Science Sundays #1 – PTSD and Yoga Breath

by Sarah

Yoga is based so much on ‘feelings’ and ‘ancient wisdom,’ a lot of people are calling it a trend, with >some even saying that yoga is WRECKING your body. However, the science doesn’t lie: yoga heals. Every (optimism, yay!) Sunday I’m going to try and post a new article about ACTUAL SCIENCE and yoga.

Post #1- Ujjayi breath and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Effects of a yoga breath intervention alone and in combination with an exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in survivors of the 2004 South-East Asia tsunami

Descilo T, Vedamurtachar A, Gerbarg PL, Nagaraja D, Gangadhar BN, Damodaran B, Adelson B, Braslow LH, Marcus S, Brown R
2009 from Journal of Psychiatry- Scandinavia

Ujjayi breath is common in all lineages of yoga. It’s the constriction of the throat to create that smooth, ocean like breath. It’s designed to generate heat in your body during practice. It’s often thought of as ‘fogging up a mirror’ making a HAAAAAA sound. (still don’t get it? think of Darth Vader breathing.) To me, it’s one of the most calming sounds during a yoga class. Any practicing yogis will be able to attest to the calmness and slowing heartbeat that accompanies turning on their ujjayi breath on or off the mat.

In this study, the researchers sought to lessen the effects of PTSD on survivors of the 2004 South-East Asia tsunami. Subjects, who were living in 3 different refugee camps, were given the PCL-17 test, which asks survivors a series of questions to determine whether they are experience PTSD symptoms. An example would be “How many times in the past month have you been bothered by repeating images/thoughts/feelings of (X stressful event)?” Once they were classified as being affected by PTSD, they were given one of three treatments: Breath, Water, Sound (Ujjayi and other breathing excercises), BWS in addition to an exposure therapy intervention (which walks patients through the events leading up to the tsunami, focusing on the loss of loved ones, loss of property, and their current stressful situation or life as a refugee), or a 6 week ‘wait-list’ control group. Whew, that’s a lot of method. Still with me?

Subjects given the BWS treatment took a 8 hour class on how to use ujjayi breath and ‘bellowing breath’ to de-stress. The 20 minute exercise was to be repeated once each day, and subjects were asked to attend a group meeting once a week to find support, and strengthen their breathing technique. Because of the chaos found in a refugee camp, it’s difficult to do follow up on each subject, and the test relied on anecdotes from the group sessions to get some idea on how many subjects adhered to the exercises. While efficacy levels were not high (about 20% continued with it to the end), some patients did come back each week, even bringing friends to try it out.

Levels of PTSD (as evaluated on the PCL-17 test) were re-tested at six weeks and twenty-four weeks after the initial treatment began. Both the subjects receiving solely the BWS, as well as the those receiving both BWS and exposure therapy intervention experienced a average 60% decrease in PTSD symptoms, compared with a 7% decrease in the control group. It’s an impressive result!

If simply breathing can help assuage some of the stress of losing a loved one, think about the benefits you could see in your daily life. Take some time to practice your ujjayi breath each day, especially in the middle of stress, such as a busy day at work, or dealing with some bad news.

Have you felt any benefits from ujjayi breath in your practice or meditation?