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Archive for the ‘Mindfulness’ Category

Cover of "The New Medicine"
Cover of The New Medicine

Check out part 1 of the PBS documentary “The New Medicine” – on the “new” efforts in modern medicine to harness the connection between mind and body to optimize health and healing.  In the video, several physicians demonstrate the way in which various mindfulness-ish practices are now a part of the standard drug & surgical treatment process.  They are not practicing yoga per se, but the similarities are obvious (perhaps even less potent than traditional yogic body and breath control training).

In a surprising twist, one interviewee, Deborah Schwab, RN, NP, MSN of Blue Shield of California noted how a study of so-called “guided imagery” (patients are given a CD with various guided imagery meditations) was associated with shorter hospital stays, and lower medication costs to the tune of $2,000 per patient.

“Folks who thought this type of stuff was too flaky or too California found that it didn’t turn out to be that way at all!”

Imagine that … one day offsetting the cost of yoga sessions with a health insurance deduction?  Just unroll your mat and swipe your Blue Cross insurance card?

Another interviewee is Dr. Richard Davidson:

In our culture, we have not given the training of the mind – in particular the training of emotions – sufficient credence.  … Imagine someone who spends as much time training their mind as someone in our culture spends practicing golf!

In one of Davidson’s studies, it turned out that even folks who practice just a “meager” amount of meditation showed a more dramatic immune response to flu vaccination.  When one of Davidson’s research volunteers, Buddhist monk Barry Kerzin/Tenzin Choerab was asked what he gets from his meditation practice, he replied:

Tears of joy.

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Hatha Yoga Video - Revolving Lunge Pose
Image by myyogaonline via Flickr

Does yoga feel good?  Do you feel good during the practice – moving your body through the bending, twisting, inverting etc.?  Be honest. I mean, since you’re probably sore as hell the next morning … if you don’t feel good during the practice, why would you bother at all?

Now that I have a tad of strength in my arms and shoulders, I think I can say that, “yes” I do feel good and enjoy the practice … but usually just for the first 20 minutes or so before I start playing the frantic “just keep up with the instructor and hope for a break” game.

Some say that their good feelings come from the relaxed meditative state that yoga puts them in.  Some folks just like to move their bodies and are attracted to the strange and exotic beauty of the postures.  I always enjoy the music.

But where do these good feelings come from?   Aren’t they just in my head?  Do I really need to move my body to feel good?  Why not just sit and breathe?

It turns out that there is a scientific theory on this topic.  The so-called Somatic markers hypothesis that suggests that afferent feedback from the body to the brain is necessary for generating our feelings.  For example, stimulation of the vagus nerve (aka Kundalini serpent) makes us feel good, while individuals with spinal cord damage who lack afferent input from the body reportedly have blunted emotions.

In his research review article, Human feelings: why are some more aware than others? [doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.04.004] Dr. Bud Craig from the Barrow Neurological Institute reviews the science of this topic and lays out the neural circuitry that goes from body to brain and is necessary for us to FEEL.

These feelings represent ‘the material me’, and so this broader concept of interoception converges with the so-called somatic-marker hypothesis of consciousness proposed by Damasio. In this proposal, the afferent sensory representation of the homeostatic condition of the body is the basis for the mental representation of the sentient self.  Recursive meta-representations of homeostatic feelings allow the brain to distinguish the inner world from the outer world. Most strikingly, degrees of conscious awareness are related to successive upgrades in the cortex (a target of visceral afferent activity), supplementary motor cortex (involved in manual responses), and bilateral insular cortices. This pattern supports the general view that a network of inter-related forebrain regions is involved in interoceptive attention and emotional feelings.

Amazingly, it seems that humans have evolved several unique adaptations that make us able to convert bodily sensation into self-awareness.

For instance, a novel cell type, the so-called spindle cell, is exclusively located in these regions of the human brain. Recent evidence indicates a trenchant phylogenetic correlation, in that spindle cells are most numerous in aged humans, but progressively less numerous in children, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, and nonexistent in macaque monkeys. Notably, this phylogenetic progression also parallels the results of the mirror test for self-awareness.

The rapid development of right Anterior Insula within a brief evolutionary timescale suggests that nested interoceptive re-representations could be directly related to the advantages of advanced social interaction.

So it seems that we human beings rely on bodily awareness to attain emotional awareness.  This sounds very yogic and something the yoga practice helps to develop.  Feel your body –> feel your emotions!

 

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A young woman and man embracing while outdoors.
Image via Wikipedia

Please forgive the absurd title here … its just a play on words from a flabby, middle-aged science geek who is as alluring to “the ladies” as an old leather boot.

Like a lot of males (with active fantasy lives I suppose), my interest was piqued by the recent headline, “What Do Women Really Want? Oxytocin” – based on a recent lecture at this years Society for Neuroscience annual conference.

Oxytocin is a small hormone that also modulates brain activity.  Many have referred it as the “Love Hormone” because it is released into the female brain during breastfeeding (where moms report feeling inextricably drawn to their infants), orgasm and other trust-building and social bonding experiences.  So, the premise of the title (from the male point of view), is a fairly simplistic – but futile – effort to circumvent the whole “social interaction thing” and reduce dating down to handy ways of raising oxytocin levels in females (voila! happier females more prone to social (ahem) bonding).

Of course, Mother Nature is not stupid.  Unless you are an infant, there is no “increase in oxytocin” without a prior “social bonding or shared social experience”.  Mother Nature has the upper hand here … no physical bonding without social binding first!

So, what the heck does this have to do with yoga?  Yes, its true that yoga studios are packed with friendly, health conscious females, but, the practice is mainly a solitary endeavor.  Aside from the chatter before and after class, and the small amount of oxytocin that is released during exercise, there is no social bonding going on that would release the so-called “love hormone”.  Thus, even though “women want yoga”, yoga class may not be the ideal location to “score with chicks”.

However, there may be one aspect of yoga practice that can facilitate social bonding (and hence oxytocin release).  One benefit of a yoga practice (as covered here, here) is an increased ability to “be present” – an improved ability to pay closer attention to your own thoughts and feelings, and also, the thoughts and feelings of another person.

The scientific literature is fairly rich in research showing a close relationship between attention, shared- or joint-attention, trust and oxytocin, and the idea is pretty obvious.  If you are really paying attention to the other person, and paying attention to your shared experience in the moment, the social bond will be stronger, more enjoyable and longer-lasting.  Right?

Soooo – if you want the oxytocin to flow – look your partner in the eye, listen to their thoughts, listen to your own reactions, listen to, and feel their breath as it intermingles with your own, feel their feelings and your own, slow-down and enjoy the minute details of the whole experience and be “right there, right now” with them.  Even if you’ve been with the same person for 40 years, each moment will be new and interesting.

Yoga will teach you how to do this.

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In his new movie, former Harvard psychology professor turned spiritual teacher Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert), hails us to, “love everybody and tell the truth”.

Tell the truth.  Not only a great rule to live by, but one of the things that I’ve always loved about science … its a way to discover and face the objective “truth” as separate from our subjective wants and wishes.

Take the latest scientific data on happiness.  I mean, from a – scientific point of view – what really makes us happy? Daniel Gilbert (another) Harvard psychology professor has published a research article entitled, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” [doi:10.1126/science.1192439].  The researchers used a cool mobile web application trackyourhappiness.org to collect:

an unusually large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities. …  The database currently contains nearly a quarter of a million samples from about 5000 people from 83 different countries who range in age from 18 to 88 and who collectively represent every one of 86 major occupational categories. … what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing. …  The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost. (the figure from the paper shows the happiness scores of mind wandering vs. not wandering)

As covered very nicely in the NY Times, it turns out that when folks’ minds were engaged in focused activities, they were happier as compared to when their minds were wandering.  So, it seems that scientific data support the ancient teachings (and Dass’ 1971 book) to Be Here Now!

Here’s the new movie clip found on RamDass.org:

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Telomere
Image via Wikipedia

This is a cross post from my other “science & self-exploration” blog about mindfulness and the mind-body connection (yoga).

In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on the biology of so-called telomeres – the DNA sequences found at the end of our chromosomes (actually just a repeating sequence of TTAGGG). The very cool thing about telomeres is that the overall length of these sequences (number of repeating units of TTAGGG) correlates with life-span. This is because as cells in your body are born, they go through a number of cell divisions (each time the cell divides, the telomeres shorten) until they go kaput (replicative senescence). Amazingly, regular cells like these (that normally die after several cell divisions) can be induced to live far longer by simply – lengthening their telomeres (increasing the amount of a telomere lengthening enzyme known as telomerase) – which is why some think of telomeres as the key to cellular immortality.

Imagine your own longevity if all your cells lived twice as long.

With this in mind, it was awesome to read a paper by Dr. Blackburn and colleagues entitled, “Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres” [doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x]. The authors carefully ponder – but do not definitively assert – a connection between meditative practices and telomere length (and therefore, lifespan). The main thrust of the article is that there are causal links between cellular stress and telomere length AND causal links between physiological stress and meditative practices. Might there, then, be a connection between meditative practices and telomere length?

Above we have reviewed data linking stress arousal and oxidative stress to telomere shortness. Meditative practices appear to improve the endocrine balance toward positive arousal (high DHEA, lower cortisol) and decrease oxidative stress. Thus, meditation practices may promote mitotic cell longevity both through decreasing stress hormones and oxidative stress and increasing hormones that may protect the telomere.

Given that eastern meditative practices are thousands of years old, its strange to say, but these are early days in beginning to understand HOW – in terms of molecular processes – these practices might influence health.

Still, I think I’ll send some thoughts to my telomeres next meditation session!

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What if you had magic fingers and could touch a place on a person’s body and make all their pain and anguish disappear?  This would be the stuff of legends, myths and miracles! Here’s a research review by Kerry J Ressler  and Helen S Mayberg on the modern ability to electrically “touch” the Vagus Nerve.

The article,  Targeting abnormal neural circuits in mood and anxiety disorders: from the laboratory to the clinic discusses a number of “nerve stimulation therapies” wherein specific nerve fibers are electrically stimulated to relieve mental anguish associated with (drug) treatment-resistant depression.

Vagus nerve stimulation therapy (VNS) is approved by the FDA for treatment of medication-resistant depression and was approved earlier for the treatment of epilepsy20.  …  The initial reasoning behind the use of VNS followed from its apparent effects of elevating mood in patients with epilepsy20, combined with evidence that VNS affects limbic activity in neuroimaging studies21. Furthermore, VNS alters concentrations of serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and glutamate within the brain2224, suggesting that VNS may help correct dysfunctional neurotransmitter modulatory circuits in patients with depression.

This stuff is miraculous in every sense of the word – to be able to reach in and “touch” the body and bring relief – if not bliss – to individuals who suffer with immense emotional pain.  So who is this Vagus nerve anyway?  Why does stimulating it impart so many emotional benefits?  How can I touch my own Vagus nerve?

The wikipedia page is a great place to explore – suggesting that this nerve fiber is central to the “rest and digest” functions of the parasympathetic nervous system.  As evidenced by the relief its stimulation brings from emotional pain, the Vagus nerve is central to mind-body connections and mental peace.

YOGA is a practice that also brings mental peace.  YOGA,  in so many ways (I hope to elaborate on in future posts),  aims to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (slowing down and resting responses) and disengage the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight responses).  Since we all can’t have our very own (ahem) lululemon (ahem) vagal nerve stimulation device, we must rely on other ways to stimulate the Vagus nerve fiber.  Luckily, many such ways are actually known – so-called “Vagal maneuvers” – such as  holding your breath and bearing down (Valsalva maneuver), immersing your face in ice-cold water (diving reflex), putting pressure on your eyelids, & massage of the carotid sinus area – that have been shown to facilitate parasympathetic (relaxation & slowing down) responses.

But these “Vagal maneuvers” are not incorporated into yoga.  How might yoga engage and stimulate the Vagal nerve bundle? Check out these great resources on breathing and Vagal tone (here, here, here).  I’m not an expert by any means but I think the take home message is that when we breathe deep and exhale, Vagal tone increases.  So, any technique that allows us to increase the duration of our exhalation will increase Vagal tone. Now THAT sounds like yoga!

Even more yogic is the way the Vagus nerve is the only nerve in the parasympathetic system that reaches all the way from the colon to the brain.  The fiber is composed mainly of upward (to the brain) pulsing neurons – which sounds a lot like the mystical Kundalini Serpent that arises upwards from within (starting at the root – colon) and ending in the brain.  The picture above – of the Vagus nerve (bright green fiber) – might be what the ancient yogis had in mind?

some updates:

here’s a great post on the importance of, and teaching of exhalation

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Do you?  Do you care for yourself the way you’d treat a sweetheart or your very own child?  Do you accept yourself and ‘not see’ all the imperfections in yourself that you ‘don’t see’ in your loved ones?  Do you give yourself the same gifts of kindness, tenderness and tolerance that you lavish on those you love?  Perhaps if you loved yourself more, you’d love others more.  You’d love your loved ones more deeply and in more ways.

But how do we learn to love ourselves?  It sounds narcissistic.  Its not.  In this video (0:10:50), former molecular biologist and medical school professor,  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that giving yourself a small gift – some time to rest – time to accept yourself – time to allow your thoughts to drift – time to listen to your feelings and thoughts with honesty and vulnerability – via yoga and meditation – is a wonderful act of self love.

Put aside the stronger muscles, the leaner body and the soothing music …  to me, Kabat-Zinn points to the one and only, most fundamental reason to practice yoga and meditation.  Ultimately, its an expression of LOVE that is practiced first on oneself – and then – radiates to others.  If you can’t love yourself – body, mind, soul – how can you really love others?

P.S.  The images (0:12:03) of Harvard Chemistry Professor, Nobel Prize winner George Wald doing yoga and sitting on a beach while beating a drum and chanting are priceless!

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