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Archive for the ‘breathing’ Category

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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Gita Chapter 11:32
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This post was graciously hosted @ Yoga Gypsy several weeks ago.

In Chapter 8 of B. K. S. Iyengar‘s Light on Pranayama, he quotes the Bhagavad Gita (VI 17) saying, “Yoga destroys all pain and sorrow”.   Nice! and this is just one of dozens of poetic and inspiring sentiments that are woven into the otherwise detailed and rigorous methods described by Iyengar for the training of the lungs, diaphragm and intercostal muscles.  Although I know the training is extensive and will surely take many years to master,  I can’t help wonder how much pain and sorrow,  realistically,  might be alleviated by the mastery of something as basic as – you know – breathing?

How might this work?  I mean, pain is something that happens in your body and in your mind.  How might mastery of deep and controlled breathing alleviate pain?

It turns out that there is a scientific research journal – Pain – that is dedicated to these types of questions.  A recent article, “The effects of slow breathing on affective responses to pain stimuli: An experimental study”  [doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.10.001]  by Alex Zautra and colleagues investigates the role of breathing in relief from chronic pain.  The authors base their research on a specific neuroanatomical model of emotion and pain regulation:

The homeostatic neuroanatomical model of emotion proposes that the left forebrain is associated predominantly with parasympathetic activity, and thus with nourishment, safety, positive affect, approach (appetitive) behavior, and group-oriented (affiliative) emotions, while the right forebrain is associated predominantly with sympathetic activity, and thus with arousal, danger, negative affect, withdrawal (aversive) behavior, and individual-oriented (survival) emotions. …  The homeostatic neuroanatomical model of emotion suggests that central sensitization of pain in FM patients results in part from a relative deficit of activity in the parasympathetic branch of the ANS required for down-regulation of negative emotion and pain experience.

In basic terms, the researchers suggest that if one can increase activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, then one will experience relief from pain.  So they want to evaluate whether deep breathing increases activity of the parasympathetic nervous system?  In Chapter 4 of Light on Pranayama (Pranayama and the Respiratory System), Iyengar provides many detailed anatomical drawings of the musculature, skeletal and neural machinery related to breathing, but unfortunately no details on the role of parasympathetic vs. sympathetic nervous systems per se.  The authors however, point to a previous study that showed slow breathing increases activation of bronchiopulmonary vagal afferents and produces enhanced heart rate variability, which reflects increased parasympathetic tone – so the scientific evidence points in the right direction.

To test the notion themselves, the investigators asked a group of healthy adult females to wear a small thermal device on the thumb that could be heated and cooled to produce varying levels of moderate discomfort (pain).  By asking the volunteers to experience the thermal discomfort when breathing normally vs. breathing in a slower, deeper manner, the investigators could begin to assess whether the experience of pain (a self-reported value between 1 and 11) was different between the two breathing conditions.

The results showed that the volunteers self-reported less pain (given the same amount of thermal stimulation) when performing deep, slow breathing.

Very neat.  Perhaps not a surprise to yogis 3,000 years ago nor experienced yogis today, but very exciting to see how the practice of Pranayama can engage a neuroanatomical system for the relief of suffering.  In a previous post on the neural stimulation of this system – and its relation to Kundalini – it has become even more clear how potent this system can be!

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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.
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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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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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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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Raging River, Preston WA
Image by Preconscious Eye via Flickr

As a parent, there are times when I realize that the world of my children is not the world I grew up in.  Yes, the Readin’, ‘Ritin’ & ‘Ritmetic are still just as important … and there is nothing as precious as apple pie and little league in the spring … and yes, kids must eat their vegetables and say their prayers at night.  Just as its always been – and will always be.  The wider technological and economic world of my children, however, is much different – most obviously altered by the recent rise of computer technology that “creatively destroys” all forms of industrial activity (media, finance, trade, healthcare) across the globe.  Such change, while unsettling, is, itself, nothing new.  Just teach the children to adapt and, like every generation before, your children will be fine.  OK.

With this in mind, I enjoyed the recent NY Times article, “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” that describes a rafting expedition of neuroscientists who ventured down a remote river in Utah – purposefully out of touch with computer technology – in order to ponder how computer technology, in the form of our email, video gaming, texting etc., etc. shape our mental experience and mental health.  According to the article:

It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.

In particular, the team was focused on the neural systems that help us pay attention.

David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science.  “Attention is the holy grail,” Mr. Strayer says.”  “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.

Every parent knows that kids are increasingly hooked on this and that computer device.  We know that these devices constantly serve up all manner of entertaining news, sports scores, gossip, visual images, games, etc. etc.    Unfortunately, we also know that so-called “intermittent reinforcement”, “variable ratio of reinforcement” or “random reinforcement” can be just as addictive as any drug (the red line in the chart here shows how much more reinforcing “random” rewards are than fixed, predictable rewards).  This is why these devices are – in every sense of the word – ADDICTIVE.  They offer up a steady, but unpredictably so, stream of rewarding images and bits of information.  I mean, how many times a day do you check your email and favorite websites?  Do you feel disappointed when there is nothing juicy – but can’t help checking “just one more time”?

Hence, computer technology presents a quandary for all of us – grown ups and kids alike.  How to adapt to, and manage this “new normal” of hand-held, computer-based, ubiquitous access to social and entertainment information?

Although the trip did not yield THE definitive answer, it seemed to prompt the scientists to take a closer look at the effects and value of conecting/disconnecting from computer technology.  For Professor Todd Braver, a neuroscientist from Washington University:

When he gets back to St. Louis, he says, he plans to focus more on understanding what happens to the brain as it rests. He wants to use imaging technology to see whether the effect of nature on the brain can be measured and whether there are other ways to reproduce it, say, through meditation.

Boy, it sure would be nice to head out with the kids and shoot the rapids for a few days every time I felt overloaded!  Unfortunately NOT one our our family’s economic realities!

Professor Braver’s comments on reproducing the effect of the rafting trip through meditation, however, got me wondering, and also reminded me of a quote that is painted on the wall of my yoga shala – from the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”

Although I can’t get away with the kids for a rafting trip, I can – and do – enjoy spending time together in a place where “CrackBerrys” and all other forms of digital technology are not to be found.  A quiet spot in NJ near the, ahem, scenic Rahway River.  One thing my kids have been learning in their children’s yoga classes are the rudiments of mindfulness meditation.  Might this be what Professor Braver had in mind?  Can it help reproduce the cognitive and emotional effects of a river rafting trip?  As noted in the article:

Mr. Strayer, the trip leader, argues that nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate — you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river, the sounds, the smells, you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.”  … “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys.”

Hmmm, this kind of stuff is oft said about meditation.  As many parents fret about their way kids become attached to their digital devices, it is perhaps too early to know whether meditation is an effective counter-balance to the new digital reality.  Can it provide the same cognitive and emotional benefits experienced by the river rafters who were truly “disconnected” for a few days?  Perhaps – with practice, and more practice.  Nevertheless, a relaxing walk through the forest is different for kids today – as their digital devices buzz away in their pockets.  What’s a modern-age kid to do?

To begin to explore this question further, check out these 2 review articles on the physiological and psychological benefits of both meditation and yoga in children.  The first, Sitting-Meditation Interventions Among Youth: A Review of Treatment Efficacy by David S. Black, Joel Milam and Steve Sussman, published in Pediatrics Aug 24, 2009  and Therapeutic Effects of Yoga for Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature by doctors Mary Lou Galantino, Robyn Galbavy and Lauren Quinn from the University of Pennsylvania.

Both articles examine existing scientific evidence – in the form of controlled clinical studies – on whether these very ancient practices provide benefits to kids in the modern world.  In short – they do – but more research is needed to better understand how much benefit is provided.  How many sessions are needed?  Does it last after practicing stops?  How do the benefits work?  How to best engage children of different ages?  From the abstracts:

“Sitting meditation seems to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youth.” … “The evidence shows physiological benefits of yoga for the pediatric population that may benefit children through the rehabilitation process, but larger clinical trials, including specific measures of quality of life are necessary to provide definitive evidence.”

Its fun to meditate and fun to spend quiet time with my young children – so there is no real downside to spending some time meditating and “disconnecting” from our digital devices.  Might they be learning a skill that protects their creativity and emotional well-being?  I hope so.  Perhaps one day when they are older, they will email me to let me know!

To learn more about meditation for children, visit The David Lynch FoundationUCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (adapting ancient practices to modern life),  the Committee for Stress-Free Schools, Dr. Elizabeth Reid’s six week curriculum to encourage mindful learning in a class of fourth grade students and an interview with my former postdoctoral mentor on the science of attention training.

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