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MUMBAI (Reuters) - An Indian spiritual guru is teaching yoga and meditation to a group of war-weary Iraqis, whom he hopes will extend their new-found inner peace to their nation.
The 55 men and women -- chosen by the Iraqi government -- live on an expansive spiritual retreat in southern India and will follow an intensive meditation and rhythmic breathing regime for a month to learn about an alternative lifestyle.
Waking up at five every morning, they participate in yoga classes, meditate, help in the kitchen and take part in spiritual discussions, public speaking classes and spiritual singing as part of their physical, mental, emotional and social development.
Under the tutelage of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of the world's most popular spiritual leaders, the youngsters also learn about leadership qualities so that when they go back they can lead their local communities.
"They are here to learn the art of combating violence in non-violent ways," said M. Rajaque Rahman, spokesman of the Art of Living Foundation that the 51-year-old guru founded.
Sri Sri's foundation is already involved in humanitarian activities in Iraq, and in May he was invited by the Iraqi authorities to preach his prison rehabilitation programs.
The participants say Sri Sri's breathing exercise training has been a life-altering experience.
"It was like breathing out all the stress of war and breathing in a new life," said Ahmed Hinoon, a 32-year-old government worker.
"With so many problems of endless killings, bombs and war, life in Iraq is very stressful ... we have no hope. After coming here, we see a new ray of hope."
Sri Sri has taken his courses to millions of people in 151 countries. His group raises hundreds of millions of dollars a year and spends almost all on running schools, drug rehabilitation centers and on charity.
Dressed in flowing white robes and with a long black beard and long hair, Sri Sri's teachings are based on ancient principles of yoga, but he has added elements of his own and aligned it with meditation techniques.
He has mediated in conflicts in Sri Lanka and Kosovo, taught the art of living to hardened criminals in jails across the world and propagated chemical-free farming and natural medicine.
"He is very wise and has a lot of knowledge," said Ramia Sagban, another participant from Baghdad.
"We go back and help people come out of depression by teaching them breathing exercise and other techniques we are learning here."
The reconciliatory power of his course is on ample display at Sri Sri's retreat where about 150 Arabs from Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan and Lebanon mix easily with two dozen Israeli participants.
The Arabs and Israelis participate in the training together, helping each other with techniques and interacting on issues of life and spirituality.
"This can only happen when the mind is relieved of stress and emotions are softened and refined," Sri Sri told Reuters by email. "This state cannot be achieved by force or violence."