Meditation’s Antianxiety Effects Visible on Brain Imaging

Individuals with no experience in meditation who participate in mindful meditation training sessions for as little as 4 days show changes in specific brain mechanisms that correlate with a reduction in anxiety, a new imaging study shows.

“There is plenty of evidence that meditation can improve a host of issues, such as pain and cognitive function, and anxiety is perhaps at the top of the list,” explained lead author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“But what we’ve been able to do is to correlate, through imaging, changes in specific brain regions that are related to anxiety, even in a cohort of people with no anxiety or depression.”

The findings were published online April 24 in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Buffer to Anxiety

For the study, Dr. Zeidan and his colleagues recruited 15 healthy volunteers with normal levels of anxiety and no experience in meditation to participate in 4 20-minute training sessions to learn the technique for mindful meditation.

This involves a focus on breathing and a conscious acknowledging of distracting thoughts and emotions, combined with a decision not to react to them.

“You’re trained to focus on keeping a very straight posture and the sensations of the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen as you breathe,” Dr. Zeidan explained.

“If your mind becomes distracted, you acknowledge the distraction, let it go, and focus back on the breathing. You are regulating your emotional responses.”

Before and after each meditation training session, the participants, who included graduate students and faculty, received brain activity imaging with pulsed arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The participants also were administered the State Anxiety Inventory, a 20-item subscale of the State Trait Anxiety Inventory, before and after the brain imaging.

While the participants reported meditation-related reductions in anxiety ratings by as much as 22%, the MRIs showed anxiety relief to be associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which show decreases in activity when anxiety is present.

The vmPFC is also implicated in the alteration of contextual evaluation of affective processes, the authors write.

“Activation in the vmPFC is associated with modulating higher-order affective appraisals, including cognitive regulation of negative emotions.”

In addition, reports of greater anxiety correlated with greater default-related activity (ie, posterior cingulate cortex) on MRI, “possibly reflecting an inability to control self-referential thoughts,” the authors write.

The brain mechanisms related to the reduction of anxiety through mindful meditation in healthy people have never been identified, so the findings help confirm that the changes do occur, said Dr. Zeidan.

“It shows that mindful meditation can be sort of this buffer to anxiety. After just a brief training, you can reduce this ruminative thought process, change your attention, and change the context in how you respond to things,” he said.

Potential Payoff

Amit Sood, MD, director of research and practice in the Mayo Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, said that such changes are not unexpected over such a short period.

“I’m not surprised to see the correlations with reductions of anxiety in 4 days — other studies looking at brain structure have reported seeing these changes after just 4 to 6 hours of training,” said Dr. Sood.

“What I would be surprised to see, however, is if they were still doing it on their own after 6 months,” he noted.

“People can learn it quickly, but then they forget. A change in habit requires a lot of effort. People have to carve out the time in their busy days, and what tends to happen is will power depletion.”

The study demonstrates, however, the potential payoff, he added.

“I wouldn’t call this a landmark study, but it does validate the overall theme we’re seeing in this field,” Dr. Sood said.

“It adds another bullet point of how we can understand emotional and brain states, and eventually this may help us better classify people based on what is actually happening in the brain, beyond their displayed symptoms.”

Do Our Thoughts Have the Power to Affect Reality?

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” —Attributed to Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha

According to Dr. Joe Dispenza, every time we learn or experience something new, hundreds of millions of neurons reorganize themselves.

Dr. Dispenza is known throughout the world for his innovative theory concerning the relationship between mind and matter. Perhaps best known as one of the scientists featured in the acclaimed 2004 docudrama “What the Bleep Do We Know,” his work has helped reveal the extraordinary properties of the mind and its ability to create synaptic connections by carefully focusing our attention.

Just imagine: In every new experience, a synaptic connection is established in our brain. With every sensation, vision, or emotion never explored before, the formation of a new relationship between two of more than 100 thousand million brain cells is inevitable.

But this phenomenon needs focused reinforcement in order to bring about real change. If the experience repeats itself in a relatively short period of time, the connection becomes stronger. If the experience doesn’t happen again for a long period of time, the connection can become weakened or lost.

Science used to believe that our brains were static and hardwired, with little chance for change. However, recent research in neuroscience has discovered that the influence of every corporal experience within our thinking organ (cold, fear, fatigue, happiness) is working to shape our brains.

If a cool breeze is capable of raising all the hairs on one’s forearm, is the human mind capable of creating the same sensation with identical results? Perhaps it is capable of much more.

“What if just by thinking, we cause our internal chemistry to be bumped out of normal range so often that the body’s self-regulation system eventually redefines these abnormal states as regular states?” asks Dispenza in his 2007 book, “Evolve Your Brain, The Science of Changing Your Mind.” “It’s a subtle process, but maybe we just never gave it that much attention until now.”

Dispenza holds that the brain is actually incapable of differentiating a real physical sensation from an internal experience. In this way, our gray matter could easily be tricked into reverting itself into a state of poor health when our minds are chronically focused on negative thoughts.

Dispenza illustrates his point by referring to an experiment in which subjects were asked to practice moving their ring finger against a spring-loaded device for an hour a day for four weeks. After repeatedly pulling against the spring, the fingers of these subjects became 30 percent stronger. Meanwhile, another group of subjects was asked to imagine themselves pulling against the spring but never physically touched the device. After four weeks of this exclusively mental exercise, this group experienced a 22 percent increase in finger strength.

For years, scientists have been examining the ways in which mind dominates matter. From the placebo effect (in which a person feels better after taking fake medicine) to the practitioners of Tummo (a practice from Tibetan Buddhism where individuals actually sweat while meditating at below zero temperatures), the influence of a “spiritual” portion of a human being over the undeniable physical self challenges traditional conceptions of thought, where matter is ruled by physical laws and the mind is simply a byproduct of the chemical interactions between neutrons.

Beyond Belief

Dr. Dispenza’s investigations stemmed from a critical time in his life. After being hit by a car while riding his bike, doctors insisted that Dispenza needed to have some of his vertebrae fused in order to walk again—a procedure that would likely cause him chronic pain for the rest of his life.

However, Dispenza, a chiropractor, decided to challenge science and actually change the state of his disability through the power of his mind—and it worked. After nine months of a focused therapeutic program, Dispenza was walking again. Encouraged by this success, he decided to dedicate his life to studying the connection between mind and body.

Intent on exploring the power of the mind to heal the body, the “brain doctor” has interviewed dozens of people who had experienced what doctors call “spontaneous remission.” These were individuals with serious illnesses who had decided to ignore conventional treatment, but had nevertheless fully recovered. Dispenza found that these subjects all shared an understanding that their thoughts dictated the state of their health. After they focused their attention on changing their thinking, their diseases miraculously resolved.

Addicted to Emotions

Similarly, Dispenza finds that humans actually possess an unconscious addiction to certain emotions, negative and positive. According to his research, emotions condemn a person to repetitive behavior, developing an “addiction” to the combination of specific chemical substances for each emotion that flood the brain with a certain frequency.

The body responds to these emotions with certain chemicals that in turn influence the mind to have the same emotion. In other words, it could be said that a fearful person is “addicted” to the feeling of fear. Dispenza finds that when the brain of such an individual is able to free itself from the chemical combination belonging to fear, the brain’s receptors for such substances are correspondingly opened. The same is true with depression, anger, violence, and other passions.

Nevertheless, many are skeptical of Dispenza’s findings, despite his ability to demonstrate that thoughts can modify a being’s physical conditions. Generally associated as a genre of pseudo-science, the theory of “believe your own reality” doesn’t sound scientific.

Science may not be ready to acknowledge that the physical can be changed through the power of the mind, but Dr. Dispenza assures that the process occurs, nevertheless.

“We need not wait for science to give us permission to do the uncommon or go beyond what we have been told is possible. If we do, we make science another form of religion. We should be mavericks; we should practice doing the extraordinary. When we become consistent in our abilities, we are literally creating a new science,” writes Dispenza.

Investing the Downward Dog Way? Adviser Suggests Deep Breaths

When the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a new record this past March, Brent Kessel awoke at 3:30 a.m.

But the financial adviser, who co-founded a firm that manages more than $800 million, wasn’t up early because he was giddy about the market. He was hopping on a motor scooter in Mysore, India, to stand on one leg with the other leg behind his head and chant in Sanskrit at the school where a branch of modern yoga has its origins.

Mr. Kessel, who devoted himself to responding to emails from his clients and colleagues later that day, shrugs off the bull market.

“Everything is impermanent, especially the market’s level,” says Mr. Kessel, whose firm is Abacus Wealth Partners in Santa Monica, Calif.

Spencer Sherman, Abacus’s other founder, teaches his clients a breathing technique called “the Money Breath,” to get through tough financial situations: clients typically inhale for three counts, hold the breath for one count, and exhale for six counts.

Non-clients can buy “the Money and Spirit Workshop” home study course from the duo, available for $66.97 on a website that sells New Age products.

Some clients come to the firm through its advertisements in Yoga Journal, which in its April 2001 issue featured a bare-chested Mr. Kessel on the cover balancing on his hands with his legs tucked behind his arms in a perfectly executed “crow” pose.

“I think the very common reaction, even 15 years ago, would have been, ‘These guys are California quack jobs,'” says Mr. Kessel. “But if you actually came in and were a client, you’d find that we’re much more disciplined than a lot of the firms out there.”

He is one of a breed of financial advisers who are taking yoga and meditation out of the ashram and putting them into Excel spreadsheets. The values and teachings of these Eastern-inspired traditions, proponents say, impart a special kind of financial wisdom that, among other benefits, allows them to stay calm in crises and make holistic financial plans for clients.

George Kinder, a certified financial planner and Buddhist teacher who spends his time in Maui, Hawaii, London and Littleton, Mass., is widely considered the guru of this financial “mindfulness” movement, which has guided financial advisers seeking to add a spiritual element to their practices.

Mr. Kinder’s 1999 book, “The Seven Stages of Money Maturity,” applies ancient Buddhist principles known as the Six Perfections, which include patience and generosity, to contemporary money management, among other things. Mr. Kinder later developed “financial life planner” training, which teaches advisers to focus on the client’s life goals and use empathic listening skills when working with them.

The tradition is older than it might appear. The integration of yoga and money is seen in Eastern history, says Mark Singleton, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Cambridge on the history of modern yoga.

While many ancient yogis renounced material possessions, others used yoga to gain money and influence. “They were the power brokers of medieval India because of these powers you can accumulate by doing yoga,” says Mr. Singleton.

The number of planners who have gone through at least one of Mr. Kinder’s programs, which always include a group meditation, has more than doubled in the past five years to more than 2,000, he says. So far, 307 have obtained the top “Registered Life Planner” designation, up from about 100 five years ago.

“People leave our training exhilarated,” says Mr. Kinder. “That’s very similar to a very deep yoga or meditative retreat. You go so deep inside yourself you’re sparkling.”

Messrs. Kessel and Sherman use a Kinder-influenced financial-planning approach at Abacus, and say they buy stocks and bonds based on research instead of “emotions and hot tips.” They typically prefer passive index funds to actively managed ones, and unlike panicked investors who fled equities during the financial crisis, they say they bought stocks the day the market hit its bottom in 2009, a move the firm attributes to disciplined rebalancing.

Jeff Bogart, like Messrs. Kessel and Sherman a Kinder disciple, launched Yogic Investing, a yoga-inspired branch of his Cleveland-area financial-advisory firm last year. “George Kinder’s stuff is groundbreaking and fascinating. Sometimes it makes me aware if people are stuck in the root chakra with their money issues,” says Mr. Bogart. The root chakra, an energy point located at the base of the spine, is associated with primitive survival needs, he says.

Those interested fill out a brief questionnaire online to “find out if you are a yogic investor!” He presented a workshop on yoga and money at the Finger Lakes Yoga Festival in New York state last summer.

Some financial advisers revel in yoga’s revelations.

While standing on one leg and attempting to lift his other leg perpendicular to the ground, Rick Salmeron, a certified financial planner who is president of Salmeron Financial in Dallas and who practices Bikram yoga, a type of yoga traditionally practiced in 105-degree heat, says, “I’m thinking of my clients who can’t help but be attracted to Apple at $600 a share or oil at $140 a barrel.”

Mr. Salmeron recently considered holding a Bikram class for his clients, though only a fraction of them are regular yoga practitioners. “Investing is very emotional. Yoga keeps it all balanced,” he says.

He recommends Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana, a pose in which he stands with legs spread wide and grabs his feet in an effort to pull his head to the floor. “It gives my brain a tourniquet effect. It clears out a lot of the dead brain cells,” Mr. Salmeron says.

Other advisers try to be discreet about the New Age influence on their work. Nicholas Lee of Worcester, England, who trained with Mr. Kinder, meditates and faithfully uses a notepad with “Breathe in” printed on top of the pages and “Breathe out” at the bottom.

Still, he says, “you can’t put a sign outside your office that says, ‘Hello, I’m a financial life planner. I do yoga and meditation.’ I’m always a little bit cautious talking about it. You can very quickly appear flaky.”

Source: Wall Street Journal

Studies prove that being vegan is healthiest

This week’s issue of Time Magazine brings more documentation that vegetarians live longer than their meat-chomping friends.

A six-year study of 70,000 Seventh-Day Adventists, published in the current issue of American Medical Association’s prestigious Journal of Internal Medicine, found that, vegetarians and vegans have a 12 percent lower risk of death.

This is but the latest evidence linking meat consumption to killer diseases that kill 1.3 million Americans annually. It comes only two months after a discovery at the Cleveland Clinic that carnitine, contained in all meat products, is a major factor in heart failure.

Similarly, an Oxford University study of nearly 45,000 adults in last January’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegetarians were 32 percent less likely to be suffer from heart disease than people who ate meat and fish. A Harvard University study of 37,698 men and 83,644 women, in last year’s Archives of Internal Medicine, concluded that meat consumption raises the risk of total, heart and cancer mortality.

Indeed, each of us can find their own fountain of youth by adopting a meat and dairy-free diet. Keep checking back on AUM for “vegan recipes” .

Top 10 Ways to Deal with Sweat During Yoga

Girls don’t sweat, we glisten!”

It was the last thing I wanted to hear after a particularly humid class. Carefully grasping my friend’s slightly dewy hand with my immaculately pruned fingers, I peered deeply into her eyes through the slowly evaporating fog of my glasses.

Men don’t sweat, I gently replied. We marinate.

I then proceeded to wring my shirt out on her foot. It was very gratifying, and I truly felt one step closer to samhadi (feeling one with the world). I was younger then.

Sweating is awesome. The physical practice of yoga is designed to purify the body through a series of folds, twists, stretches, and balances. As the body moves, the muscles and organs release toxins. One of the main escape routes for these toxins is through sweat. The more toxic the body, there better chance you’ll get your sweat on. If you’re a meat-eatin’/ beer-drinkin’/ cigar-chompin’ yogi, your body might have a little more to work out than others.

Combine the fact that you’re wringing out your insides with the accumulation of heat from other bodies in a poorly-ventilated room, throw in a dash of genetic predisposition, and we have a prime candidate for rapid perspiration. It often isn’t pretty, especially if you’re one of those glisteners.

Sweating is a double-edged sword. We want to sweat because we feel the benefit of the practice. We don’t want the sweat because we’re vain. We do want the sweat because it’s healthy. We don’t want the sweat because nobody likes carrying home a soaked yoga mat (sponge) or a sopping wet shirt clinging to body hair.

At least I think nobody does….

What To Do?

1) Don’t panic. You aren’t the first yogi to sweat profusely, you won’t be the last, and it’s safe to say you probably aren’t the worst. If you freak out, you’ll probably just sweat more. The most important thing to remember is that it is perfectly OK to sweat during yoga. Don’t let it stop you.

2) Wear proper clothing. The long/short here is to find what works for you. Light, loose-fitting clothing that allows the skin to breathe will be the best. If you go cotton, expect that cotton to soak up sweat. If you wear sports gear, that gear will become very smelly. Avoid business suits, denim jeans, wool anything, and polyester everything. If it’s appropriate, consider not wearing a shirt. There, I said it. You don’t have to be the first guy to run into the studio bare-chested and ready to kick asana. If you’re cool with it, give it a try.

3) Bring a towel. This is a no-brainer. Don’t assume the studio is going to provide one. If the teacher gives adjustments, bring a separate towel just for them. You feel less self-conscious about receiving and they’ll be more inclined to give.

4) Yogitoes! Purchasing my first Skidless yoga towel literally changed my life. Before, every class was a dangerous mix of Twister and Slip-n-Slide. Essentially, it’s a thin beach towel with silicone nubs on one side that grip into the yoga mat. What really got me was that it doesn’t really start working until it gets moist. Most people like to pre-wet theirs before class. I prime mine with a stern glare and lascivious smile.

5) Flip your mat over. Drat…yoga soup again! Wait for the right time, quietly step off of your mat, flip it over, and then drop back into the class. Don’t make a big deal about it. Just do it. There, isn’t that better? Your hands don’t hate you anymore.

6) Grab a yoga strap. It’s looking pretty grim. You’ve forgotten your towel. Your shirt is completely soaked through. The mat has already been flipped to no avail! Your hands are squirking around like two angry oil wrestlers. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Grab a yoga strap and lay it across the top of your mat, running a few inches parallel to the front edge. When in downward dog, place the base of your palms below the strap, and the knuckles above it. It ain’t fancy, but it will definitely save your sweaty asana.

7) Clean up after yourself! If you really want to be that guy, I suggest leaving a few puddles on the floor after class. Bonus points if you don’t hang or wipe down a borrowed mat. Soon enough, you’ll be getting noticed for all the wrong reasons. Proper studio etiquette prevails here. They don’t swim in your pool, so… don’t sweat… on their mat. Yeah.

8) Use your own equipment. The idea of rolling around in sweat can be a little unsettling—especially if it’s not yours. Using your own mat has many benefits, ranging from hygiene to function. Most loaner mats get slick after a few drops—go buy yourself a fancy non-slip magic carpet (see #4), and see how your practice benefits..

9) Keep practicing and eventually it won’t matter. So what if you sweat profusely? Big deal. Yoga isn’t about how you look; it’s about how you feel. These tips should help you feel a lot better once the heat rises and the sweat starts to fall. Whether your body eventually sweats less or you end up getting used to that perpetual shine, the most important thing to remember is to keep going. A little sweat can go a long way.

Meditation Beats Anxiety By Activating Certain Brain Regions, Study Finds

Mindfulness meditation — nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and emotions — is known for its anxiety-busting powers, and now scientists are getting a better understanding of why it has this impact in the brain.

Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that meditation has effects on activity of particular brain regions, namely the anterior cingulate cortex — which controls thinking and emotions — and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — which controls worrying. Meditation seems to increase activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and decrease activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.

“Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings,” study researcher Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at the medical center, said in a statement. “Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.”

The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, included 15 people who had normal levels of everyday anxiety (with no history of anxiety disorders) and who had never meditated before. The participants underwent brain scans to track their brain activity at the start of the study, and also had their anxiety levels measured, before taking classes to learn how to do mindfulness meditation.

After the training — which consisted of four 20-minute classes — researchers measured the participants’ anxiety levels again, and also had them undergo brain scans again.

Researchers found that anxiety levels decreased by up to 39 percent after the mindfulness meditation training, and that those decreases in anxiety seemed to be linked with the activation and deactivation of particular brain regions.

“These findings provide evidence that mindfulness meditation attenuates anxiety through mechanisms involved in the regulation of self-referential thought processes,” the researchers wrote in the study.

 

Yoga Sharpens Your Brain

You know that yoga is good for your body—it increases flexibility, tones your muscles, massages your internal organs, and even helps your body detox—but now new research is showing it may be seriously good for your brain, too! In fact, it might sharpen your brain even more than other exercises.

According to research by the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at the University of Illinois, a single 20-minute Hatha yoga session can improve brain function better than moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise.

In the study, researchers measured the reaction times and accuracy on cognitive tasks of 30 female participants after they’d done yoga for 20 minutes, and after exercising for 20 minutes on a treadmill. After doing yoga, the women were better able to focus and process information quickly and more accurately. They were also better able to learn, hold and update pieces of information than after the aerobic exercise.

The reason? Breathing! According to Professor Neha Gothe, lead researcher: “The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath….Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.” The breathing and meditation also helps calm anxiety and reduce stress, which can also help cognitive function.