The Stress-Breath Connection

08/29/2011 01:21 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2011

The breath can be a powerful tool for regulating the mind and eliminating stress and impurities. Inhalation brings vital energy to the body, and exhalation relieves stress and eliminates toxins. The breath is also related to the vital life force or bio-energy. In the East, this vital force is known as "prana" or "chi." A lack of this energy results in lethargy, irritability, low enthusiasm, doubt and even depression. Conversely, more of this energy results in an overall improvement in productivity, health and interest in life.

There is another fascinating aspect to notice about the breath. Every emotion creates a specific rhythm or pattern of breath. When someone is anxious, under pressure or stressed there is a deviation in the natural rhythm of the breath, which limits energy and mental clarity. When centered and relaxed, the breath becomes more full and light, and efficiency and enthusiasm increases.

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching a powerful breathing technique, developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, called "Sudarshan Kriya Yoga" (SKY). It makes use of the relation between breath and emotions by including specific rhythms of breath that harmonize the body, mind and emotions and help individuals find relief from stress. Published studies have shown that after only one experience of SKY, there is an increase of the well-being hormone prolactin, among many other findings. Many of my students see improvements with depression, asthma, relationships, substance abuse, paralysis, arthritis, sexual dysfunction, coronary problems and other problems.

Several years ago, while I was in Australia, a woman named Betty showed up at one of my courses. She had lost her husband a dozen years earlier and had never recovered emotionally. She hadn't left her home for 18 months! The psychiatrist who recommended her to me had diagnosed her as agoraphobic, having an abnormal fear of crowds and public places. Medication hadn't worked, and she was willing to try anything. When I first saw her, I thought she might be a homeless woman, hunched over in the back of the room with a forlorn face. Her personal hygiene was appalling, and she smelled so bad that no one came near her. But she came back each of the course's four days, and she followed all the instructions. After her first experience with Sudarshan Kriya, the key breathing technique, she already seemed more natural and relaxed. She waved goodbye to me when she left the session. No one recognized her when she returned to the class the next day. She had showered, brushed her hair and changed her clothes for the first time in weeks. She still didn't speak to people, but she now had a constant smile on her face. By the end of the course, she was interacting briefly but regularly with other people in the class.

Betty was committed to doing the kriya daily. And when I returned three weeks later for a follow-up session, she was waiting for me. She wore a beautiful dress and greeted me with a bouquet of flowers. She told me that her whole life had changed. She had gone to the library a few times and had started cleaning her home. I could tell she still had traces of her illness but she was clearly on her way. Within three months, she was volunteering at a senior center once a week and thinking about getting a job.

I see this sort of thing so often, but the results from the simple, skillful use of the breath are so outsized that I can't say I fully understand it. There is one other aspect to the breath that seems key. It is common for people to find their thoughts and feelings vacillating between regretting the past and worrying about the future. This is a major aspect of stress and even emotional trauma.

Of course, the only time a person can be happy is right now, not in the past or future. And the breath is always in the present. Attending to the breath becomes a simple way to bring the mind and emotions to the present and give a rest to the habit of traveling to the past and future.

Michael Fischman is a leader in the field of personal development. He is a founding member and current president of the U.S. Art of Living Foundation. For more information, visit