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Archive for the ‘Yoga and Meditation’ Category

Placebo Effect from Ataide.tv on Vimeo.

more on the placebo effect here and here … a conversation with Professor Daniel Moerman here … a link to his paper on why we evolved a placebo response … and a great article on magical thinking.

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The ocean is an example of a natural resource.
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For most of us, the concept of “breath control” is silly.  I mean, like, I’ve been doing it naturally since I was, like zero years old … now you’re telling me I should work to control my breath?  Yep. 

Here’s an amazing physiological feat that your breath performs:

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is a naturally occurring variation in heart rate that occurs during a breathing cycle. Heart rate increases during inhalation and decreases during exhalation.

Heart rate is normally controlled by centers in the medulla oblongata. One of these centers, the nucleus ambiguus, increases parasympathetic nervous system input to the heart via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve decreases heart rate by decreasing the rate of SA node firing. Upon expiration the cells in the nucleus ambiguus are activated and heart rate is slowed down. In contrast, inspiration triggers inhibitory signals to the nucleus ambiguus and consequently the vagus nerve remains unstimulated.

Adults in excellent cardiovascular health, such as endurance runners, swimmers, and bicyclists, are also likely to have a pronounced RSA. Meditation and relaxed breathing techniques can temporarily induce RSA. RSA becomes less prominent with age, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This is just obscure science-talk for the notion that slowing down and extending the breath is a good thing – good because increasing the length of one’s exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve which has wonderful effects on a person’s heart rate (slowing it), immune system, and sense of well-being (e.g., in 2005, the Food and Drug Adminsitration approved vagus nerve stimulation for the treatment of depression).

Yoga practitioners use something called ujjayi breathing wherein they constrict the back of the throat, which allows the breath to flow more slowly and evenly. This tends to increase Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia and its concomitant health benefits. 

As Richard Freeman so eloquently describes in the video below, breath control is the heart, soul and root of yoga practice.

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“Oneness with the universe”, “the divine”, “immortality” and “inner peace” are just a few popular themes of yoga.  Practitioners delight in pondering these themes whilst in their deep meditative states attained through breathing and movement.  It’s bliss – it really is.

Here are a few quotes by Woody Allen on the very same themes:

I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.

Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.

Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness.

What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.

You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.

There’s certainly a gap between the perfect world of the ancient yogis and our modern lives – and Woody Allen, with his famous neurotic streak and wit – makes great light of it.  Have you ever found yourself doubting yogic wisdom in your everyday life?

Recently, I took an online assessment for the so-called Big Five personality dimensions and found that (like 30% of the population) I also have a neurotic streak.  The assessment declared “you tend to be nervous, high-strung, insecure, worrying” (my results are shown in the figure above).  True enough (I even carry a few genetic risk factors), and perhaps is why sometimes I can be tormented by a skeptical inner-voice that bursts my bliss as I dwell in meditation.  Sooo annoying!

We all love Woody Allen’s movies and quips.  Perhaps we see ourselves in his endearing neurotic characters? and can collectively laugh at the movie screen (even if we are wracked with neurotic grief on the inside)?  I don’t know.  In any case, its not actually fun to be, or funny to be with a really neurotic person … someone who is always ruminating on their insecurities and fears.  They can drive themselves, and you, nuts!

Can yoga and meditation help? Can they help a neurotic person shift from being a veritable prisoner of their fears and insecurities, wracked with neurotic grief on the inside – to being a more objective observer – more like a detached watcher of their own stream of consciousness – eventually coming to laugh at their inner drama as they might at a Woody Allen movie?

Here’s a research article that may shed light on the topic.  Traits, States, and Encoding Speed: Support for a Top-Down View of Neuroticism/State Relations by Drs. Michael D. Robinson and Gerald L. Clore.  You can read the open-access article, so I’ll just jump to the part I thought was so interesting.

The authors explored the extent to which people suffer from neurotic tendencies as a function of how well they are able to perceive and encode information as it streams into the brain.  Some folks encode neural information more efficiently and, these folks, tend to suffer less from their neurotic tendencies.  The exciting aspect of these neural processes, is that they can be improved with appropriate training and practice.

Common to these theories is the idea that anxious individuals are often trapped by habitual ways of thinking and that a focus on the present, for example, as facilitated by mindfulness training, is successful in breaking such habitual, self-defeating modes of thought linked to high neuroticism.

Therefore, the link between the present data and therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness practice must be somewhat speculative. Nevertheless, it is also worth pointing out that the largest predictor of categorization performance is practice. Furthermore, practice is viewed as the most important contributor to mindfulness-related skills. Therefore, it may be that discrimination skills, even of a reaction-time variety, can be trained that that such training would be useful in alleviating neuroticism-linked distress.

So perhaps the yogic wisdom of Woody Allen rests, not in the jokes themselves, but in a kind of mindfulness that allows him to step back and monitor his own stream-of-consciousness.  Much indeed to make light of. Worth practicing and practicing in 2011 … to laugh at myself in 2012.

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Bronze Chola statue depicting Shiva dancing as...
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In the early 1900’s the world-famous sculptor Auguste Rodin was observed at a museum in Madras, India performing various yogic poses as he stood in front of a statue of Nataraja (Shiva performing a cosmic dance – shown here).  In fact, Rodin was nearly arrested for performing his strange contortions as the local Indian patrons and the museum guards looked on in horror, at the strange foreign man – who was moved to tears by the statue – deforming himself publicly.

This is the story told by V. S. Ramachandran in chapter 8 of his book,  The Tell-Tale Brain.  In this chapter, Ramachandran explores the brain systems that underlie our aesthetic experiences – the aesthetic jolt – as experienced by an enraptured Rodin, at the sight of the dancing Shiva.  There is much brain science and biology at work here (more posts to come).

For the moment though, just consider how deeply moved was Rodin by Shiva’s physical forms.  He wrote a poem, “The Dance of Shiva (covered here).  A master sculptor, and expert on human anatomy, Rodin’s poem reveals his deep sense of bones and musculature and is even echoed today by yoga instructors who prompt students to remain strong and poised while softening the face and emotions.  He declared the dancing Shiva, “the perfect embodiment of rhythmic movement”!

Wow!  Who would have thought that one’s ongoing voyage into yoga – often practiced as a slow rhythmic dance of shifting postures – could end up, not just in better physical and mental health, but as a living, breathing form of “high art”!  These are my favorite lines:

The human body attained divinity in that age, not because
we were closer to our origins … but because we believed in freeing ourselves completely
from the constraints of now, and we spun away into the
heavens.  It is a pleasure sorely missed…

Ramachandran explores the brain circuitry that we use when we feel the ecstasy of an aesthetic jolt – the kind that leaves us “spinning away into the heavens”.  Its an ability we all have – to feel free – & I hope I can learn to tap into it.  Yoga – with its bizarre and exotic forms – and meditation may provide a means to explore this aspect of life.

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Are there events in your past that you hide from your friends and colleagues?  Are there parts of your body that you keep covered at all times?  You may think to yourself, “If people see this side of me, they won’t want to associate with me”.

Are you afraid of losing your job?  Losing your spouse or partner?  Creditors who who leave threatening messages?  A physical ailment that could be serious?

If you are an American, you are (statistically) likely to be overweight, over indebted and under increasing threat of losing your job and health benefits.  You may have friends that have “dropped out” of the social loop while being overwhelmed with these many adversities.  They themselves may feel stigmatized or too ashamed to face their usual circle of friends, and might rather stay out of touch.  Its an awful irony how feelings of shame and fear can cause our social relations to deteriorate just when we need them most.

Even if you haven’t dropped out, you may eat, drink or otherwise seek to numb these feelings of fear or shame.  But, deep down inside you may already be aware that by numbing your feelings of fear and shame, you also suppressing other emotions such as affection and joy – and thus undermining the social-familial bonds you are so afraid of losing.  Again, its an awful irony how fear, shame and anxiety can lead us to self-inflicted ruin.

Nevertheless, the grim reality remains.  Our bodies are unsightly, unfit and falling apart as we age.  Our careers paths are no longer certain in the new global economy.  We owe a lot of money and have barely the means to pay it back.  We do not have the resources to pay for old age.  Holy crap!  This is a dire view of the world hunh?!

What to do?  How to avoid the downward spiral of fear and anxiety?  Is there an upside to a deteriorating body?  a loss of career?  a down-shift to a much lower standard of living?

Check out this lecture by Dr. Brene Brown, who has carried out a great deal of social science research on this topic.  You will be amazed.  You will be uplifted.  You will begin to see that THERE IS an upside, and a way to break out of the cycle (unlike corporations, we won’t be getting a bailout).

Yoga and meditation practitioners may enjoy the parts of her talk on “self-love” and “courage” – a word whose origins lie in “cor” the word for “heart” and an ability to look inwardly and face the truth – a common theme, especially in Anusara yoga.

Note to readers:  Lately I’ve been focused on various personal and introspective themes, rather than the usual molecular-cognitive science-ology.  These themes set a base for exploring the basic biology of our emotional and cognitive lives and I’ll be digging into the brain-biology of these themes in the year to come.

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A drill instructor addressing United States Ma...
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Sweating it out as a new yoga-meditation student, my instructor often says, “Make this pose feel good”!  Bend here, press there, twist, up on one hand and … feel good? If you’ve practiced yoga, you may know what I’m talking about.  And, if you’re like me, you’re hooked on this unique aspect of yoga.  With an emphasis on breath control and meditation, yoga allows its practitioners to “feel the pleasure” instead of “feel the pain”.

Admittedly, I’ve had many sore morning-afters, but I’m starting to find that when I’m intensely focused on my breath, the experience of moving in and out of postures is a pleasurable one – not like other activities motivated by a “come on!  push it!” & “no pain, no gain” mentality.

This yogic mentality has led to a profound change in my life.

Read the rest in Elephant Journal

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My 2 boys are so lucky … they get to spend time with their yoga teacher … postures, reading, coloring, meditation … I’m lucky too. Music by Dhamaru!

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