44% Off Your Anxiety Or Depression


No, this isn’t about a sale. Its about an interesting article I read several years ago by health journalist Cindy Kuzma on the psychological benefits of breathing exercises.

My interest in this subject has been rekindled by recently discovering the 4-7-8 breathing technique which I have found to be very quick and significant in reducing mental tension.

The article is about an Italian study where researchers taught test subjects some yogic breathing exercises. After 6 months the test subjects had a 44% drop in symptoms of anxiety and depression:

Italian researchers put 69 people with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, or similar conditions through a two-week workshop in Surdashan Kriya Yoga, or SKY. Though SKY includes some poses and meditation, the core component is a sequence of 5 breathing exercises: slow breathing, alternate nostril breaths, fast breathing from the diaphragm, rapid exhalations, and cyclical breathing.

After graduating from breathing bootcamp, participants practiced at home and went in for weekly follow-up sessions. Six months later, their anxiety scores had decreased by about 44%, and many no longer qualified for a clinical diagnosis.

The article didn’t describe what those 5 exercises were, but I had an intuition that they are yogic breathing exercises that existed long before the SKY ( Sudarshan Kriya Yoga ) program was taught by The Art Of Living organization.

It wasn’t easy to find, but with persistent Googling I found this academic paper which describes the SKY breathing routine:

Anti-anxiety efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga in General Anxiety Disorder: a multicomponent, yoga based, breath intervention programfor patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder with or without comorbidities. Journal of Affective Disorders 184 (2015) 310–317

The sequence of SKY, adapted to clinical purposes, consists of five sequential breathing exercises separated by 30-second periods of normal breathing.The sequence is performed as follows:

  1. Ujjayi, slow breathing 3-4 cycles per minute
  2. Nadi Shodana, alternate nostril breathing,
  3. Kapalabati, fast diaphragmatic breathing
  4. Bhastrika, rapid exhalation at 20-30 cycles per minute
  5. Sudarshan Kriya, rhythmic, cyclical breathing in slow, medium and fast cycles.

A brief interlude of chanting is introduced between the Bhastrika and the Sudarshan Kriya cycles.

I was told that the sequence above, minus #1, has been around in yoga for a long time and it is known as The Four Purifications.

So, it looks like it is possible to learn the breathing exercise routine that had the fantastic results in the research study without going to The Art Of Living organization. I have seen 1-4 described in many pranayama books, and endless YouTube videos. I am a big fan of getting proper guidance from live, in person teaching so I would likely find a yoga or kriya class in my area that taught these things or hire a yoga teacher for private lessons.The SKY ( Sudarshan Kriya Yoga ) breathing routine is taught through a “non-profit” organization called “The Art Of Living” in their “Happiness Program” course. You go for two evenings and two days on a weekend (18 hours total ) and pay $400. That may or may not be a reasonable cost when compared to the cost of 18 hours of yoga instruction from other sources. People who pay for the course are entitled to near unlimited follow ups and practice classes.

Over the course of my Googling I found that some of the scientists who studied those techniques took what they learned and made their own breathing exercise program which they claim gets similar results.

The Healing Power Of The Breath — about $10 on Amazon.

My intuition ( uninformed, non-expert opinion ) is that the SKY routine is not necessary for these results. I read a Psychology Today article just the other week stating that ordinary slow deep breaths can relax people.

The Art of Living foundation is a “non profit” founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian musician. Though being a nonprofit they “keep” a lot of the money collected ( big buildings all over the world, cars, paid staff, etc ). Some accounts (take with a grain of salt) on the web have stated the organization felt kind of cultish. I found this article that indicates some part of this organization may be sketchy and trying to profit off yogic practices that have existed for thousands of years.

Its a large organization so it is quite possible for some parts of it to be crappy and for other parts to be crappy. Its the Internet, take it all with a grain of salt.

Breathing, Willpower, & Relaxation.

The excerpt below is from “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It” by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. ISBN 1583334386 (ISBN13: 9781583334386).

The book is about what neuroscientists know about willpower and is choc full of practical advice based on that research, written in a very clear manner.

Different parts of the human brain are responsible for our impulses and self control. The part of the human brain responsible for self control is at its strongest when a person is not stressed. The excerpt below is for a simple breathing exercise that has been show to quickly relax a person and help shift control back to the part of the brain that does self control.

I haven’t seen those results yet, but this breathing exercise is amazingly effective for clearing your head. I’ve tried many other worthy breathing exercises over the years but this one wins with the combination for effectiveness, ease of learning, and how quickly you can get results:

You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to
immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience.

Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges. It’s a good idea to practice slowing down your breath before you’re staring down a cheesecake.

Start by timing yourself to see how many breaths you normally take in one minute.

Then begin to slow the breath down without holding your breath
(that will only increase stress). For most people, it’s easier to slow down the exhalation, so focus on exhaling slowly and completely (pursing your lips and imagining that you are exhaling through a straw in your mouth can help).

Exhaling fully will help you breathe in more fully and deeply without struggling.

If you don’t quite get down to four breaths a minute, don’t worry.
Heart rate variability steadily increases as your breathing rate drops below twelve per minute. Research shows that regular practice of this technique can make you more resilient to stress and build your willpower reserve.

One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Heart rate variability training programs (using similar breathing exercises) have also been used to improve self-control and decrease the stress of cops, stock traders, and customer service operators—three of the most stressful jobs on the planet. And because it takes only one to two minutes of breathing at this pace to boost your willpower reserve, it’s something you can do whenever you face a willpower challenge.