Breathing is the most obvious and direct manifestation of human life. The first gasp of breath by a newborn is considered the moment of birth and beginning of life. Rate of respiration is one of the four vital signs that indicates how well the body is functioning. Yet, in the rush to meet our life goals amidst the daily hustle-bustle, we tend to ignore the importance of mindful deep breathing.
The synchronized act of inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide is called breathing, oxygen being essential for the cellular functions of the body. The normal rate of respiration in adults is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. Breathing is a somatic function, which means that unlike eating food and drinking water, under normal circumstances we do not need to consciously make an effort to breathe. Ancient Vedic texts provide insight into the importance of attaining meditative awareness by focusing the mind on regulated breathing. In recent years medical research, too, has gathered conclusive evidence that practicing mindful or conscious breathing techniques has positive effects on the physical and mental well being of an individual.
What is Sudarshan Kriya?
Sudarshan Kriya is a combination of pranayam and breathing techniques beginning with slow inhalation and exhalation and gradually progressing to a series of rapid breathing techniques. The word “sudarshan” means positive appearance or outlook and “kriya” is an act of purification. The whole process of Sudarshan Kriya is based on controlling the mind by focusing on regulated breathing and thereby improving overall wellness. Sudarshan Kriya was popularised by Bangalore-based The Art of Living Foundation and the practice is initiated in a controlled environment where teachers trained in conducting sessions guide participants through the progressive steps.
Elements of Sudarshan Kriya
- The posture – Sudarshan Kriya is practiced by sitting in the Vajrasana or Thunderstorm posture, keeping the spine erect, and body relaxed. The individual must keep his or her eyes closed during the entire period and focus on the instructions of the teacher and the breathing process. One group session of Sudarshan Kriya lasts for 20 to 30 minutes and is followed by meditation and relaxation.
- Ujjayi – Also known as ocean breath, this involves slow and controlled deep inhalation by contraction of the diaphragm so that the inhaled air expands the lungs and the belly, and is followed by slow exhalation. When practiced correctly the movement of air is felt in the throat and the rushing sound of breath, similar to that of an ocean, is emitted by the glottis.
- Kanishtha, Madhyama and Jyestha pranayam – Human lungs are divided into lobes. The right lung has three lobes, superior, middle and inferior, and the left lung has two lobes – superior and inferior. This pranayam flushes out the toxins from all lobes through changes of placement of hands and focused breathing.
- Bhastrika pranayam – Also known as bellow breath, Bhastrika pranayam is the forceful inhalation and exhalation of breath through the nostrils by the rapid contraction and dilation of the diaphragm. One set of inhalation and exhalation constitutes one round of Bhastrika pranayam.
- Chanting “Om” – Om is the sacred syllable. Incantation of this powerful sound three times with prolonged expiration is said to result in the convergence of the soul with the cosmic energy.
- Sudarshan Kriya – This step involves three paces of breathing in succession – multiple counts of slow paced breathing, medium paced breathing and rapid paced breathing.
- Meditation and relaxation – The final steps of the kriya are mediation and relaxation. Meditation channelizes the energy by harmonizing the senses with the exultation experienced by the practitioner after Sudarshan Kriya. Relaxation is as important in yogic practice as in any other form of exercise. The organs and functions that are stimulated by the kriya need some time to absorb the impact and realign themselves for improved functioning.
Importance of Sudarshan Kriya
Just as there is a rhythmic pattern in nature, there is a similar rhythm in our bodily functions that regulate our physical health and mental wellbeing. Loss of sync between nature and an individual leads to disharmony and ailments. Creating a mellifluous flow of energy between the mind, body and nature reinstates the wellness equation. Sudarshan Kriya was devised as a method to bridge the gap between the mind and the external environment through conscious regulation of breathing.
Sudarshan Kriya has been found to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of mental health issues like post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, trauma and bipolar disorder, and physical health issues like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and issues related to the endocrine system and immunity.
Effects of Sudarshan Kriya
On the mind
The frontal lobes of our brain are stimulated whenever we concentrate on a particular work or thought. The more the concentration, the greater is the exertion of the frontal lobes. This creates a cycle of stress and anxiety, because when the frontal lobes are overworked they cannot suddenly slow down from that heightened state of activity. The agitated state of mind continues to keep us anxious about something or the other unless we can calm ourselves down by controlling our mind. Sudarshan Kriya acts as a hyperventilation (quickening of inspiration and expiration cycle) method that ultimately results in reducing the impact of over-stimulation on the frontal lobes and promotes a sense of quietness in the practitioner.
In normal breathing cycles, our heart rate increases during inspiration and decreases during expiration. This is called Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA). People suffering from depression, anxiety or stress have low RSA. Practice of Sudarshan Kriya increases RSA by calming the practitioner down.
Other significant impacts of Sudarshan Kriya are improved quality of sleep in insomniacs, reduction in effects of trauma, regulation of the level of stress hormone cortisol in the body, controlling the urge of tobacco, alcohol and other substance abuse, less reaction to provocation, less instances of angry outbursts, better cognitive functioning and balanced approach during societal interaction.
On the body
Medical research postulates that pranayam, the critical element of Sudarshan Kriya, regulates the neuropsychological, endocrine, pulmonary functions and antioxidant factors in the body through controlled breathing techniques.
Levels of oxytocin hormone, responsible for social bonding and child birth, prolactin hormone, responsible for lactation in breastfeeding mothers, and vasopressin which regulates the constriction of blood vessels and reabsorption of water by kidneys is said to improve in Sudarshan Kriya practitioners through neural stimulation of the hormone secreting hypothalamus and pituitary glands.
Antioxidants are the warrior group in our body that combat the oxygen radicals produced as a by-product of cell functions. When the oxygen radicals cannot be eliminated by antioxidants, either because the level of antioxidants is low or the level of oxygen radicals is abnormally high, it leads to multiple health issues like coronary diseases, low immunity and even cancer. In a research conducted by AIIMS, New Delhi, it was found that the level of antioxidants was higher, and there was reduced DNA and cell damage in Sudarshan Kriya practitioners.
The regular practice of the Kriya improves lung capacity and pulmonary functions, particularly in people suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and asthmatic distress.
A medical research study was conducted in Maharashtra to assess the effect of Sudarshan Kriya on lipid levels of practitioners and it was compared with the lipid levels of similarly aged control groups. It was found that the practitioners had lower levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in comparison to the control groups.
On the soul
Spiritual awakening is one of the cornerstones of Sudarshan Kriya. The macrocosmic unity that can be experienced by a practitioner is said to liberate a person from all the emotional and physical knots that holds one down. Once the practitioner has mastered the kriya and practices it regularly, the whole life of the person undergoes a transformation, say AOL members. Negative thoughts are pushed out of the system through forceful breathing, and positivity permeates the senses. Holistic living, through practice and deeds takes the practitioner to the level of oneness with nature, and that is the key to a balanced life lived well.
On the society
Sudarshan Kriya is generally taught in groups. The reason for participating is different for every individual. One person may be suffering from a physical issue that is affecting his/her health, while another person may be troubled by emotional trauma and unresolved conflicts. Yet, the coming together of people through Sudarshan Kriya bridges the divides that fragment them into constricted identities, and they have been able to relate to one another more empathically on a humanitarian level. Improvement of feel-good hormones and reduction of stressors lead to better societal interactions and positivity.
The effects of Sudarshan Kriya are manifold and encompass physical, emotional, spiritual and societal wellness. Through sustained practice people have been able to identify problems that were holding them back from living lives with their full potential and have enabled them to heal themselves.
However, it must be reiterated and remembered that Sudarshan Kriya cannot be self-taught. One must begin by learning the kriya through a certified teacher, and follow it up by practicing it sincerely and religiously for it to yield all-round benefits.
(This article has been written with inputs from Ms. Vandana Nahar, Principal Sri Sri Vidya Mandir, and AoL Guide, Kolkata, and Mr. Rajaque Rahman, AoL Guide, Manipur.)