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Posts Tagged ‘Yoga’

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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Have you ever seen the list “100 Benefits of Meditation“?  Of course, many of these benefits are psychological. You know, things like: helps control own thoughts (#39) and helps with focus & concentration (#40).  But many of the 100 benefits are rather physical, bodily, physiological, immunological and even biochemical benefits (such as #16- reduction of free radicals, less tissue damage).

These are awesome claims, and I’ve certainly found that mediation helps me feel more emotionally balanced and physically relaxed,  but I’m wondering – from a hard science point of view – how legit some of these claims might be.  For example, “#12 Enhances the immune system – REALLY?  How might yoga and mediation enhance my immune system?

In a previous post on the amazing vagus nerve – the only nerve in your body that, like the ancient Kundalini serpent, rises from the root of your gut to the brain – AND – a nerve that is a key to the cure of treatment resistant depression – it was suggested that much of the alleviation of suffering that comes from yoga comes from the stimulation of this amazing nerve during postures and breathing.

Somehow, the ancient yogis really got it right when they came up with the notion of Kundalini serpent – so strange, but so cool!

I happened to stumble on a paper that explored the possibility that the vagus nerve might also play a role in mediating communication of the immune system and the brain – and thus provide a mechanism for “#12- Enhances the immune system” Here’s a quote from the article entitled, “Neural concomitants of immunity—Focus on the vagus nerve” [doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.058] by Drs. Julian F. Thayer and Esther M. Sternberg (Ohio State University and National Institute of Mental Health).

By the nature of its “wandering” route through the body the vagus nerve may be uniquely structured to provide an effective early warning system for the detection of pathogens as well as a source of negative feedback to the immune system after the pathogens have been cleared. … Taken together these parasympathetic pathways form what has been termed “the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway

The scientists then investigate the evidence and possible mechanisms by which the vagus nerve sends immunological signals from the body to the brain and also back out to the immune system.  Its not a topic that is well understood, but the article describes several lines of evidence implicating the vagus nerve in immunological health.

So bend, twist, inhale and exhale deeply.  Stimulate your vagus nerve and, as cold and flu season arrives, awaken the serpent within!

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Neal Pollack
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Really enjoyed reading   Stretch – The Unlikely making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollack!  He’s so honest and blunt about his extensive journeys through yoga practices, workshops, conventions, that – as a guy and newbie to yoga – it was hard to put the book down.  Over and over again in the book, he skewers the phony “open your heart to the possibilities of the universe” and “feel good” culture of western commercial yoga inc., and finally comes to resonate and find inner-peace in the deeper guidance of Richard Freeman and in-depth analysis of the ancient yoga texts. Drug-use, fart and sexist humor aside, I learned A LOT about yoga!

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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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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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Oregon Health & Sciences University
Image by drburtoni via Flickr

A recent scientific study of yoga and fibromyalgia has been buzzing around the web (here, here, here, here).  The study is entitled, “A pilot randomized controlled trial of the Yoga of Awareness program in the management of fibromyalgia” [doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2010.08.020] and is one of the most scholarly articles on the science of yoga that I have ever read (more posts to come on this research article). In a nutshell:

53 women who have suffered with fibromyalgia for 1-10+ years were randomly separated into a test group (25 women) who participated in an 8-week Yoga of Awareness course vs. a control group (28 women) who participated in so-called routine care for fibromyalgia.  After the 8-week course, the test (yoga) group showed greater improvements in a number of fibromyalgia symptoms than the control group.

The results are big news – not only for people who suffer from fibromyalgia – but for many others who suffer with chronic pain.  The results suggest that yoga works!  and may be worth a try!

One of the things I found so great about the article, is the way the authors delved into the question of WHY yoga works and why it may be a rather ideal adjunct to traditional medical therapy.  Here’s a passage from the article:

The intention of the yoga program we employed was to fulfill the need for both exercise and coping skills training as effective counterparts to pharmacotherapy for FM. Recent reviews of exercise trials concur that aerobic exercise and also strength training usually improves some FM symptoms and physical functioning, but rarely shows effects on pain or mood. In contrast, reviews of FM coping skills trials have concluded that such treatments usually show mild to moderate post-treatment effects on pain, mood, and disability. However, several reviews have emphasized that the best results have been produced by multi-modal interventions that combine both exercise and coping skills training.

What made a this yoga intervention so innovative – from a purely medical or clinical perspective – is the way it aimed to treat BOTH body and mind.  Note how the medical world has a way of divvying up treatments into those that are specific to the body and those that are specific to the mind.   Perhaps, it is starting to dawn on modern medical practice that this separation does not work well for certain ailments – particularly for the treatment of chronic pain.

Credit two unassuming yoga instructors for this!

It turns out that the lead authors for the research are James W. Carson and Kimberly M. Carson from the Department of Anesthesiology and Peri-operative Medicine and School of Nursing, Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.  They are strangers to neither science nor the practice of yoga.  From their website – Jim is a former yogic monk with more than 25 years of teaching experience while Kimberly is an instructor of Kripalu Yoga – in addition to numerous other academic and yogic accomplishments.

Yogis doing science?

Of course!  This should not come as a surprise.  Ancient yogis were dabbling in psychology, chemistry and medicine LONG before our modern era of science came along.   Just like modern medical practitioners – they wanted to help people cope with suffering 🙂

Today, there is much to be gained in scientific research on the mind-body interface.  A recent article in Nature Medicine reviews the neuroscience of this most mysterious interface.  “Getting the pain you expect: mechanisms of placebo, nocebo and reappraisal effects in humans” [doi:10.1038/nm.2229].  Will try and explore some of these brain-body connections and the way yoga practice engages them in future posts (related post here).

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