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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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