Emperor of Air
"This is what seems to be happening in terms of people's spiritual quest, a journey that leads them to different practices and traditions," says Vaughan. "We have these teachings available now, and we didn't used to. People don't necessarily stick with one their whole life. They try different sources, particularly because the opportunity is there."The Medical Opinion
AOL teachers are quick to point out that one needn't believe Shankar has special powers to benefit from his kriya. They eagerly point to medical research, a subject that is the province of Ronnie Newman. Newman's full-time job with AOL is touting the kriya's tested health benefits—for cancer, depression, HIV, and other illnesses—to medical schools, science conferences, universities, and whoever else will listen. She's a real pro, in command of her material. "The study ÔMajor Depressive Disorder with Melancholic Features' found that Sudarshan Kriya was as effective as drug therapy," says Newman, who received a Masters in human development from Harvard in 1980. "An EEG study found that practitioners of Sudarshan Kriya experienced low-frequency alpha waves . . . and what's even more striking is that the brain was also producing beta, which is indicative of sharp concentration. The system was relaxed and simultaneously alert." These studies were done in India; Newman hopes her lobbying will spur more research in the United States.
At a New Delhi symposium in March on Sudarshan Kriya, pPranayama, and consciousness, organized by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr. Richard Brown, a Columbia University psychiatrist, said the kriya's rapid breathing causes the release of the same hormone released during sexual activity.
"If someone's well, it helps them deal with everyday stress," said Brown, who wrote the book Stop Depression Now (Penguin/Putnam, 1999) about meditation and herbal treatments and who regularly refers patients and colleagues to AOL courses. "But if someone's depressed or has post-traumatic stress disorder, the breathing can also be astonishingly helpful." Brown says the breathing may, scientifically speaking, be "a kind of controlled hyperventilation" but believes "it's quite mild, which is why the side effects [like my headache] are nothing to worry about."
But Sollod, the psychologist from Cleveland, isn't so sure. He said the kriya may be similar to holotropic breathwork, a once-trendy hyperventilation technique that promised psychological and physical benefits. "For some people it uncovered buried subconscious material that they weren't able to deal with. It was a practice that was claimed to be natural and without risk, but it did cause casualties among some people."The Love
Shankar's organization practices the charity he preaches. Near the Bangalore ashram, an AOL-funded school provides 650 poor children from illiterate families 10 years of free education and daily meals. AOL executives say they are doing similar charitable work in some 3,000 villages. Another new construction project at the ashram is a vocational school that will teach villagers how to become tailors. The AOL is accredited as a nongovernmental organization in special consultative status with the United Nations. In the United States, the nonprofit group Prison Smart has spent roughly $250,000 in recent years teaching Shankar's techniques to prisoners.