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Yoga Research: Kundalini Yoga for Anxiety

Excerpts from Generalized Anxiety Disorder: The Efficacy of Kundalini Yoga
By Nikhil Ramburn and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.

6.8 million adults in the U.S. suffer from one of the more common forms of anxiety known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Patients with GAD have persistent and excessive worry about a range of different things such as money, health, family, or anticipated disaster when there is no apparent reason for concern.

A growing body of evidence suggests that contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation may be effective at treating GAD. Indeed, yoga and meditation, through engaging the activity of the attention networks in the frontal lobe, is a form of self-regulation that can inhibit and regulate activity in brain areas, including the amygdala, that are associated with fear and stress-responses.

The efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for anxiety disorders has strong support from a good body of clinical research trial literature. In addition, yoga is one of the Mind Body Interventions (MBIs) that may offer some advantages to the benefits conferred by meditation alone. Indeed, physical yoga exercises and breathing practices may induce the positive changes in brain neurochemistry that is linked to a more positive mood and affect.

A preliminary clinical evaluation of yoga for GAD was conducted at the outpatient center of Riverside Community Care in the Boston area. Thirty-two treatment-resistant GAD patients participated in an intervention consisting of CBT enriched with Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan®, a yoga style which is adaptable for therapeutic populations (the Guru Ram Das Center for Medicine and Humanology specializes in such applications).

The classes in this study included 30 minutes of yoga, meditation, breathing practices (especially long, slow abdominal breathing), and deep relaxation practices. The participants’ post-intervention scores showed statistically significant improvements in anxiety, depression, panic, sleep, and quality of life.

The study’s lead author, psychologist Manjit Kaur Khalsa and her colleague Dr. Greiner-Ferris, have recently published a book, The Yoga-CBT Workbook for Anxiety, detailing their strategy to reduce anxiety with a step-by-step six-week program of yoga, meditation, and CBT strategies. The results from this preliminary study suggest that Y-CBT may have potential as a promising treatment for those suffering from GAD.

Another more recent publication of a Kundalini Yoga-based study for GAD is currently in press in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. In that study, forty-nine female participants were recruited from the community near the Sundari Satnam Kundalini Yoga Center in Grafton, VT. Both Boston University and Harvard Medical School researchers were part of the study team. The subjects were randomized to either an 8-week Kundalini Yoga intervention or a group receiving treatment as usual.

The experimental subjects met for 8 consecutive weeks for 1.25 hours in a group format and received intensive training in Kundalini Yoga kriyas incorporating yoga postures, breathing, mantra, meditation, and relaxation. Results revealed that the participants of the yoga group had lower levels of anxiety relative to control subjects and had a decrease in somatic symptoms. These new findings further support the potential role for the use of Kundalini Yoga as a therapy, in this case for patients with a formal diagnosis of GAD.

In summary, there is encouraging preliminary evidence suggesting efficacy of yoga for treating GAD patients, particularly for Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. However, much research remains to be done and so there is still insufficient evidence to make definitive recommendations about yoga therapy for this condition. More high-quality studies are warranted with larger sample sizes, and the mechanism of action for yoga’s therapeutic benefits in GAD patients needs further investigation.

In fact, a ground-breaking NIH-funded, 5-year, multi-site trial that will be concluding soon, is evaluating the efficacy of Kundalini Yoga for GAD as compared to CBT and a psychological attention control condition. The sample consists of 230 individuals with a primary DSM-5 diagnosis of GAD, 95 of which are receiving a manualized Kundalini Yoga group intervention delivered by local certified Kundalini Yoga instructors supervised by Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa, one of the co-investigators.

Stay tuned for future results of this work.

Nikhil Rayburn grew up practicing yoga under mango trees in the tropics. He is a certified Kundalini Yoga teacher and has taught yoga to children and adults in Vermont, New Mexico, Connecticut, India, France, and Mauritius. He is a regular contributor to the Kundalini Research Institute newsletter and explores current yoga research.

Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D. is the KRI Director of Research, Research Director for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has practiced a Kundalini Yoga lifestyle since 1973 and is a KRI certified Kundalini Yoga instructor. He has conducted research on yoga for insomnia, stress, anxiety disorders, and yoga in public schools. He is editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Careand author of the Harvard Medical School ebook Your Brain on Yoga.