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Breath In, Breath Out: The Antidepressant Effects of Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing

 

Elissa Gerfen

September 24, 2007

 

 

Picture from http://us.artofliving.org

 

Introduction:

In 1982 the spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, reportedly came across this breathing technique during meditation. “The theory is that the kriya allows a healthy and pleasant mind to produce chemical messengers, which travel from the nervous system to the immune system, resulting in the overall betterment of both body and mind” (www.sudarshankriya.org).

 

 

What is Sudarshan Kriya?

            Sudarshan Kriya is the Sandskrit for “healing breath.”  This breathing-based technique “incorporates specific natural rhythms of breath to release stress and bring the mind to the present moment” (http://us.artofliving.org).  This rhythmic breathing consists of a cyclical pattern of three different stages.  The first stage involves slow breathing of about 7-8 breaths, the second stage involves medium breathing with 15 breaths, and the third stage involves fast breathing with 30 breaths (www.the-south-asian.com/Art_of_breathing.htm).  Sudarshan Kriya is taught by a trainer as a twenty hour program and is typically four to six sessions of two-and-a-half or three hours (http://us.artofliving.org).  Following the course, home practice consists of 20-30 minute sessions to maintain the effects and benefits of Sudarshan Kriya. 

 

According to the Art of Living website, the benefits of Sudarshan Kriya are:

* Greater creativity and clarity of mind

* Reduced stress and tension

* More ease and joy in personal relationships

 

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar “states that the process also involves the infusion of a maximum amount of oxygen to the cells, which helps in the release of neuropeptides that regularize Abnormal Brain Wave patterns in patients suffering from neural disorders” (www.sudarshankriya.org).  This increased amount of oxygen allows the release of unnecessary and burdening emotions.  The mind-body intervention seeks to distress the mind and by proxy eliminate the ailments.

 

What evidence do they provide to support these claims?

            The Art of Living website provides testimonials (two examples below) as well as medical research.  The medical research is discussed in the next section.

 

Testimonials:

Here are two of the several testimonials found on the Art of Living website.  While neither, nor do any on the website, directly address the issue of depression relief, these testimonials do relate to relief of depression like symptoms:

 

“Though my yoga practice has long been essential to my well-being, since I began practicing Sudarshan Kriya, I feel lighter, as though I’m carrying less emotional baggage, while I feel a growing solidity at my core.”

– Amy Weitraub, Author of Yoga for Depression

 

“The Sudarshan Kriya has dissipated alot of the worries and anxieties I had in my life.  Now I am able to deal with every day challenges with a feeling of inner strength.”

– John Chu, Realtor, Miami, Florida

 

What does the scientific research say?

           The Art of Living website has descriptions of three articles under this medical research link.  One article describes a pilot study on the effects of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) on depression.  This study included 15 patients with dysthymia and 15 patients with major depression.  One group of participants received low pretreatment P300 event related potential (ERP) amplitude, which is “similar to earlier reports with somatic treatments such as antidepressant medications and ECT” (Naga Venkatesha Murthy 1998).  No difference occurred those participants who received the pretreatment P300 amplitude.  This demonstrates a uniform response to SKY as therapy for depression.  The study also revealed that since it takes one week to learn SKY the treatment does not begin to take antidepressant effects until three weeks into the trial (Naga Venkatesha Murthy 1998).

 

             The second article that the website gives is on the effects of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga on 46 hospital outpatients with dysthymia.  The patients received training of SKY and were evaluated prior to the start of the experiment, following one month of treatment, and then three months after the start of treatment (Janakiramaiah 1998).  Following daily use of SKY for three months and the avoidance of medication, patients showed elevated levels of plasma prolactin.  It has been found that “acute prolactin release reduces fear and anxiety in animal models” (Brown 2005).  Of the 46 initial patients, 37 completed the three-month treatment.  Twenty-five of the patients remitted with a greater number completing the practice of SKY regularly (Janakiramaiah 1998).  This demonstrates SKY’s biological and therapeutic effects of patients with dysthymia (Janakiramaiah 1998).  

 

    Another article compared SKY with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and imipramine.  While there was no control group because of ethical reasons of non-treatment, there was random placement of the 45 severe, hospitalized melancholic depressive patients into the three trials.  The patients were assessed using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI).  Using this scale the ECT was the most effective treatment with the SKY and imipramine having about equal effects.  More studies with larger sample sizes need to occur to figure out the precise placement of these treatments in the clinical management of depressive disorders because the effect size is so small.  Despite the small size, all three treatments did show a significant effect (Janakiramaiah 1998).

 

              A more recent study is described in two parts.  The first part describes the methods of the experiment and states that, “yogic breathing is a unique method for balancing the autonomic nervous system and influencing psychological and stress-related disorders” (Brown 2005).     The studies in breathing techniques and its effects remain in the early stages.  This article points out a negative of previous studies, the fact that some studies have used different types of breathing techniques.  This lack of uniformity can lead to extra variables and confounds.  In light of this, this study used only one type of breathing technique (SKY).  It highlights the importance of proper use, since improper or excessive use can lead to harmful outcomes.  In addition to this, participants must use the appropriate conditions, which are modified to fit pregnancy, sever depression, and other circumstances.  Biological postulations of this article are that “activation of the limbic system, hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and stria terminalis may improve autonomic function, neuroendocrine release, emotional processing, and social bonding” (Brown 2005).  This article focused on the brain functions and activities that occur during SKY.

 

               The second part of the article focuses on the clinical application.  It found that in private practice many patients were able to discontinue or reduce their use of antidepressant medication if they continued to practice SKY everyday (Brown 2005).  Frequency of use is what makes the effects of SKY continue to aid the patients.  

 

Conclusions: 

While multiple studies have occurred in the research of Sudardhan Kriya Yogic breathing techniques and its effects on depression patients, further studies should occur before the medical community can make any absolute claims on the healing effects.  The future studies need to have greater funding for increased assessment technologies such as PET scans and fMRIs.  In dealing with such a complicated disorder, such as depression, no absolute cure can exist. 

 

 

Online Sources:

 

Art of Correct Breathing & Healthy Life. http://www.the-south-asian.com/Art_of_breathing.htm

 

The Art of Living.  http://us.artofliving.org

 

Sudarshan: Guru &Yoga. http://www.sudarshankriya.org

 

Journal Sources:

Brown R.P., Gerbarg P.L. (2005).  Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing in the treatment of

stress anxiety, and depression: Part I—Neurophysiological model. J Altern Complement Med, 11(1), 189-201.

 

Brown R. P, Gerbarg P. L. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of

stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II–Clinical applications and guidelines. J Altern Complement Med, 11(4), 711-717.

 

Janakiramaiah, N., Gangadhar, B. N., Naga Venkatesha Murthy, P. J, et

al. (2000).  Antidepressant efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) in melancholia: a randomized comparison with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and imipramine. J Affect Disord, 57(1-3), 255-259.

 

Janakiramaiah N., Gangadhar B. N., Naga Venkatesha Murthy P. J., et al.

(1998). Therapeutic efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) in dysthymic disorder. NIMHANS Journal, 16(1), 21-28.

 

Naga Venkatesha Murthy P. J., Janakiramaiah N., Gangadhar B. N., et al.

(1998).  P300 amplitude and antidepressant response to Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY). J Affect Disord, 50(1), 45-48.

 

 

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