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Archive for the ‘Yoga and Meditation’ Category

Anguish
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Do folks who experience LaLa Land get hooked on it?  Do they desire to get back there, again and again and again?  Is this why yoga teachers say that – if you let go – yoga will transform your life?  I want to let go.  I want to advance in my practice and let the transformation happen – to spend as much time in LaLa Land as possible.  I do!  I do!

But I’m torn.

my full article appears in Elephant Journal

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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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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
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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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Telomere caps he:תמונה:Telomere caps.gif
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A startling article that appears today in the science journal Nature, shows that reactivation and restoration of DNA telomeres was sufficient to reverse the aging process! From the article:

Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice.

Accumulating evidence implicating telomere damage as a driver of age-associated organ decline and disease risk1, 3 and the marked reversal of systemic degenerative phenotypes in adult mice observed here support the development of regenerative strategies designed to restore telomere integrity.

Love yourself, love your DNA – especially the telomeres ! For more on this topic, see a few weeks back, when I covered a research article by Nobel Prize winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn on meditation, telomeres and longevity.

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Stick model of NAD + , based on x-ray diffract...
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Yogis are by far the healthiest eaters I have ever met.  If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably one of them – faithful in the observance of your Yamas and Niyamas – leaving me  reluctant to confess my own (pre-yoga) pizza-scarfing, soda-swilling ways.  Please don’t hold it against me.  I’ve changed, really.

Here – as plain as I can make it – is the scientific reason why eating a low-calorie vegetarian diet is a good thing.  Good, as in living longer and cancer-free.

All you need to know is that when you eat less, your levels of Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD – the contorted, yogic-looking molecule shown at left) are HIGH – and this increases the activity of the “longevity gene” SIR2. The amazing life-extending effects of the NAD-dependent SIR2 genes are described in detail on Leonard Guarente’s website at M.I.T.:

The discovery that Sir2p requires NAD for its activity immediately suggested a link between SIR2 activity and caloric restriction. This link was strengthened by the observation that life span extension by caloric restriction requires Sir2 protein. Caloric restriction is likely to reduce the carbon flow through glycolysis and result in more free cytoplasmic NAD. SIR2 could act as a sensor of NAD levels within the nucleus. Under conditions of caloric restriction, NAD levels are high, SIR2 is activated, and the rate of aging is decreased.

The hard science link between cancer and NAD is more recent – this week in fact – with the release of a study entitled, “Transcriptional regulation of BRCA1 expression by a metabolic switch” [doi:10.1038/nsmb.1941].  Here the researchers found that NAD/NADH levels via binding to CTBP1 can regulate the anti-tumor properties of BRCA1.  In a nutshell, a high-calorie diet leads to LOW levels of NAD which has the net effect (via CTBP1) of turning OFF the anti-tumor gene BRCA1 (a bad thing).  From the article:

The elevated expression of estrogen in the context of higher levels of NADH or lower NAD+/NADH ratios due to high caloric intake and/or obesity could establish a state in which the pro-proliferative effects of estrogen are not completely balanced by the protective functions of BRCA1 that would normally restrain estrogen-induced proliferation and heighten genome surveillance.

I realize that most yoga folks need no such hard science to convince them of the merits of a low-calorie, healthy diet.  In the science-world however, empirical evidence can take decades to gather, so its an important milestone to now have established causal links between caloric intake, longevity and cancer risk.

For (former) junk food junkies like myself, there is no room to debate or side-step the issue.  Eat less, eat healthy – live longer and cancer-free.  More on yoga and aging (here, here, here).  Now, off to the shala for NADasana pose!

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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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