YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Breathing lessons

A yoga-based technique that targets healing and stress is gaining favor.

September 27, 2004|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

New Age flute music plays softly as people file into an apartment in West Los Angeles, remove their shoes and seat themselves quietly on Oriental carpets on the floor. A picture of a bearded guru in white robes sits at the front of the room with a tiny offering of fresh flowers. There are 14 students, and they have come here to learn to breathe.

Known as the Art of Living, this intensive breathing course will last six days. The class has drawn people ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. There is a builder, a businessman, a masseuse, an acupuncturist and a Jacuzzi engineer. It includes some who are seeking relief from asthma, chronic pain and depression and others who have come because they heard about it from a friend. One man came after seeing a flier at a Whole Foods market.

Students of the Art of Living program say the breathing technique can bring greater awareness, a fuller and happier life, less stress, greater mental focus, and a bevy of other health benefits. But there is scant research so far to support those claims.

Now, a handful of doctors and psychiatrists in this country are touting the benefits of the special breathing technique taught in the Art of Living course to help relieve depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and anxiety.

One of those is Dr. Richard Brown, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. After Brown published a book in 1999 about holistic approaches to depression, people from the Art of Living contacted him and explained their program. Impressed with what he heard, Brown later began recommending the program to many of his patients.

"Many of them were transformed," Brown says. "I didn't expect that."

Brown eventually took the Art of Living course, then started teaching the program to, among others, fellow mental health professionals in New York. He's also become the main spokesman in the medical community for Art of Living.

The idea that breathing techniques can benefit one's emotional health has become widely accepted, both in everyday life and the world of science. When we are upset, nervous, about to run a race or perform on stage, we urge each other, "Take a deep breath." And many doctors now recommend breathing techniques, such as those used in meditation, as a therapy for relieving stress -- believed to aggravate a host of medical conditions including depression and hypertension.

Earlier this year, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey on Americans' use of alternative and complementary medical therapies and found that 12% of adults reported that they had done some type of breathing exercises in the past year.

Studies of yoga, which places a lot of emphasis on breath, have demonstrated its effect on reducing blood pressure, relieving anxiety and boosting the immune system. Eastern exercises such as tai chi and qi gong also incorporate focused and deep abdominal breathing.

But it is difficult to design a research study that would weigh the health benefits of purposeful breathing techniques by themselves.

Dr. James Gordon, director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., says while there is considerable research on the health benefits of deep breathing, there has been very little research done on more active breathing techniques, such as those employed in the Art of Living's program.

"I don't know about using some of the more active techniques," said Gordon, who has taught breathing techniques in global hotspots such as Kosovo and Israel. Such techniques, he says, can "bring up a lot of feelings. A lot of energy that is in the person -- feelings that you don't normally admit to," such as sadness and anger.

The Art of Living is a meditation and yoga practice started by Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (he is no relation to Ravi Shankar, the Grammy Award-winning sitarist who rose to international fame when Beatles star George Harrison became his student). The 48-year-old Art of Living founder once studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru famous for teaching Transcendental Meditation. Art of Living's Shankar says the centerpiece of his breathing program -- known as the Sudarshan Kriya -- came to him in 1982, during a 10-day period of solitary silence.

As Shankar tells it, during his time of solitude he perceived that the different rhythms of breath had a connection with different states of mind. He came to believe that this practice could help people with their suffering, and so began to teach the breathing technique to others.

Today, the Art of Living Foundation claims that its volunteers have taught 2 million to 3 million people in some 142 countries. The course includes 16 to 20 hours of instruction in a simple breathing technique that can be practiced daily at home. About 50,000 people have gone through the program in the United States, the foundation says.

Los Angeles Times Articles