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Breathe to Beat the Blues
By Stephanie Gold
When my father took sick with depression, gravity seemed to claim him, body and soul. Everything sagged. I wish I’d known then about pranayama, yoga’s ancient treatment for the blues.
The word pranayama comes from Sanskrit—prana means life force or breath and yama, restraint (although some see the second word as ayama, which means extension). Yogis consider depression a prana disorder; the shallow breath, the slumped shoulders my father evinced so sadly, all demonstrate a paucity of prana. Yogis have long believed that conscious breathing (pranayama) can have a dramatic effect on depression, anxiety, and even insomnia. What these breathing exercises do, explains Sudha Prathikanti, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, is stimulate the vagus nerve—the command post of the parasympathetic nervous system—allowing blood pressure to normalize, heart rate to slow, muscles to relax, and the digestive system to pick up where it left off.
What the research reveals
Yoga boasts hundreds of pranayamas, but most research has focused on Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, a series of breathing exercises developed in India by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation. One study found that severely depressed patients who practiced pranayama three times a week for 30 minutes a day over four weeks recovered as well as patients taking an antidepressant. Mildly depressed patients did well too. In fact, everyone who practiced the minimum three times a week improved dramatically. “There’s valid, scientific evidence that this works for depression,” says Patricia Gerbarg, MD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College.
What makes this therapy so useful, says Prathikanti, is how easy it is to sit still, close your eyes, and breathe—a welcome alternative if you’re a newcomer to yoga. “Yoga poses are good, but breathing’s the key to working with mood,” says Amy Weintraub, founder of LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and author of Yoga for Depression (Broadway Books, 2004). This is excellent news for the elderly—a depression-prone group for whom rigorous exercise, yoga poses, and medical treatments may not be an option. “Most seniors take a lot of medications,” says Prathikanti, “so nonpharmacological treatments become very attractive.”
How pranayama works
Most people can do yogic breathing. The four exercises featured below focus primarily on the exhale, which produces a calming, balancing effect on the central nervous system.
Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana). This simple breathing exercise cleanses the respiratory system while bringing equilibrium to the right and left brain. Throughout the day, the breath will naturally alternate about every two hours, favoring either the right or left nostril. Just close your nostrils one at a time to see which is more open. Nadi Shodhana (pronounced NAH-dee SHOW-duh-na...
Author: Stephanie Gold
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