Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Grow Yoga... flows into... Five Rivers Yoga

If you've wondered why I've been so silent lately, it's not because I've been on silent retreat. (Although, happily, that's coming up soon, too!) It's because the blog has moved, to the new website for my yoga teaching practice: Five Rivers Yoga

Please visit me there to keep reading!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Relaxation Response

Right now I’m reading The Relaxation Response. Originally published by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson in 1975, the book's about the physiology of relaxation— related to practices of meditation and yoga. It’s stunning to me that this research and many of the ideas he proposed— now over thirty years ago— are just starting to gain broader medical and popular interest and confirmation. I feel like I'm taking part in Benson's legacy: I’m teaching for two mind/body research studies with the University of California. One is a study of restorative yoga and stretching for the metabolic syndrome, at UCSF and UCSD. The other is a new study of mindful breathing and hypertension, with UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. These studies, and others like them, continue the investigation of embodied awareness that Dr. Benson started making a formal case for in ’75. A great bit of contemporary medical history and physiological grounding for restorative yoga and meditation instructors and students.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Checklist for Good Yoga Research

Yoga research is everywhere. How do we know what's solid information, and what's hype?

There's a ton of new research emerging about yoga and meditation, and the air is full of tweets about the health effects of mind-body practices:

~ Can yoga improve your mood?
~ Is meditation better than medication?
~ Will mindfulness make us happier?
~ How can yoga help prevent disease?

With all this information whizzing by, it can be difficult to catch up and sort through to figure out which studies have information worth sharing, and which ones don't measure up.

It's time to put our hemispheres together and review the basic requirements for good research. A reliable study, with findings you can count on, would meet these basic criteria:

Big & Diverse. A large and diverse group of participants will make it more likely that study findings can be generalized, meaning that they might apply to the general population and not just the people who participated in the study. (This means not restricting a study population to just one type of individual. For instance all earlier cardiac med trials were done only on men, and mostly white men, so those data do not generalize at all to women, and probably not to other racial groups of men.)

Controlled. An intervention group, which does the yoga, meditation, or other mind-body practice that is under research, is matched to a control group, which does something equivalent but that's not yoga. The results of the two groups can be compared, to make sure it's really the yoga that's having an effect.

Random. Study participants are randomly assigned to either the control group (not yoga) or intervention group (yoga!).

Blind. The researchers and participants do not know which group they are in (control or intervention). This is hard to do with something like yoga, because it's pretty obvious whether you are lying down in savasana or doing some other type of activity. But the people who are assessing the results of the intervention should be "blinded" to which group a participant was assigned, in order to limit possible bias in the results and/or interpretation of results.

Balanced & Careful. The study design anticipates and minimizes factors that could impact how the intervention is presented or received, or otherwise influence the results, such as: demographic composition of the groups, environmental effects or differences between the groups, participants' expectations (kind of like the placebo effect), or variations in how the yoga (or not yoga) is presented.

Okay, geeky yogi researchers, I know you're out there. What else would you add to this checklist?

(Thank you to Dr. Alka Kanaya for her assistance with this post.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Science of Yoga and Mood

Walking is integral to my personal practice-- as important to me as the time I set aside for asana and formal meditation. The breath and movement of a morning walk will clear out any tangled thoughts and reconnect me to the feeling of my feet on the earth. In a sense, the walk itself is a form of vinyasa and meditation.

So I was intrigued when a colleague forwarded me notice of a new study about mood, yoga, and walking in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This study compares the effects of yoga and walking on mood, anxiety, and GABA levels in the brain.

The researchers found that yoga improved mood and anxiety more than walking. It also found correlations with GABA levels, particularly between mood improvement and increased GABA in the brains of the yoga group.

Perhaps doing a yoga practice might improve my mood more than a walk around the hill. And this yoga effect could be linked to neurotransmitter levels in my brain. Why am I not surprised that the nervous system, and specifically the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system), is in on the action?

I'm fascinated by the burgeoning research on the benefits of yoga and meditation for what we may learn about healing ourselves. Also because of the questions the research itself raises. And because I'm curious about the strategy of investigating body awareness, movement, and spiritual practices with tools of science.

This week, I'm in the middle of reading a history of yoga, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Over a hundred years ago, supporters of the first yogis who traveled to the West to teach, such as Swami Vivekananda, touted the science of yoga. Here we are a century later, regaining the same ground to make the case for yoga.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mindwandering and Happiness

Being in the moment brings happiness.

Now research from Harvard psychologists seems to affirm what we know from experience with meditation and mindfulness practices.

The researchers are looking at happiness as "to what extent people feel good or bad in the moment, as they are going about their lives," as explained by researcher Matthew Killingsworth on Science Friday.

They find, not surprisingly, that most of us are not living in the moment: "People seem to be mind wandering a lot... 47% of the time people are thinking about something other than what they are doing."

What are you thinking about now?

The research suggests a strong negative relationship between "mind wandering" and happiness. People are unhappiest when their minds are wandering. In fact, data suggest mind wandering is a cause of unhappiness.

The activity with the lowest rate of self-reported mind wandering is when having sex (10%), followed by exercising.

Participate in the study -- as reported this week in Science magazine and covered by NPR's Science Friday, the NY Times, and ScienceNews among other outlets -- and track your happiness.

How happy are you in this moment?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

More Guilty Pleasures

I had a store credit over at Red Hill Books and decided to treat myself to the Fall 2010 issue of Tricycle magazine. Seen it? Apparently there's a fresher, Winter 2010 issue out on the shelves now, but I'm still making my way through this one.

Articles to check out are Anne Cushman's Yoga of Creativity (more from me on this soon) and Nancy Baker's piece on the 5th Zen Precept: the Non-use of Intoxicants.

After my previous post about "guilty pleasures," picking up an article on the 5th precept made me think again about the ravioli and the computer. What was I doing or avoiding, while eating and internet searching?

What are some of the discomforts we move away from and try to avoid with intoxicants? Being wrong, the fear of being wrong, negative emotions, being alone, being without reference points, being unsure, being afraid, being without approval or mirroring, being bored or restless, being overwhelmed. (Nancy Baker)

The 5th precept. I tend to interpret it for myself as a vow to be kind to my body and spirit, by being aware of the effect of what I ingest.

Nancy Baker stretched my thinking about intoxicants -- not just the obvious but also the subtle, everyday, emotional and social states of intoxication and the breadth of what we consume and create. Including such things as "intoxication with how we can be 'better' than we are" -- now there's a tricky hitch on the spiritual path.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mindfulness of Guilty Pleasures

I make a bowl of pumpkin ravioli for dinner, and... eat in front of the computer while searching for dharma talks on mindful eating. Really. I notice exactly what I'm doing as it's happening, and I laugh. But does that pause remind me to turn off the computer and focus on the meal I've prepared?

What is it that happens inside when we see ourselves behaving badly? That concept of a "guilty pleasure" -- often applied to eating, in particular -- implies awareness of a misstep, without change. It's often layered with self-judgment that further clouds what's really happening.

Mindfulness of mindlessness: There's a pause, but not necessarily a course correction. I know what I'm doing, as I'm doing it, and... I don't change what I'm doing.

If the stakes are low, these moments can bring humor into mindfulness practice. With humor, there's a chance to soften towards ourselves too. When we see our frenetic or rebellious or slothful behavior, and we watch in slow motion as we fall once again into well-worn potholes of habit.

Just as a joke or story gets stale when told too many times, so it goes once we bring mindfulness to so-called guilty pleasures. Finally, the pleasure of shirking or acting out isn't so great. And whose rules are we resisting anyway? Who is it that we're pushing against?

Certainly it's not useful to berate myself for multitasking or seeking distraction. But looking at the behavior, even continuing to play it out a bit, eventually can be a window into greater awareness of the emotional experience within.

Or perhaps I simply turn off the computer and enjoy the ravioli.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Team Yoga

Coverage of the SF Giants 2010 World Series Parade today. One of the announcers says, of the SF fan base, "these fans really embody the team."

I'm pretty sure he was talking about the sea of panda hats, costume beards and orange "torture" t-shirts, but this description struck me. I've got an ear out for embodiment, because that's my job.

For Giants fans, this can mean wearing the lucky shirt, waving rally rags, going to the games, cheering yourself hoarse.... Fill in the blank with the ways that you involve your identity and body in the struggles and triumphs of the home team.

So what does it mean to embody yoga? Is this redundant? If we're fans of yoga, how do we live it? It's not the yoga clothes, or even being able to do particular poses -- tho we sometimes forget that. How do you embody yoga?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What do you love?

What is it that you love?
How did you find it? How do you remember it?
And have you allowed yourself to love what you love?

"Meditation helps you discover what you love that you didn't know you loved because you were so caught up in your mind that you didn't realize there was anything else there. The value of meditation is that it helps you first discover -- and then bring yourself back to -- what you love."
 (Geneen Roth, Women Food and God)

What I love. Reading these words, I'm reminded that it's not about the meditation and yoga practices themselves so much as what the practices point toward. They are the tools for digging down and uncovering what is loved. Or zooming out into the vastness of what is loved. The vibrant intelligence of the body and bright wonder of being.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

What are you thinking?

I've been considering the question "What are you thinking?" as a mindfulness query. Usually I ask someone this out of curiosity or wanting to connect, so they'll share their internal world.

Maybe the question should be: How are you thinking? — to bring awareness to thinking. Notice that you're thinking. Notice the contents of the thoughts, without getting caught up in the story. Feel how thinking affects the body.

Mindfulness of thoughts is one of my favorite formal meditation practices lately. I get a kick out of it, which is good because there's a lot of thinking happening over here!

I enjoy watching the impulsiveness of thoughts, and how much they're chomping at the bit to spring me into action. Maybe I enjoy it because there's more freedom in watching thoughts rather than being so driven by them.

I love sitting practice, because of the relief of knowing that during this time I can't do anything else. All these thoughts, coming and going, don't matter. There's nothing else to do. Because all I'm actually doing is sitting here with awareness.

It's so great to just let the thoughts think and not have to do anything about them. So, how are you thinking?