Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY): What It Is, How to Do and Benefits

Sitting in Vajrasana for breathing before SKY. Image: Canva

Breathing is the basis of any life on this earth. You are not making an effort to breathe, it is the somatic function of the lung. However, it is one of the most ignored parts of our lives. We are so busy in our day to day activities that we are forgetting to give our body the required oxygen.

Have you noticed that for most problematic or stressful situations, we often receive the advice of breathing deeply?  

You are angry – take a deep breath.

You feel like crying – focus on breathing.

A person is hyperventilating – they are given a bag to inhale and exhale deeply.

You are about to face a large audience and feeling nervous – take 3-5 deep breaths.

Even in meditation, we are told to focus on our breathing rhythm and techniques. When your body gets the correct amount of oxygen, it makes the organs function in a proper manner. Spiritually, your mind is cleared and your energy centres (chakras) are energized.

Sudarshan kriya is one such breathing yoga exercise that ensures your body and mind are purified of fatigue, stress, tiredness, anxiety and other negative thought and behavioural patterns.

What is Sudarshan Kriya?

Sudarshan Kriya is a 3 part yogic breathing practice in which we breathe in slow, medium, and fast breathing cycles. This breathing exercise is designed to make the mind calm, focused and the body energized, completely relaxed. Practising it will improve your overall mental and physical health.

The meaning of the Sanskrit termSudarshan Kriya is ‘proper vision by purifying actions’. Here “Sudarshan” comprised of “Su” means Proper or Clear and “darshan” means Vision. Kriya is called to any specific action or practice in yoga that is performed with guided instructions from a master to achieve some intended results.

It is popularly known as Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) and SKY breathing.

The Origin

One of India’s foremost spiritual teachers Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of Art of Living Foundation, is the founding person of Sudarshan Kriya. In 1982 when he was in a 10-day silent retreat, the idea of this breathing technique came to him on the banks of the Bhadra river.

His idea behind Sudarshan kriya was to give people a great experience through a single practice. He says 1, “Though people do their practices, their life is in compartments when they come out in life, they are very different people. So, I was thinking how we can bridge this gap between inner silence and outer expression of life.”

The Kriya

The Sudarshan yoga kriya comprises 3 parts breathing techniques which are performed for 45 minutes. In the first past, the Ujjayi breathing or victorious breathing is performed where you take slow deep inhalation and exhalation at regular intervals. The length of these breaths is performed in equal counts.

The second part, called Bhastrika or bellows breath, is performed at a slightly faster pace than the Ujjayi. Your exhales are twice as long as the inhales. Lastly, the breathing is faster than the previous two techniques and you inhale twice as long as the exhales. The entire practice will take 45 minutes.

Benefits of Sudarshan Kriya

detoxification through pranayama

The Sudarshan kriya is a way to transform your emotions through various breathing techniques. The way the breathing techniques transition from slow to medium to fast; it is beneficial for relaxation, de-stressing, and improving overall organ functions. 

Another important benefit is that your lung capacity will be increased, which will also help in enhancing your awareness. Your relationships will flourish and you will find joy, happiness and harmony in your life. 

So far to date, many peer-reviewed journals have published different studies to support the benefits and effects of SKY breathing on the body and mind. Below is explained some of them;

1. SKY reduce PTSD symptoms

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is one such mental issue that is often seen in people who have experienced extreme trauma. PTSD has an adverse effect on life and mental status. It is mostly seen in war veterans as they have seen the horrors of the war. Most of these veterans commit suicide and the number is on a rise. 

Sudarshan kriya has proven to provide encouraging positive results. One randomized study conducted on Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans showed 2 that the symptoms of PTSD along with anxiety, hyperarousal and startle were significantly reduced when the male veterans practised the SKY.  

2. SKY reduces signs of Depression

Depression is another mental issue that is quite rampant in teenagers and adults. Due to our unhealthy lifestyle and stress, some people suffer from depression from an early age. Sudarshan kriya’s cyclical breathing technique is also an effective self stress-management tool and it has also been proven in scientific research.

The Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, India’s most revered institute conducted a study on the antidepressant effects of SKY 3 on 45 depressed people. It was found that after 3 weeks the participants found ample relief and were considered in remission after 1 month. At the end of the clinical trial, it was deduced that SKY did not produce any side effects and was as effective as the antidepressant drug Imipramine.

3. SKY enhances immunity

COVID-19 has shown us the importance of strong immunity. The current lifestyle has taken a huge toll on the immunity-boosting aspects of the body. The most vital factor that hampers it is stress, it weakens our neuroendocrine function and makes us vulnerable to pathogens and various diseases. 

Practicing SKY will help in reducing stress and anxiety by improving the oxygen flow in the cells which will energize them to improve the immune system. A research 4 was conducted on cancer patients who had completed their standard therapy. After practising SKY, it was found that there were a significant increase in the natural killer (NK) cells after 12 and 14 weeks. It was suggested that regular practice of SKY “might reduce the incidence and progression of cancer.”

4. SKY keeps our hormones in balance

Our moods and feelings are often controlled by hormones. Fear, anger, anxiety, or feeling low are all the results of imbalanced hormones. It is extremely necessary that the secretion of the hormones is kept in balance as excess or deficiency can cause a range of problems. One such hormone is cortisol, a stress hormone, when secreted in excess can weaken the immune system and keep you in a continuous state of stress.

SKY’s breathing technique enhances the release of happy hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. One such study 5 was conducted on the practitioners of SKY in the Art of Living ashram Bangalore. 50 volunteers who had type 2 diabetes and had attended 6 days advanced SKY workshop were studied.

It was found that they had a significant decrease in cholesterol and cortisol release whereas prolactin was significantly increased. Overall, there was a positive effect on the lipid profile and the hormonal status of these practitioners.

5. SKY improves the quality of sleep

Just how stress hampers our immune system, it also affects our sleep quality. When we are stressed, our brain tends to run in overdrive, which eventually results in loss of sleep. Other mental issues such as anxiety and depression may also lead to sleeplessness or insomnia.

A recent pilot study 6 was conducted on 473 Indian participants who had attended a 3-day SKY workshop. They were assessed through the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) questionnaire on their sleep quality, before, after and on the 40th day of the program.

The results of this study are very promising as it showed an increase in the sleep quality in all the participants. This also means that this study is also indicative of treating insomnia. Regular practice of SKY will yield higher results.     

6. SKY has a positive effect on the overall mental wellbeing

Looking at the above benefits, it is safe to say that Sudarshan kriya has been amply proven to increase and support one’s mental health. The International Journal of Yoga published a study 7 that reviewed the various research papers on the effects of Sudarshan kriya on immune function, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders.

The conclusion of this study was that there is sufficient evidence to prove that SKY is indeed “beneficial, low-risk, low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.”

There are many such studies that have been conducted across the world that have proved the effectiveness of sudarshan kriya on mind and body.

How to Do Sudarshan Kriya

Sudarshan kriya is performed into 3 stages of 3 common breathing techniques of pranayama. Starting with Ujjayi pranayama, breathing is assisted through hand movements on 3 parts of the torso. Then fast-paced bhastrika pranayama is performed and finally, the end step is called Sudarshan kriya where breathing is done with OM Chant.

Sudarshan kriya should be performed under the supervision of Art of Living trainers or certified yoga teachers as it involves very specific breathing techniques. Beginners and people with illnesses should always consult experts before starting the Sudarshan kriya. If you apply the wrong technique it can be harmful or ineffective.

Stating the above, we have listed the step by step instructions to perform the SKY which is indicative of how it is generally performed.

There are 3 parts to the Sudarshan kriya and the steps listed below are done in chronological order.

Part 1 – Ujjayi Pranayama (performed in 3 stages)

Here you will breathe into a 4-4-6-2 ratio (inhale: hold in: exhale: hold out). It will help in opening your airways. You are breathing consciously which makes you alert while calming your mind.

Stage 1

  • Sit in Vajrasana or Padmasana and keep your hands on the hip bone.
  • Take a deep breath with 4 counts to fill your lungs and hold till 4 counts.
  • Now exhale, emptying your lungs, with 6 counts and hold for 2 counts.
  • Repeat this process 8 times.

Stage 2

  • Change the hand position and keep your thumbs under your armpits. Your hands are now parallel to the ground.
  • Repeat the same breathing procedures as in stage 1 for 8 times.

Stage 3

  • Bring your hands back with your elbows pointing to the sky.
  • Repeat the breathing technique as in stage 1 for 6 times.

Part 2 – Bhastrika Pranayama

In this form of breathing, you will inhale rapidly and exhale forcefully. You should be able to take 30 breaths per minute.

  • Keeping the same seating position, close your fists lightly and place them in front of your chest.
  • Inhale and stretch your arms on top of your head while opening your arms. Fill your lungs fully.
  • Forcefully exhale and bring your hands back to the initial position, that is, closed fist and in front of your chest.
  • Repeat this process 20 times in each of the 3 sets.

Part 3 – Kriya or Sudarshan Kriya

Before starting this phase, you should sit in sukhasana and chant OM to relax your mind and body. With each extended exhale, you will chant OM and repeat the procedure 3 times.

In the Kriya, you will transition from slow breathing to medium to fast-paced breathing. While performing the breathing pattern, chant the SOHUM in your mind, with ‘SO’ inhale and ‘HUM’ in exhale.

  • Come back to sit in Vajrasana or Padmasana.
  • 1st cycle – Inhale and exhale in a slow rhythm. Repeat it 20 times.
  • 2nd cycle – Inhale and exhale faster than the 1st cycle. Repeat it 40 times.
  • 3rd cycle – Inhale and exhale faster than the 1st and 2nd cycle. Repeat it 40 times.
  • All the cycles need to be performed 3 times.

The entire duration of the 3 part Sudarshan kriya takes 45 minutes. After you have completed all the parts, you sit in a sukhasana and relax for 5 minutes.

Conclusion

By practising Sudarshan Kriya, you are tapping into the rhythm of your breathing and releasing toxins via your breath. You are taking control of your breath and bringing about a change in your mental health and well-being. By reducing negative elements like stress, anxiety, depression you are improving your immunity, hormonal balance, and the mind-body connection. 

It is time to explore the rhythm of your breath and you never know it might bring you a revelation!

Sudarshan Kriya Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. Where can you learn Sudarshan Kriya?

Art of Living Foundation (AOL) is the birthplace of Sudarshan Kriya hence it makes sense to learn from their experienced and certified teachers. The foundation keeps conducting workshops online on SKY Breathing online and offline in their various ashrams around the world. You can access their website to look out for any dates of workshops that you can attend.

Q2. How long should SKY be practised?

The typical Sudarshan Kriya takes 45 minutes with breath counts. 

Q3.How many times a day SKY can be performed? What is the best time?

The short Sudarshan kriya (20-30 minutes) should be performed only once a day, especially during the morning to remain energetic. The longer version should be performed once a week specifically under the guidance of the AOL teacher.

You can perform Sudarshan Kriya at any time of the day however avoid performing it after meals. 

Q4. What precautions should be taken to practice Sudarshan Kriya?

Sudarshan Kriya should always be performed under expert guidance or else it will be ineffective and even harmful.

Pregnant women, people suffering from extreme mental illness and substance abuse should avoid practising it.

Beginners should consult a doctor or an expert yoga teacher to assess their mental and physical capabilities to perform the Sudarshan kriya.

Q5. Are there any side effects of SKY?

There are no known side effects of Sudarshan Kriya. Neither any scientific research conducted worldwide has noted any side effects nor any practitioner has come forward so far. It is a very safe practice if done under the guidance of an expert.

Q6. What are some of the effects experienced by practitioners?

People who practice the Sudarshan kriya have noted feeling tingling sensation, headaches, or nausea, which is a normal symptom. If you experience such signs, you may take a rest before resuming the practice.

Some practitioners, who performed the SKY for the first time, noted having felt exuberant and energetic for the entire day. They noticed their lethargy and laziness get reduced and have been filled with positive energy. Many have been able to curb their anger and anxiety levels with regular practice.

References

  1. Origin of Sudarshan Kriya https://www.artofliving.org/in-en/origin-sudarshan-kriya
  2. Reduction of PTSD hyperarousal symptoms following Sudarshan Kriya yoga https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Reduction-of-PTSD-hyperarousal-symptoms-following-Sudarshan-Kriya-yoga
  3. https://www.yoga-als-therapie.de/assets/Studien/Downloads/Janakiramaiah-2000-j-affect-disorders.pdf
  4. Effect of rhythmic breathing (Sudarshan Kriya and Pranayam) on immune functions and tobacco addiction https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16387692/
  5. http://www.isca.in/rjcs/Archives/v1/i9/14.ISCA-RJCS-2011-205.pdf
  6. The Influence of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga on Sleep Quality in Indian Adults: An Open Trial Pilot Study https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41782-021-00146-4
  7. Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573542/

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