Many people who practice yoga, whether as a lifestyle or as a means of staying fit by taking weekly classes, swear by the positive effects yoga has on them. For some, the benefits of yoga include increased fitness, while others practice yoga for the calming, destressing effects. But new research is showing that yoga may do more than just offer a general feeling of well-being after a class.
Some studies have shown that by using the practice of Sudarshan Kriya yoga, which focuses on a mindful utilization of four main breathing techniques, people suffering from depression not alleviated by medication showed a decrease in both depression and anxiety when utilizing the breathing techniques of Sudarshan Kriya.
First, Sudarshan Kriya uses specific sequences of breathing cycles, alternated with normal breathing. Each technique has a specific function, whether it’s the “Victorious Breath” (Ujjayi), designed to bring about a feeling of mental calmness mixed with alertness; the “Bellows Breath” (Bhastrika), which is a rapid breathing cycle that brings about excitation and then calmness; or the “Om” chant, intended to be practiced with a prolonged exhalation.
Sudarshan Kriya is also believed to stimulate vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve) pathways because it stimulates multiple sensory receptors, which then induce physiologic changes in organs, glands, the limbic system, and cortical areas. Sudarshan Kriya is also thought to have a positive effect on the endocrine system, activating neurological function that produces both calmness and alertness.
Focusing on breathing in cycles and utilizing different techniques in this way increases mindfulness. The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as a state, as opposed to a trait, of a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without carrying judgment. The prevailing theories state that using mindful meditation will promote awareness and decrease rumination (those pesky racing thoughts), through which people can more readily employ strategies for regulating emotional reactions and reducing stress and anxiety. Mindfulness through meditation is also believed to bring about improved focus and working memory, less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, and increased relationship satisfaction. Mindfulness through meditation has also been linked to improved empathy and compassion, and even improved counseling skills among therapists.
Medication is still an important tool in treating depression; however, it is not an effective (or possible) remedy for some patients. Yoga and mindful meditation, especially through the use of the yogic breathing of Sudarshan Kriya, for example, can provide a much sought-after relief from symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress that won’t go away for some sufferers. Along with therapy, mindful meditation is a valuable part of treatment.
But mindfulness can be valuable for anyone to practice, from helping to reduce daily stress or anxiety to becoming more focused and centered and thus more effectively getting through the day. The goal of mindfulness is to be present in the moment, not necessarily to quiet the mind in that moment. One should experience the present as it is, without judgment. During mindfulness practices such as meditation, one should be aware of these judgments if (or as) they arise, make a note of them, and then immediately let them pass. It is easy to be derailed when thoughts become
distracting or disrupt the moment of mindfulness; the key is to cast aside judgment and not let it become a destructive force, which will only increase stress, anxiety, and even depression.
Mindfulness can extend from a meditation exercise to a practiced mode of living life, being present, intentional, and focused on each act throughout the day. This maximizes efficiency, keeping the focus on the task at hand and creating distance from potentially consuming stress. For those experiencing depression, it is a means of taking control, even if it begins only with controlled breathing and Sudarshan Kriya yoga, and then finding a way to get control over actions and emotions.