. The guru’s entrepreneurial talents have not stopped there. Sounds of Isha offers ten albums of music ‘transporting you to subtler states of being, forming the basis for inner exploration’; Isha Craft produces gift items, jute pieces, paintings, metal crafts, stone art-de-facts and handicrafts, as well as designer clothing; Isha Life is the wellness sub-brand, a center that provides a holistic approach to health and fitness, but also includes a fine-dining restaurant Mahamudra, an outdoor café Namma and the Shambhavi Craft Boutique; Isha Foods and Spices are a collection of snacks, drinks, tiffin mixes and pickles; Isha Arogya offers healthcare products and services and has established holistic health centers in several major cities of Tamil Nadu; and finally Isha Publications promotes Sadhguru’s works and discourses in the form of books, CDs and DVDs.
The Isha Center, and all of these sub-brands, are promoted via a glossy magazine, a slick website, and various social media platforms including Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. Much of the income from these commercial prongs is ploughed back into the foundation, an entirely volunteer-run non-profit organization which is ‘dedicated to cultivating human potential through its vibrant spiritual movement’. The social development branch of the foundation is Isha Outreach, with a vision to empower the deprived sections of India to achieve improved health, education, and environmental wellbeing. Another initiative established by the foundation is Project GreenHands, which aims to take corrective measures to increase the green cover of Tamil Nadu by an additional 10 percent by planting trees through volunteer participation. Finally, a long-time vision of Sadhguru is to raise the human spirit and rejuvenate the marginalized rural population, and so he has created Action for Rural Rejuvenation (AAR), a program that has already reached out to 4600 villages in over a decade of work.
Not content with operating in India alone, Sadhguru is spreading his tentacles overseas, recently establishing the Isha Institute of Inner-sciences in Tennessee, U.S. The institute, spread over 1,300 acres, offers a variety of programs ‘that provide methods for anyone to attain physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing’. Two powerful meditation spaces are the main features of the Isha Institute. Mahima, which means grace, is a 39,000 sq ft domed meditation hall and home to many of the programs offered at the Institute; basic programs that do not require any prior knowledge of yoga or meditation, as well as advanced programs for those who wish to take a step further in their spiritual growth. The second
space is the Adi Yogi: Abode of Yoga, a meditative space established as a tribute to the Adi Yogi, the world’s first yogi, who offered the yogic sciences to the world over 15,000 years ago.