Using Breathing-Based Meditation to Treat Depression

Study reveals data suggesting yogic breathing may be helpful in treating depression for patients who have not respond to antidepressants


Authors of a recent article published online in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry investigated the efficacy of a breathing-based meditation practice as an adjunctive intervention for depression. The researchers found that the intervention improved symptoms of depression and anxiety in individuals who have not responded well to antidepressant treatment.

“With such a large portion of patients who do not fully respond to antidepressants, it’s important we find new avenues that work best for each person to beat their depression,” stated the lead author, Anup Sharma, MD, PhD, in a press release to Penn Medicine.

Photo credit: Flickr
Photo credit: Flickr

Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the U.S. with approximately 7% of the American population reporting one depressive episode in the last year. Despite medication, specifically antidepressants, being a popular treatment for the condition, previous research studies have called for a critical view in the prescription of these, due to poor efficacy and the potential for harmful side effects. Recent studies have focused on

Recent studies have focused on exercise and meditation-focused interventions and found them to be valuable in the treatment of depression. Meditative practices, including Sudarshan Kriya yoga, have been found to have beneficial effects on depression with a lower side effect burden. Studies have shown that Sudarshan Kriya yoga, the controlled breathing technique discussed in this article, has had salutary effects as a treatment for a number of conditions including stress, anxiety, and depression.

In order to meet criteria for the study, participants had to be presenting symptoms of depression (in order to meet a diagnosis) despite undergoing at least eight weeks of antidepressant treatment. The researchers recruited 25 adults with a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, who were not responding to antidepressant treatment. Participants were randomized to one of two groups for eight weeks: a Sudarshan Kriya yoga group (SKY), or a waitlist control group. Regardless of randomization, participants continued to receive antidepressants throughout the study.

Individuals in the SKY group participated in a six-session program during their first week in treatment. The sessions included yoga exercises and postures, as well as meditation and education. For the following seven weeks, participants attended a weekly follow-up session and completed a session at home. Individuals randomized to the waitlist control group continued receiving their treatment and were offered the option of participating in the yoga intervention at the end of the study. Participant’s depression and anxiety symptoms were measured for change at study baseline and at the end of study (8 weeks post-baseline).

Participants’ baseline means indicated severe depression within the sample. After eight weeks, participants in the SKY group showed significantly greater improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms, as measured by the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS-17), compared to the waitlist group. Participants in the intervention group also showed greater reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, as measured by the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI). Participants in the control group did not see major improvements.

Despite its strong results, the study’s size and population limit the generalizability of its findings. The authors concluded that the findings of their study point to the promise of SKY interventions as an adjunctive treatment for individuals not responding to antidepressants. The fact the no adverse events were reported in their study also suggests that this could be an important treatment for those individuals for whom antidepressants could in some way be detrimental.

“Here, we have a promising, lower-cost therapy that could potentially serve as an effective, non-drug approach for patients battling this disease,” Sharma expressed to Penn Medicine.



Sharma, A., Barrett, M.S., Cucchiara, A.J., Gooneratne, N.S., & Thase, M.E. (2016). A breathing-based meditation intervention for patients with major depressive disorder following inadequate response to antidepressants: A randomized pilot study. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 10.4088/JCP.16m10819 (Abstract)


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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Marta Pagán-Ortiz
MIA-UMB News Team: Marta E. Pagán-Ortiz is a doctoral student and research assistant in the Counseling and School Psychology PhD program at UMass Boston. Marta is currently working on research studies related to mental health treatment guidelines for chronic illnesses, issues of structural violence within minority populations, and the reduction of disparities in mental health status and care.


  1. Buddhist Breathing meditation certainly worked for me (and my “Diagnoses” were Severe)

    I learnt it many years ago at the Western Buddhist Fellowship in East London. It cost about £10 at the time, but if a person doesn’t have any money – I believe its for free.

    I also found Buddhist Philosophy and teaching to be very conducive towards increased happiness and peace of mind.

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  2. Natural processes are the best way to cure depression.I battled depression for years, and I am so grateful that I managed to fight that daemon off.
    For anyone suffering from depression,
    I recommend something that has helped me a lot. It is James Gordon’s system at
    He is a former depression sufferer, and teaches a totally natural 7 step process which relieves depression from your life.

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  3. Oh no….Good thing I am no longer in shrinkage. That was the one thing I absolutely despised. Some kid with a ponytail 20 years younger than me instructing me in how to breathe. inside a nuthouse.

    “Hey, kid, I have been breathing just fine, two decades longer than you have. Been doing it since i was born. Buzz off.”

    After a while, I really did tell them that.

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  4. No Julie,

    The instructor was middle class trendy and European, with a buddhist name. They weren’t 20 years younger than me (because I was young myself at the time). The meditation was very boring and I didn’t see the point – But Worked (for me).

    So there you are!

    (I went there of my own free will; my donation was not exactly optional; and it was the best £10 I ever spent)

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    • I agree.

      Buddhist meditation works wonders for me also. Learning to look at my life in an objective manner without judgment was one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done. When I look at things in my life as “wrong” or “bad” and then fight to change them the issues only get stronger. Looking at things with no judgment somehow takes their power away and I can begin working with them to change them into more productive things. Also, when concentrating on my breath I cannot think and I live within the present moment. Not thinking and just being breaks the rumination that often led me into the depths of depression.

      I discovered Buddhism while in the seminary studying to be a Roman Catholic priest. Ironic that I didn’t become a priest but found my home in Buddhism.

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      • Stephen,
        For sure! Without judgement for myself or anyone else I’m in with a chance.
        I see Buddhism as the same message as Christianity but it’s easier for me to understand and I found I could apply it.
        Eventually it offered me a route out of “suffering”.

        I think a lot of decent Catholic Priests would support Buddhism as well.

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  5. What I love about meditation, and how it most helped me, is that when I finally allowed myself to focus purely on the moment as my mind quieted down (that was a trick, but with practice, I finally got there), my entire nervous system began to calm down, and I’d find myself at peace. Even though that inner peace would go away as I went through my day interacting with the world and my life, I could still feel an ever-so-slight shift in my thoughts–less fear-based and more neutral and uplifting.

    The more I got into the habit of meditation, grounding, and quieting my mind to simply be in the moment, always going back to that little space of inner peace I could only find in mediation at that time, the more my thoughts shifted, and as a result of that inner shifting, my outer reality began to change. And then, it totally transformed into something I’d never expected–satisfying and fulfilling.

    So not only did a daily meditation practice shift my neural pathways to something much more light and desirable than that which produced only feelings of fear and powerlessness, it also taught me that when we shift internally our thought habits and how we respond to the world around us, then we discover the power to create desirable change that ripples into our personal reality, in the most uplifting and life-affirming way.

    I also studied healing and did a large part of my training with Buddhists (not exclusively, I studied a variety of spiritual healing paths), although I don’t identify as Buddhist. I’m Jewish and identify as such regarding my heritage, but I was ordained as minister in a Christian Church that was adjunct to a school for meditation and healing, based on the universal principles of energy. My work is as a non-denominational minister, spiritual counselor and healer–“spiritual,” not like in “religion” but as in, our spiritual nature, which I believe to be universal. We all have a spiritual nature to learn and explore, and from which we can manifest what we desire.

    The commonality between all of these different spiritual paths and healing perspectives is “Law of Attraction,” every single one of these diverse perspectives meet at that same juncture, so I began to investigate this via spiritual teachings and meditation. I found the evidence of it in my own life, practicing making internal shifts, which radically shifted my attitude and outlook along with overall perspective and self-perception. As a result of this practice, I witnessed the external changes around me, in my environment. It has been phenomenal and life-changing to discover how this all works, and it is how I found my true life path.

    So yes, I agree, meditation is a great start to opening new doorways of perception that can change reality to something better, because we can find inspiration from a space of peace, rather than acting out of fear or resentment–which usually, in the end, proves only to be sabotaging to ourselves.

    There’s more after that, but it does start with quieting our mind, focusing on our life-giving breath, and being in the moment, making a habit of that in order to feel our own sense of peace. From there, the possibilities are endless.

    So, indeed, I believe that mediation is a great remedy for depression, anxiety, worry, fear, resentment, etc. At least for me it was the way out of all that chronic anxiety and stressful thought habits. And when that went away, a whole new life was born, reflecting who I am as spirit, not as the mirror image of an extremely judgmental, competitive, stigmatizing and personally denigrating society. I learned this from others who had had the same experience of transformation, who were tired of the old ways of being, as a slave to society..

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      • I love the word “allow” here. Healing is not something one does to another, it is something we allow to occur or not. It can most often occur without effort or interference, quite naturally and unobtrusively, when we are truly at peace with ourselves. And that is something we can practice at any time, through meditation. It is a practice, we’re all human.

        Yes, worry and fear constrict our bodies, especially our hearts, and it distorts our thinking. In essence, they block energy, so when we embody these feelings, especially chronically, we are not allowing healing to occur. When we heal, we feel at peace, so practicing being at peace, regardless of anything (though the practice of detachment) is a great way to get on our true healing and growth path, and also the path to change.

        I’ve heard worrying described as praying for that which we do not want, because our attention is entirely focused on it, and that on which we focus dominantly is what manifests, that’s inevitable. I think trust (in ourselves, our process, our intuition) would be the remedy for this, while focusing more on that which we do want, rather than dwelling on all that brings us fear and resentment.

        When we are in a space of trust, that does produce a relaxed feeling in the body. Relaxation seems to have become a lost art. This is one way to bring it back into fashion. We’re so much more productive, as well as practicing well-being, when we are relaxed and clear, rather than uptight and worried about everything. I think that’s a given.

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  6. All these religions say about the same thing. Then why do people fight and argue? The only thing I can’t stand is other people imposing their way of life or beliefs on others, which is religious oppression. I don’t think meditation is any exception. I don’t think it was right of “therapists” to shove meditation at us patients. Many patients were already praying and found that it worked for them. Or reading. Or going for a run. Or doing whatever they did, that already was working. So the new-agey therapists who thought they were oh so hip and cool were in fact violating the patients by shoving meditation at them instead of respecting their beliefs. In other words, if it works for you, great. But something else entirely might work for someone else and you need to respect that. And it very well may be ironing one’s clothes or playing chess. Who cares if it’s not called something trendy?

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    • I agree with you, Julie, and I think most people who post here would, too–that any kind of coercion is harmful and undesirable, whether it’s drugs or meditation or anything. That’s still forced treatment, regardless of what the “treatment” is.

      As far as imposing beliefs on another, I wouldn’t stand for that either, who would? Once it becomes an imposition, then it becomes pointless. I don’t argue, though, as that is draining to me, and also pointless, I think. I just walk away without looking back.

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    • I agree Julie, additionally, “Sudarshan Kriya” has a vested interest, just as Transcendental Meditation did in all the bogus medical and social “studies” they did.

      Breathing techniques are awesome, I recommend them to everyone – just not “brand name” ones. They refresh & oxygenate the brain & body, soothe the vagus nerve, enhance physical wellness, and helps bring awareness, mindfulness, and relaxation response.

      But I wouldn’t require anyone to practice anything -one has to be attracted to a thing to gain benefit from it.

      But – as someone who works with people in antidepressant withdrawal, I do not recommend Kriya techniques for this population, as they are too stimulating. How many people in “depression” and hospital are said to be relapsing when it is just withdrawal from the last cocktail and adjustment to the new one?

      AND, it’s even worse if you end up in the cult that founded the techniques.

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  7. Depression and anxiety are treatable with a combination of meditation, mindfulness and talk therapy. I have been teaching my psychotherapy clients mindfulness and meditation for help in dealing with many issues for 30 years. Anxiety, depression, stress and even as an adjunct to their cancer therapies. I recommend they use a guided mindfulness meditation program specifically designed to work in conjunction with their therapeutic process. The ones I usually suggest are by Jon Shore and are at The beginning meditations, Meditation 1 and Meditation 2 are the best I have found. It takes consistent practice, like any other skill, but the results are usually nothing short of amazing.

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  8. By the way, folks, many people enjoy wonderful and productive lives without ever meditating. To my knowledge, it is not a life necessity. Just like anything else, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Oh, of course, there are those that market it, and if you want to pay a hefty price, that’s your choice.

    I enjoy my life the way it is. I enjoy running. I would never tell other people they HAVE to run, nor would I state that they are “not recovered” nor “anxious” nor missing out in any way nor “not enlightened” because they do not run.

    There is no one size fits all. You can tell me what you enjoy and in turn, I can tell you what I enjoy.

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  9. The therapy business is such a joke. Marsha Linehan profiting off of Buddhism, which is supposed to be sacred, religion and spirituality are supposed to be free for all people, right? Now “mindfulness” is hip and trendy, a huge money-maker, and frankly, it’s just disgusting. Never mind trapping people into therapy forever.

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