New Research: Using Kundalini Yoga for the treatment of anxiety

Have you ever felt quite stressed, then practiced yoga and meditation, and felt some relief from your stress? Maybe this is one of the reasons you practice?

The effects of yoga and meditation on outcomes like stress and anxiety is increasing in popularity as a focus for research. There is a research study currently taking place in the USA, using Kundalini Yoga. Unlike much of the current research published on yoga, this is a much more methodologically rigorous study. It is what is known as a multi-site randomized controlled trial. This means that it is taking place in more than one area, and people taking part in the research have been randomly assigned to receive one of three different 12 week ‘interventions'(they don’t get to choose which one they do). They will either do the Kundalini yoga protocol (in this instance, amongst other things, they will do a segmented breathing exercise and a special kriya for relieving anxiety), a cognitive behaviour therapy, or a stress education intervention. The idea is to be able to compare the three approaches to treating anxiety and to see what works, and for whom.

The following is a post from a newsletter announcement from the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI), an organisation established in 1972 that is entrusted with the teachings of Yogi Bhajan. Included in the many roles of the KRI (including training) is that of research.

We will be following the research with interest!

Here is the post:

NIH Grant Supports Research in Kundalini Yoga for Treatment of Anxiety

Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Ph.D.
Director of Research, Kundalini Research Institute
Research Director, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Anxiety is a state of inner turmoil experienced as worry, nervousness or unease, and sometimes irrational fears about the uncertainty of future events. Anxiety is clinically significant if a patient suffers from anxiety symptoms for at least 6 months, as is the case for 10-15% of Americans requiring professional treatment for anxiety. Unabated chronic anxiety can impair daily functioning and significantly reduce wellbeing and quality of life. However, anxiety is also a normal human reaction to stress, and, in fact, there is an appropriate amount necessary and beneficial to memory and immunity. Although pharmacotherapy is available for chronic anxiety, many who live with severe stress and anxiety go untreated, or are being treated but would prefer alternatives to pharmacotherapy. Behavioral and mind-body practices including yoga are viable options for treating anxiety and stress. In fact, population surveys reveal that patients are already using yoga for mental health purposes and research studies suggest that it is beneficial to mental health.

A review of studies of the efficacy of yoga in treating anxiety revealed 25 studies that showed significant improvement in anxiety measures for participants practicing yoga. A recent study shows that yoga may be as effective in treating anxiety and depression as regular physical exercise. Yoga may have specific regulatory effects on the body’s physiology, particularly in the stress regulating systems, that are superior to the effects of conventional forms of exercise. For example, voluntary control of the breath is thought to make the parasympathetic nervous system more active while making the sympathetic nervous system less active. It is these subtle mechanisms and physiological effects that still remain to be elucidated by more research studies. Although scientific research studies support yoga as an effective treatment for anxiety, more rigorous research is needed to justify its routine inclusion in conventional anxiety treatments. Because yoga research is in its infancy, it suffers from methodological weaknesses such as small numbers of participants and poor control group comparisons. However, the growing public acceptance of yoga as a treatment for anxiety and other psychological disorders will lead to greater support and funding for research.

Just recently, a five-year, four-million dollar grant for a multi-site randomized controlled research trial of Kundalini Yoga for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) of the National Institutes of Health. The research design involves comparison of three 12-week interventions: Kundalini yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and a stress education intervention. The main prediction of this study is that patients who receive the Kundalini Yoga treatment will show equivalent GAD response and symptom reduction compared to participants who receive CBT, which is well-established as a standard-of-care treatment for GAD. The effects of these treatments will also be examined 6-months after treatment as a measure of long-term efficacy. An additional aim of this study is to identify the underlying psychological and physiological mechanisms by which yoga and CBT affect change in people with GAD. The lead researchers of this study are Stefan G. Hofmann, Ph.D. (director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University as well as the Director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders), Naomi Simon, M.D. (an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and Complicated Grief at Massachusetts General Hospital) and myself (SBSK).

The Kundalini Yoga protocol in this study was designed specifically for GAD primarily by two Kundalini Yoga teachers, with a minor contribution on my part. Shanti Shanti Kaur Khalsa, Ph.D. is director of the Guru Ram Das Center for Medicine and Humanology founded by Yogi Bhajan, through which healthcare professionals are taught the skills needed to teach their patients Kundalini Yoga techniques as a means of treatment; she is the leading expert in clinical application of Kundalini Yoga. Sundari Satnam Kaur (Marilyn Gabriel, Ph.D., LICSW) who directs the Sundari Satnam yoga center in Vermont, is a therapist who has collected pilot data for the study in her clinical work applying Kundalini Yoga for her GAD patients. One of the key Kundalini Yoga practices in this study that patients will practice daily at home is the segmented breath for anxiety, which is said to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and relieve anxiety. It is done by inhaling in equal segmented sniffs and exhaling in the same fashion but with twice as many segments, forming a 1:2 ratio of inhales to exhales. The practice can be done for 3 – 11 minutes and is ended by inhaling deeply, briefly holding the breath, exhaling and relaxing. More information on this practice can be found on page 67 of Nirvair Singh’s book The Art, Science and Application of Kundalini Yoga. The 12-week therapeutic protocol in the GAD study also includes weekly group Kundalini Yoga classes that include other Kundalini Yoga kriyas designed to relieve anxiety and provide patients with effective self-regulation practices.

In a separate but related clinical research initiative, Manjit Kaur Khalsa, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist working at Riverside Community Care in Massachusetts together with a colleague has developed and evaluated a treatment protocol in her GAD patients that blends Kundalini Yoga practices with conventional CBT; a yoga-enhanced CBT protocol (Y-CBT). A manuscript for publication in a peer-reviewed journal has been submitted for this study and is close to acceptance. These and other ongoing yoga research studies in mental health conditions are important for the translation of yoga therapy into conventional healthcare as a common and well-respected treatment strategy for patients suffering from psychological disorders.