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The Natural Prozac

The yoga mat is a good place to turn when talk therapy and antidepressants aren't enough.

By Amy Weintraub

Pumping Prana

When Penny Smith eliminated her panic attacks through yogic breathing exercises, she was tapping into thousands of years of yogic wisdom. "Yogis understood," says Stephen Cope, "that even in the absence of immediate stressors, 'disturbed breathing' (thoracic breath) could perpetuate or re-create a state of sympathetic nervous system arousal, causing anxiety states, panic, and fear reactions." Thousands of years ago, yogis designed a system of deep abdominal-diaphragmatic breathing that relaxes the body and calms the mind.

In his experience working with patients at a mental health facility in Phoenix, yoga teacher Ted Srinathadas Czukor says that the most effective tool was pranayama. In one case, a 340-pound woman with numerous physical and emotional disabilities, who was often subject to panic attacks, usually had to be sedated before routine medical treatment. After a few months of practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing with Ted, a new note was added to her medical chart: "Before you begin your procedure, give her five minutes to do her yoga breathing. No medication will be necessary."

Several new studies done under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in India have concluded that a particular practice called Sudarshan Kriya, taught in this country as The Healing Breath Technique by the Art of Living Foundation, has remarkable therapeutic effects—a 68 to 73 percent success rate in treating people suffering from depression, regardless of the severity. According to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an Indian spiritual teacher who has revived the ancient technique, the root cause of depression is a low level of prana in the system. The Healing Breath Technique is a purifying practice that involves breathing naturally through the nose, with the mouth closed, in three distinct rhythms, "flooding every cell of the body with both oxygen and prana, eliminating physical and emotional toxins at the cellular level," says Ronnie Newman, a Harvard-trained researcher in nontraditional therapies and Research Director for the Art of Living Foundation.

What Comes Up

In 1990, when Jon Kabat-Zinn published Full Catastrophe Living (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990) the general public learned of a system of stress reduction that he and his colleagues developed at the University of Massachusetts. The Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program (SR&RP), which has now been taught to more than 7,000 people, includes a 45-minute hatha yoga component, but its primary tool is mindfulness meditation. In study after study, the SR&RP has shown a measurable reduction in depression and anxiety. A recent yearlong study that involved 145 people in three separate countries, all of whom were at risk of a recurrence of depression, showed that those who participated in the SR&RP in combination with group cognitive therapy had a significantly lower rate of relapse than the control group. According to Zindel Segal, Ph.D., coauthor of the study, people were trained to follow their breath, to become aware of their thinking, and to step back and observe their thinking without reacting. Asanas were used to get the energy flowing and to move awareness into the body. The program incorporated slow stretching, directing the students to become aware of "what comes up." Segal echoes Richard Miller when he says "getting people to consider depression as a state of mind, of rising and falling mood, is more useful to them than to think of themselves as depressives."

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Reader Comments

Lydia

This is the best article on depression I have read in a long time. Just what I needed. Thank you.

Valerie

Thanks, I always love yoga journal's articles so much! There are many ways of letting go, and sometimes it's just to BE.

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