By Nikhil Ramburn and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
The Kirtan Kriya meditation is one of the unique signature practices of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. There are multiple benefits ascribed to this kriya and, most importantly, recent research has shown that this practice can reduce stress levels and increase brain activity in areas associated with memory.
A leading voice in the integrative medical approach to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa and the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation (ARPF), features Kirtan Kriya on their website home page. The ARPF was founded in 1993 by Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. and has funded and conducted years of research with eminent university research centers across the U.S. and in Europe. The ARPF is dedicated to pursuing longitudinal studies on the therapeutic benefits of Kundalini Yoga therapy and especially Kirtan Kriya on cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s prevention, including functional imaging studies, genomics, biomarkers and neurocognitive testing. Prominent researchers who have collaborated with Dr. Dharma Khalsa on recently published Kirtan Kriya research funded in part by ARPF include Dr. Kim Innes of West Virginia University and Dr. Helen Lavretsky of the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA.
Dr. Lavretsky is a geriatric psychiatrist who jokingly says that she left Russia for America to find Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. In fact, his teachings profoundly impacted her personal and professional life and she now teaches and conducts research in the neuroscience of integrative mental health and the neuroscience of consciousness and enlightenment. In January of 2017, Dr. Lavretsky and colleagues published their findings from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) involving 81 participants aged 55 and above with mild cognitive impairment (with symptoms such as significantly forgetting names and misplacing items). The subjects were assigned to either 12 weeks of standardized memory enhancement training (MET, which is a known conventional therapy) or yoga and then followed over a six-month period. The yoga group participated in weekly 60-minute Kundalini Yoga classes, which included warm-ups, breath training (pranayama), 12 minutes of Kirtan Kriya, meditation, and Shavasana (deep rest). The yoga training group also practiced Kirtan Kriya for 12-minutes daily at home. After the 12-week intervention, there was no difference in dropout rates suggesting the suitability of Kundalini Yoga and Kirtan Kriya for this population. While both groups showed significant memory improvement at 12 weeks post-intervention and the 24-week follow up, only the yoga group showed significant improvements in measures of executive functioning, depression, anxiety, and psychological resilience.
In addition to these results, a subsample of 25 participants from this study were examined using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to document brain connectivity, structure, and chemical changes associated with the 12 weeks of yoga or MET. Dr. Lavretsky and her colleagues found that yoga was just as effective as memory training in improving connections between brain regions involved with verbal memory performance. These preliminary findings are encouraging and suggest that yoga can produce functional changes in the brain associated with improved memory in seniors.
Dr. Kim Innes is a well-known yoga researcher who has investigated the efficacy of yoga for a number of medical conditions including type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders, and cardiovascular disease as well as in the elderly and women’s health. In a Yoga Journal profile of her yoga research, she was quoted, “It was my personal experience with yoga and the benefits I felt, like reduced stress and better sleep, that sparked my interest in studying yoga as a disease intervention.” Her Kirtan Kriya study, also published in January 2017, reported similar improvements in cognition and memory in older adults with subjective cognitive decline. This was the first RCT designed to examine the effects of mind-body practices on memory and cognitive functioning in this population. The study evaluated 60 older adults assigned to either a Kirtan Kriya meditation group or a music listening program. The subjects practiced at home for 12 minutes every day for 12 weeks. Participants in both groups showed marked and significant improvements in subjective memory functioning and objective cognitive performance after 12 weeks. Furthermore, the post-intervention follow-up revealed that the substantial gains in memory and cognition were maintained or further increased suggesting that Kirtan Kriya meditation is an effective protocol to sustain memory improvements in older adults with preclinical stages of Alzheimer’s disease. As an additional benefit, Kirtan Kriya showed greater improvement in sleep, mood, stress, and quality of life scores when compared to the music group.
The research by ARPF and Drs. Lavretsky and Innes has drawn significant attention to the potential of Kirtan Kriya through a number of news reports and articles. The research suggests that Kirtan Kriya seems to be an effective intervention to increase brain activity in areas associated with memory and has long lasting effects. However, these preliminary trials are limited by relatively small sample sizes and further longitudinal studies with larger and more diverse samples are required to generalize and confirm these findings. Furthermore, it would be advantageous if different additional objective biomarkers of cognition and memory loss could be measured in Kirtan Kriya research order to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms of action for this meditation. The potential of a simple behavioral intervention that could prevent symptoms of cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s itself, would be a major contribution to this common and growing medical concern.