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A breathing-based meditation practice known as Sudarshan Kriya yoga alleviated severe depression in people who did not fully respond to antidepressant treatments.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry from researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania bolsters the science behind the use of controlled yogic breathing to battle depression. In a randomised, controlled pilot study, led by Anup Sharma, MD, PhD, a Neuropsychiatry research fellow in the department of Psychiatry at Penn, researchers found significant improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety in medicated patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) who participated in the breathing technique compared to medicated patients who did not partake.

More than half of patients who take antidepressants do not fully respond. Add-on therapies are often prescribed to enhance the effects of the drugs in these patients, but they typically offer limited additional benefits and come with side effects that can curb use, prolonging the depressive episode. What’s more, patients who don’t fully respond to antidepressants are especially at risk of relapse. “With such a large portion of patients who do not fully respond to antidepressants, it’s important we find new avenues,” Sharma said. “Here, we have a promising, lower-cost therapy that could potentially serve as an effective, non-drug approach for patients battling this disease.”

The meditation technique, which is practised in both a group setting and at home, includes a series of sequential, rhythm-specific breathing exercises that bring people into a deep, restful, and meditative state: slow and calm breaths alternated with fast and stimulating breaths. “Sudarshan Kriya yoga gives people an active method to experience a deep meditative state that’s easy to learn and incorporate in diverse settings,” Sharma said.