Meditation or Vacation?

Research shows that meditation has a positive effect on your mental health, helping to improve mood and lower stress levels. But a 2016 study has found that the practice may also have quantifiable physical health benefits, too. In fact, when compared with the de-stressing health benefits of a relaxing vacation, meditation’s effects may be even stronger and longer-lasting.

For the study, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School recruited 94 healthy women, aged 30-60 years. Thirty of these women were experienced meditators who had enrolled in a six-day meditation retreat at a resort in California. The remaining 64 women were not regular meditators and half of these women were randomly selected to simply enjoy the vacation, while the other half followed a meditation training program run by the Chopra Center for Well Being. The meditation training involved classes in mantra meditation, yoga and self-reflection, all designed by best-selling author and spiritual guru Dr. Deepak Chopra, although he was not part of the study.

For all three groups, researchers collected blood samples and self-reported wellness surveys immediately before and after the retreat as well as one month and 10 months later. They examined more than 20,000 genes from each participant to understand what biological changes were occurring in the body.

Researchers found that all three groups showed some differences in their molecular makeup after a week at the resort. The most significant changes in their “post-vacation biology” were in molecular pathways related to stress response and immune system function.

Evaluations of the participants’ self-reported wellness surveys found that the women who learned meditation techniques at the retreat reported fewer symptoms of depression and less stress than their non-meditating peers. They also maintained these benefits for a longer period than the women who did not meditate. Studies have shown that these mental health benefits have direct physical health benefits, too, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate, improved digestion, more physical energy, and a more robust immune system.

“Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn’t strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function,” said study co-author Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, a neurology professor at Harvard University and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a statement.

One thing that wasn’t clear was whether the women who learned to meditate continued to do so after the retreat or if the mental and physical benefits they reported were the direct result of their one week of practice. But either way, the benefits of meditation were evident long after the initial sessions.

Meditation can change your genes

On top of helping to ease stress and symptoms of depression, another study discovered that meditation can even help lower blood pressure.

A 2018 Harvard study analyzed 24 people who suffer from high blood pressure. They attended weakly relaxation sessions with a trainer and listened to a meditation CD at home for eight weeks. The study found that meditating for just 15 minutes day (for at least eight weeks) alters the expression of the genes that regulate inflammation, glucose metabolism, circadian rhythms and immune regulatory pathways.

“With the new guidelines, patients and physicians alike are going to be more and more interested in non-drug therapies that might control blood pressure or potentially augment their medications,” Dr. Randall Zusman told NPR.

In other words, daily meditation can be beneficial for your physical and mental health.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

Is there a meditation technique that is right for you?

The data is in, and meditation works; not only does it help us live happier, less stressful lives, but it has measurable effects on physical health too. But if you’ve tried and (feel like you’ve) failed at meditating, it might be because you haven’t found the right meditation type for you. Below, you’ll find seven different ways “in” to a meditation practice; the benefits of each type are similar once you are practicing regularly — whether you find your way into meditation via walking and chanting, taking a class from a Transcendental Meditation teacher, or via meditation paired with your existing faith.

The most important part of meditation is not doing it a certain way, wearing particular clothes while doing it, or being in a specific place — or whatever your preconception of the “right” way to meditate is. It’s about finding what works with your life. Unlike a spin class, there are no rules you have to follow (though it’s useful to get a grounding in how other people meditate). There is only the regular practice and sticking with it, day-by-day. Think of meditation more like making a positive, life-long shift to a healthy eating, rather than a specific diet program (with celebrity endorsement and a thick book) that you follow for a month and then abandon. A truly beneficial meditation practice will take time and persistence.

So check out the styles of meditation below, and try them out — play with what works for you, and what doesn’t. Don’t be rigid about what meditation is, or looks like, or what you think it’s going to feel like. Ask yourself questions: Do you like to move, or does stillness work better for you? How about vocalizations? Do you want to focus on something or nothing? Your particular way into meditation may be different, but the stress relief, reduced anger, feelings of well-being, lowered blood pressure, and other benefits are available to everyone.
Focused meditation is an umbrella term for any kind of meditation that includes focus on some aspect of the five senses, though visualizations are the most popular. Focusing on an image of a flower, a flame, or moving water are all ways to keep the mind gently focused so you are less likely to become distracted. You can also try concentrating on the feel of something — your fingers against each other, the way your breath feels moving in and out of your body, or the alignment of your spine. Focusing on a simple sound (a gentle gong, a bell, or music) or sounds from nature are another option.

Guided meditation is a focused meditation that is led by someone other than yourself and usually includes one or more of the techniques in focus meditation, above. You will get led through breathing instructions and some kind of visualization, body scan, or sound, or perhaps a mantra (see below).

Spiritual meditation is interchangeable with what most of us understand as prayer. If you are already part of a spiritual tradition, this may be an easier way into meditation, because you have already been practicing some elements of it. You can try it as an extension of what you already do in your place of worship if being in the church, sanctuary, mosque, hall or synagogue helps you dive into a quieter, more reflective state, or you can conjure up that feeling at home or in another place. Start with the words you have heard or said yourself, but instead of stopping at the end of a prayer or song, keep sitting quietly. You can ask a question and listen for an answer — sometimes people feel that an answer comes from outside of them; or you can enumerate what you are grateful for. Use your experience of prayer to access that quiet, meditative mind space.

Mantra meditation is when you use a sound or a set of sounds, repetitively, to enter and stay within the meditative state. It may seem like a contradiction to make noise when meditating, because many people have the idea that meditation equals silence, but that’s not the case at all, and mantras have a long history within the tradition. Of course, you can chant quietly, or even whisper your set of words, draw them out, make them more sing-songy, or even quite loud. You can say them in your head and maintain outer silence. You can choose a word or words in any language: (Peace and love and happiness, for example), or a sound like “Ohm.” You can make up sounds or words if you like or take them from another language; the sound or words you choose are really up to you and are simply a way to prevent distracting thoughts.

Transcendental Meditation (often abbreviated as TM by practitioners) is the type that’s most likely been studied by scientists when you hear about the various physical and mental benefits to meditation. With over 5 million practitioners worldwide, it is considered the most popular form of meditation, with the bonus being that it is usually easy to find free or low-cost classes in most places. It is a little more formalized than some of the other meditation types mentioned here, but it useful for beginning or exploring meditation if you are new to it. According to their site, TM is: “… a simple, natural, effortless procedure practiced 20 minutes twice each day while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. It’s not a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle.”

Movement meditations are exactly what they sound like; instead of sitting quietly, you get to move around the room, the house, a woodsy path, or the garden (or wherever) — usually in a relatively simple and calming way. Walking meditation, most types of yoga, gardening, and even basic housecleaning tasks can be moving meditations. This meditation type is great for people who already sit all day at work and want to move and meditate when not at a desk, and for those people who find sitting still to be a distraction from being able to meditate at all.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that is an ongoing part of life, rather than a separate activity. A great way to address stress in the moment it is happening, and over time becomes more like a mental skill than a time separate from the rest of life. It can be easier to get into a mindful state of mind if one has already been practicing meditation separately.

Credit: Starre Varten

5 calming quotes about meditation.

Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day” ― Deepak Chopra

“Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.” ― George MacDonald

“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

“Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Looking at beauty in the world, is the first step of purifying the mind.” ― Amit Ray

 

Mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain

You’ve heard how good mindfulness is for you, but did you know it helps you grow new brain cells, changes how your brain functions on a day-to-day level, and even resets your perception of pain?

Various studies have drawn the above conclusions, adding to the growing pile of evidence as to why mindfulness meditation works so well for so many people in so many different ways. It starts with neuroscientists’ increasing understanding that the brain is plastic — which means that, unlike your thigh bone, which grows to a certain size and stays that way for the rest of your life, your brain can and does change as you age. That means it’s possible to literally change how you think, even in middle- or old-age. And changing how you think can meaningfully change the way you perceive stress, pain, negative emotions, and even your perspective on life.

This kind of research is now possible due to the increasing availability (and slow-but-sure cost lowering) of various types of brain scans. It’s now feasible for researchers to do brain scans before and after mindfulness meditation sessions, or long- or short-term workshops. And from those scans they can see exactly how and where the brains in a variety of subjects change. If they see similar things changing in the brains of a variety of test subjects (older, younger, male, female, et cetera) researchers then can find a link between those changes and the practice of mindfulness.

Below are a few of the most interesting studies and what they have found.

Reduce pain

In a before-and-after look at the brains of subjects who had regularly meditated for just four days, researchers behind this 2011 study found that the perception of pain was dramatically reduced: How much? Mindfulness meditation “…significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.” This was, according to researchers, due to increased activity in areas of the brain involved with regulating the understanding of pain signals, the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. In addition to actually feeling less pain, the pain that people felt (what researchers called “pain unpleasantness”) was less intense. That’s because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated— this part of the brain is understood to frame (and reframe) the “contextual evaluation of sensory events” — so pain may still have been present, but it didn’t actually feel so painful.

Grow more brain

A Harvard Medical School study that looked at the brains of 17 study participants before and after an 8-week mindfulness program found that you can actually grow more brain in certain places by doing mindfulness meditation, which sounds amazing: “Analyses…confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR [mindfulness meditation] group compared to the controls.” The study authors go on in detail: “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Build more brain connections

A 2011 study from UCLA looked specifically at female subjects, and measured the brains (via fcMRI) of two groups — those who did mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks and those who didn’t. They found that among the meditators, there were better connections between the parts of the brains linked with sight and sound, as well as greater focus in those areas. What does that mean? “These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Modulate emotional response

A 2013 study via the University of Zurich involved giving a short mindfulness session to 24 people while 22 others (the controls) didn’t participate. Researchers found that those who had been given the mindfulness session were less reactive when shown negative imagery. Through fMRIs, the researchers could see that there was simply less stimulation in the parts of the brain involved in processing emotions (the amygdala, and the parahippocampal gyrus) in the meditators, compared to the controls, who got more upset. According to the study abstract, “…more mindful individuals required less regulatory resources to attenuate emotional arousal. Our findings suggest emotion regulatory effects of a short mindfulness intervention on a neurobiological level.” Being able to keep emotionally calm (or at least calmer) in difficult situations can lead to lower stress levels and is physically healthier, since stress hormones are reduced.

credit: Starre Vartan

5 ways being thankful can improve your life

Some Thanksgiving traditions are best in small doses, like pie binges, chair naps and televised parade coverage. But thanks to a group of scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, the holiday’s namesake spirit of gratitude is quickly outgrowing its November context, fed by research that points to wide-ranging health benefits from a steady diet of thankfulness.

The Greater Good Science Center, based at UC-Berkeley, has been studying “the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being” for 12 years, including a recent study on the science of gratitude. That project aims to explain how feeling thankful affects human health, eventually yielding evidence-based practices to be used in schools, workplaces and medical settings.

“Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions,” UC-Davis psychologist and gratitude expert Robert Emmons writes on the GGSC website. “Despite the fact that it forms the foundation of social life in many other cultures, in America, we usually don’t give it much thought — with a notable exception of one day, Thanksgiving.”

The GGSC recently awarded $10,000 grants to several research projects on gratitude (for which the recipients were surely grateful), and in 2014 will relaunch the online gratitude journal Thnx4.org. The group is also planning a public event that would “help bridge the research-practice gap.” In the meantime, here’s a closer look at some potential benefits year-round gratitude can bring:

1. Less stress, better moods

Grateful people tend to be happier, according to research cited by the GGSC. A 2003 study used a questionnaire to test “dispositional gratitude,” linking it to several measures of subjective well-being and reporting that “grateful thinking improved mood.” A 2010 study tied gratitude to reduced anxiety and depression, stating it’s “strongly related to well-being, however defined, and this link may be unique and causal.” It also noted the potential for gratitude exercises in clinical psychology.

2. Less pain, more gain

Beyond helping us exorcise anxiety, gratitude might also help us exercise. It “encourages us to exercise more and take better care of our health,” the GGSC says, and research by Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough suggests it contributes to a wide range of physical health benefits, including a stronger immune system, reduced disease symptoms and lower blood pressure. It can even make people “less bothered by aches and pains,” the GGSC adds.

3. Better sleep

A good night’s sleep can make anyone thankful, but a 2009 study found the reverse is true, too. Grateful people get more hours of sleep per night, fall asleep more quickly and feel more refreshed upon waking. “This is the first study to show that a positive trait is related to good sleep quality above the effect of other personality traits,” the study’s authors wrote, adding it’s “also the first to show … gratitude is related to sleep and to explain why this occurs, suggesting future directions for research and novel clinical implications.” As the GGSC puts it, “to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

4. Stronger relationships

Expressing gratitude to a relationship partner — whether a close friend, colleague or significant other — “enhances one’s perception of the relationship’s communal strength,” according to a 2010 study. Feeling thankful for a friend’s generosity or a spouse’s patience helps you appreciate the relationship’s mutual give-and-take, as long as gratitude doesn’t mutate into feelings of indebtedness. “Although indebtedness may maintain external signals of relationship engagement,” the authors of another study wrote in 2010, “gratitude had uniquely predictive power in relationship promotion, perhaps acting as a booster shot for the relationship.”

5. Resilience

Misfortune itself is rarely cause for thanks, but Emmons says a broader sense of gratitude — religious or not — comes from learning to take nothing for granted. “Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times,” he writes for the GGSC. “The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.” Even among war veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, a 2006 study found that dispositional gratitude predicted things like daily self-esteem, “daily intrinsically motivating activity” and percentage of pleasant days “over and above” the severity of PTSD.

credit:Russel Mclendon

The nuns in this Wisconsin convent have been praying nonstop for 137 years

There are winning streaks and losing streaks. There are running streaks, lucky streaks, straight-A streaks and selling streaks. But did you know there are also praying streaks? At a small convent in western Wisconsin, nuns have been praying nonstop for the past 137 years.

The nuns at the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse have been praying continually since 11 a.m. Aug. 1, 1878. They pray night and day for the ill, the suffering and anyone who sends a prayer request. The nuns haven’t kept track of the exact number of people they’ve prayed for since 1878, but they estimate that they’ve prayed for at least 150,000 in the last decade alone.

And they’re not alone in their pursuit. In 1997, the sisters began asking for prayer helpers due to dwindling numbers at the convent. Today, there are about 180 laypeople who help the 100 nuns continue their round-the-clock prayers.

Known as perpetual Eucharistic adoration in the Catholic religion, constant praying dates back to the 13th century in France. Several Catholic convents have kept up that tradition over the centuries. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are relative newcomers to the tradition, but they are fervently making up for lost time. Over the past 137 years, the nuns have continued praying through floods, a flu outbreak, snowstorms and even a fire at the property next door.

The prayer requests keep coming in person and via phone calls, emails and online forms. So the sisters keep on praying.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Sister Sarah Hennessey said that with all the substitutes and prayer partners, the convent has no trouble keeping up the nonstop prayers. But every now and again there’s a hole in the schedule that the nuns fill by simply continuing to pray past their allotted time.

“If it’s 11 o’clock at night and it’s my hour and another sister doesn’t show up, I can’t just go to bed,” said Sister Hennessey. “You’re like, ‘It’s 137 years — I have to stay awake.'”

Credit: Jenn Savedge

7 steps to a longer life

Earlier this summer, I attended a conference on “life extension” at Cambridge University in the U.K. Scientists from around the world had descended on this small English city to discuss ways of making immortality a reality.

Some claimed that we could be genetically engineered to make us live forever, while others insisted that progressively replacing worn-out body parts with new ones grown in a lab was the way forward.

Although the field of human life extension is making rapid progress, it struck me that the scientists at the conference had missed one of the most obvious ways of extending human life: mindfulness meditation.

Although mindfulness extends human life by reducing anxiety, stress and depression, it also lengthens subjective life span. That is, because mindfulness helps us live “in the moment” rather than trapped inside a foggy daydream, we fully experience more of life, and therefore our life span is effectively increased.

Let me explain. Without realizing it, most of us spend much of our time trapped inside the “busy-ness” of daily life. We are effectively unconscious to the world and sleepwalk through our days. Being locked inside such busyness can erode a vast chunk of our life by stealing our time. Take a moment to look at your own life:

Do you find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present?
Does it seem as if you are “running on automatic,” that is, without much awareness of what you’re doing?
Do you rush through activities without being really attentive to them?
Do you get so focused on the goal you want to achieve that you lose touch with what you are doing right now to get there?
Do you find yourself preoccupied with the future or the past?
In other words, are you driven by the daily routines that force you to live in your head rather than in your life?
Now extrapolate this to the life you have left to you. If you are 30 years old, then, with a life expectancy of around 80, you have 50 years left. But if you are only truly conscious and aware of every moment for perhaps two out of 16 hours a day (which is not unreasonable), your life expectancy is only another six years and three months. You’ll probably spend more time in meetings with your boss!

If a friend told you that she had just been diagnosed with a terminal disease that will kill her in six years, you would be filled with grief and try to comfort her. Yet, without realizing it, you may be daydreaming along such a path yourself.

If you could double the number of hours that you were truly alive each day, then, in effect, you would be doubling your life expectancy. It would be like living to 130. Now imagine tripling or quadrupling the time you are truly alive. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — literally — on expensive drugs and unproven vitamin cocktails to gain an extra few years of life; others are funding research in universities to try to extend the human life span. But you can achieve the same effect by learning to live mindfully — waking up to your life.

Quantity isn’t everything, of course. But those who practice mindfulness are also less anxious and stressed, as well as more relaxed, fulfilled and energized, so not only does life seem longer as it slows down and you begin to “show up for it,” but it seems happier, too.

In our book “Mindfulness,” Mark Williams and I map out a path to living a happier and more harmonious life using mindfulness meditation. The technique is based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which professor Williams developed at the U.K.’s Oxford University and with his colleagues at the universities of Cambridge and Toronto.

Although the full program lasts eight weeks, here are seven steps that will help get you started:

1. Go for a walk. Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. If you really want to feel alive, go for a walk in the wind or rain!

2. Take time to breathe. Whenever you feel tired, angry, stressed, anxious or unhappy, take a three-minute breathing space. It acts as a bridge between the longer formal meditations in our book and the demands of daily life. See it as a breath of fresh air.

3. Change chairs. Stress tends to drive us in ever-decreasing circles. It’s easy to end up like a hamster trapped in its wheel, forever running but never getting anywhere. You can step outside such stressful cycles by consciously breaking some of your most ingrained habits. So why not see if you can notice which chairs you normally sit on at home, in a café or bar, or at work (during meetings, for example). Make a deliberate choice to try another chair, or to alter the position of the chair you use. You’ll be surprised by how different the world looks and feels.

Mindfulness and appreciating the here and now
4. Appreciate the here and now. Happiness is looking at the same things with different eyes. Life only happens here, at this very moment. Tomorrow and yesterday are no more than thoughts. So make the best of it.

Which activities, things or people in your life make you feel good? Can you give additional appreciative attention and time to these activities? Consciously write them down and gently resolve to pay them more attention. Can you pause for a moment when pleasant moments occur? Help yourself pause by noticing:

What body sensations you feel at these moments?
What thoughts are around?
What feelings are here?
5. Set up a mindfulness bell. Pick a few ordinary activities from your daily life that you can turn into “mindfulness bells,” that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. Consider turning these moments in your day into bells:
When preparing food. Any food preparation is a great opportunity for mindfulness — vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Focus on the feel of the knife as it slices through the different textures of different vegetables, or the smell released as each vegetable is chopped.
When crossing the street. Become a model citizen and use the pedestrian signals as an opportunity to stand quietly and focus on your breath, rather than an opportunity to try to beat the lights.
When listening. Notice when you are not listening, when you start to think of something else, such as what you are going to say in response. Come back to actually listening.
6. Do the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation. Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. For this reason, the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation is my personal favorite; it elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this — deep in your heart — then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes. (You can download the meditation from franticworld.com.)
7. Visit the movies. Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies, but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say, 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only once you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected, the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.

Most of us only go to see a film when there’s something specific we want to watch. If you turn up at a set time and then choose what to see, you may discover that the experience will be totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally have considered. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness and choice.

And when you watch the film, forget about all this and simply enjoy yourself!

Credit: Danny Penman

Maybe we don’t need so much sleep after all

The only thing more worrisome than our lack of sleep is how stressed out we are by our lack of sleep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, insufficient sleep is a public health problem. The agency goes so far as to link lack of sleep to health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes and even “motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors.”

It’s no wonder we’re worried about not sleeping the recommended eight hours each night. But a new study has found that maybe we don’t really need as much sleep as we thought.

The modern theory on sleep deprivation is that healthy amounts of sleep went down the toilet along with the invention of the lightbulb. Once artificial light came along, people no longer listened to natural cues about when it was time for bed. Today’s explosion of electronic gadgets and round-the-clock work schedules has exacerbated the problem.

But a new study published in the journal Current Biology took a look at the sleep patterns of three communities that serve as good examples of what life was like in the developed world before lights and distractions. Researchers evaluated the sleep habits of people in three tribes — the Hadza and San tribes in Africa, and the Tsimané people in South America — that currently live without electricity or any other modern electronic innovations that have been linked to poor sleep. And guess what? They sleep even fewer hours each night than most Americans, yet they don’t suffer from any issues of obesity, diabetes or occupational errors.

Researchers found that the people in these hunter-gatherer communities were relatively fit and healthy. Even without lightbulbs to keep them awake, they stayed up three to four hours past sunset often with only a small community fire to provide light and warmth. On most days they rise at least an hour before the sun. On average, the members of these tribes sleep for about six and a half hours each night — less than the average American.

Perhaps most importantly, the members of these tribes were not stressed about sleep. Despite sleeping less than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, they did not worry about their lack of sleep. And while chronic insomnia affects 20 percent to 30 percent of Americans, only 2 percent of the hunter-gatherers had trouble sleeping. The San and the Tsimané did not even have words for sleep problems in their languages.

The takeaway from the study is that we should all quit worrying about the numbers and focus on getting the amount of sleep we need to wake up feeling refreshed.

credit: Jenn Savedge

What is hypnobirthing?

Advocates of hypnobirthing prize the technique’s emphasis on getting out of the body’s way during childbirth and allowing it to perform its natural processes.

Today, more than 50 percent of women giving birth in hospitals choose to have an epidural during childbirth, a testament to just how many women are terrified to go through labor and delivery naturally. Sure, many hospitals recommend new moms take Lamaze classes before their babies are born, but much of that education flies out the window when the first really painful contraction hits. Another lesser known birthing method, hypnobirthing, could help those women who’d like to have a natural childbirth but are just too scared. The method is based on knowledge that fully accepts and acknowledges those fears.

Hypnobirthing operates under the concept that muscles under tension create the experience of pain; conversely muscles that are in a relaxed state do not. “It’s like when you lift your arm without holding anything in your hand – it doesn’t hurt,” explains Rivkah Estrin, childbirth educator and postpartum doula, who herself practiced hypnobirthing successfully though five deliveries. “But if you’re holding something extremely heavy in your hand and then you try to lift your arm, then you feel it.”

So how does hypnobirthing work?

The method allows you, over the course of your pregnancy, to practice relaxation techniques that allow your uterus to function as it’s intended to. “The first part of the process is just about releasing your own fears and understanding the mechanics of the labor process,” Estrin says. “The more you know and the more you educate yourself, the more confident and relaxed you are.”

You can either take a local class or if one isn’t offered near you, buy the book “HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method” together with the guided meditation CDs. “You practice every night — either by doing guided meditations with your partner or alone. The more you use those meditations, visualizations, and affirmations, the more you end up really believing them, and the more empowered you become,” Estrin says.

Then, during labor itself, you create the environment that is most calming for you. For Estrin, it was dimmed lights with candles lit. She found that place within herself where she was most relaxed and allowed herself to breathe through a contraction — or a surge as it’s referred to in hypnobirthing. “I felt pressure but no pain,” Estrin says. “I still feel like that labor and delivery was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”

There are two kinds of hypnobirthing — the Mongan method (named for Marie “Mickey” Mongan, who pioneered hypnobirthing) and HypnoBabies, which uses the same method for hypnosis used by people preparing for surgery without anesthesia (called hypno-anesthesia).

What advice would Estrin give to new moms interested in learning more about the method? “Absolutely pursue it, learn about it, educate yourself, and become your best advocate,” she says. “It’s about advocating for yourself. Don’t be afraid of asking questions or changing providers, who will allow to have the birth be what you want. It’s with any learned skill in life — once you’re educated and empowered, the fear really goes away and you focus on what you can do to assist your body in its natural process, rather than get in the way.”

Credit: Chanie Kirschner

5,000 year old holy tree persists as a place of enlightenment.

The sacred banyan tree in the town of Jyotisar is said to be more than 5,000 years old. According to Hindu teachings, the god Krishna delivered the messages of the scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita to the warrior prince Arjuna before the battle depicted in the broader epic text, the Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita contains the Hindu doctrines of Karma and Dharma.

Local tradition says that the banyan tree is actually an offshoot of the original. The current tree has persisted for centuries and is visited by thousands of people every year. But the Times of India found that two groups are fighting over control of the holy site and the tree is suffering as a result. The Hindu Mission, which has cared for the tree for many years, and the Kurukshetra Development Board (KDB), which represents the district in which Jyotisar is located, have gone to court to see which organization will retain control of the tree.

In the meantime, the Times reports that the holy tree is suffering. “The area surrounding the tree has been covered with marble pavement and it can’t draw nutrients for its growth,” the paper reports. “Fancy lights and lamps are fitted with nails on the tree for lighting during night and big bells are tied all over it.” A nightly light and music show recreates events from the Mahabharata for tourists visiting the tree.

In addition, holy threads tied to the branches by visitors seeking wish fulfillment have covered the lower branches, impeding their health. The paper also found that caretakers have unscientifically pruned many branches “without any expert advice.”

An agricultural scientist contacted by the paper said that old branches would be replaced if they were pruned properly and that the tree should be periodically treated for pests and diseases.

Pandit Sukhpal of the Hindu Mission says scientific preservation methods would create “problems” for the holy area. He also said the KDB wants to establish a fee on anyone who visits the site.

The KDB has landscaped the area around the tree in recent years, adding a mango-shaped lake, bathing ghats, a restaurant and flowering bushes.

In addition to the marble pavements under the tree, a marble chariot representing Krishna and a Shiva temple can be found beneath its branches.

Banyan trees play major roles in Hinduism and Buddhism. The god Krishna is said to reside in the leaf of the banyan tree. In the Bhagavad Gita he says, “There is a banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down, and the Vedic hymns are its leaves. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.” The Vedas are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Buddha is said to have received enlightenment under a variety of banyan tree in the region now known as Bodhi.