Deep breathing's role in traditional medicine is only now coming to
the forefront in the medical field.
The whooshing sound of about 50 people deeply inhaling and exhaling
in sync overpowers the hum of the broken air conditioner in the back room
of a Brampton, Ontario, banquet hall, writes Unnati Gandhi.
Sitting cross-legged on white bed sheets lining the floor, the
participants -- from teenagers to those in their 80s -- are getting a
lesson in how to breathe again in hopes of improving their health.
All are here because their friend, or their mother, or their doctor,
or their mechanic told them about an intensive breathing course they took,
called the Art of Living, that completely changed their lives. Most
said they are now happier, calmer and stress-free. And a growing number
cited health improvements such as lowered blood pressure, reduced asthma
attacks, fewer sleepless nights and increased lung capacity within weeks
of taking the six-day course.
While the concept of using breathing techniques as a way of
relieving stress is widely accepted, the idea deep breathing may, in fact,
replace traditional medicine for certain diseases is only now coming to
the forefront in the medical field.
New York-based doctor Richard Brown is at the leading edge of that
The associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia
University's College of Physicians and Surgeons has recommended the
program to "thousands, upon thousands of people" after
publishing several studies on the benefits of sudarshan kriya, which is
a cycle of breaths—long, medium and short. One of those
patients was a heavy smoker in her 50s, whose lung-function tests improved
by 60 per cent.
"Many of them came back to me and said, 'This is amazing. I've
been transformed,' " said Dr. Brown. "I've always thought
breathing was pretty good for the health, but I've seen it do so much more
Maninder Dhillon is living proof.
The 49-year-old, who has been teaching the course in Brampton for
almost four years, was diagnosed with lupus when she was 23. The
autoimmune disease had attacked her kidneys, and she suffered from thyroid
and arthritis problems. "I was on a lot of medications, but there
were so many side effects that they were bothering me more than the
Because she was also having trouble sleeping at night, a friend
recommended she take the Art of Living course. "Not only was I
sleeping better, but within six months, I completely came off my meds for
lupus," she said. "I didn't know it would have such an effect on
my health, the breathing."
The decision to be weaned off the medication was completely her
doctor's, she stressed, after he saw that the antibody count in her blood
had been reduced significantly.
Verjinder Ubhi, Ms. Dhillon's family physician, said she has been
doing so well since she started the course that he has since referred
other patients with stress-related disorders to it.
"The program is actually very, very good. Lupus is a very nasty
illness because you don't know what sets it off, but we do know that
stress plays a role," Dr. Ubhi said. While lupus has a tendency to go
into remission, he genuinely thinks Ms. Dhillon's reduction in stress from
the deep breathing exercises played a role in her improvement. Now,
Ms. Dhillon is touting the health benefits of the breathing exercises to
her students, who are turning up in droves every week.
"I totally believe we treat the body as a machine. But it is a
living thing and it has the ability to treat itself but we don't give it a
Paul Mahal said he finally gave his lungs a chance nine years
ago. The 60-year-old real estate agent had severe asthma since age
5. There were periods in his life, he said, when he had to take his puffer
at least twice a day. But after the course, weeks would go by before he
needed a puff. "I now play tennis every day of the week. Even in the
winter, when my asthma is usually worse, I play three or four times a day
and I feel great."
Cases similar to Mr. Mahal's were showcased earlier this month when
Australian researchers published a study in the journal Thorax showing
that certain breathing techniques cut the use of inhalers by more than 80
per cent in patients with asthma. Those in the study were asked to
practise their breathing exercises twice a day for 25 minutes over a
The Art of Living also requires a 25-minute breathing regimen daily.
Founded by Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (not to be confused with the
Indian sitar maestro whose students included Beatle George Harrison) in
1982, the meditation practice focuses on the controlled rhythms of breath,
which, he says, can have a direct effect on the state of the mind. The
$250 course is offered in more than 140 countries, and has been taught to
an estimated 20 million people, according to the foundation.
Family physician Sooraja Papneja, who was attending a follow-up
course, said that about 30 per cent of the ailments he sees in his
patients are stress-induced. "Muscle stiffness, back pain, asthma,
high blood pressure. Even if you can eliminate a small part of that
stress, you're going to see a positive effect on your health."
While he's eager to recommend the program to family and friends, he
hasn't taken the same route as New York physician Richard Brown and sent
patients. "It's very difficult, in that people are not open to new
things. Until we have the authority and the reports backing this up
scientifically, I wouldn't feel comfortable recommending my patients to
The Foundation has had successful programs in U.S. prisons, where
inmates were reported to have 38 per cent less fights.
"The language of the head is words.
The language of the heart is love.
The language of the soul is silence."
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