Part 1. Introduction

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “By the year 2020, depression is projected to reach 2nd place of the ranking of DALYs [Disability-adjusted life year] calculated for all ages, both sexes. Today, depression is already the 2nd cause of DALYs in the age category 15-44 years for both sexes combined.” Depression was once considered a psychiatric disorder, however with the swelling number of people from all demographics who are affected by depression, a broader view is necessary.

In addition to the clinically depressed person, there has been an emerging population who suffer from “stress-induced depression,” a term used here to describe people with no history of mental health issues, yet succumb to depression. Sustained long-term stress or a traumatic event, such as a heart attack, may devolve into depression. Western society suffers from high stress living and largely lacks the tools and techniques to counter-balance high stress stimuli.

From a Kundalini yogic perspective, Yogi Bhajan, who first introduced Kundalini Yoga to the West in 1968, predicted that as the world accelerates its pace, “cold depression” would become epidemic. He defined “cold depression” as a sense of being frozen and unable to fully engage in life. Many people are not consciously aware they are depressed and may associate their lack of energy with overwork and stress. Feelings of confusion, low energy, tiredness, and lack of joy are widespread and permeate modern societies. Yogi Bhajan cautioned that in the coming age, “depression and stress on mankind will tear up people who do not have the technical knowledge of self.” The terms “stress-induced depression” and “cold depression” will be used interchangeably in this essay series, and conveys a response the mounting stresses on individuals, communities, and societies.

Western science and Kundalini yogis agree that depression results from an ever-increasing stress that fills the lives that most people are leading. Additionally, a traumatic event, if left untreated, may yield to stress-induced depression. Unrelenting and untreated stress load overtaxes the body’s nervous and hormonal systems. The autonomic nervous system (sympathetic: flight or fight, and parasympathetic: calms and slows) becomes unbalanced when the body is combating stress as a “normal response.” Today’s stress primarily challenges one emotionally as opposed to the “fight or fight” from physical danger. The pace and demands of every day living have simply become overwhelming for many people. The body pays the price starting with a depleted nervous system.

The autonomic nervous systems controls bio functions such as heart rate, respiration, and other body systems we don’t have to think about. In Western science, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) serves as an important biomarker and presents a dynamic window into the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Yogis practicing Kundalini Yoga have known about the importance of balancing the autonomic nervous system for thousands of years and provide sophisticated techniques for rebalancing and revitalizing the nervous system, which will be presented in further detail in this essay series.

Today, Western science provides us with tools to monitor one’s own HRV and techniques to shift one into a more healthy zone. By utilizing the sacred science of Kundalini yoga, optionally coupled with tools from Western science, the individual can take back control of his or her life and gain Self-mastery over life’s inevitable and frequent stressful situations. Remembering that it is not what happens in one’s life that causes the most harm; rather, one’s response to the situation that dictates the long-term damage to psyche and soma. The initial traumas, large or small, which evoke stress, can be managed by one’s response to it—Self-Mastery.

This essay series argues that combining the scientific techniques from the ancient wisdom of Kundalini yoga with Western scientific tools, such as Heart Rate Variability (HRV) biofeedback, people have effective tools from both worlds—East and West. The HRV biofeedback device assists knowing when you are “in the zone,” thus helping the person new to meditation to shift his or her mental state with confidence. Alternatively, HRV biofeedback tools are effective when used prior to one’s spiritual practice, because it calms the mind so one can go deeper into meditation and minimize distractive thoughts. These devices may not be necessary or desirable for the well-practiced yogis/yoginis who have mastered their psyche-soma responses over the course of many years of practice.

So what is heart rate variability (HRV), why is it important, and how can it be improved?

Most people are familiar with their health “numbers” including cholesterol (“good and bad”), blood pressure, etc. Yet few people are aware of HRV, a significant and manageable biomarker for health, recovery, and transformation.

HRV measures the naturally occurring beat-to-beat variation in your heart rate. A healthy heart with an average heart rate of 60, for example, will have beat-to-beat variances close to 1 second, as shown in the EKG tracing above.

When one takes one’s pulse over the course of a minute one finds the average heart rate or beats per minute (bpm). If your heart rate is 60 bpm you may think that’s one beat per second, but if it is precisely one beat per second you are in trouble! That translates to zero heart rate variability—a precursor state of disease of psyche and soma. This may seem counterintuitive.

To illustrate this point, think of a healthy heart like a tennis player waiting for the oncoming serve¬¬¬¬—light on his/her feet, ready for action, rather than standing lead-footed. There is a light bounce in anticipation of the need to hit the ball no matter where it is placed on the court. A tennis player who is firmly planted on the court will not respond quickly enough unless the ball comes directly to him or her.

The heart is similar—it needs a quick response to whatever the next oncoming challenge may be, whether physical or emotional. When measured as a power spectrum (fast Fourier mathematically derived) a healthy HRV hovers around 0.1 HZ. You don’t need to be a mathematician, these devices are user friendly—almost like a game.

So why should you care about your own HRV?

Low HRV is a common denominator in many illnesses including the inter-related diseases of coronary heart disease and depression. Robert M. Carney, Ph.D. & Kenneth E.Freedland, Ph.D. conclude that: “Low HRV is an excellent predictor of cardiac-related mortality and thus may further help to explain the relationship of depression to increased risk of mortality.” The relationship between depression and heart attacks is further substantiated by The American Journal of Cardiology (David Bush et al.), which reports “Even minimal symptoms of depression increase mortality risk after myocardial infarction.” The linkage between depression, low HRV, and death from heart disease is clearly established by Western medicine, and yet few cardiologists address HRV with their patients. So why aren’t most cardiologists speaking to their patients about HRV?

If a cardiac patient is sufficiently cognizant that he or she is depressed, not just lacking energy, and comes forth to alert the doctor, then medication is frequently the first line of defense to address the issue. Although a review of antidepressants and HRV is beyond the scope of this essay series, Louis T van Zyl, Takuya Hasegawa, and Katsutaro Nagata conclude that, “Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were associated with declines in most measures of HRV and significant increase in heart rate (HR) in studies with short recording intervals.” Suffice it to say that both HRV biofeedback and Kundalini Yoga are safe, cost effective, and non-invasive techniques in treating low HRV and stress-induced depression. As quality of life improves through HRV biofeedback and/or Kundalini Yoga, a sense of well-being begins to return to the surviving cardiac patient, or person otherwise suffering from “cold depression.”

Although many major diseases are linked with low HRV, a biomarker for an out of balance autonomic nervous system, this essay series uses heart disease and depression together, as an example. Other areas of interest include post-partum depression, cancer and depression, addiction as self-medication for depression, and stress-induced depression, which serve as a mirror for postmodern cultural malaise.

In Part Two of “Kundalini Yoga, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) & Inner Self-Mastery: An Integrative Approach for Transforming Depression,” Kundalini Yoga for “cold or stress-induced depression” will be explored in further detail.

Author's Bio: 

Anne Elizabeth Taylor, B.S., Ph.D., (Harkirat Kaur), founder of eKundaliniYoga.com is a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor, as taught by Yogi Bhajan. Anne practices and teaches Kundalini Yoga because it is the yoga of awareness and the key to expanding your higher consciousness. Kundalini Yoga is an accelerated path: benefits are immediately available and accumulate over time. Anne’s current work resulted from an alchemical process combining her scientific background as a clinical chemist, hematologist, and former Senior Director of Research and Development and member of the senior management team at Spacelabs Medical with her academic research as a mythologist (emphasis on depth psychology) infused with Kundalini Yoga philosophy and teaching experience. Anne specializes in the psyche-somatic connection of the heart and brain and the technology of Kundalini Yoga as applied consciousness.

Anne holds a B.S. in Medical Biology from S.U.N.Y. and a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies with emphasis in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is a member of the 3HO Global Foundation, CG Jung Society of Seattle, and IAYT.