Tag Archives: yoga and meditation

Stressed Out Zeroed In

Stresed Out

It is hardly surprising that most lists of the toughest jobs in the United States routinely list flying planes, fighting fires, and fighting crime as the most stressful occupations. They are life-and death tasks, like being a paramedic or atomic energy repairman, jobs with tension built in. Some livelihoods mean there are no do-overs when getting it wrong or blowing it up.

What is surprising is that many lists routinely flag numerous other professions, such as teacher, social worker, and corporate executive. The corner office has gotten so nerve-racking, apparently, some executives need to take a year off to sail their yachts to Greece and back. Teachers and social workers get to take a sick day-or-two.

Even event coordinators get into the act.

They cracked the Forbes Top 10 list in 2017. The magazine’s stress score for airline pilots was 60.5 and for police officers 51.6. The stress score for event coordinators was 50.1.

Who knew planning the scope of weddings and conferences and conferring with on-site staff could be such a hassle? It points out that stress can be more real than the real jaws of death, like when bullets are whizzing by your head, and can simply be in the eye of the beholder.

Sometimes hell is a foxhole. Other times hell is other people.

Even though stress is primarily a physical response, more often than not what we are responding to in the modern world is what we make it. For millions of years it was see the predator in the wild, there’s the potential danger, fight or flight. Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine flooded the body to focus one’s attention on the fangs of danger. It was beat the bully or beat the feet to get away.

The Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars were extremely stressful, especially if you were involved in them, which hundreds of millions of people were. More than fifty million alone died during the Second World War.

Today armed conflicts are more in the line of skirmishes. Unlike the World Wars when everyone was all in, relatively few people in terms of sheer numbers are on the firing lines of the War on Terror. It doesn’t make it any less stressful for those involved, but most of us aren’t involved.

Nowadays it’s the kids won’t stop screaming, the boss won’t stop screaming, and the bill collectors won’t stop screaming. Not to mention losing your job, getting divorced, moving, and, worst of all, making a speech. Many people claim to fear getting up at a lectern in front of a group and talking more than they fear death.

There are many ways of coping with stress. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Avoid drugs and drink, take a break, and share your problems, although taking a break and listening to all of someone else’s problems without a stiff drink at hand is problematic, at best.

Or have a drink, after all. Like W. C. Fields said, “I never worry about being driven to drink. I just worry about being driven home.”

Some of the most popular 21st century techniques for reducing stress are meditation, stretching, physical movement, mental imagery, and controlled breathing. When those techniques are rolled into one package, presto change-o, you get 16thcentury yoga.

Aside from its other benefits, yoga is tailor made for dealing with stress.

Cat cow stretches, down dogs, lunges, bends, twists, inversions, and whatever else you’re tuning into are all good for you. They’re good for you every day, even if it’s only happy baby pose when you’re tired and winding down.  Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they are stressed daily. That’s why ten out of ten should probably get on a yoga mat. Nobody stressed out left behind.

There are physical benefits to the physical side of yoga. It keeps you active. It keeps you fit. It keeps you healthy. Besides the physical fitness benefits, it keeps you mentally fit. Yoga makes you more alert, less fatigued, and revs up cognitive function. It produces endorphins. You feel better in spite of yourself.

When your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters get bumped up it puts pep in your step.

Yoga exercise practiced regularly increases self-confidence and reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It helps you sleep better, too. Tossing and turning aren’t what you want to be doing in bed, at least not that kind of tossing and turning.

Guided imagery is a stress management technique that has been shown to reduce blood pressure, symptoms of PTSD, and relieve physical tension. It’s a simple technique, simply using your imagination to take you to a calm place. It involves getting comfortable, closing your eyes, and Imagining yourself in a peaceful setting – like a tropical beach, bright blue water, surf and sand – which helps you relax and relieves stress.

Yoga teachers do it all the time.

All yoga classes end with savasana, or corpse pose. It’s a relaxation pose, done flat on your back. What’s more relaxing than being flat on your back? Teachers methodically annotate the experience. “Soften your face, your shoulders, arms. Breathe. Soften your abdomen as it rises and falls. Breathe. Soften your thighs down to the tips of your toes. Breathe.” Or they script the experience, leading the class in a systematic relaxation, images like a leaf floating down a stream or walking through a sunlit forest being the narrative.

No one can avoid stress completely, not cavemen in tooth and claw days nor up-to-the-minutemen. It’s not even certain doing so would be a good idea. But, how we react to stress is up there. Stress is a common trigger for headaches, from the tension kind to the migraine kind. Fighting it all day leads to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. It suppresses the immune response. It can make you literally sick of it.

Take a breath.

Controlled breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing and paced respiration, is a tried and true stress reduction technique. It is the cornerstone of the relaxation response, first developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. It encourages full oxygen exchange, slowing down the beat of the heart and stabilizing blood pressure.

Take a deep breath.

Deep abdominal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting calm. It’s easy to do whenever you want, at a scheduled time every day, any time you have a time out, or waiting during your appointment with your tax preparer. “It’s the fastest way to calm down,” said Time Magazine. It’s a stress eraser.

Breath control is one of the eight limbs of yoga. It has been since the beginning of the practice, long before worry, anxiety, and stress became the bugaboos of modern life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 10 percent of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. If they went to a yoga class they would hear from the word go to breathe consciously, control the breath, and connect to your breath.

If we all breathe 10 to 15 times a minutes, that’s about how many times yoga teachers use the breath word.

Unconscious shallow breathing is part and parcel of the primitive part of the brain. Conscious breathing comes from the cerebral cortex. Conscious breathing is about controlling the mind. Connecting with the breath, since we breathe all the time, is connecting with the present. It’s a way of being in the present, not in the past where something has already happened, nor in the future where something might or might not happen.

Whatever bad thing might or might not happen today, time spent concerning yourself with it is a waste of time, since it’s already tomorrow on the other side of the world. Besides, what most people worry about never happens, anyway. Don’t worry about the horse going blind. Just get the wagon loaded up.

A big part of the practice of yoga is controlling prana – which can be referred to as energy, life force, or breath – through pranayama, or various methods of controlling the breath. The goal is to raise one’s energy, or prana. It’s an essential pert of meditation, another of the eight limbs of yoga.

When it comes to breathwork, yoga is soup to nuts : bellows breath, breath of fire, and lion’s breath. Going all out, if you are especially stressed, is skull cleanser. It’s a cleansing breath to raise your energy level. It also involves a fun hand sign, which is making your hands look like a dog’s head by resting your ring and middle fingers on your thumb while sticking your pointer fingers and pinkies up like ears.

The last tool in the toolbox of stress busters is meditation. “Anyone can practice meditation,” says the Mayo Clinic, “It’s simple and inexpensive. It can wipe away the day’s stresses, bringing with it inner peace.” The relaxed breathing and focused attention of meditation clear away the overload of contemporary life, from eight-lane highways to information superhighways. Meditation helps you be self-aware, not simply aware of your surroundings.

Meditation is the penultimate port of call on the eight-fold path of yoga. It isn’t just a monkey wrench for solving problems, be it stress, or anything else. It’s about getting into a state of consciousness different than either the waking or sleeping states. It’s about pivoting the mind inward. The mind often has a mind of its own. Meditation is designed for it to find stillness.

If you can find it, there’s no stress there.

Meditation is a practical way of calming yourself down, slowing down the endless sturm und drang, leaving distractions behind and focusing all your attention on one thing, be it your breath or an object. Or you can hum along. It’s not about thinking about nothing. It’s about paying attention.

It is practiced in the space between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

When you’re stressed out, get on a yoga mat. It will zero you in.

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Gray Matter (On the Mat)

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“I’ve got the brain of a four-year-old. I’ll bet he was glad to be rid of it.” Groucho Marx

The brain is the center of the nervous system, 100 billion nerve cells protected by a skull and each nerve cell linked to almost 10,000 other cells. A real human brain lifted out of a jar in a pathology lab weighs about three pounds. Although often described as gray matter, it isn’t gray, but rather red, very soft and jelly-like.

The neural network of the brain is affected by everything that happens during its lifetime, for better or worse. Our genes and our environment impact every step. The brain’s lifelong development is activity-dependent. Every sensory, motor, and cognitive activity shapes the way neural circuits end up being wired.

Our experiences lead to cells that fire together, leading to cells that are wired together, leading to a mind that can count the stars in the sky and how many sprinkles are left at the bottom of an ice cream sundae at the same time.

Your brain on math is like it’s gone to the thinking gym. Your brain on money, on the other hand, is your brain shouting out greed is good, greed is good, greed is good! Your brain on drugs is a cloudy day in a sundress.

Brains in the thrall of sports are described in Your Brain On Sports as bubbling with “all the batshit craziness that courses through the sports ecosystem.” The kookiness includes fans leaning over balcony bleacher railings into mid-air trying to grab t-shirts shot out of a cannon.

Our neurons can misfire across synaptic gaps, raising Cain and spinning nonsense, from the NRA’s zany Cold Dead Hands to Climate Change Ain’t Happening. Only crazy people take themselves seriously.

Human being brains are always humming and roaring. They are our best friend and worst enemy. Everyone has to do the best they can with it. In the same way it is impacted by most things the brain is changed by most things, too, including yoga.

By some accounts yoga, from exercise on the mat to breath control to meditation, is a game-changer over and above many other things. Neuroplasticity is how the brain rewires itself through experience. The experience of yoga is plasticity itself, especially what goes on twisting and turning on the mat. The more anyone unrolls their mat is the more new neural pathways are made in the brain. It is a pattern that can reshape one’s brain and one’s life, too.

“Our life is the creation of our mind,” said Buddha.

Not only that, practicing yoga seems to make the brain bigger, especially the somatosensory cortex, where the mental map of our bodies is located, and the superior parietal cortex, which is the part of the brain that directs attention.

Who doesn’t want a bigger brain and a better GPS of themselves?

“We found that with more hours of practice per week, certain areas were enlarged,” said Chantal Villemure, one of a team at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which studied people practicing regularly. They presented their work, focused on MRI scans, to the Society for Neuroscience in 2013.

The health benefits of yoga exercise, from increased flexibility to stronger bones to relieving chronic pain, are well known. It even lowers the risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publications. What is less well known is that it stimulates brain function, improving inhibitory control and working memory.

A University of Illinois study published in the ‘Journal of Physical Activity and Health’ found that cognitive reaction times and accuracy were better after hatha-style yoga practice than after other kinds of exercise.

“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” said Neha Gothe, who led the study.

The brain gets stronger after yoga exercise. Working out on the mat boosts the body’s production of B.D.N.F., a protein called ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain.

Downward doggers know that getting long feels awesome. Beyond flexibility they also know it brings to heel something in their brains. That something is stress, which yoga helps to counteract. Yoga boosts GABA levels in the brain, according to research at both the University of Utah and Boston University. The higher the GABA levels, the better and brighter you feel. The lower the levels, the darker the day gets. Yoga literally switches off some genes related to stress.

Hatha yoga nowadays is closely associated with physical practice. The word means forceful in Sanskrit. But, before yoga and physical culture became synonymous in the last hundred-or-so years, hatha meant all eight limbs of yoga. Yoga is an eight-limb union leading to the last limb, which is equilibrium. Two of them, pranayama, which is breath control, and dhyana, or meditation, may affect life and limb of the brain even more than physical practice.

“Yoga isn’t about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life,” said Aadil Pakhivavl, author of Fire of Love. Everybody wants to be in good shape, but getting in shape is about more than jump throughs and plank pose. Like Buddha said, life is what the mind makes it.

Breathing is as essential as it gets. The words chi, psyche, and spirit are all related to breath. In the Bible God breathed life into clay making Adam. In Your Atomic Self it is breath that connects us to all aerobic creatures in the world. Prana is the Sanskrit word for life energy or life force. Pranayama is regulating and controlling the breath.

Patanjali, the founder of yoga philosophy, believed the ultimate goal of it was not breathing anymore, in other words, no more inhales or exhales. It’s an idea that literally takes your breath away.

Whether it’s bellow’s breath, skull shining breath, or breath of fire, the many forms of pranayama are all designed to concentrate one’s energy and attention. When under the influence of pranayama our brains ramp up in alpha and beta activity, whose electrical impulses can be detected by EEG testing. These dissimilar brain activities, paradoxically, are related to increased awareness and increased relaxation.

“The immediate effect of Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama and Bhramari Pranayama compared with controls shows that these yogic practices are related with increased orderliness of brain functioning,” noted ‘Yoga for Academic Performance: A Brain Wave Coherence Analysis’ in the European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies.

Meditation has long been known to generate measurable changes in the brain. Hundreds of studies have been conducted since the 1950s. They have largely confirmed that the new found benefits of meditation are the same as the centuries-old benefits, from reducing activity in the selfish centers of the brain to enhancing and enlarging the links of neural pathways.

In ‘Brain Gray Matter Changes Associated with Mindfulness Meditation in Older Adults’, published in the open journal Neuro in 2014, a “significant gray matter increase was identified within the precuneus” after a six-week test period. The precuneus is located near the back of the brain and is involved with aspects of consciousness and the self.

Meditation is about bringing awareness to the breath, slowing down into stillness, and going inward. It is the conscious action of getting to the unconscious crossroads of the something that isn’t there and the nothing that is. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, described art as purposive without a purpose. The same can be said about meditation. It is about nothing and everything and everything in between.

Meditation acts on the brain in many ways, from reducing anxiety and depression to improving concentration to helping keep brains tip top in older people. It leads to volume changes, actually changing the structure of the brain. A study at UCLA has demonstrated that people who meditate have more gray matter volume from one end of their pates to the other. “What we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the brain,” said study author Florian Kurth.

The act of meditation is the action of focusing one’s mind for a period of time, usually in silence, sometimes while chanting, as in Kirtan Kriya, to get grounded and become more self-aware.

Anybody can meditate, as long as they are willing to acknowledge that the mind has a mind of its own. All you have to do is sit down, or even go for a walk by yourself, and try to be quiet for a few minutes. Even though it doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, it can have a huge impact. It’s not like climbing a mountain, but it does help cut most mountains down to molehills.

Even busy people too busy to meditate, who think they don’t have time to do nothing, are meditating nowadays, since it makes them more productive when they get back to being busy. “Half-an-hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy,” said Saint Francis de Sales more than four hundred years ago. “Then a full hour is needed.”

Today’s modern set calls it mindfulness meditation.

Back in the day it wasn’t even called meditation, which is a word dating from the 12th century, from the Latin word meditatum. It had more to do with attention and consciousness exploration. Meditation was closely aligned with dharana, or concentration, as in focusing one’s attention in continuous meditation.

Your brain on yoga is your brain diving into 5,000 years of the practice. It is also your brain being poked and prodded by the Harvard Medical School. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard and a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor, has conducted clinical case studies on yoga for more than a decade. The results he has presented in research papers, articles, and books offer compelling evidence that getting on the mat boosts brainpower.

The brain might be a mush melon-sized lump of gray matter, but yoga lights it up like a rainbow. In the end, though, yoga isn’t a thinking man’s game. Anyone who spends too much time thinking about the practice never gets any of it done. While it is true that it’s a mind-body discipline, it’s not just exercise on a sticky mat, keeping us fit as fleas, nor is it just the latest contribution to positive thinking.

“Yoga is a way to freedom,” said Indra Devi.

We are more than our bodies and brains. The spirit is the third rail of yoga, so that the train becomes a body-mind-spirit practice. Albert Einstein believed that “spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” Like the electric action potential of neurons, the electric third rail of yoga is what supplies energy to the practice. When Buddha observed that our lives are what we think them to be, he meant thinking as a state of mind made up of cognition, words, and actions.

The humans of planet earth may be snared by force and their minds made small by propaganda, but the only constraints on the spirit are those we ourselves make. It’s great to have a good brain, but where the spirit lives is the good heart. We change our lives by changing what’s in our hearts. If there is a sweet spot of yoga, it is the heart, not the brain. It is the downtown of spirit and gateway to consciousness.

The heart is the ever-winding ever-adventurous ever-surprising yellow brick road to the incomprehensible. On the way to the Emerald City, no matter how big and better anyone’s brain gets, even when it makes a scarecrow’s leap from Groucho Marx to Albert Einstein, your brain on yoga is ultimately your brain emptying as the heart fills.