Yoga and Depression – Breathing Based Yoga Helps to Significantly Relieve Major Depression

Breathing Based Yoga Helps to Relieve Major Depression

Depression is a major problem, and when it chooses a life to shadow, its hold can be fierce. The most popular treatment for depression is antidepressant medication. Though antidepressants seem to bring relief to many people, there are at least as many who do not respond to treatment. Thankfully, researchers are working hard on finding a more effective way to manage depression, and the world is edging ever so closer to finding a cure. 

With the research steering in new and promising directions, there has been an overwhelming amount of evidence to find that certain lifestyle factors have great potential to alleviate the symptoms of depression. A combination of exercise and mindfulness has been found to reduce the symptoms of depression by up to 40%. As well as this, gut health has been found to play a critical role in mental health, particularly in relation to the symptoms of depression. 

Whether medication is part of the healing or not, exercise, meditation, and gut health clearly have enormous capacity to strengthen the mind and body in a way that can protect them against depression. Now, new research from the University of Pennsylvania has found that a breathing-based meditation practice known as Sudarshan Kriya yoga (‘SKY’) can provide significant relief from the symptoms of severe depression and anxiety. 

What are the symptoms of major depression?

People are diagnosed with major depression if they experience at least five of the following symptoms for nearly every day for at least two weeks. The symptoms need to cause significant intrusion into day-to-day living, and need to not be the physiological effects of a substance problem or other medical condition. The symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, or tearfulness or irritability;
  • Loss of interest or pleasure;
  • Weight changes or changes in appetite;
  • Sleep changes – difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much;
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation. This needs to be noticeable to others, not just feeling restless or slow;
  • Fatigue or loss of energy;
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt;
  • Diminished ability to think, concentrate or make decisions;
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, an established suicide plan or suicide attempt. 

Let’s talk about the research.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, involved people who had been diagnosed with major depression. On average, participants were in the severe range. All participants had been on antidepressant medication for at least eight weeks and had seen no significant improvement in symptoms.

As part of the study, the participants were randomly placed into either a Sudarshan  Kriya yoga group, or a ‘waitlist’ group. Participants in the waitlist group did not practice Sudarshan Kriya yoga for the duration of the study, but were offered the yoga intervention at the end of the eight weeks. 

After two months, the group who practised the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique had 50% lower depression scores. There was also a significant reduction in anxiety scores. The waitlist group showed no improvements. The depression scores were measured using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale – the most widely used clinical-administered depression measurement and it measures scores on various criteria such as mood, interest in activities, energy, suicidal thoughts, feelings of guilt, as well as other symptoms.

The SKY group also showed significant reductions in their scores on the Beck Depression Inventory and Beck Anxiety Inventories, which both involving the self-reporting of relevant symptoms. 

‘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 … Here we have a promising, lower-cost therapy that could potentially serve as an effective, non-drug approach for patients battling this disease.’ Anup Sharma, MD, PhD, lead author and Neuropsychiatry research fellow in the department of Psychiatry at Penn University.

Yoga and Depression: How does it work?

Sudarshan Kriya involves a series of rhythmic breathing experiences that bring on a deep, restful, meditative stage.

‘Sudarshan Kriya yoga gives people an active method to experience a deep meditative state that’s easy to learn and incorporate in diverse settings.’ – Anup Sharma, MD, PhD.

According to a paper presented at the 2016 International Conference on Emerging Technologies in Engineering, Biomedical, Management and Science SKY has a 68-73% success rate in treating depression regardless of severity, and produces positive effects on brain and hormone function. SKY works in a number of ways including:

  • removing stress from the body by flushing negative toxins from cells;
  • releasing neuropeptides which help to strengthen the immune system;
  • within 90 days of SKY, the brainwave patterns which are abnormal in many people with depression are returned to normal;
  • increasing levels of plasma prolactin, a hormone in the blood that is believed to have a central  role in easing the symptoms of depression (an increase was seen after one session of SKP);
  • significant decrease in levels of cortisol (the stress hormone);
  • increased defence against oxidative stress. Specifically, SKY has been found to produce an increase in antioxidant enzymes, superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione which are the major defence against oxidative stress. Research has found a link between oxidative stress and depression 

Previous research suggests that yoga and other techniques that involve controlled breathing can potentially calm the nervous system and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Some stress is motivating and healthy – it can help us to be more alert and more responsive in certain situations. When stress is too high, or when it lasts for too long, it can cause a chemical reaction that can slow down or stop neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells. When this happens, we become vulnerable to all sorts of mental health issues, such as depression. It is thought that one of the reasons exercise, mindfulness, and other lifestyle factors can help with depression is because of the way they stimulate the healthy growth of new brain cells and protect existing brain cells from dying.

Exactly what is Sudarshan Kriya yoga?

For a demonstration of the Sudarshan Kriya yoga, see here.

But first, a warning: This link is intended only as a general guide, and is not intended to replace the guidance and expertise of experts or medical professionals. This meditation is not to be used by any person in any stage of pregnancy, or by people with high blood pressure. This breathing-based meditation is best done under the supervision of an experienced yoga practitioner. This meditation is not intended to be a substitute for medication. If you are on medication, it is critical that you do not decrease or stop your medication without close consultation with your doctor. Your own circumstances need to be considered before engaging in the activity, so as not to do harm or injury. If you have not practiced this type of yoga before, it may take time to work up to the full 48 beats demonstrated in the video. As with any physical activity, go gradually and do not do more than is comfortable for your body. Please consult your medical professional if you are unsure about the suitability of this activity for you.

And finally …

There can be no denying that the connection between the mind and the body is a critical one. Increasingly, research is finding that depression is not a ‘disorder’ of the mind, but a physical illness that has its origins in other parts of the body, such as the gut or at more systemic cellular level. It makes sense then, that a powerful way to manage the symptoms of depression has to involve strengthening both the mind and the body. Meditation, specifically Sudarshan Kriya is one way to strengthen the mind, the body and the spirit and maximise the potential for health and healing to be restored.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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