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Yoga Could be My Salvation

Yoga could be my salvation - it has helped me lose a stone, put a smile on my face and halved the drugs dose

By Nick Johnstone, The Guardian, Special Report on Medicine and Health

Trying to come off antidepressants is like being stuck on a really rough flight. Four months ago, I dropped from Efexor XL 150mg a day to 112.5mg and for the first month, I felt like I was flying through a hurricane in a paper plane. Then, very slowly, the turbulence cleared and life settled into a diluted impersonation of how things were BM (Before Medication) which is to say, back to being anxious, obsessive, insomnia-stricken and possessed by so much energy that hanging out with me was like watching a never-ending coffee commercial.

One of the biggest problems with antidepressants is that they treat the symptoms, not the root cause. The other big problem is the risk that they may be habit-forming, even if manufacturers insist otherwise. Eighteen months ago, when my GP switched me from Cipramil to Efexor XL, she didn't tell me that the internet is swarming with stories of patients who have suffered appalling withdrawal symptoms when they came off the drug. So, in a bid to get down to a lower dose, I'm doing it incrementally, slowly, which is the only safe way to wean yourself off antidepressants.

Two weeks ago, I dropped from Efexor XL 112.5mg a day to 75mg. This, for me, is a giant leap. It may not work. But I want it to. I have been told by psychiatrists that with my history, coming off them altogether is not an option, that I need to take a maintenance dose of 75mg or 37.5 mg a day, probably for life. This doesn't bother me. I see it as no different to a diabetic taking insulin. So why this pursuit of a lower dose? First, I'm sick of side effects such as exhaustion, weight gain, mental confusion, excess sweating, nausea and constipation. And the lower the dose, the lesser the side effects. This means, thank God, that since dropping from 150mg to 75mg, I've lost a stone.

Second, I've discovered the healing power of kundalini yoga, a natural, empowering, mood-enhancing antidote to anxiety and depression. Over Christmas, I was lucky enough to take classes at Golden Bridge Yoga in Los Angeles, a centre owned and run by Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, one of the world's most celebrated kundalini yoga teachers. Notorious for its promise of "a drugless high", it is being used increasingly to treat alcoholics and drug addicts going through rehab and is earning a reputation as a natural tool with which to fight anxiety and depression.

Kundalini yoga, which posits breathing techniques, postures, mantras (sound vibrations), mudras (hand positions), mental focus and relaxation against a backdrop of alternately ecstatic and soothing music, teaches that endurance leads to strength and strength leads to a balanced mind and body. At Golden Bridge, holding excruciatingly uncomfortable postures or doing physically punishing exercises for seemingly endless periods of time while Gurmukh sat cross-legged on stage delivering self-empowerment pep talks that were new agey and self-helpy without being cheesy, I experienced the "drugless high" and realised why the likes of Madonna, Courtney Love, Lou Reed and Cindy Crawford have fallen under the spell of kundalini yoga. It makes a spiritual marine of you by strengthening the central nervous system, balancing the glandular system, promoting emotional balance, enhancing intuition, eliminating negative habits and thought patterns, harmonising brain waves and infusing the physical self with an iron will.

Since returning to London, I have been going to classes with Guru Kaur, one of the best British kundalini teachers and it's no exaggeration to say that it has played a huge role in helping me drop to Efexor XL 75mg a day just as almost three years of practising other types of yoga (astanga, sivananda, hatha, iyengar) have taught me how to breathe, concentrate and relax. Ultimately though, it's all about exercise. Other than medication and therapy, nothing tackles depression and anxiety like exercise. As Gurmukh says, "If you smile every day and sweat every day, you'll be a happy person." With this in mind, every week I go to two yoga classes and do three pilates video classes at home. You have to keep up the hard work. Tonight, I'll go to a yoga class, pop a 75mg pill with a healthy dinner, drink a mug of Sleepytime tea, read a few pages from the Koran, the Kabbalah or the Bhagavadgita or maybe some beautiful Sufi poems by Rumi and go to bed knowing that I'm doing all I can to stay healthy.