The cafeteria at Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore is usually a noisy, active place. But when Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar entered the room yesterday, children sat still in their seats and listened as the diminutive man with long dark hair spoke.
"He was a lot shorter than I thought he'd be," said fourth-grader Destiny Stewart, 8, who is participating in a program created by Shankar that aims to teach children to be kind and promote peace in their community.
Shankar is the founder and spiritual leader of the Art of Living Foundation, which is sponsoring the program at the school. The foundation is active in 140 countries and offers classes that teach participants how to relieve stress and "reach their full potential."
Shankar, who is not related to the famous sitar player, is reported to be on the long list of nominees for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Yesterday, Shankar visited the school on his way to the Baltimore Convention Center, where he is headlining a convention of people with ties to Karnataka, a state in southern India. The convention will run through tomorrow and is expected to draw 4,000 participants, including film stars, writers and dancers from Karnataka, whose trips are being paid for by their local government.
"You could just touch him and tell," said school Principal Bridget Dean, referring to Shankar's aura of calm. "You immediately knew what peace was all about."
Rain and traffic delayed Shankar's arrival at the school, so he did not get to visit with the children long before he had to leave for his next appointment. But during a telephone interview later, he said he enjoyed meeting the students and described them as "lovely." Shankar said he hoped the children would learn to live in a state of tranquillity and help end violence.
"If we can do that, society will be a much safer place to be," Shankar said.
Dean has been working with local representatives of Shankar's foundation for about a year. The educator met Ramola Prabhu and her daughters, Radhika and Gopika, all of whom work with the foundation, at a peace rally at Carroll Park last spring. The daughters, who are 24 and 23, respectively, started teaching students at Charles Carroll Barrister breathing techniques and yoga soon after.
Children responded enthusiastically to the initial lessons and so the Prabhus, who live in Phoenix in Baltimore County, and Dean decided to continue with new teachings. For the next month, students will practice random acts of kindness. They will record their activities in journals and drawings. Their journal entries and artwork will be displayed on walls in the school.
"This is an amazing school," said Dean, who added that she and other school administrators and teachers have noticed a drop in suspensions. "The students who have participated in the program enjoy the activities because they are nonthreatening and rather fun," Dean said.
Destiny Stewart, the fourth-grader who met Shankar, said she enjoys yoga because it is "like playing." She said she has practiced the stretching techniques at home, too. Stewart said she tried to teach her parents yoga, but they had some problems.
"They had a hard time getting down and getting up again," she said.
Art of Living representatives have worked with students at Northwestern High School and at several private schools in Baltimore, said Ramola Prabhu, who is a medical doctor and instructor with the foundation. Her daughters taught tranquillity techniques to 112 students at Northwestern High School last year. Some of those same students traveled to Montreal earlier this summer to participate in a leadership conference, the women said.
When asked about the cost of the school programs offered by the Art of Living Foundation, the Prabhus said that funding is covered by private grants. The program at Northwestern was paid for with a grant from the Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund, said Radhika Prabhu.
"We are trying to give students the chance to be stress-free and violence-free," said Radhika Prabhu. "At first, they were shy and didn't want to take their shoes off to do yoga. But after the first day, they were banging on the door to come in."