Local course teaches people with PTSD, anxiety the benefits of breathing deeply

Southsidedaily.com is your source for free local news and information in Virginia Beach

Annelies Richmond started teaching the Art of Living Happiness Program course in 2001, in New York City, right before the Twin Towers came down. She then taught traumatized people throughout the city for several months. Since 2013, she has taught the course in Virginia Beach.
Annelies Richmond started teaching the Art of Living Happiness Program course in 2001, in New York City, right before the Twin Towers came down. She then taught traumatized people throughout the city for several months. Since 2013, she has taught the course in Virginia Beach.

MichaelAnn Crowe has a stressful job. The 31-year-old teaches emotionally troubled children in third through fifth grade at Greenbrier Intermediate in Chesapeake.

“They throw things. They get angry. They are very frustrated,” Crowe said.

On top of that, Crowe herself was recently diagnosed with PTSD, depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. Her doctors suggested medications, but she didn’t want to go that route, so she tried meditating — with friends, or through guided meditations on YouTube.

The meditations made her feel a little better for a while, but the effect didn’t last.

“I was thinking that I would need to give in and go on medications,” Crowe said.

But a few months ago, she went to a meditation meetup at the public library in Virginia Beach, organized by a group called the Art of Living. The organizers walked the group through a meditation — and before that, breathing techniques designed to prepare the mind for meditation.

Curious to know more, Crowe signed up for the group’s course, which was held a few weeks ago at the Crowne Plaza Virginia Beach Town Center.

For someone who suffers from social anxiety, walking into a roomful of strangers was intimidating, Crowe said. But by the end of the four-day-course, “I felt really wonderful.”

And this time, her meditations stuck. “I don’t think I really ever meditated until I went to that course,” she said. “I feel a whole lot less stressed.”

Breathing techniques

What makes the Art of Living’s approach to meditation different is that it is based on a breathing technique called the Sudarshan Kriya, which in Sanskrit means “proper vision by purifying action,” said Annelies Richmond, the Virginia Beach-based instructor.

“It’s a powerful technique that uses rhythmic breathing to get you into a meditative state,” Richmond said. “People are astounded that they are able to get into this deep [meditative] state.” That’s true, even for people who have been meditating for a long time.

For Crowe, having a physical protocol to follow in doing the breathing exercises was much easier than just being told to sit and meditate.

“I like the step-by-step process,” she said, adding that the biggest benefit of the meditations has been being able to calm herself down and stay in the present moment, without constantly vacillating between the past and the future.

She also feels more control over her own emotions. “I feel like I don’t have to just feel miserable. I can stop that pendulum swinging before it goes all the way backwards.”

Notably, the course is called “The Happiness Program,” and the focus is on helping people achieve sustainable happiness, Richmond said, “Life is always going to go up and down,” and knowing how to center yourself is key to staying happy.

Richmond started teaching the course in New York City, right after 9/11. “People were traumatized. We taught free courses all over the city—wherever we could: universities, museums,” she said. “It was amazing to see some people’s’ PTSD lift in four days.”

The Art of Living itself is an international NGO headquartered in Bangalore, India, and certified instructors like Richmond teach it all over the world. There are specially-designed courses for trauma victims, veterans and prisoners, in addition to the regular courses for everyone, like those in Virginia Beach.

Richmond emphases that the course is for people from all walks of life. In the recent course, there were scientists, teachers, stay-at-home-moms, a veteran.

Richmond emphases that the course is for people from all walks of life. In the recent course, there were scientists, teachers, stay-at-home-moms, a veteran. Richmond emphasizes that the course is for people from all walks of life. The recent course included teachers, scientists, stay-at-home-moms, and a veteran.

Apart from imparting the breathing techniques, the course includes what Richmond calls “some pearls of yogic wisdom.” These lessons, she continued, “teach us how to take life in stride and handle a difficult situation with skill. They give us a fresh mental framework to deal with life.”

New lease on life

For Manan Shah, 35, the owner of several hotels in the Virginia Beach area, the course marked a noticeable shift in his outlook. “My wife said I am more positive,” Shah said.

Shah himself felt like a different person. Growing up in India, with parents who meditated, Shah had already been exposed to meditation, but the Kriya was something new. “Fresh oxygen gets into mind and body. It allows you to start fresh,” he said.

The endorsements for the technique’s benefits are not just anecdotal. Scientific research on the Kriya — often referred to as SKY (Sudarshan Kriya Yoga) — has focused on how the techniques help alleviate depression and anxiety. A recent University of Pennsylvania study showed that the breathing techniques helped reduce severe depression in people who hadn’t responded to antidepressants.

Some people who do the course also experience physical benefits, Richmond said. One person in the recent course came in with back pain, and it was gone by the end of the course.

“Everyone comes away with something—for most people, it’s pretty profound,” Richmond said. “It brings your system back to its natural balance—as you were when you were a kid.” That helps balance whatever is out of balance in your life—be it your career or relationships, she added.

After four uplifting days—filled with breathing exercises, yogic wisdom and group activities—people often wonder what’s next, and they are taught how to do a mini version of the breathing exercises at home, every day. The group also has weekly follow-up meetings for course participants, in which they do the breathing exercises together.

“If one maintains the practice, the results get better and better,” Richmond said. “It’s cumulative. You train your nervous system to be more resilient to stress.”

Richmond’s brother Brian, a scientist in New Jersey, did the course for the first time, in the recent Virginia Beach course. But his 17-year-old son did a version of the course for children and adolescents five years ago.

“He will do a certain number of breaths and it gets him to sleep,” Brian Richmond said. “Five years later, he’s still using these tools.”

The course will again be offered in Virginia Beach, from May 19-21, at the Crowne Plaza Virginia Beach Town Center. For more information: https://www.artofliving.org/us-en/program/143691