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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Yoga Balances Stress, Boosts Immune Function, Reduces Inflammation

Stephen Cope is a therapist and director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts.  He heads a program at the Center entitled “Yoga and the Brain,” in which researchers are studying yoga’s effect on the brain with MRI and other clever techniques. Cope explains that yoga brings about measurable changes in the body’s sympathetic nervous system – the one charged with propelling us into action during the “fight or flight” response to stress. However, because our lives today include business emails at 10 o’clock at night and loud cell conversations at the next table, our stress response often lingers in the “on” position at times it shouldn’t. Yoga helps dampen the body’s stress response by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol, which not only fuels our split-second stress reactions, but it can wreak havoc on the body when one is chronically stressed. So reducing the body’s cortisol level is generally considered a good thing.

Yoga also boosts levels of the feel-good brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, which are responsible for feelings of relaxation and contentedness, and the way the brain processes rewards. All three neurotransmitters are the targets of various mood medications like antidepressants (e.g., SSRIs) and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs. The fact that yoga is linked to improved levels of these coveted chemicals is nothing to sneeze at.

Yoga has another bonus, says Sarah Dolgonos, MD, who has taught at the Yoga Society of New York’s Ananda Ashram. She points out that in addition to suppressing the stress response, yoga actually stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down and restores balance after a major stressor is over. When the parasympathetic nervous system switches on, “blood is directed toward endocrine glands, digestive organs, and lymphatic circulation, while the heart rate and blood pressure are lowered,” says Dolgonos. With the parasympathetic nervous system in gear, “our bodies can better extract nutrients from the food we eat, and more effectively eliminate toxins because circulation is enhanced. With parasympathetic activation, the body enters into a state of restoration and healing.”

There is also consensus that yoga boosts immune function, says Dolgonos. This benefit is probably due to the reduction of cortisol, mentioned earlier: too much of the pesky hormone can dampen the effectiveness of the immune system “by immobilizing certain white blood cells.” Reducing circulating cortisol “removes a barrier to effective immune function,” so yoga could help prevent illness by boosting immunity.

So let’s zoom in on yoga’s effects on the body even more (bear with me, this is really interesting). Researchers have discovered that yoga improves health in part by reducing a major adversary of the body: inflammation. Chronic inflammation, even low grade, is responsible for a litany of health problems from heart disease to diabetes to depression.
Paula R. Pullen, PhD, Research Instructor at the Morehouse School of Medicine, studies yoga’s effects on inflammation by looking at what’s happening in the bodies of heart failure patients who enroll in yoga classes. She has shown that after being randomly assigned to yoga or to standard medical care, patients taking yoga have significantly improved levels of biomarkers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). If your eyes just glazed over, these findings are quite remarkable because they illustrate that yoga can actually affect the tiniest molecules, the ones that are widely known to predict risk for serious disease. Pullen underlines that reducing the body’s level of inflammation is incredibly important from a preventative standpoint.  And yoga can help with this. “Yoga balances the body, the hormonal system, and the stress response. People tend to think of yoga as being all about flexibility – it’s not.  It’s about rebalancing and healing the body.” Though it’s been around for thousands of years, Western science is just beginning to understand how yoga exerts its effects. It will certainly be interesting to follow the research as it continues to reveal just what yoga is doing in the body and brain.

Alice G. Walton

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tip of the Week: Relax Your Stationary Leg in Locust

Sara gave a great tip in class the other day for lifting your leg during the first part of Locust Pose. 

In the single leg lift portion of Locust Pose, the stationary leg will reflexively contract to assist the rising leg.  Bikram tells us to relax the muscles of the stationary leg while contracting the muscles of the lifting leg.

TIP: Focus your attention on identifying and engaging just those muscles in the lifting leg.  Keep the toes of the stationary leg on the floor but avoid pressing them pressing them into the floor, in order to keep that leg relaxing.

Sara's Tip: Contract the muscles of your right arm when lifting your right leg. It will help to focus on only contracting the muscles on that side of your body. Do the same with your left arm when lifting your left leg. 
1.11wfpaodjadf;lgThere should be only 20% pressure on your head and the weight is in your arms pulling on your heels. You should not feel very much pressure in your neck or on your head. If you pull on your heels and lift your hips up, the weight should come off your head. Try contracting your abdominal muscles to stretch your spine more and always lift your shoulders away from your ears. - See more at:
There should be only 20% pressure on your head and the weight is in your arms pulling on your heels. You should not feel very much pressure in your neck or on your head. If you pull on your heels and lift your hips up, the weight should come off your head. Try contracting your abdominal muscles to stretch your spine more and always lift your shoulders away from your ears. - See more at:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tip of the Week: Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope

Most people do what they have to do to get through the day. Though this may sound dire, let’s face it, it’s the human condition. Given the number of people who are depressed or anxious, it’s not surprising that big pharma is doing as well as it is. But for millennia before we turned to government-approved drugs, humans devised clever ways of coping: Taking a walk, eating psychedelic mushrooms, breathing deeply, snorting things, praying, running, smoking, and meditating are just some of the inventive ways humans have found to deal with the unhappy rovings of their minds.

But which methods actually work?
Most people would agree that a lot of our unhappiness comes from the mind’s annoying chatter, which includes obsessions, worries, drifts from this stress to that stress, and our compulsive and exhausting need to anticipate the future. Not surprisingly, the goal of most adults is to get the mind to shut up, calm down, and chill out. For this reason, we turn to our diverse array of feel-good tools (cigarettes, deep breathing, and what have you). Some are healthier and more effective than others, and researchers are finally understanding why certain methods break the cycle and others exacerbate it.
Last year, a Harvard study confirmed that there’s a clear connection between mind wandering and unhappiness. Not only did  the study find that if you’re awake, your mind is wandering almost half the time, it also found that this wandering is linked to a less happy state. (You can actually use the iPhone app used in the study to track your own happiness.) This is not surprising, since when your mind is wandering, it’s not generally to the sweet things in your life: More likely, it’s to thoughts like why your electric bill was so high, why your boss was rude to you today, or why your ex-husband is being so difficult.

Another study found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in “self-referential” thoughts (read: when our brain is flitting from one life-worry to the next).

Meditation is an interesting method for increasing one’s sense of happiness because not only has it stood the test of time, but it’s also been tested quite extensively in the lab. Part of the effect of mindfulness meditation is to quiet the mind by acknowledging non-judgmentally and then relinquishing (rather than obsessing about) unhappy or stress-inducing thoughts.

New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.”

They also found that when the brain’s “me” centers were activated, meditators also co-activated areas important in self-monitoring and cognitive control, which may indicate that they are on the constant lookout for “me” thoughts or mind-wandering – and when their minds do wander, they bring them back to the present moment. Even better, meditators not only did this during meditation, but when not being told to do anything in particular. This suggests that they may have formed a new default mode: one that is more present-centered (and less “me”-centered), no matter what they are doing.

“This is really cool,” Brewer says. “As far as we know, nobody has seen this type of connectivity pattern before. These networks have previously been shown to be anti-correlated.”
So is being happy all about shifting our tendency away from focus on ourselves? Research in other areas, like neurotheology (literally the neurology of religion), suggests that there may be something to this. Andy Newberg, MD at the University of Pennsylvania has found that both in meditating monks and in praying nuns, areas of the brain important in concentration and attention were activated, while areas that govern how a person relates to the external world were deactivated. These findings may suggest that for people who practice meditation or prayer, the focus becomes less on the self as a distinct entity from the external world, and more on connection between the two.  This reflects the idea discussed earlier where shifting attention from inside to outside is at least part of what quells unhappiness.

What about using other tools like cigarettes, food, or alcohol, as a method for finding pleasure and calming the mind? Don’t these things take a person outside of him or herself, and move the focus from the inner world of stressful thoughts to something outside, or “other”? Looking forward to the next hit of caffeine, nicotine, or coke might seem like a valid method of moving attention from the inside to the outside, but if you look closer, it actually intensifies the unpleasantness.

Brewer uses the example of smoking to illustrate why addiction fuels negative thoughts rather than abates them. In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday worries can all be substituted in.

Substituting a carrot stick or other behavior for your actual craving (or other form of unhappiness) is a typical method of treatment, but it doesn’t often work, says Brewer, because the feedback loop is still there. Addressing the process itself with other methods (like meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.

So if you’re dealing with unhappiness of any kind, whether it’s every day worries, or more severe depression or anxiety, the method you choose for coping matters. Finding one that solves the problem – breaking the cycle, rather than masking it – is crucial.

Alice G. Walton

Friday, August 8, 2014

Tip of the Week: Losing Weight with Bikram

Yes, you can burn anywhere from 600 to 1200 calories during one Bikram class, depending on how hard you work. If your focus is on losing weight, here are some tips to help aid you in your success.

1. Believe in Yourself

To permanently change shape and achieve weight loss by practicing yoga also means to shift some of your thought processes and beliefs. For example: "When I eat fatty food, it goes straight to my hips" may not be as empowering as "I easily burn up all the food I eat".
Some beliefs are simply self destructive -- around self esteem or low self worth. Yoga will help you banish these -- sometimes consciously, sometimes they just go away with a regular practice.
2. Regular Practice

You'll need to practice Bikram Yoga at least 3 x every week.

Less than this won't establish the new body patterns you need to stimulate all the other changes. 5 or 6 yoga sessions every week will get you there super-fast!

3. Eating Regime

What is most important is a balanced diet and one which concentrates on proper food combining. Luckily, a regular yoga practice (3 or more vigorous classes a week) will kick-start your metabolism and lead to quite natural changes in the foods that you desire.

You will also become more conscious of what you eat and how it affects you as your own capacity to notice and calibrate your own body improves. Change does not have to be chaotic, hard or dramatic. With a regular practice, your body will discard "old" food behaviors and conserve those that support your emerging shape and identity.

4. Stop counting the lbs. Throw away the scales. Don't count calories.

And do:

  • Concentrate on dress size and waist size changes.
  • Notice how any previously "pudgy" areas become sleeker.
  • Watch your skin develop "the Bikram glow" as we call it.
  • Notice your eyes becoming brighter (and sometimes cleaner and whiter looking).
  • Some people see their skin change color -- from grayer (poor circulation) to pinker (good circulation).