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Posts Tagged ‘Emotion’

Have you ever lost track of time in yoga class?  On a good day, I’ll get so into the practice that my awareness of “how much time still to go?” comes at the very end.  Other days, I might feel time dragging as if the class is taking forever (best not to glance at a wristwatch).

We – as human beings – have a very poor sense of time.  Intensely new and wonderful experiences may pass too quickly, but remembered years later, seem greatly expanded.  In flashes of intense fear, time has a way of moving very slowly, yet un-recallable in repressed memories.  Sitting and waiting for a bus makes time pass so very slowly, until an attractive or interesting person sits next to you.

Somehow its not time, per se, that we measure, but rather the intensity of our emotional experience that makes time expand and contract.

Yoga texts are chock full of references to “consciousness” and the “illusions” of everyday thinking.  Sometimes, these notions can sound hokey when spoken in the NJ suburbs where I practice, but that doesn’t mean they are not true.  Just consider how illusory your perceptions of time are.  Your sense of time is just a by-product of your experience – its not an absolute “thing” you can measure.  Your sense of YOU and the events in your life – as they stretch out over time – the mere jumble of memories – is very far from the objective reality you might want think.  We all live in the illusions created by our own minds.

When it comes to the illusions of time, somehow, it seems, our perception of time is tied mainly to the intensity of our emotional experience.   People seem to understand this.  Folks like Marcel Proust who wrote, “Love is space and time measured by the heart.”   And folks like Craig Wright who wrote the play – Melissa Arctic – that made me acutely aware of the illusion of time in our all too brief lives.  Check it out if you ever get the chance.  The play – wherein a young child plays the role of “time” – pulls you through the course of one man’s tragic life and deeply into your heart to realize that time is, indeed, measured by the heart – captured and measured by the intensity of emotional experience.  Consider how Time, the young child, invokes the audience at the start of the play, “Everything be still. Can everything be perfectly still?”

Needless to say, this all sounds much like the common yogic counsel to “stop thinking and start feeling” and “live in the present moment“.  Perhaps its worth recognizing how fallible, illusionary and fanciful our sense of time really is.  Perhaps also, emotions are the key here.  Perhaps I should try harder to engage my heart in life (and in yoga class) –  the key to really experiencing now and living in this present moment.

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Yoga Class at a Gym Category:Gyms_and_Health_Clubs
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One of the most mysterious aspects of modern medicine is the so-called placebo effect.  Imagine a drug company that has a new pill.  To see if it works, they give one group of people (the “test” group) the real pill and they give another group of people (the “control” group) an identical looking pill that does not contain any medicine (sugar pill).  If the the “test” group improves in health and the “control” group does not – voila! – one can conclude that the medicine works.

What happens when the “control” group gets better?  Hunh?  but there was no medicine … how can they get better? This is known as the placebo effect – wherein a persons EXPECTATIONS lead them to feel better.

Believe it or not, it happens all the time in scientific research and in the pharmaceutical industry.  Apparently the brain has a way of convincing the body that things are getter better (or worse).  You probably have probed this complex mind-body interface at some point … “is the pain really in my back, or perhaps just in my head?” Indeed, you can almost hear the frustration among the blue suits in a big pharma board room,  “Mind and body are connected?” “How much is this damned mind-body problem going to cost us?”  Its a multi-billion dollar problem!

Ancient yogis seemed to understand the placebo/mind-body phenomenon.  Its a part of what makes yoga so interesting.  Its ALL ABOUT THE CONNECTION between mind and body – not one vs. the other.

Most folks who practice yoga will attest to its mental and physical benefits.  This is true.  However, one can still ask the valid question of whether the actual benefits are real?  The purely physical benefits (muscles) are not in doubt.  But, does yoga really improve a person’s mental life – or do we just want to think so (a placebo response)?  I mean, have you left the yoga studio (fully relaxed) only to honk the horn after being cut off in traffic?  Did yoga really change you?  Is there evidence – in the scientific sense – that yoga leads to mental well-being?

Hats off to Dru worldwide – an organization that is “passionate about positive health and wellbeing. With yoga and meditation at [its] core.” – for taking on this important question!

In an article entitled, “The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace”  [PMID: 20369218]  published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, researchers from Dru Education Center, University of Gothenburg, Harvard Medical School and Bangor University used the scientific method and compared 24 people (mostly women with mean age of 39) who participated in a 1 hour yoga class each week (for 6 weeks) to 24 people who did not participate in the yoga training (the control group).  Importantly, these groups were selected at random and showed similar profiles for age, prior yoga experience and health condition.

Specifically, the investigators sought to “measure” the effects of yoga using 2 instruments:  the Profile of Mood States Bipolar (POMS-Bi) and the Inventory of Positive Psychological Attitudes (IPPA – you can take the assessment here).  As noted by the researchers, these questionnaires allow investigators to track changes in both positive and negative feelings.  To determine whether the yoga experience conferred a psychological benefit, the investigators measured the POMS and IPPA scores at the start and at the end of 6 weeks and then asked whether the change in score was different between the “test” and “control” groups.

The results (nice graph on the Dru website) show that the improvements in score (benefits) were higher in the yoga “test” group than the “control” group (who were on the waiting list for the 6 weeks).

In 7 of the 8 POMS-Bi and IPPA domains, scores for the yoga group improved 2–5 times more than those in the control group over the course of this study. The interaction term from a two-way ANOVA showed that in comparison with the control group, the yoga participants at the end of the program felt significantly less anxious, confused, depressed, tired, and unsure, and had a greater sense of life purpose and satisfaction and were more self-confident during stressful situations. Although the yoga group reported feeling more agreeable (less hostile) than the control group at the end of the program, this difference was not statistically significant.

Thus, the research team validly concludes that the yoga experience was associate with improvements in mental well-being.   This is remarkable given the small size and short duration of the study.  I do recall, when I first started yoga (9 months ago) that I felt sooo much better, so I think I can understand what the participants might have been feeling.

BUT, was this just the placebo response?  Like me, did the study participants want to THINK that it was the yoga that made the difference?  In other words, were the mental wellness benefits due to the EXPECTATION of feeling better – the placebo effect?  The investigators are not unaware of this issue:

Because participants in our study were self-selected, it can be assumed that they were a highly motivated group who wanted to practice yoga. Participant expectations may have included a desire to feel less stressed by the end of the six-week sessions and this may have contributed to their perceived benefit.

So, the data suggest that yoga made a contribution to the mental well-being of the participants.  This is a valid conclusion – and hats off to the research team for conducting the study.  Are the effects “real” or “just in the mind” of the participants?  Does it really matter?

Personally, I don’t think so.  That’s the fun of exploring the mind-body interface via yoga and meditation.  Not “knowing” but rather, just “feeling”!

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Peter Mark Roget (Roget's Thesaurus)
Image by dullhunk via Flickr

On Fridays, after a regular practice session, our shala is open for quiet meditation.  This is a new experience for me, even as I’ve read much about the mental and physical health benefits accrued by experienced practitioners.  As someone who is totally exhausted after practice – indeed, I couldn’t move another muscle even if I wanted – I always think it will be easy to settle in, and pass 30 minutes  in quiet stillness.

Sure enough though, even as my body is spent and motionless, my mind starts to wander, and wander, and wander some more.  “Damn”, I think, “here we go again”. Just a few minutes in, and I’m losing a battle – with myself.  “This is going to be the longest 30 minutes of my life!” What to do?

Some experts say to simply LABEL your thoughts and feelings.  Just find a word to place on the thought or feeling – and then – let it go.  Does this really work?  How does this trick work?

Recent brain imaging studies seem to show that when a word is applied to a negative emotion,  the brain changes how it processes that emotion and shifts processing to neural systems that avoid centers of the brain (the amygdala, in particular) that send neural projections to our face, gut and heart (areas where we tend to physically “feel” our bad feelings).   It seems that our ability to use words is an important tool in how we cope with emotional experience.  Either we succumb to the storms of negative emotions that can well up inside us from time to time (and feel lousy inside), or we can manage these feelings – using our words – and feel less lousy inside.   Apparently, the use of words, alters neural processing - leading us to experience less tightening in the chest, clenching in the gut, etc.,  etc. than we would otherwise feel when negative emotions come over us.  One of the researchers, David Cresswell, remarks: “This is an exciting study because it brings together the Buddha‘s teachings – more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about the benefits of labeling your experience – with modern neuroscience.”

But this is easier said than done.

How do I label a thought?  How do I label an emotion?  I mean, “I feel, um, um, frustrated, lousy, anxious … crap … I’m not exactly sure how I feel?  What’s the word I’m looking for?

Indeed – the words – the words – as in, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” WORDS.  Do I know enough words?  How many words are there anyway to describe all the possible feelings that a person can feel?  How many do you know?

Check this list out.    There are more than 3,000 words in the English language to describe various feelings.  Thank you Peter Mark Roget (who, ironically, worked on the first thesaurus as a means to cope with negative feelings associated with depression).  I will bring my thesaurus – full of these tools to help me label my feelings – to meditation practice from now on!

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Are they practicing breath control?  No.  Are they practicing postures?  No.  Are they desperately seeking meaning and a connection with divinity?  Yes.  Are they pulled in one direction by the wants of the body, and in another direction by the wants of the spirit?  Yes.  Do they cope day to day with grim realities of suffering and loss in a place where, “gravity is stronger and you can feel it pulling you closer into the earth everyday”.  Yes.

These are the very themes of yoga.  Beautifully captured in picture and sound in the 2003 film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus“.

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Manipura chakra
Image via Wikipedia

More on CG Jung‘s famous “chakra lectures” …

In lecture 2 he opines on symbolic and psychological aspects of the 3rd chakraManipura – shown here with a yellow center and red triangle that symbolize fire.  Interestingly, the location of this chakra overlaps with what we, today, call the “solar” plexus – not because of its symbolic connections to the fiery sun – but rather, simply because the neural projections from this plexus, located between the stomach and the spine, radiate outwardly in a sun-like fashion.

Jung notes that fire symbolism often follows water symbolism – just as occurs in the chakra hierarchy where the previous chakra is symbolized by water.  This ancient pattern of symbolism is common across many religious traditions.

“One sees all that very beautifully in the Catholic rite of baptism when the godfather holds the child and the priest approaches with the burning candle and says: Dono tibi lucem eternam (I give thee the eternal light) – which means, I give you relatedness to the sun, to the God.”

So, I guess, after a person emerges from the murky depths of water, the next stage of their spiritual journey or subconscious “awakening” is a time in their lives when they grow to feel connected to something greater than themselves, to something eternal, beyond the everyday world, perhaps cosmic or goldly, etc.  Jung suggests that this initial connection to “god” has long been symbolized by the sun and by fire.

“This is a worldwide and ancient symbolism, not only in the Christian baptism and the initiation in the Isis mysteries.  For instance, in the religious symbolism of ancient Egypt, the dead Pharoh goes to the underworld and embarks in the ship of the sun.  You see, to approach divinity means the escape from the futility of the personal existence, and the achieving of the eternal existence, the escape to a nontemporal form of existence.  The Pharoh climbs into the sun bark and travels through the night and conquers the serpent, and then rises again with the god, and is riding over the heavens for all eternity.”

Furthermore, Jung suggests, there is a shared, underlying psychological reason why so many ancient cultures used the common symbols of fire for this phase of their development.  It would seem that for many, that once they let go of the closely-held, relatively petty details of their day-to-day life and acknowledge a connection between themselves and the wider universe and things divine – that, upon letting go – their own fires of passion and emotion become alight.

So it is just that – you get into the world of fire, where things become red-hot.  After baptism, you get right into hell – that is the enantiodromia.  And now comes the paradox of the east: it is also the fullness of jewels.  But what is passion, what are emotions? There is the source of fire, there is the fullness of energy.  A man who is not on fire is nothing: he is ridiculous, he is two-dimensional. … So when people become acquainted with the unconscious they often get into an extraordinary state – they flare up, they explode, old buried emotions come up, they begin to weep about things which happened forty years ago.

I think I can relate to this notion.  Perhaps when you accept that you’re just a part of a larger plan, or just a single link in a long continuum, you stop worrying about the petty stuff which then allows your own deeper passions and emotions to flow more freely.  Both the good emotions related to creativity and love as well as feelings of sadness and loss that come along with recognizing your fate and limitations  – all begin to emerge.  These feelings make a person feel more “alive” than they would just playing it safe, workin’ 9-to-5 payin’ the bills etc., etc. and never allowing themselves to embark on their spiritual journey.

So it seems, as suggested by Jung, that we begin our spiritual awakening as humans have for thousands of years, by “taking the plunge” and choosing – not the “safe career” path – but a path in life that “means something” to us.  From the dark, uncertain waters, we emerge – and then the inner fires begin to burn, to inflame our passions and give us energy, to live and to create.

… can’t wait to see what’s in store next!

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This picture depicts the seven major Chakras w...
Image via Wikipedia

Am really enjoying reading  Carl Jung‘s 1932 lectures on The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga edited by Sonu Shamdasani.

Jung focuses on the chakra symbols – which have many different biological, physiological and psychological interpretations.  To Jung, the chakra symbols reflect a natural psychological process of self-awareness and spiritual development.  In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, there begins a “natural awakening” that occurs in life that motivates a person to pursue endeavors that have some sort of personal “meaning” rather than be content with just the basic ordinary existence.  I guess we all get tired of just payin’-the-bills, so to speak?

According to the ancient vedic texts, the “Kundalini” refers to a symbolic female serpent that awakens and starts to rise up inside of us.  In the very earliest stages of this awakening one goes from the low self-awareness of ordinary day-to-day life to a higher state of self-awareness – a more personal inner-awareness of our devotions, purpose or motivations.  His words from lecture 1:

Some strange urge underneath forces them to do something which is not just the ordinary thing.

This is a common, wonderful aspect of our lives right?  Don’t we all hit a point where we want to do something “special” with our lives?  I can’t help but think of all the coaches, music teachers, artists, etc. etc., that I’ve met in my life who weren’t happy just payin-the-bills and opted to do something “special” with their time.

But there lies some danger in trying to do something “special” !

If we step off the path of the ordinary, practical concerns of daily life to do something unconventional or “for the love of it”, we risk losing the safety and stability of our everyday life.  The banker who leaves work early to coach a little league team may put his career at risk.  The kid who chooses music as a major instead of accounting similarly trades a staid (boring) future for a more impoverished (but perhaps fulfilling) future.  And so on and so on.  We’ve all been there.

In terms of the chakra symbols, the shift from this lowest, ordinary, root, muladhara stage to the next swadhisthana stage involves a symbolic shift from earth to waterThis can be seen in the images on the chakra symbols:  a stable elephant in the root chakra and the sea with a leviathan as depicted in the next higher level chakra symbol (shown here).  Jung says the shift from “ordinary life” to the pursuit of a “meaningful life” is naturally fraught with psychological fear given the inherent risks, uncertainty and possibility of failure.

This very normal and common human psychological transition, he points out, has long been recognized by other ancient cultures.  Similarly, they characterized this very common psychological shift as one from earth to water.  I guess its not all that surprising if you think of the fear you’d have if thrown in the water and unable to swim (no such thing as swim lessons back in the day).  Jung opines:

The way into any higher development leads through water, with the danger of being swallowed by the monster.  If you study the beautiful mosaic pictures in the Baptistry of the Orthodox in Ravenna … you see four scenes depicted on the wall: two describe the baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and the fourth is St. Peter drowning in a lake during a storm …  Baptism is a symbolic drowning.

So perhaps the very first steps in taking on a new “meaningful” direction in life – from simply payin’ the bills to doing something personally fulfilling – is to face the inherent uncertainties and fears.  To move into the murky depths and confront the possibility of failure and loss.

OK.  I will try and ground my sit bones into the water – rather than the earth!

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