Tutorial: meditation 101

Being in the present moment is a meditation practice.

There is a challenge in sitting still in meditation and watching the activity of the brain/mind. Anytime you sit with the intention and willingness to be mindful, transformation will happen. At first, you want to bring stability to the mind, perhaps by focusing on one thing, such as the breath (note: you can count your breaths in groups of 10; restart once you reach 10 or lose count). Eventually expand your focus/awareness to encompass bodily sensations and thoughts. Typically the first insight meditators have is, ‘Holy crap! I think all the time!’ By practicing meditation, you start to observe the way your thoughts move and change, and you can develop a more subtle awareness of your experience.*

kaitlyn-roland-yoga-meditation

Health benefits of meditation primarily focus on increasing the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) and allows us to  “rest and digest.” … and this leads to boosting the immune system, improving digestion, improving sleep, and increasing cognitive function. This helps your relax more throughout the day. Meditation decreases the likelihood of reacting negatively to stress… for example, you might stop overeating/drinking.

More Reasons to meditate:

  1. Dull the Pain! Meditation training cuts pain perception in half (J Neurosci 2011) and makes pain less unpleasant because brains are busy focusing on the present moment, and anticipating the pain less, blunting its emotional impact (J Pain, 2010).
  2. Improve your sex life! Meditation helps bring thoughts into the present moment, and can enhance a woman’s sexual experience (less self-judgemental chatter!) (J Psychosomatic Medicine, 2011)
  3. Problem-solving! Meditations helps apply switching strategies for problem-solving and getting out of habitual patterns… it breaks the cycle and enables you to look at things with a fresh perspective (PLoS One, 2012).
  4. Boosts mental toughness! Regular meditation improves mood and working memory, which allows for short-term retrieval and storage of information. Meditation helps individuals stay alert and in the moment without becoming emotional (J Emotion, 2010).
  5. Emotional regulation! Meditation improves feelings of empathy and benevolance (PLoS One, 2008).
  6. Improve your attention span! Meditation practitioners are better able to make fine visual distinctions and sustain visual attention during a demanding tasks (Psychological Science, 2010).
  7. Get a bigger brain! Long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (i.e., folds) of the brain’s cortex than people who don’t meditate. The extra folds may allow faster processing of information (Neuroimage, 2011; Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2012).

How do you find ways to bring meditative moments into your day? Share some of your meditation experiences in the comments below. much love.

*Adapted info from: Kripalu Thrive Blog

Yoga language: myth-busting twists and inversions

Amy Matthews is the co-author of Yoga Anatomy, the co-director of The Breathing Project’s Advanced Studies Program in New York City and has been teaching anatomy and kinesiology for over 15 years. Matthews did some yoga myth-busting for yoga.about.com that I think everyone should know… (http://yoga.about.com/od/anatomy/a/Yoga-Anatomy-Myths.htm)

(adapted)

First, “Twists”

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Q: Do twists really “wring out” and cleanse the internal organs? Is that even beneficial?

Amy Matthews: There are a number of ways that a statement like “twists wring out the organs” is inaccurate and incomplete if we are looking at the anatomy and physiology of the visceral organs (the organs in the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities).

Definitions: moving the organs around in relation to each other = mobility; movement within an organ (like the beating of the heart) = motility.

Any movement that changes the shape of the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities (spine, ribcage, abdominal wall or pelvic floor … including breathing) can move the organs in relation to each other . Movements that articulate the spine (flexion, extension, lateral flexion and axial extension) – mobilize the organs. However, organs are positioned so that no single movement will mobilize every organ!

The motility of the organs is affected by a wide variety of factors, including signals from the nervous system and the endocrine system. Increasing mobility in the organs can increase blood flow, which brings in nutrients and oxygen and takes away by-products. To a degree, increased circulation can help each organ function at its best.

QTwists are often touted as aids to digestion. Is this correct?

Amy Matthews: The function of the digestive organs (stomach, small/large intestine) is to transport contents from one opening in the body (the mouth) to the opening at the other end (the anus), along the way extracting water and nutrients. The more mobility there is in the intestines in particular, the more easily the contents can move through. And if by “improved digestion” we actually mean less constipation, twists that mobilize the abdomen might indeed be helpful with “moving things along.” (i.e., if “improved digestion” = better absorption)

Secondly, “Inversions”

kaitlyn-roland-headstand

QCan inversions increase the blood flow or oxygen flow to the brain? Improve circulation?

Amy Matthews:We are constantly in relationship to gravity, and when we change our relationship to gravity it has an effect on our body.

The circulatory system ensures that there is an appropriate amount of blood flowing to each tissue in the body – so if the circulatory system is functioning well, there will be just enough blood flowing to the brain, and an inversion will not have any effect on that blood flow, in a positive or negative sense. (More blood flow to the brain is NOT a better thing.)

A healthy circulatory system is an adaptable one – one that is able to increase and decrease blood pressure as needed. So any activity that invites the circulatory system to adapt is one that will “improve” it, in some way.

This is just an example of some ways in which us yoga teachers twist and turn our language upside-down instead of focusing on the anatomy and physiology behind it.  much love.

PS want to geek out more? check out some anatomy behind breathing HERE

Full article available at: http://yoga.about.com/od/anatomy/a/Yoga-Anatomy-Myths.htm

building brain muscles -or- practice makes perfect

When you practice learning something new, you’re building new neural pathways in your brain. The more intense the practice, the stronger and more functional those neural pathways, and the better you can play the piano or the more likely you are to make a three-pointer with your non-dominant hand.

Fortunately, old dogs CAN learn new tricks, and as you get older your brain can continue to build new pathways and get stronger, even if it’s at a slower pace than when you were younger. To make sure your brain stays toned and ready to fire you need EXERCISE! You can protect prefrontal and temporal gray matter volume and forge new neural pathways with daily physical activity!

Happily, this brain-building technique also can help folks who develop a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s, in which old pathways are lost and new ones are hard to develop. At Dr. Mike’s Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, intense exercise improves symptoms for more than 30 percent of people with Parkinson’s.

Learning-based memory exercises can also help keep our memory sharp… umm have you tried LUMOSITY? I love their games, it’s a great break during the day!

… and remember that change is possible at any time. Not only is our brain plastic (able to be “remapped” toward greater health, calm, memory, and reduction of pain) but also our thoughts and feelings can be reshaped on a daily basis. We can begin to experience positive transformation within days—a transformation that can be sustained over a lifetime.

so, try a new hobby, activity or brain game today! What are you waiting for? much love.

(adapted from NGNEWS)

from research to real life – tai chi for a better brain

“As the practitioner incorporates the quality of tai chi movement into his life, he finds that he stops banging into things. The result of not falling into each step provides the opportunity to instantaneously ease back from unexpected barriers.”  (Wolfe Lowenthal)

main idea: After 40-weeks, MRIs detected increase brain volume and improved memory and cognitive function in “Tai Chi” and “Social Intervention” groups compared with “Walking” and “No Intervention” groups. We know that brain shrinkage (with age) is associated with cognitive decline and dementia, therefore this has important implications for social interactions and non-aerobic exercise programs as we age.

boomersforfitness.com (AP Photo/University of Southern Mississippi, Steve Rouse)

Research : Changes in Brain Volume and Cognition in a Randomized Controlled Trial of Exercise and Social Interaction in a Community-based Sample of Non-Demented Chinese Elders (J Alz Dis)

Real life : Tai Chi for a Better Brain (Dr. Weil’s weekly bulletin)

… now the benefits of Tai Chi for Parkinson’s have been presented for a while, especially for balance and falls

(see New England Journal of Medicine Research HERE and Real life article on Huffington Post HERE and listen to NPR podcast HERE), however, this is the first study of brain volume, which not only has implications for PD, but all other neurodegenerative diseases! It’s also interesting to see the benefits of social interactions on this study outweigh that of walking (for brain volume and memory)!

I think the important take home from this is that we need to engage in a variety of exercises (progressive aerobic training, non-aerobic, skill development, resistance) and include a social component to keep us balanced and focused as we age! much love.

Parkinson Wellness Recovery – Exercise 4 Brain Change!

Last week, I went to a talk by Becky Farley, PhD, MS, PT, sponsored by Parkinson Society BC. The topic was “EXERCISE AS MEDICINE” and she discussed some of the work she does at her Parkinson Wellness Recovery gym in Tuscon, Arizona.

About Dr. Becky Farley

Becky became involved in Parkinson’s disease during her post-doctoral work when she investigated the muscle activation deficits underlying bradykinesia in people with PD. She developed the LSVT® BIG exercise approach and standardized training to targets the PD symptoms of slow/small movements bradykinesia/hypokinesia.

About PWR!

The aim of Becky’s program is to use exercise as a physiological tool to optimize brain function (i.e. neuroplasticity) and health. Her program is based on: early intervention, continuous access and research-based exercise programs. PWR! also trains clinicians and fitness professional with techniques to focus on PD-specific exercise.

Her exercise tips:

  1. “start from a position of power!”. Your body needs to be ready, your brain needs to be focused and the task needs to feel important (or fun!) for change to occur. Make your exercise engaging!
  2. Use equipment (i.e. bungees, ropes, balance boards, harnesses) to get the experience of the full movement safely (especially in people with PD who have difficulty balancing etc.), then start to take some of those supports away as you progress and apply that experience to everyday movements!
  3. For people with PD, especially those with dyskinesias – seek exercises that gain core stability
  4. Sensory feedback – i.e. pacing, metronome, music – can help push you to exercise faster, harder and with more smooth movements
  5. Prime” your body by starting your exercise program with progressive aerobic training, then follow up with skill acquisition-type exercises.
  6. Focus not only on increasing muscle mass, but want to increase useable muscle and focus on functional movements in your exercises… not just “curls for the girls” but include things like:
  • lateral rotations, cross-body, sequential movements, extensions, quick position changes, side-to-side weight shifting)

How does exercise help brain function in Parkinson’s?

Becky also presented some of the latest research on the benefits of exercise on brain function.

Exercise can help increase brain volume, improving working memory and attention. Also, it increases blood vessels and leads to more neurotrophic (growth) factors (like “gatorade” for the brain!) and a more supportive environment for neurons. Exercise also increases the redundancy in brain synapses. Redundancy is good! If you have some synapses that aren’t working, you will have back ups to replace them!

Specifically in PD, research tells us that exercise increases survival rate, increases physical functional ability, and improves cognition! It can help “repair” the dopamine system in early/moderate stages of PD by increasing dopamine D2 receptors and helping your brain make better use of remaining dopamine.

some references of interest:

“How might physical activity benefit patients with Parkinson disease?” Speelman, Nature Reviews, 2011

“Effectiveness of intensive inpatient rehabilitation treatment on disease progression in parkinsonian patients” Giuseppe et al., Neurorehabil Neural Repair, 2012

“Does vigorous exercise have a neuroprotective effect in Parkinson disease?” Ahlskog Je, Neurology, 2011

It was a great talk, and I feel lucky to have been there and met with her. I’m also excited to hear her thoughts on how yoga can fit within this model…

Please check out her PWR website and see if there are any trained-clinician in your area! much love.

from research to real life – calcium may advance Parkinson’s disease

I’m starting a new regular post… from research to real life. There’s so much information out there, it’s hard to keep track of it all! I will present new (and exciting!) research in both a scientific and news media format, so the ideas come across in whatever way you choose to get your information!

I thought this was an interesting article on calcium and dopaminergic neurons.

The main idea: calcium stresses dopamine neurons, leading to premature aging and cell death. There is ongoing research into drugs that shut down Cav1.3 (a membrane protein that controls calcium release) to relieve stress on dopamine cells… and may slow disease progression.

ResearchCaV1.3-selective L-type calcium channel antagonists as potential new therapeutics for Parkinson’s disease

Real lifeParkinson’s breakthough could slow disease progression – Dementia News – –.

enjoy! much love.