Sudarshan (less frequently spelt sudharshan) is Sanskrit. Su stands for “proper” and darshan means “vision.” Kriya is a yogic practice that is meant to purify the body. In English, Art of Living staff used to refer to it as the Healing Breath Technique, but that has fallen out of favor. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar thinks that people should learn the Sanskrit name. My AOL instructors refer to the kriya as a kind of toxin purge for the body, mind and spirit. This practice came to Sri Sri when he was on a retreat in 1983, and it has formed the foundation of his mission since then.
Sudarshan kriya is the core of the Art of Living approach. It’s a crash course in pranayama, the yogic practice of breath extension or control. It is incorporated into a daily practice and also forms part of the weekly gatherings, called Satsang, where Art of Living practitioners follow a more extended process with an audio recording of Sri Sri leading a Maja Kriya.
As Art of Living participants or trainees, we are not supposed to openly discuss our practice with outsiders. In order to teach the technique, you are supposed to be a trained and certified AoL instructor to impart sudarshan kriya. The Art of Living Foundation has registered the name because others were going to patent it. The official version can be found on the Art of Living website
In both the daily practice and the extended version, the Art of Living users engage in four exercises: yogic three-part breathing (three cycles, once with hands on waist, hands at chest level with elbows extended to the side, and arms up and hands touching back shoulders, biceps by the ears), bastrika (also called bellows breath, three repetitions), Om chanting (three repetitions) and Sudarshan Kriya. All four of these breathing exercises or practices are part of yogic tradition, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has modified them slightly or substantially. Sudarshan Kriya bears a strong resemblance to kabalabhati.
What does the kriya add to my yoga practice?
It’s increased my lung capacity in a really short time; it’s increased my alertness; it’s given me methods to refresh my mind throughout the day. By giving me greater awareness and sensitivity to my breath, I’ve improved my concentration and meditation. By coming to AOL and yoga together, I was able to see how much yoga could benefit me. At my first yoga class after the AOL intro course, I was able to get into deep bends and other poses and hold them because I was breathing more easily and deeply. I suppose I could have to come to the same condition through other methods, but it would have taken more time.
Art of Living also says that the kriya practice has accumulative effects over time. Medical research shows that it has promising results in recovery from mood disorders and building HIV.
The course goes through the mechanics of sudarshan kriya and other pranayama exercises assuming that you do not have any prior knowledge of yoga. In the two weekend sessions, you are guided through a fair extensive yoga practice — it is more than just stretching, as described in the literature. But no one gets penalized for bad form or being out of shape.
In all Art of Living practices, there is a strong emphasis placed on balance and moderation — not going overboard. You’re not going to major benefits from doubling or tripling your time in kriya. However, some Art of Living practitioners encourage more frequent use of kriya practices for people suffering from mood disorders. There is no claim that you should assume other aspects of yoga tradition, like becoming a vegetarian.
The Art of Living Foundation and its affiliates employ sudarshan kriya and other pranayama exercises as the core of other specialized courses, like the Stress Management program for corporate employees, prison inmate work, or its youth program. In addition, there are efforts to help people with illnesses like depression and anxiety,
Part II Course
Informally known as the advanced course, this experience requires a 4-6 day residence at a retreat or an Art of Living ashram. Frequently, the course is given by Sri Sri himself. The course combines four aspects: Silence, Sadhana (Meditation), Satsang (Celebration) and Seva (Service).
“Silence takes you deeper into yourself, Sadhana builds Energy, Satsang maintains it (elevating consciousness) and finally this energy is lovingly channeled through Seva.” (From Art of Living websites and literature)
The Part II Course is really the doorway to full understanding of Art of Living. If you have a desire to be a volunteer instructor or take the yoga course, you will need to take the course. I’ve heard of the course taking place in New York in the Hudson valley, at the Montreal ashram and in Lake Tahoo, CA.
In India, there is a lot of research on the therapeutic effects of yoga and pranayama. The leading institute is Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (Research Foundation) or VYASA, sometimes referred to as Vivekananda Kendra. The leading researcher is Shirley Telles. There is a US branch in Houston, sVYASA.