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Posts Tagged ‘Yoga’

Zen meditators are famous for their equanimity in the face of physical discomfort.  How do they do it?  Well, according to a recent neuroimaging investigation, it may be because they do not “think” about pain.  Rather, they just “experience” pain:

An ancient Eastern text describes two temporally distinct aspects of pain perception; the direct experience of the sensation and habitual, negative, mentation which follows. It was suggested that the so-called ‘second dart’ of pain could be removed via meditative training, obliterating the suffering associated with noxious stimulation.

It’s a subtle distinction … to just experience something in the moment  vs. to ruminate on it and its causes, consequences, duration, etc.  How many times have you heard the sage advice, just let it go?  Is this what the brain imaging shows … that the meditators are not ruminating (they have decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in ruminating) … they have experienced the pain and then let it go?  Experience and forget?

Reminded me of an interesting little protein named DREAM.  Interesting because it modulates pain (when DREAM is inactivated in experimental mice the animals feel no pain) and interesting also because the gene plays a role in the formation of memories (mice show poor contextual fear memory when the gene is inactivated).

Experience and forget.  A Zen teaching encoded in our DNA?

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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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Playing with Google’s Ngram site … exploring the usage of words & phrases in the zillions of books currently digitized by Google.  Here are a few charts showing the frequency of a few popular yoga words published between 1808 and 2008.

There seems to have been a spike of mentions in the early 1900’s followed by a wave in 1980 and a recent wave in 2000.  Vipassana meditation and the term “namaste” seemed only to catch the 2000 wave, but not the earlier yoga wave … seems it was yoga that caught on first and then finer aspects of the practices followed later?

yogaearliest blips in 1810 then a spike in 1980

 

ashtanga mentioned in the early 1800’s!?

bhagavad – its spikes seem to presage the spikes in yogic terms?

 

anusaramentioned in the very early 1900’s!?

vipassanano wave in 1980, but tracks the 2000 wave

meditationalways a commonly used term in many non-yogic contexts

 

namaste caught on only in the recent wave

what other words might be of interest???

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Anguish
Image by matt.doane via Flickr

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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Still the patterning of consciousness! The Yog...
Image via Wikipedia

The yoga sutras are a lot of fun to read – especially the super-natural ones.  I try not to take them too literally, as you never know what might have been warped in translation, or perhaps included merely to inspire yogis to go the extra mile in their practices.

Occasionally, I come across articles in the science literature that reveal how truly weird and wild the human brain can be – and it strikes me – that maybe the ancient yogis were more in tune with the human mind than we “modern science” folks give them credit for.  Here’s a weird and wild sutra:

III.55 –  tarakam sarvavisayam sarvathavisayam akramam ca iti vivekajam jnanam – The essential characteristic of the yogi’s exalted knowledge is that he grasps instantly, clearly and wholly, the aims of all objects without going into the sequence of time of change.

How can we know things instantly?  and without respect to time (ie. never having had prior experience)?

Admittedly, Patanjali may be referring to things that take place in emotional, subconscious or cosmic realms that I’m not familiar with, so I won’t quibble with the text.  Besides, it sounds like an AWESOME state of mind to attain, and well worth the effort – even if we concede it is knowingly unobtainable.  But is it unobtainable?

Might there be states of mind that make it seem obtainable?  Here’s a fascinating science article that appeared in Science Magazine this past week.  Paradoxical False Memory for Objects After Brain Damage [doi: 10.1126/science.1194780] describing the effects of damage in the perirhinal cortex (in rats) that led the animals to demonstrate a peculiar form of false memory – wherein the animals treated never-before seen objects as being familiar. Hmmm.  An altered form of brain activity where unfamiliar and novel things seem very familiar.  Sounds sort of  like “instantaneous knowing without respect to time” to me.

Given the tremendous similarity in brain circuits and memory systems across all mammals, I wonder if humans (perhaps in deep meditative states or with various forms of hallucinogenic or damaged states) could experience this? Sutra III.55 seems strange, but not, perhaps unobtainable.

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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
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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