Breathing-Based Yoga May Help Lift Depression

Depression is the most prevalent mental illness in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The numbers are staggering: 15.7 million American adults suffered from at least one major depressive episode during 2014. The good news is that a specific, breathing-based yoga—called Sudarshan Kriya yoga—may offer real relief.yoga_medium

What is Major Depressive Disorder?

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by experiencing at least 5 of the following symptoms for at least 2 weeks:

  • A pervasive sense of hopelessness
  • Continual sadness
  • An overarching pessimistic outlook
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Disinterest in activities
  • Weight loss and decreased appetite
  • Insomnia

MDD is commonly experienced after a harrowing event, such as the loss of a loved one, a traumatic divorce, or a life-threatening medical diagnosis. Doctors typically prescribe a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to help people through MDD episodes. But more than half of Americans on antidepressants receive no relief and remain unresponsive to the effects. Prescribing additional antidepressants increases the risk of unwanted side effects. In cases such as these, patients frequently stop taking their prescriptions, and can end up relapsing into more severe depressive episodes.

Dr. Anup Sharma, a neuropsychiatry research fellow at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and team may have discovered a low-to-no cost alternative therapy for depression than can help boost the effectiveness of antidepressants.

Sudarshan Kriya Yoga for Depression

Sudarshan Kriya yoga is a meditation-based yoga that uses rhythmic breathing to calm and relax the mind. The research team tested the effects of Sudarshan Kriya yoga on depression because “Sudarshan Kriya yoga gives people an active method to experience a deep meditative state that’s easy to learn and incorporate in diverse settings.” 

Other studies have shown a positive influence on depression, but until now there have been no clinical studies testing the benefits of Sudarshan Kriya yoga for use in outpatient settings, such as at home. The latest study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, separated 25 adults diagnosed with MDD and unresponsive to antidepressants for at least 8 weeks into two groups: one group received Sudarshan Kriya yoga instruction for 8 weeks, while the control group was put on a “wait list.”

During the first week, participants in the yoga group underwent a 6-session program of Sudarshan Kriya yoga exercises, yoga postures, medications, and stress education. For the following 7 weeks, patients were required to attend a Sudarshan Kriya yoga follow-up session and conduct a complete practice session at home each week. Participants from each group continued taking antidepressants.Women meditating in a yoga studio

Anxiety and depression symptoms were measured at the start and end of the study using the 17-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS-17), the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), and the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI). The control group showed no improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms throughout the 8 weeks. The group receiving Sudarshan Kriya yoga therapy, however, showed significant improvement in symptoms.

  • At the start of the study, the mean HDRS-17 scored improved from 22.0 (a measure of severe depression) to 10.27 points at the study’s end.
  • BDI improved by 15.48 points and BAI improved by 5.19 points.

Dr. Sharma explains: “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.”

If you or someone you love suffers from depression or anxiety, it might be worthwhile to take up a breath-based meditation/yoga practice. In the meantime, Dr. Sharma and his team are preparing to test the effects of Sudarshan Kriya yoga on larger groups of patients to discover how yoga influences brain structure and function, as well as its role in depression.