Breathing is the first act of life. Within the breath is the unexplored secret of life. It incorporates specific natural rhythms of the breath, harmonizing the body, mind and emotions. The technique eliminates stress, fatigue and negative emotions such as anger, frustration and depression, leaving the mind calm, focused and the body energized, completely relaxed. Breath is the main source of prana — the vital life-force energy. Prana is the very basis of health and well-being for both, the body and mind.
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Breathing techniques are regularly recommended for relaxation, stress management, control of psychophysiological states, and to improve organ function. Yogic breathing, defined as a manipulation of breath movement, has been shown to positively affect immune function, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders. The aim of this study was to assess and provide a comprehensive review of the physiological mechanisms, the mind—body connection, and the benefits of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga SKY in a wide range of clinical conditions.
All the results were carefully screened and articles on SKY were selected. The references from these articles were checked to find any other potentially relevant articles. SKY, a unique yogic breathing practice, involves several types of cyclical breathing patterns, ranging from slow and calming to rapid and stimulating. There is mounting evidence to suggest that SKY can be a beneficial, low-risk, low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.
The environmental pollution, increased pace of life, psychosocial disturbances, eating habits, and sedentary lifestyle have increased stress levels and their related disorders. Recently, yoga has been adopted as an approach to health within alternative medicine. One of the widely used relaxation practices is yoga and yogic breathing exercises. Yogic breathing, Pranayama, is a unique method for balancing the autonomic nervous system and influencing psychological and stress-related disorders.
Sudarshan kriya yoga SKY is a type of cyclical controlled breathing practice with roots in traditional yoga that provides relief for depression, and it is taught by the nonprofit Art of Living Foundation. It has four distinct components. Detailed descriptions of the four main SKY breathing techniques are as follows. This slow breath technique 2—4 breaths per minute increases airway resistance during inspiration and expiration and controls airflow so that each phase of the breath cycle can be prolonged to an exact count.
The subjective experience is physical and mental calmness with alertness. It causes excitation followed by calmness. SKY has been taught by the Art of Living Foundation to more than 6 million people in countries worldwide. Possible mechanisms, effects, and benefits of SKY are given below. SKY consists of a specific sequence of varying breathing rates separated by brief periods of normal breathing. Strained breathing occurs in nature when an animal is defeated in battle.
Many studies demonstrate the effects of yogic breathing on brain function and physiologic parameters, but the mechanisms have not been clarified. Biological postulations from neurophysiological model of vagus nerve stimulation of yogic breathing propose that SKY causes vagus nerve stimulation VNS and exerts numerous autonomic effects including changes in heart rate, improved cognition in Alzheimer's disease, improved bowel function, etc.
During SKY, a sequence of breathing techniques of different frequencies, intensities, lengths, and with end-inspiratory and end-expiratory holds creates varied stimuli from multiple visceral afferents, sensory receptors, and baroreceptors.
This may account for rapidity and diversity of SKY effects like experience of calmness and relaxation combined with increased vigilance and attention[ 3 , 5 , 6 ] for a detailed description of proposed neurophysiological pathways, see Brown and Gerbarg.
Sudarshan Kriya may work like mechanical hyperventilation and electronic unilateral VNS which lead to stimulation of thalamic nuclei resulting in quieting of frontal cerebral cortex.
The Ujjayi practice makes the practitioner feel calm. The proposed mechanism would be a shift to parasympathetic dominance via vagal stimulation. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia RSA refers to normal heart rate increases during inspiration and heart rate decreases during expiration.
RSA is influenced by sympathetic and vagal parasympathetic input, and by respiratory rate and volume. Slow yoga breathing induces oscillations of blood pressure and exaggeration of the normal RSA. Low RSA is usually found in individuals with depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and functional dyspepsia. Ujjayi breath increases RSA by increasing parasympathetic influences.
Bhastrika causes autonomic sympathetic activation and CNS excitation on electroencephalogram EEG ,[ 10 , 11 ] with activation of temporo-parietal cortical areas, producing rhythms that are similar to the gamma frequency bands hypothesized to reflect synchronization of neural assemblies. The daily practice of Bhastrika provides a mild sympathetic stimulation much like regular exercise, and thereby may increase the capacity of the sympathetic nervous system SNS to respond to acute stressors without rapidly exhausting its reserves.
Significant increases in beta activity were observed in the left frontal, occipital, and midline regions of the brain in the SKY practitioners, as compared to controls. These results indicated increased mental focus and heightened awareness in SKY practitioners. It is striking to note that SKY practitioners displayed significantly greater mental alertness beta activity than the control group of physicians and medical researchers, whose profession requires development and daily use of these very skills.
To summarize, improved autonomic function, neuroendocrine release, emotional processing, and social bonding following SKY practices may be attributed to VNS and activation of the limbic system, hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and stria terminalis.
According to the neurophysiological model of VNS by yogic breathing, it is assumed that SKY mainly exerts its endocrine effect by modulating the hypothalamic—pituitary—adrenal HPA axis, which is essential for fight and flight response and survival of humans. It is likely that SKY releases prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin via vagal afferents to the hypothalamus and anterior pituitary.
Oxytocin enhances the feelings of bonding and affection. Oxytocin secretion was found to be low in major depression and it is hypothesized to increase after treatment with SKY. Prolacatin was found to increase. In a study by Janakiramaiah et al. Blood analysis revealed elevation of plasma prolactin and stable cortisol after the very first SKY session.
This is important since elevated plasma prolactin may be crucial in producing an effective antidepressant response. Stable cortisol levels indicate the experience of SKY is not stressful. This may support a biological mechanism of SKY in producing beneficial effects. Increase of serum BDNF levels sustained for at least 4 h and was not due to cicardian rhythm. It was concluded that the intervention of SKY practices has profound antidepressant effects, which are highly correlated with its function in normalization of serum BDNF levels.
Studies on the therapeutic implications of SKY in various psychological and clinical conditions are summarized below. During various anti-stress programs in several populations, SKY has demonstrated significantly reduced anxiety scores, indicating stabilization of mental activity, enhanced brain function, and resiliency to stress. SKY treats the cognitive and psychodynamic problems of feeling alone, abandoned, and cast out by society by enabling participants to rebuild a sense of a caring, tolerant, interdependent community in which they are accepted and valued.
Yogic breathing can be taught to large groups in just a few days. The Sudarshan Kriya may provide antidote to stress by physiologically counteracting the sympathetic effects. In a normal situation in the absence of stress , the practice of rapid breathing interspersed with adequate pauses of slow breathing may provide tool for relaxation and vivid imagery.
Evidence suggests yoga breathing normalizes SNS activity and increases PNS tone as indicated by heart rate variability. Another way in which SKY training can facilitate this change in perspective is by awareness of and management of emotions through regular practice of the Kriya.
In the Lancaster Violence Alternative Program, the adolescent subjects, who were offenders of violent crimes with deadly weapon, murder, rape, armed robbery, and terrorist threats against others were included.
Participants also reported that they slept better; did not react to provocation as rapidly; did not experience as much anger; felt less fear at bed time; and generally expressed that they were more calm. Janakiramaiah and colleagues have shown that SKY was effective in treating mild and melancholic depression in dysthymic and unipolar major depressives.
By day 30, there was significant relief from depression in the groups treated with SKY, as measured by the P amplitude and standard depression scales. By day 90, their P had returned to normal which was indistinguishable from normal controls and they remained stable and depression free. Several other studies involving dysthymics and melancholics revealed significant improvement of depressive symptoms after SKY practices.
It was also reported that SKY exerts remarkable therapeutic effects in treating dysthymia and unipolar diseases and it may be a more acceptable and efficacious alternative to medical management of dysthymia for both acute treatment and relapse prevention. It has the advantage of fostering the patient's autonomy and self-reliance besides cutting health care costs. A comparative study of 45 hospitalized melancholic depressive patients randomized to electroconvulsive therapy ECT , imipramine, or SKY demonstrated that all three treatments were effective, with ECT being slightly more so than SKY or imipramine.
Stress is associated with a wide range of physiologic changes. It is also linked to the habit of tobacco and alcohol consumption, which in turn leads to disease states. SKY was tested for antidepressant effect in 60 inpatients of alcohol dependence. Morning plasma cortisol, ACTH, and prolactin too were measured before and at the end of 2 weeks.
Results demonstrated the antidepressant effects of SKY in alcohol-dependent subjects. The complex molecular response to stress is mediated by stress genes and a variety of regulatory pathways. Oxidative stress is internal damage caused by reactive oxygen species. Increasing evidence suggests that chronic psychosocial stress may increase the oxidative stress, which in turn may contribute to aging, and etiology of coronary diseases, cancer, arthritis, etc.
Sharma et al. The effect of SKY on antioxidant enzyme activities in menopausal women was studied. Four groups of women were compared: 40 received hormone replacement therapy HRT , 40 received mg of Vitamin E daily, 60 practised SKY daily, and 50 served as controls.
Within just 30 days, the SKY group of menopausal women exhibited improved antioxidant levels and was proven superior to the beneficial effects seen with HRT or Vitamin E on the antioxidant levels. An earlier study has reported that SKY practice significantly increases the blood levels of SOD as an indicator of antioxidant status and reduces plasma malondialdehyde MDA , another such indicator of oxidative stress.
This was accompanied by better stress regulation and better immune status due to prolonged life span of lymphocytes by up-regulation of antiapoptotic genes and prosurvival genes in these subjects. Thus, it was concluded that that SKY practice may exert effects on immunity, aging, cell death, and stress regulation through transcriptional regulation.
Gerbarg and Brown have found SKY to be helpful in patients with a wide range of medical disorders including chronic fatigue, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, neck and back pain, temoro mandibular joint pain, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and asthma. Reducing stress and anxiety is known to ameliorate pain and other stress-related symptoms. In a study conducted to assess the effects of SKY on lipid profile, pulmonary function, and hemoglobin concentration, significant improvement was found in all pulmonary function parameters in all subjects over a period of 8 days.
Thus, SKY may have therapeutic implication in the adjunctive non-pharmacological management of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. In a subsequent study, significant reductions in blood glucose level, serum total cholesterol, triglycerides, plasma MDA, and lipoperoxidation were observed in type 2 diabetic patients after 4 months of regular SKY practice. The authors suggested a promising potential for SKY as a complementary treatment for patients with diabetes. In a study assessing the neurophysiological responses before, during, and after SKY, an EEG recorded at 19 cortical sites , electrocardiography EKG , heart rate variability, galvanic skin response, hand skin temperature, pulse plethysmography, and blood pressure tests were measured.
The authors found that SKY practice produced significant changes in all physiological measures. It appears that over a period, the practitioner's health becomes more robust, flexible, and able to deal with the challenges of stress. This suggests that regular practice of SKY may be an important wellness practice. Spirometry tests in regular SKY practitioners have shown improvement in the lung function of normal healthy adults, which may have significance in serving as an adjunctive complementary treatment modality for improvement in lung function among the patients of obstructive airway disease, asthmatics in particular.
In the mild hypertensives, SKY practices have shown significant decrease in diastolic blood pressure, serum urea, and plasma MDA adducts as an oxidative stress marker. The pattern of change in most of the study parameters was such that values above normal range were lowered, but values within normal range were unaltered.
Some authors have reported that stress reduction techniques SKY practice might prove useful to improve the ability to see distant objects and reduce physiological stress activation during every day activities. Kochupillai et al. SKY increased natural killer NK cells significantly at 12 and 24 weeks of the practice compared to baseline.
How To Do Sudarshan Kriya And What Are Its Benefits?
From reducing stress to getting better rest, these techniques have a demonstrated measurable impact on quality of life. Over 70 independent studies conducted on four continents and published in peer-reviewed journals, have demonstrated a comprehensive range of benefits from practicing SKY taught on the Art of Living Happiness Program. Sudarshan Kriya and accompanying breathing practices, referred to collectively as SKY and taught through the Art of Living Foundation worldwide, have been found to enhance brain, hormone, immune and cardiovascular system function. Over 70 independent studies conducted on four continents and published in peer-reviewed journals, have demonstrated a comprehensive range of benefits from SKY practice. Reduced biochemical markers of stress: cortisol [2, 22] , corticotrophin  blood lactate  , ACTH  , and plasma MDA [2, 24] . Since stressful physiological responses negatively impact immune, cardiovascular, endocrine and mental health, this has significant implications for wellness. Improved immune cell counts in health compromised individuals seen in 12 weeks Natural Killer Cells .
Kriya Breathing Technique
I digress. Breathing —aside from keeping us alive— brings with it numerous health benefits. Interestingly, we humans are not very good at it. We tend to spend our waking hours taking in short, shallow breaths, usually through the mouth. Sudarshan Kriya is pretty much breathing on steroids. Taught as part of The Art of Living Happiness Program , the powerful breathing technique brings with it more juicy goodness than you could possibly imagine. If, like me, your demeanor tends to be more Eeyore than, say, Tigger or Pooh, Sudarshan Kriya can change that.