New Meditation Study: SKY Breath Superior To Mindfulness to De-stress

By Sejal Shah : Posted on : October 08, 2020

This article evaluates the research-based impact of various wellbeing and meditation techniques and how the SKY Breathing is the most effective for stress relief.

In recent years, meditation has gained a lot of attention not only from the practitioners but also from research scientists across the globe. Stress keeps mounting in day to day life, and people are looking at a meditation retreat as a quick way not only to learn meditation but also for stress reduction. Besides de-stressing, meditation offers many more benefits like reducing high blood pressure, reduction in chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, and even mental health issues like reduced anxiety and depression, managing negative emotions or any other emotion regulation.

As a yoga teacher after exploring different meditation types with different meditation programs, I have been practicing a unique combination of breathing and mantra meditation for years now. It has worked wonders for me in so many ways. 

A study shows breathing meditation is more powerful than mindfulness

I recently came across new meditation research done at Yale University and Harvard University that compared the effects of 3 different meditation techniques (namely SKY Breath meditation, Foundations of Emotional Intelligence, and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) on the mental health of students. These were published respectively in Frontiers in Psychiatry and the Journal of American College Health

This groundbreaking meditation research from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford shows that SKY Breath Meditation is more effective than mindfulness or cognitive approaches for well-being, anxiety, depression, and social connection for students. Recently even Harvard Business Review featured the SKY Breath Meditation and the research. 

Researchers administered the meditation training sessions in person but the meditation program can also be taken remotely. This research established that SKY meditators (student participants) reported improvements in six areas of well-being: depression, stress, mental health, mindfulness, positive affect, and social connectedness. SKY practitioners also developed better sleep quality & resiliency against anticipatory stress.

I decided to talk directly with the researchers involved in the meditation study: Annelies Richmond, Director of SKY Campus Happiness, and Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Science Director, Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Emma is also the author of The Happiness Track.

Here are the excerpts from my interview with the researchers

Q: We’ve heard so much about mindfulness meditation but now there’s a new trend towards breathwork happening. BREATH is currently a NY Times bestseller, suddenly everyone's a breathing coach. What does the research suggest?

ES: Mindfulness is great for some people. But the data is mixed: it doesn’t work for others. We need alternative ways for people to find peace of mind. For example, people with high anxiety may not take to mindfulness. Years ago, we wanted to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress. Mindfulness meditation practice was not working for them because they were too anxious to sit still, eyes closed. 

So we tried breathing. Using the SKY (Sudarshan Kriya) Breath Meditation (also recommended in James Nestor’s book BREATH), we were able to normalize their anxiety even in a week. Their anxiety was still normal one month and one year later, suggesting permanent improvement. 

Q: What about for the rest of us who deal with everyday stress, but maybe don’t have heavy trauma, can it work? 

AR: I learned SKY Breath Meditation during my career as a professional ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. Even though I had been performing professionally for years, I still suffered from intense stage anxiety. I couldn’t eat for hours before the show and was so anxious. I was even taking 3-4 yoga classes a week, but it wasn't making a dent in my stage fright.  After just a few weeks of practicing SKY Breath Meditation, I was shocked that I suddenly could get out and dance in front of thousands of people without fear. I started to actually enjoy myself - which is the whole purpose of dancing, to begin with! 

ES: We just ran a study at Yale evaluating the impact of three well-being programs on undergraduates: SKY Breath Meditation, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Emotional Intelligence - compared to a control group. Of all the programs, it was the SKY Breath Meditation that had the most benefits - improving stress, depression, mental health, social connection, mindfulness, and positive emotion. A Harvard study just replicated our study. 

Q: Why do you think this type of breathing is so beneficial?

ES: Research shows that each emotion is linked to a breathing pattern. If you feel anxious or angry, you’ll notice that your breath is fast and shallow. When you are relaxed, you’ll notice that you breathe slow and deep. Other examples are laughing and sobbing. 

The interesting part though is that research also shows that when you change the way you breathe, you can change your emotions. It’s a two-way street. By changing your breath, you can change how you feel.  SKY Breath Meditation uses natural rhythms of the breath in a very specific way to have a long-term impact on the nervous system.

AR: I’ve seen students go from so anxious and depressed that they can’t move forward in their life - then they learn to do this as a regular practice - and they go on to becoming resilient compassionate leaders, even having enough energy to uplift other young people around them. It’s like they learn to take care of themselves, learn how to manage their emotions, and boost their own resilience, and then they can go on to be the best version of themselves.

Q: We definitely say “take a deep breath” when things are challenging. Sounds like there's something to that! What's a short exercise we can try at home?

ES: When you're stressed, you go into “fight or flight” mode - the sympathetic nervous system. When you take long deep breaths and make your exhales really long, your heart rate decreases and you start to tap into your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system.

AR: And when you make breathing practices a daily habit like you would exercise, you start to see that you are calmer and happier throughout the whole day. 

Q: So is SKY Breath Meditation a breathing exercise or a meditation exercise?

AR: Great question! It’s a series of breathing exercises plus a meditative breath practice, and the result is a meditative state of mind. Like Emma found in her study at Yale, doing SKY Breath Meditation leads to increased “mindfulness” - your mind comes into the present moment. Whether your mind is always super busy and racing, or not, this practice calms and energizes your mind in an easy and rapid way, by calming racing thoughts, increasing focus effortlessly, releasing trauma, and making you more aware through the breathing exercises.

Other previous meditation research has also shown how meditation affects the brain and how regularly practicing meditation also increases the prefrontal cortex.

Some tips for beginners

If you are new to meditation, you may be wanting to know how to get started with meditation and which technique will work for you. There are several other meditation techniques like loving kindness meditation, guided meditation, unguided meditation, deep breathing, breath awareness meditation, compassion meditation, transcendental meditation, mantra meditation, body scanning meditation, and many more. Some are focussed attention types, some are relaxed attention types while some are automatic self-transcending types. You may explore them, but once you find something that deeply resonates with you and works for you, stick to it, and establish a routine of daily meditation practice. That will help you to go deeper and deeper, day by day. Nowadays people also prefer to use meditation apps, find the best-reviewed here. Find some more useful tips here.

Want to know more about SKY? 

Join Beyond Breath, a free online breathing and meditation session from the comfort of your own home, and know more about SKY Breath Meditation. Enjoy a guided meditation as a bonus!

Find and enjoy your zen soon!

Sejal Shah, E-RYT 500 Sri Sri Yoga Teacher, YACEP, C-IAYT, Meditation Teacher, Happiness expert, NYU Post Graduate Medical School approved Yoga-CME retreat facilitator, Mind-Body Wellness Writer, Homeopath. She can be followed on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

ART OF LIVING PART I COURSE Discover Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ancient secret to modern well-being

Subscribe to Art of Living Blog Digest