Breathing-based Sudarshan Kriya yoga can help severely depressed people

November 28, 2016 Providence Health Team

A yoga mat may look like nothing more than a simple, utilitarian slice of rubber, but it’s a new battlefield in the effort to treat severe depression.

In a study out of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers report that the practice of Sudarshan Kriya yoga significantly eased the depressive symptoms of people who hadn’t been helped by antidepressant drugs. Sudarshan Kriya yoga is a meditative, breathing-based practice.

“With such a large portion of patients who do not fully respond to antidepressants, it’s important we find new avenues that work best for each person to beat their depression,” said Anup Sharma, M.D., of the Penn Department of Psychiatry and lead researcher. “Here, we have a promising, lower-cost therapy that could potentially serve as an effective, non-drug approach for patients battling this disease.”

About 41 million Americans take antidepressants, researchers said, but more than half don’t respond to the drugs. Those who don’t respond are especially at risk of a relapse. Yogic breathing offers an alternative form of treatment.

About Sudarshan Kriya yoga

This yoga practice, which can be carried out in a group class or individually, is based on what the researchers call sequential, rhythm-specific breathing exercises that alternate fast breaths with slow, calm breaths. The practice helps people reach a deeply meditative state.

Specifically, the breathing cycle has four elements:

  • “Victorious Breath,” a slow breathing technique that focuses on the sensation of breath touching the throat
  • “Bellows Breath,” when air is rapidly and forcefully exhaled at 30 breaths a minute
  • Chanting “Om” three times with a long exhalation
  • Sudarshan Kriya, an advanced form of cyclical breathing with slow, medium and fast cycles

About major depressive disorder

Clinical depression, or major mood disorder, is fairly common but serious. It can be disabling at times, interfering with a person’s ability to sleep, think, work and manage daily activities. Symptoms include:

  • Persistent sadness, anxiety or an empty feeling
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness, or trouble relaxing
  • Problems concentrating or remembering things
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Aches or digestive problems that can’t be otherwise explained

For a health care provider to make a diagnosis of clinical depression, symptoms must persist for two weeks.

Common treatments could include “talk therapy” or counseling, brain stimulation and antidepressant medications.

If you are feeling any combination of these symptoms and they haven’t gone away after a few days, it may be time to reach out to a health care provider. With our directory, you can find a Providence provider near you.

To learn more

The nonprofit Art of Living Foundation has a primer on Sudarshan Kriya at its website.

You can read about the signs, symptoms and treatments for depression at the Providence Health Library and at the site of the National Institute of Mental Health.

You can read about the study in a press release from the University of Pennsylvania. The study itself, “A Breathing-Based Meditation Intervention for Patients With Major Depressive Disorder Following Inadequate Response to Antidepressants: A Randomized Pilot Study,” was published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine contains a similar study from 2013: “Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health.

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