Depression is nothing to take lightly, but modern science is proving that how you breathe can have a considerable positive impact on symptoms of depression ranging from mild to severe.
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders. In 2015, according to National Institutes of Mental Health, some 16.1 million adults in the U.S. experienced at least one significant episode of depression over the previous year.
The most serious varieties of depression can put the patient or others at risk, and need immediate medical intervention. These include Psychotic depression (involving delusions or hallucinations, among other symptoms); Persistent depressive disorder (severe depression lasting two years or more); and Perinatal depression, in cases where the mother might do harm to herself or her baby.
Among milder forms described in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5) are Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Bipolar disorder.
There's strong evidence that people who learn and practice a form of yoga and breathing practice called Sudarshan Kriya (SKY) can experience dramatic relief from depression. A report at The Art of Living summarizes the results of more than a dozen published studies: "These studies have demonstrated a 67-73% success rate in relief from depression, regardless of the severity of depression." SKY practice appears to produce rapid results, often within weeks. Moreover, the relief observed is uniform no matter which form of depression the person has suffered, or how long their depression has persisted. Good news for people who experience less severe kinds of emotional upset including melancholy and 'the blues': SKY has proven very helpful in relieving these feelings as well.
In a comparison study, SKY was found to be as effective as conventional anti-depressant medication, with the additional plusses that it's both natural and side-effect free.
A report in the Harvard Health Letter sums it up this way:
For many patients dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, yoga may be a very appealing way to better manage symptoms. Indeed, the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent. The evidence is growing that yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health.
Let's look at the breathing portion of this self-administered, self-empowering approach to depression relief.
Sudarshan Kriya or "healing breath"
Using natural rhythms to release stress and build mindfulness of the moment, the simplest variation of this technique employs a cycle of three different breathing tempos.
The yoga position recommended for this method is called Vajrasana, or Thunderbolt Pose. This isn't quite as challenging as the name might seem: from a kneeling position on a mat or carpet, sit back on your heels, then spread your feet and lower yourself until your buttocks touch the mat, with your heels touching either side. If your flexibility prevents lowering completely, remain seated on your heels.
Sit up straight, and through all three cycles, inhale through your nose and exhale through the mouth. Beginners may repeat each cycle four to eight times. For more experienced people, the session can last 45 minutes.
Cycle 1 - In a relaxed manner, inhale and exhale, with in- and out-breaths of equal duration.
Cycle 2 - Lengthen each exhalation to four times the length of the inhalation.
Cycle 3 - Reverse the pattern; each inhalation should be twice the length of your exhalation
This approach to breathing helps focus the mind on the rhythms of breathing and counting breaths, breaking depressive thought patterns. Slowing the tempo of in and out breaths helps to calm the heart rate and regulate blood pressure, and studies have shown that there is a positive stimulation of the vagus nerve which helps release tension and encourage feelings of serenity and well-being.
While it's possible to enjoy the benefits of breathing practice without learning much yoga technique, if you find some benefit in this approach, you should consider a deeper exploration of yoga practice either in a class with an experienced instructor, or by using the many yoga instruction videos available online and on DVD.