Friday, January 1, 2010

How AoL Preys on the Youth


I remember back when I first became a part of AoL—there was never such an emphasis on youth courses. Now, all of a sudden, youth courses are all the hype (particularly the YES plus). Their advertisements and posters inevitably have some young people (of mixed demographic) smiling and having all kinds of fun. They use catchy words and phrases like “confidence”, “enthusiasm”, and “meet new people” to lure young unsuspecting students to the course. There are now even YES plus courses for college credit. So AoL has figured out how to tap into the fountain of youth—a whole population of young, naive, impressionable individuals with plenty of energy (to market the course) and plenty of friends (to market to).

Just like part 1 teachers, AoL is churning out armies of YES plus teachers. In order to become a YES plus teacher, one has to not only be able to pull off the enlightenment act, but it has to be more like “enlightenment on speed”. To make the cut, YES plus teachers have to act young and dynamic and especially enthusiastic in order to attract the young folks. It must be utterly exhausting.

Once one becomes a YES plus teacher, next comes the Holy Grail of YES plus teaching—getting the course offered in a university for credit. And how on God’s Green Earth are they able to convince respectable institutions to give college credit for such a course? Well, they seem to have found the magic marketing formula (four easy steps), which have been circulating among the teachers:

Step 1: Give several YES plus courses on (preferably) or near the campus to undergraduates in the institution and collect their testimonials
Step 2: Identify a few “strong” students and “nurture” them by hanging out with them and organizing and attending social activities.
Step 3: “Inspire” those students to tell the administration and/or their connections within the university about the course and arrange for a meeting with a YES plus teacher.
Step 4: Contact the YES plus desk to get proper coaching and help with organizing a professional presentation for the administration.

Now if that’s not predation, then I don’t know what is.

Thankfully, it seems that only a small percentage of students stay for the follow-up sessions (much like any other AoL course). But among the few that have stayed, I have seen students feel pressured to do the “seva” of recruiting more students to courses that they themselves were at first “inspired” to organize, and then later get burned out. I have seen students do this “seva” at the expense of not getting their own schoolwork done. And I know of one student who dropped out of school entirely because of involvement with AoL. It is a sad waste of life for those kids that take to heart ssrs’s words: “If you do my work, I’ll do yours.” Shame on ssrs and his org for hijacking young impressionable minds and getting them to do his dirty work.

Its bad enough that I, as a teacher, wasted years of my life on AoL. But what’s worse is the painful fact that I have helped AoL and ssrs suck dry the lives of others. I know that sharing my experiences here can never undo the damage I may have caused, but if these experiences can be used to help just one person decide not to take a course, or just one AOLite to leave the org, then my job here is done.


Kalika said...

The Yes Plus was created because AOL basic course failed to attract the youth. Yes plus also is a straight lift from Obama's 'Yes We Can' campaign. Sri Sri obviously wanted to capitalize on this wave. However insiders in AOL are concerned that Yes Plus is not delivering as it was intended to and they are putting a lot of pressure on the Yesplus teachers with unrealistic demands to get in more participants. Most Yes plus teachers I have seen are highly stressed and suffer from some ailment or another. This inspite of the fact that they are young and supposed to be healthy and happy.

Art of Leaving said...

Thank you for that analysis, Humble Witness. I hope someone forwards it to the colleges in question. The more we lay bare the AOL strategies, the less easily people will fall for this kind of thing – whether coming from AOL or other such movements.

It reminds me of one of the other AOL marketing strategies, which is similar to the Nobel Peace Prize tactics that KLIM exposed. Normally one should hope that honours and awards are conferred on a person because it is clear to the public eye or to respectable institutions that the work s/he has done is for the common good and of great benefit. One should hope that it is not due to a lot of lobbying by the followers of the person in question. Or perhaps I am being very naive on this point?

Anyway, during the 2006 Navaratri celebrations in the Bangalore ashram, SSRS gave darshan to all the international devotees in the Vishalakshi Mantap. He had received one or two certificates from Canadian cities honouring him (by giving him some award or honorary citizenship or declaring an AOL/SSRS day).

He told all the international devotees that once they return home they must organise to get the same thing done in their own cities. They basically must get their city to declare an AOL day (he specifically told us “AOL day”, but I see on his web site it says: “His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Day” - ).

He said that it was the AOL Silver Jubilee year and Silver Jubilee happens only once so we must not miss this opportunity. Three or four people together must go and see their local politician/parliamentarian, they must tell him/her about Silver Jubilee, show some footage. They must also take along a folder with copies of all the certificates already conferred to show to the politician. SSRS then said: “Of course, we know these things are really not important, but for the sake of those who think it is...” (I felt a bit uneasy at the time because this “name and fame game” did not strike me as being very honest or humble or spiritual.)

He also said that at Silver Jubilee they made sure he did not sit in a big chair, that he sat in the same chair as everyone else, so as not to cause any issue. (I wondered why this needed mentioning at all.)

Art of Leaving said...

At this same darshan, SSRS also moved around from country group to country group. He specifically wanted to hear about each country’s projects (whereas I would have liked him to address individual issues of spiritual concern).

While he moved around between the country groups, he instructed someone to share his experiences with the rest of us. (I am not sure if this guy was a teacher or just someone authorised to do blessings by having done the Blessings course.) The guy told us how Guruji had sent him to one of the provinces where a lot of farmer suicides are happening. Over the period of a few days he had blessed something like twenty-eight thousand people in that province. And he did not even do it for the required time of five seconds or whatever per person. Each blessing was shorter than the time required in the Blessings course.

Afterwards great numbers of people had reported healings. The guy rambled off statistics about how many got their sight or hearing back or got cured from depression, etc. He also said that people had perceived him as Guruji during the blessings. They had asked him afterwards why he had never told them that it was actually Guruji himself who was coming.

The guy was not a very loud or self-confident speaker and the international devotees did not pay much attention to his testimonies. They were talking among themselves and being more interested in looking at what SSRS was doing and waiting for him to come to their group. So every now and again the poor guy would fall silent, only to have SSRS call out to him from somewhere in the room: “Continue, continue.” I thought he was being taught a lesson in self-assertion and I felt a bit sorry for him.

At the time I thought it plausible that some of the things he reported could have happened, but I was a bit skeptical about the long-lasting effect or authenticity of all these reported healings. For one thing, I wondered if these persons whose hearing was restored, were able to speak and understand their mother tongue afterwards. I knew that deaf people whose hearing is restored by means of cochlear implants often have a long and difficult journey to distinguish sounds and to learn a spoken language. I wondered if the healings instantly conferred the gift of speaking on them as well. Similar concerns apply to people getting their sight restored and having to learn to distinguish shapes.

I kind of felt that if big claims of miraculous mass healings were being made, they should have been accompanied by some proper scientific investigation and report of the cases (before and after, as well as long-term follow-up). But at the time I was not too critical, because I was still under the spell of SSRS and intensely hoping for him to also heal me at all levels (which never happened).

Needless to say, with all the evidence of lies and deception and manipulation mounting against SRSS and AOL, I now take those reports with more than just a little pinch of salt.

a humble witness said...

Dear Art of Leaving,

I can remember the whole NPP propaganda request from ssrs as that year, I myself went to the city council members and mayor in my city to request that the day of his visit be an AoL or ssrs day. I showed his videos and list of awards etc. Thankfully, they saw through the bull and we were unsuccessful. But ssrs plays a numbers game, asking his soldiers to "reach out" to as many people as possible. For every ten failed attempts to sell ssrs or the course, if there is just one success, this is enough to keep the org going. Its so disgusting how he uses people's blind faith to his advantage.

As for the "miracles" of restoring hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind, I think you're reading too much into it. If indeed the claims were valid, don't you think ssrs would be capitalizing on those for his marketing? Or perhaps even seek the NPP in medicine for such discoveries? Instead, those stories are saved for the gullible devotees (the ones truly deaf) who hear only what they want to hear and believe only good things about their master.

At any rate, I visited your blog yesterday and I am quite curious to see the full story of how you got pulled in, and then managed to get out of the AoL cult.

Love and Blessings,
A humble witness

Prairie Princess said...

My kids saw AoL as a cult much quicker than I did.So no YES + for them. Thanks so much , Humble Witness and Art of Leaving (great comments on your blog, BTW). Your stories heal others and you are healing yourself through the sharing of these tales of abuse.

Anonymous said...


Art of Living YES+ courses seems to be offered at a number of College and University campuses across the U.S. and Canada. The courses have even penetrated the public school system across North America by gungho teachers who want to teach yoga and other eastern traditions to there students.

For those familiar with the YES+ course, could you comment on why this particular course is so offensive.

From what i've been told by someone close to me in the organization, a core component of the course is Kriya or breathing exercises and other components such as personal development, yoga, and generally light and fun activities are included.

I would also like to know what is the difference between YES+ basic and other courses? Is YES+ basic meant to be the first step in indoctrination of participants to the AOL organization? Is there a hard upsell to participate in other courses?

I've met some of the YES+ members and they really seem like genuine and nice people that want to teach something useful - do you consider some of the things taught in YES+ useful? If only there was a REAL non-profit secular organization that teaches these practices without enriching this "SRI SRI" fake guru? Maybe John you could comment? I guess what i would really like to know is there any utility in practicing meditation in the first place?

I know there are alot of questions Klim but i really appreciate your feedback as i am highly interested in learning stress reduction exercises and was told AOL was a good course to find these things...

KLIM said...

To the last Anon,
I cannot tell you to do or not to do the course. It is for you to decide. Having learned my lessons and having been inside, luring young people myself, knowing the tools of seduction and also the damages the processes can do to one in the long-term, having seen how it affects people's lives and health, the only thing I can say is, there are a lot of ways to reduce stress that do not involve joining a group that is interested in world fame and numbers and which uses "stress reduction" to captivate more clients. There are many techniques taught out there that are effective. There are many groups that have a lot more knowledge of yoga and pranayama, and whose sole interest is transparently that. If I had to do it over again, I'd look for a quiet non-hystrionic group that is not into publicity, fame, numbers and awards. Good luck in your decision making.

Mr. L said...

I stumbled on your blog a few days ago and had the chance to read through a few articles and I can relate to my own experiences with the AoL. I am not a member of the movement and don't intend to give into it any time soon.

I'm a college student from Canada and have witnessed the big gain of popularity that the AoL and especially YES+ manage to pull off in the last two years.

After trying really hard to "take some and leave some", I just got really tired of these people and their questionable antics. It wasn't too hard to distinguish the good from the bad... Good : yoga, meditation, healthy nutrition. Bad : the structure, the concept itself of AoL.

I find it disgusting to see how they are shamelessly promoting themselves as a NGO. Not once have a had a conversation with an AoL teaching without mention of money and especially without any pressure to register for anything. Not everyone is that movement is bad, I have to admit. There are a lot of great people, some of them are amongst the most amazing people I know and will ever meet. However, there's this hierarchy that is really dangerous. A newcomer to the AoL will be told stories of success and how they were all due to spiritual uplifting. They pretend that it's the best thing that could happen to you as a student.

On their website, you'll a lot of really interesting testimonies. I know most of these people and they are part of a truly charismatic, promising youth. *** But this is only a very very very small portion of the people who follow the movement ***.

I never really saw in the YES+ and AoL much to gain from to be honest. Sometimes I would listen to guys and girls who did YES+, YES++, DSL, etc say how much it changed their lives and how they are pretty much the real deal now... I would laugh in the inside. While I was in most part an outcast during junior high, I managed to develop some really good social and networking skills with time, did good professionally with a few business initiatives and surrounded myself with great people. Didn't have too many complexes to sum it up...

From all the time I spent in AoL organized activities, I could tell that these people weren't exactly "la crème de la crème". Perhaps I'm a little harsh, but most people I met were really socially odd. Quite often, I would hear "Wow, this is amazing" or "I never knew ____ could be so fulfilling". It sort of struck me to see how many of them were, at 19 to 23 years old, discovering things that I already went through in my high school years such as gatherings, outings at the restaurant, arts and craft nights, the outdoors... yes, the outdoors. All of a sudden, they were going out, conversing, they had friends, a lot of friends annnnd COMMON INTERESTS with them.

Mr L said...

Perhaps the best trick that the AoL uses is really bonding all of these kids together. Most of them have done the YES+ and YES++ classes and for most of them, it has been the most exciting experience or their lives. I have to admit that from the description of the YES+ class, I was interested - it actually seemed like tons of fun! But I've done more interesting things so 300$ for a class, no thanks, I'll pass.

I once went to their Ashram trip and have to say that I felt good. The yoga was therapeutic, same for the meditation, I was developing feelings towards this girl who obviously had the qualities to be a leader and should give more credit to herself than to the classes she's been attending. I had superb discussions with her, but the same can't be said about 95% of the people there. Seemed like every conversation would deviate to come back to glorifying YES+ and the AoL. We'd talk about vegetarian foods, yoga, meditation and breathing techniques all of the time.

At times, I felt like I was missing something. It's not like I wanted it, but I was curious and at times, I thought about taking that 300$ for a week class. That's the way the AoL works. It pretty much describes its hierarchy...

Members of the movement knew how to manipulate you by making you feel like you don't really belong... so you take the first step. They bill your credit card and after a week you feel like part of the "family". They strongly believe that the outcome is a totally new them... that's why you can sense this arrogance between YESpluses and Non-YESpluses, DSNs and Non-DSNs, teachers and students. All I heard about is how they planned to take this and that class.

The first time I participated in an AoL event, they put a lot of pressure so that I would take YES+. They offered to lend me money, they told me it was the best investment I could make. They down played the fact that it would add up to my student debts and said that only after taking the class would I be adequately prepared to take on the world. Quite insulting, if you want my opinion.

There are just so many things I could say... but this is as much as I can come up before starting to shift towards aggressivity. I just want to finish by saying that I hope that the great people I've met from AoL would give themselves more credit for who they are, what they've accomplished.

a humble witness said...

Dear Mr. L,

Thanks for sharing--you have made some very astute observations about the subtle manipulative tactics of AoL teachers. As a former teacher, I can attest to the fact that the primary mission of AoL is recruiting new participants. The secondary mission (quite high up there with the first) is to maintain the people already in the group and keep them coming back for more courses. That is why you have felt the pressure in your group to attend more and more courses. And you are told that you haven't experienced anything unless you have experienced such and such course. And then you have to repeat all the courses again, but this time in "HIS" presence. To a sincere seeker who truly strives for spiritual evolvement, Its a never-ending cycle of feeling elated when you’ve made it through another “karma-burning” course, but inadequate every time another course opportunity is missed. And because the group thinks along the same lines, its only natural to get pulled into this mentality.

The foundation is built upon those well-meaning "great people" you have met in the organization. Those are the optimistic idealists who truly want to do good in the world, and who somehow got convinced that AoL and SK are the magic antidote to everything from war to hemorrhoids. Such people either end up leaving once they realize what the org. is truly about, or become twisted and corrupted by ego boost of becoming a teacher and get swept up in the politics of the org. You have done the right thing by leaving early on.

I wish you all the best.

Anonymous said...

AoL's Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP) is another way that AoL prays on youth. YLTP is worse because it preys on poor rural youth. The local teacher usually get local NGO workers like myself to buy into YLTP. We agree to convince a few rural youth to go to the course (even paying their way) thinking that the youth will become a village leader at the end of the 10 day course, capable of bringing development skills to his organization. I was stupid to accept this, but having worked in traditional development NGOs I thought that maybe a spiritual approach would help. Alas, I was wrong to choose AoL's philosophy/YLTP. Only when I attended a large AoL event in the cities did I realize that all the grunt labor is done by the "yuvacharayas", ie the graduates of YLTP. The youth are never sent back to their village; and they sort of keep doing the AoL grunt work because they depend on the measly stipend they are given. ...just perpetuating rural poverty by oppressing the best of what rural communities have to offer--rural youth.