Yoga Breathing – a talk by Dr Richard Brown

Event Details

Title: "Yoga Breathing: Neurophysiology and Health Benefits for Stress, Anxiety, Depression, and Anger"

Speaker: Dr Richard Brown, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University

Time/Location: Wed, Feb 23rd, 2005, UMASS - Amherst

Duration: 40 minutes

This is a synopsis of a talk on Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) given by Dr Richard Brown in Feb 2005. It is presented without comment or opinion. Having said that, it's not a transcript; I documented the content that I found interesting while trying not to omit important information that I knew already. Background information can be found under "Related Links" in the sidebar.

I had no idea it was going to be this long!

The Talk

"Stress is a worldwide epidemic. The number one disease of adults in the world is depression. Depression is the most extreme form of stress in your nervous system."

Stress has a number of effects including: depression, anxiety, insomnia, anger, trouble in decision making, violence, difficulty with thinking and attention.

"If you have significant anxiety, you have twice the risk of a heart attack... If you have significant depression over time, you have four times the risk of a heart attack."

Indications are that stress can also increase the risk of cancer at an earlier age.

The stress response system is primarily rooted in the sympathetic nervous system. It is vital for survival in times of danger. The problem comes when it is turned on too often. It generates lots of oxygen free radicals and other inflammatory molecules.

For the last 40 years, research on stress has primarily focused on the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). It is counterbalanced by the parasympathetic nervous system, but today the parasympathetic system is outweighed by the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.

SKY has been taught to over 6 million people. Richard Brown learned Japanese and then Chinese martial arts, then yoga, then aikido and qi gong from two respective masters of those arts. He also learned all kinds of breathing techniques and taught for many years. But SKY is "quite amazing and more remarkable than anything I learned and saw over many many years and now I teach it all over the world."

SKY consists of Ujjayi breathing, bhastrika and Sudarshan Kriya. Sudarshan Kriya is unique, there is nothing else like it.

Ujjayi breathing stimulates your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the heart of the parasympathetic nervous system. It's the 10th cranial nerve. It controls the organs of maintenance (heart, digestion, breathing, glands). Twenty percent of the fibres of the vagus nerve do that. The rest send information from your gut to your brain.

Ujjayi breathing emphasises the input from your viscera into your brain and dramatically changes how your brain is working. If you just do a slow breathing rate (2 to 4 breaths per minute), you will turn on the vagus. However, creating airwave resistance (as in ujjayi) enhances the vagal input to the brain. Incorporating certain holds into the breathing also further activates the vagus and releases nitrous oxide within your body and brain. When doing high volume breathing, the shift in blood oxygen and CO2 levels is insignificant. Animals and children do ujjayi breathing naturally. When a mammal (e.g. rodent) is beaten by a slightly higher ranking individual it automatically begins ujjayi breathing. The rhythm for it is coming from the vigilance area of the hypothalamus, not the defensive area. It enhances awareness. If you give children a challenging task, they will do the same.

Bhastrika is a high-frequency breathing pattern. It activates the sympathetic nervous system which right afterwards really calms down. It also activates brain association areas, the gamma waves become very prominent on EEG.

An article in the New York Times in late 2004 reported a head-scan study of meditating tibetan monks and beginning meditators. The monks had typically been meditating for 15-40 years, 6 to 8 hours a day. They had a lot of gamma waves; beginning meditators had none. If you do bhastrika, you'll have lots of gamma waves early on.

Besides enhancing control of the vagus, ujjayi breathing enhances the sensitivity of the brain and your vagus to the pressure in your arteries and to the subtle changes in oxygen and CO2. That's very good for your heart and your tissue oxygen uptake. 

Sudarshan Kriya is unique. It has slow, medium and rapid cycles. Releases old stress and prevents accumulation of new stress (further research is needed). The effects of hyperventilation require an intact thalamus and vagal afferents to the brain. The thalamus is a sensory relay station; does a lot more too. Scans back and forth across the cortex and organises your cortex and its experience of your inner and outer world. It's totally pivotal in how you experience reality.

In the last 15 years, a new treatment for epilepsy and also depression has been studied. It's called vagal nerve stimulation. It involves putting a pacemaker in your chest connected to the left side of your vagus nerve. Every two to five minutes, it stimulates the vagus nerve, causing your diaphragm to contract. It has recently been approved in the US for the treatment of depression. It works about as well as anti-depressants. The device costs about $25k, only stimulates the left vagus and only affects a small portion of the vagus nerve. It is believed that SKY more fully stimulates the vagus.

The vagus enters the brain stem starting with the nucleus tractus solitarius and then on to the parabrachial nucleus. It then splits into an upper route that stimulates the thalamus that affects the cortex, and a lower path into the limbic system ("the heart of your emotional circuitry"). The limbic system comprises a number of anatomical/functional regions. The hypothalamus takes care of the "Four Fs"... feeding, flight, fight and mating. The amygdala is where you feel joy, humour, anger, etc. In mammals, it appears that it is where all of the species-specific programmed actions come from; thus, it is crucial for survival. In Post-Traumatic Stess Disorder (PTSD), the activity of the amygdala is really altered. The limbic system also contains the four brain reward systems.

Regardless of how you are stimulating the vagus nerve, you are affecting the high route from the thalamus to the cortex. When you affect the cortex in this way (via SKY) you produce SMR (Sensory Motor Rhythm). This is an activated pattern in the parietal cortex that is associated with a state of relaxed vigilance. Animals or humans that exhibit this pattern show improved sleep, digestion, thinking, memory, and their brains become much more resistant to seizures. Furthermore, they don't crave drugs of abuse, nor do they over eat, even when offered plenty of food.

You can condition people using biofeedback to get SMR, but it takes quite a while. SKY does it a lot faster and a little more easily.

From the electronic vagal stimulation, we see that the lower pathway releases hormones such as prolactin, vasopressin and oxytocin. When people are depressed, they're not releasing enough of these three hormones. These are anti-stress and social-bonding hormones. SKY has been shown to release prolactin; it is very difficult to study vasopressin and oxytocin levels in humans. SKY activates anti-oxidant defence enzymes that neutralise free radicals. It has also been shown to improve your immune system.

It looks like SKY changes the relationship of your hemispheres, as well as that between the cortical and sub-cortical regions. In depression there is an imbalance between the left and right hemispheres. Recent studies in the Neuroscience Times show that experienced meditators (e.g. Tibetan monks) have very different activity in their left cerebral cortex.

Oxytocin is known as the "cuddle hormone". If a bunch of animals come together in a social context, they release a lot of oxytocin. It is also released during delivery and during sexual activity, as well as breastfeeding. Serotinin re-uptake inhibitors activate oxytocin release. The oxytocin further enhances your vagus nerve and parasympathetic system activity.

There have been a number of studies by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS, Bangalore, India) on depression. In one study of severely depressed (hospitalised) patients, one group was given inipramine (a tricyclic anti-depressant that has been around for about 50 years), another was given shock treatment (the "gold standard" for treating biological depression), and the final randomised group was taught SKY (without doing the full 6-day Art of Living course). The shock treatment group (ECT) did slightly better than the other two groups. The human rights committee did not allow the use of a placebo group as these were very sick patients.

NIMHANS also looked at the effectiveness of SKY for people with chronic depression and examined the abnormal sleep patterns that are associated with depression. These normalised by the end of the 6-day course. The amplitude of the P300 brain wave pattern was normalised. Prolactin levels were similar to those immediately after ECT (which releases large amounts of prolactin). Anti-depressant drugs do not increase prolactin levels. After 3 weeks, people had a big drop in their plasma cortisol (this is a simple measure of the activity of your sympathetic nervous system). SKY is contraindicated in epilepsy, bipolar disorder and pregnancy. Bipolar type 1 patients can become very manic immediately after doing the breathing (as they do with with anti-depressants). Therefore the technique is modified for them (and epileptics).

SKY is helpful in ADHD, cardiac function, lipid profile and blood glucose levels, immune system, cancer, and memory and learning. The Art of Living does work with prisoners around the world.

In a recent project, children who have had a friend or relative killed in front of them in the last 2 years were depressed and behaved like they had ADHD. They were also prone to extremely violent outbursts. After a month of SKY, they were all peaceful and learning very well.

There are other disorders where the vagus nerve function is impaired (e.g. autism). SKY is also very helpful for bereavement as well as fatigue related to cancer or Multiple Sclerosis. SKY has been very successful in corporations; indeed, the Indian Government will sponsor any employee who wishes to do the Art of Living course.

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