You can learn a lot about breathing from watching a baby. The way their belly rises and falls so effortlessly, free from the restrictions and constrictions we impose on our breath as we grow older. It was this—and a series of events that left me feeling totally disconnected from myself—that inspired me to sign up for a course that promised to teach me how to breath again.
The Happiness Program is a basic course offered by non-profit, humanitarian organisation The Art of Living (AOL). For three hours a day over the course of a weekend, they teach a powerful rhythmic breathing technique that is said, amongst other things to eliminate stress and anxiety by healing and detoxifying at a cellular level. Sudarshan Kriya, which is Sanskrit for ‘proper vision by purifying action’, was discovered by Art of Living founder and spiritual teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who says the idea came to him after a 10 day silent retreat.
It’s a Friday evening: sitting on yoga mats on the floor, our group of ten includes burnt out professionals, insomniacs, the anxious, depressed, curious and a couple of people repeating the course as a refresher. Which is always a good sign. We vaguely discuss why we were all there but no one is forced to reveal more than they wanted to.
In scientific terms controlled breathing is known to effect the way stress hormones affect our nervous system as well as control blood pressure, improve organ function and memory, and boost both your immune system and energy metabolism. Anyone who’s found themselves holding their breath when nervous, or taking short, shallow breaths when they’re angry can tell you how closely linked our breathing is to our emotions. The idea behind learning this technique is to let our breathing control our emotions and not the other way around.
Sudarshan Kriya is a series of breathing exercises in certain postures followed by a longer session of fast and slow rhythmic breathing to a meditative mantra. Sounds simple enough but before you attempt to do this yourself from a YouTube tutorial, you should know this is not any ordinary inhaling and exhaling. It’s an intense experience that must be taught and supervised by an approved (AOL) teacher.
I feel more alert and present and somehow things that I have been trying to get done for months seem to be moving.
We end our Friday evening session with our first guided breathing session. Then, during a quick debrief the group shared their different experiences – one lady grieving her father cried throughout and then felt a deep sense of relief; another man who was repeating the course said he felt like he had come home. Most felt relaxed, calm, optimistic and even elated when they opened their eyes. As for me, I found it long, tiring and at times even painful. The deep breathing and rapid elimination of toxins left me slightly dizzy, nauseous and with a pounding headache. I was told this was perfectly normal and to drink lots of water. Another surprising side effect was extreme hunger and thirst. Apparently this is caused by a shift of stagnant energy in the body.
After a big dinner and long, deep sleep, I woke up feeling refreshed. We did a second Sudarshan Kriya during our Saturday morning session. This time, perhaps knowing what to expect, the experience was entirely different. I found the rhythmic breathing relaxing. There was no pain, no headaches. When I lay down for the meditation at the end, I was calm, positive, energized and felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
It is recommended to do Sudarshan Kriya no more than once a week (although we do it twice over the weekend, perhaps as a jump start). They hold regular, guided Kriya sessions in cities all over the world that you can take part in once you have completed the Happiness Program. On the final day we are taught a shorter version of Sudarshan Kriya that can be practiced unsupervised at home daily.
Monday morning: Did the feeling last, or was it really – as cynics say – just me getting high on oxygen deprivation? Things were definitely different. It is subtle but I feel calmer, more patient. I have since had very different conversations with myself and those around me, noticing things about people that I hadn’t – both positive and negative. I feel more alert and present and somehow things that I have been trying to get done for months seem to be moving.
If the idea of a breathing class still sounds a bit obscure, remember that it wasn’t long ago that yoga and meditation were considered a practice for no one but the most hardcore of hippies and tree-huggers. And this type of deep controlled breathing already has the backing of science. A study at Stanford University found that practicing Sudarshan Kriya significantly decreases post traumatic stress in veterans, and The Happiness Program is currently being taught in prisons around the world with positive effects on inmates. They say Surdashan Kriya has a cumulative effect so as someone fairly new to the practice I am excited to see what happens next.