You take a deep breath.
You hold it for five seconds as your lungs begin to slowly balloon with air.
A trickle of sweat runs down your back and you feel your muscles tense from holding the near-acrobatic pose.
As you begin to stir from your deep reverie, you hear the cooing voice of the yoga guru,
“Breathe in. Breathe out.”
A collective sigh reverberates throughout the vast hall, reminding you that you’re not alone.
In fact, you’re surrounded by more than 1800 other people, each of whom also shelled out at least $50 apiece with the hopes of attaining a sense of peace and mental tranquility.
And mental tranquility is exactly what Sri Sri Ravi Shankar guaranteed.
The world-renowned yoga guru hosted a four-day meditation session in Toronto from Sept. 20 to 23. The Sri taught the relaxation techniques – pranayama and sudarshana kriya – which are breathing exercises he developed for his foundation, “The Art of Living”.
“You breathe so you can be strong,” says Samira Rehmani, an organizer for the event, who insists that there is medicinal merit in yoga. She says yoga helps to alleviate anxiety and serves as an excellent non-invasive alternative to ward off depression.
As a yoga enthusiast herself, Rehmani knows the value of practicing the ancient relaxation technique herself. The Scarborough high school teacher feels the rote exercises have a much more powerful purpose than initially perceived.
Covering a wide range of psychological states, including trauma and disaster survival, for everyone from prison inmates to corporate leaders, Rehmani emphasizes the utility of yoga when it is properly tailored to an individual’s health state.
“The yoga is geared toward where your mind is, recognizing there are different stresses that go along with being a mother or being a prisoner.”
For trauma victims, the breathing exercises allow the release of pent-up anxiety.
“It allows you to let go of the past and not be so anxious about the future,” says Rehmani.
One attendee, University of Toronto student Marija Minic, said she travelled to India in 2005 to visit a yoga ashram and found the meditation experience there had a profound impact on her personality.
“I used to be really agitated with a short temper,” says Minic. “I had an inability to stay still for a long period of time.”
An intense workout
Rozina Fazal, 22, has also gotten swept up in yoga’s popularity, though she prefers doing “bikram yoga,” also known as “sweat yoga.” Contrary to the typical yoga meditation exercises, bikram yoga involves participants holding 26 different poses in 40-degree temperatures.
“You really feel the effects of it,” says Fazal, who signed up for 20 classes. The sauna-like conditions enable yoga-goers to stretch beyond their limits as their muscles expand in the heat.
“It helped me sleep better, helped me focus more, and stress less,” says Fazal.
Despite the fact that the yoga classes run at a near-glacial pace compared to exercise routines like kick-boxing, Fazal insists they can be just as intense.
“You feel like you’re going to pass out [doing the bikram yoga],” says Fazal. “The instructors say if you’re feeling faint, just lie down.
“A lot of first-timers can’t take the strain.”
For all walks of life
Amol Verma, third-year medical student at the University of Toronto, who has been a part of The Art of Living foundation since his undergraduate days, noted the benefits to performing the breathing exercises on a daily basis.
“I didn’t notice any remarkable change,” said Verma. “But over the course of the year, my grades improved remarkably and I had enough free time on my hands to the point that my family thought that I had dropped my courses.”
Verma says his ability to retain information after taking the workshop also became a lot more powerful and he was able to think more clearly.
“As you do a daily practice meditation and breathing, you are more alert and you’re also more calm in that alertness,” said Verma, who cited the four essential ingredients in relieving stress factors: sleep, food, meditation, and breathing. A balance of these four factors results in lower secretion levels of the stress hormone, blood cortisol, he said.
Verma quickly realized the power of yoga from a youth leadership training program during the summer of 2002, in which he taught the deep breathing exercises in a roofless church to residents living in the slums of Mexico.
A woman who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer attended his classes. One day, she approached Verma to thank him for offering the class, because it provided her with the strength to cope with her condition and to be able to wake up every morning and look after her children.
“I realized because of that woman that this program is universal and it can help people who live lives that have no similarity to my life – me in Halifax and this lady in a one-bedroom shack.”
Studies suggest stress reduction
In February 2007, Verma led a workshop at his school with 10 medical students. It entailed a standardized research survey to measure anxiety and methods of coping with anxiety. Students were surveyed before taking the workshop, immediately after taking the workshop, and much later for a six-week follow-up.
The study showed a significant decrease in anxiety between the first and second results, and that reduction in anxiety lasted well into the six-week mark.
A 2007 Indian study from the National Institute of Mental and Neurological Sciences even demonstrated that the breathing techniques are as effective as a common antidepressant dealing with moderate to severe depression.
Doctors may soon be doling out fairly unconventional prescriptions – recommending yoga poses over pills, say some yoga enthusiasts.
Verma says he finds it fantastic the way yoga has caught on in the West.
“If we can help individuals deal with negative emotions and handle their stress in a more effective manner, I think it would be a very universal application.”