There is an epidemic that the world—particularly the US—is grappling with, and it is not COVID-19.
America’s infrastructure to handle a mental-health crisis was already being questioned when COVID-19 struck. The pandemic is the straw that has broken the proverbial camel’s back, with institutions struggling to meet the ubiquity of mental illnesses. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, major depression among 20 and 21 year-olds has doubled between 2009 and 2019, and psychological distress in the form of anxiety and hopelessness rose 71 percent in the 18–25 age group. Twice as many young adults had contemplated suicide since 2008.
At a time when institutional counselors, hospitals, and mental-health service providers have spread themselves too thin in dealing with the rising caseload, what is helping are adjunct low cost, science-backed, natural, breath-based, mind-body practices and stress-relief programs that enhance wellness and mental well-being. These are proven to be working remarkably well across communities and age groups, from young students to war veterans.
A breakthrough study by researchers from Yale University has found that the college students who practiced the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY), a popular breathing technique, reported improvements in six key areas of well-being: depression, stress, mental health, mindfulness, positive affect, and social connectedness.
The findings, reported in Frontiers in Psychiatry said ‘such resiliency training programs could be a valuable tool for addressing the mental health crisis on university campuses.’
Role of Breath in Wellness
There is now sufficient evidence that proves there is a connection between breath and emotions, including stress and anger. Research also points to how shallow breathing is linked to digestive problems, sleep disorders, blood pressure, lack of mental clarity, and lower energy levels. Diaphragmatic breathing for example, a tool freely available to you at all times, is a quick way to slow down breathing, lower blood pressure, ease the pressure on the sympathetic nervous system, relax muscular tension, improve cardiovascular and respiratory function, and promote relaxation in mind and body.
How often do you observe your thoughts, moods and emotions keenly? We now know that breath can be key in observing our mind and thoughts better. Another study done at Trinity College Dublin points to the link between breathing and attention. Meditative breathing affects the levels of noradrenaline, a hormone neurotransmitter that is released by the body under a stressful or challenging situation. When released in the right amounts, it paves the way to build important connections. A study at Feinstein Institute for Medical Research also found that intentional breathing helped activate insula, a part in the brain that regulates the autonomous nervous system and builds moment-to-moment awareness. This showed specific breathing techniques could help in managing ‘thoughts, moods and experiences.’
One such science-backed breathing technique that has gained popularity worldwide with more than 450 million practitioners, is the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) technique. What is SKY? Where did it begin and how did it come to be so popular, as to be offered in all major educational institutions (Yale, Columbia, MIT, among others), corporate and government organizations?
What is SKY?
There is rhythm in nature. Seasons follow a rhythm, the sun rises and sunsets in a rhythm, the animals and their life cycles have a rhythm, and so does our breath. Yet, we have hardly explored the potential of rhythmic breathing in relieving stress and improving mental and physiological well-being. SKY is a breathing technique that taps into the rhythm of our breath, to release toxins on a cellular level. The practice is concluded with an effortless meditative state where practitioners report clarity of mind, prolonged moments of thoughtlessness, slower and steadier heart rate, and calmness of being.
History of SKY
Sudarshan Kriya came into being in 1982 in Shimoga, India, when global humanitarian, spiritual figure, and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar went into a ten-day silence.
“I had already traveled around the world. I had taught yoga and meditation. But still, I was concerned about how to help people live a happy life. I felt there was something that was lacking,” says Sri Sri. “Though people do their practices, their life is in compartments. When they come out in life, they are very different people. So, I was thinking about how we can bridge this gap between inner silence and outer expression of life.”
Sri Sri further shared in an interview with CNN’s Richard Quest, “During a ten-day period of silence, the Sudarshan Kriya came to me like an inspiration. Nature knows what to give and when to give. After I came out of the silence, I started teaching whatever I knew and people had great experiences.”
Since then, this powerful, rhythmic breathing technique has been the cornerstone of all Art of Living programs.
Vox Populi: Does SKY work?
There are said to be 450 million SKY practitioners across 150 plus countries around the world, who vouch for its life-transforming potential in wellness and mental health.
“The practice gives us an ever-increasing awareness of how to live in the present moment,” say actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker. Tina, a mathematician and regular practitioner of the breathing technique from the UK adds, “I have become more relaxed about challenging situations at home and at work, and I have become more patient with people.”
William, a senior system analyst with NASA says the practice brings him mental clarity and stamina. “As an engineer, I need to be both analytical and critical. Sudarshan Kriya and meditation enhance these abilities. An additional plus is a better sense of well-being.”
Why is SKY Popular—Relevance and Research
More than 100 independent studies cutting across four continents, including award-winning research papers, back the complete range of benefits of the practice for the body, breath, and mind.
SKY and Depression
Important research done by the prestigious Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences found that the SKY and related breathing techniques ‘demonstrated a 68-73% success rate in treating people suffering from depression, regardless of the severity of the depression. Substantial relief was experienced in three weeks. By one month, patients were considered to be in remission.’ At three months, the patients remained asymptomatic and stable, reflected in their brain wave patterns returning to normal. In fact, in dealing with depression, researchers from NIMHANS postulated that SKY was as effective as the established anti-depressant drug Imipramine.
Dr. Janakiramaiah, senior medical researcher and chair of psychiatry at N.I.M.H.A.N.S., concludes that SKY has ‘remarkable therapeutic effects’ and ‘is clinically feasible and effective. It has the potential to become a first-line treatment of dysthymic [chronic, mild depression] patients and possibly in mild and moderate forms of major depressive disorder.’
SKY and PTSD
Given the rise in mental health illnesses and suicides among war veterans, the introduction of SKY training and resilience workshops has yielded encouraging results in the management of PTSD symptoms. In a randomized trial of SKY for veterans who were deputed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the veterans reported a crucial reduction in PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and respiration rate. More importantly, the veterans reported ‘reduction in startle and hyperarousal,’ a recurring symptom with this section of participants. This is an important—of all the PTSD symptoms, hyperarousal has the strongest influence on the health and quality of life of returning veterans.
SKY and Hypertension
Regular practice of deep breathing and SKY techniques is now known to help manage the risk factors of hypertension, a lifestyle disorder that plagues nearly half of American adults, according to CDC figures. This is achieved by regular cyclical breathing that rebalances the autonomic nervous system function. The practice outcome ensures the body stays longer in the parasympathetic nervous system when the body is in a resting phase. In a study, three months into the practice patients of hypertension showed a reduction in anxiety; improvement in cortical regions of the brain associated with anticipation and worry; reduction in blood lactate levels (raised lactate levels indicate stress); improvement in BMI and lipid profile.
SKY and Immunity
Stress is one of the deadliest enemies of immunity and until there is a reliable vaccine, immunity is all that we have to rely on in this fight against the ubiquitous COVID-19 virus. Stress attacks the immune system, weakens it by undermining our neuroendocrine function. A weak immune system leaves our bodies vulnerable to an attack by a slew of pathogens and diseases, including cancers.
SKY helps eliminate this stress from each cell in the body and thus improve immune function, a study of the gene expression in SKY practitioners showed. SKY practice among cancer patients led to a notable increase in natural killer cells at the end of the 12 and 24 week periods. Natural killer cells are lymphocytes that act on other immune cells to improve immune response. “When confirmed in large and randomized studies, this result could mean that the regular practice might reduce the incidence and progression of cancer,” says Dr. Vinoda Kochupillai, one of India’s leading cancer experts.
SKY and Hormone Balance
A lot of our emotions have to do with how balanced our hormonal flow is. Think of hormones as chemical messengers that are released by various glands, moving through the bloodstream, that affect specific physical processes including regulating our mood. A little imbalance here and we are seen dancing to the tunes of hormonal turbulence, all the while blaming ourselves for too much anxiety, fear, anger, or feeling low. Every hormone secretion in moderation is good and necessary, including the bad guys like cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Cortisol is released in preparing our body for a fight or flight response. But perpetually high levels of cortisol can weaken our immune response and put our body in a prolonged state of stress.
Powerful breathing practices can work wonders in dialing down the release of stress-causing hormones and increasing levels of what we call the happy and mood-lifting hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Studies showed just the very first SKY session significantly increased the production of plasma prolactin, a well-being hormone that is believed to be key in reducing depression symptoms. The study also showed cortisol levels were significantly down after 21 days of practice, proving its stress-relieving credentials to be true.
Other Benefits of SKY Practice
- It activates the vagus nerve, key in depression treatment
- Increases deep sleep by 218%
- Blood lactate levels decreased by 87.5% in the highly stressed group of individuals
- EEG shows alpha waves increase, indicating a relaxed state of mind
- Promotes feelings of well-being and positivity.