LOS ANGELES — New Age flute music plays softly as people file into an apartment in West Los Angeles, remove their shoes and seat themselves quietly on 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 referred by 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, Brown later began recommending the program to 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. He's also become the main spokesman in the medical community for Art of Living.
"Take a deep breath"
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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey on Americans' use of alternative and complementary therapies and found that 12 percent of adults said that they had done breathing exercises in the past year.
Studies of yoga, which puts a lot of emphasis on breath, have demonstrated its effect on cutting blood pressure, relieving anxiety and boosting the immune system. Eastern exercises such as tai chi and qi gong also use focused and deep abdominal breathing.
But it is difficult to design a research study that would weigh the benefits of purposeful breathing techniques by themselves.
Time of silence
The Art of Living is a meditation and yoga practice started by Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (no relation to Ravi Shankar, the award-winning sitarist who rose to 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 regulating breathing could help people with their suffering, and so began to teach the technique.
Today, the Art of Living Foundation claims that its volunteers have taught 2 million to 3 million people in 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.
"All of a sudden, it is everywhere," said John Osborne, president of the Art of Living Foundation in the United States.
Osborne believes the course has grown in popularity because it fits the needs of the times. The breathing, he says, offers a powerful way to counter stress, and the course's spiritual lessons appeal to people who may feel alienated and powerless.
The program received a boost after 9/11, when the Art of Living ran a full-page ad in the New York Times a month after the terrorist attacks, offering the course free to New Yorkers. Ten teachers were flown in from around the country, and during the next several months more than 1,000 people, including firefighters and police officers, took the course.
To feel better
Shankar recommends students carry on the breathing practice for at least six months. The daily regimen takes about 30 minutes.
By the end of the six-day course in West Los Angeles, some students already saw changes.
Rasik Raniga, a hotel manager who took the course hoping for relief from asthma, claimed he was already able to cut down on the use of his inhaler. Michael Miller, a home builder who said he had been depressed, found himself feeling better after three days. Analilia Silva, a businesswoman who came to the course at the suggestion of a friend, described the change as subtle: "It's like when you start exercising," she said. "You suddenly feel better but you don't know why."