protesting yoga in schools doesn’t make sense

Yoga is pretty easy to make fun of (plenty of yogis mock themselves), or to simply dismiss as a fad (its popularity and ubiquity will certainly be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the early years of this century), but for the most part, it doesn’t have a reputation as a source of disagreement — being banned or bringing parents together to “stamp that evil seed out” (a la rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s). Yet yoga, which seems to make sense as a way to calm ever-more-anxious students’ nerves, and maybe keep a few pounds off kids who are now officially fighting an obesity epidemic, may be taken to court by parents in Encinitas, Calif., which is near San Diego. The parents’ beef? They see the stretching and strengthening routines of Ashtanga yoga as some kind of religious indoctrination.

“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” attorney Dean Broyles, who represents the concerned parents, told the North Country Times.

The superintendent for the schools, Tim Baird, says he expects the classes, which are in nine schools currently (and set to expand to more via a grant of more than $500,000 from an Ashtanga yoga association) to continue, and his decision to bring yoga to the students to be upheld.

“Yoga is a worldwide exercise regime utilized by people of many different faiths,” he said. “Yoga is part of our mainstream culture.”

As a young atheist, I was sensitive to the plethora of Christian messages that were part of the common culture at my smallish public high school in New York state — enough so that I complained several times to the dean of students about the most egregious rule-breaking the school engaged in on behalf of Christian student groups, because I believed then (and I still do) that religion and spirituality are private concerns, to be kept in the home and places of worship. One of the reasons that I have left some yoga classes is because I felt I was being preached to about spirituality, and I left that behind when I left the Episcopalian church when I was 13. But I also know that yoga can be effectively taught without any religious or spiritual messages at all (which is actually how I practice it, and how it is being taught at Encinitas and at schools all over the U.S.).

I see it like this: some people walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain — which is a traditional pilgrimage route for the faithful that ends at a spectacular church at Spain’s Atlantic coast. I have also walked much of this ancient route; as an atheist I appreciated its history, its natural beauty, and the quiet charm that is all part of northern Spain’s DNA. Hiking the Camino doesn’t make me a Christian any more than doing yoga poses makes me a Hindu. Dancing the Hula doesn’t make me a native Hawaiian (I have done that too), nor does eating matzo ball soup make me a Jew.

Just doing yoga doesn’t make anyone a Hindu, or even more likely to become a Hindu. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of America’s 20 million yoga practitioners haven’t switched religions. Yoga can just be exercise —in fact this atheist wouldn’t have it any other way.

credit: Starr Vartan

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

Phallus-shaped mushroom can instantly trigger an intense female orgasm

Hawaiian folklore speaks of an elusive, rare mushroom, found growing only on recent lava flows, that is sought after by women for its strong aphrodisiac properties. One whiff, it is said, can instantly induce a powerful female orgasm.

Naturally, science had to investigate. And it turns out, the mushroom is real. Yes, it actually works.

Back in 2001, researchers John Halliday and Noah Soule set out to collect and test bright orange-colored mushrooms found growing on 600-10,000 year old lava flows on the Big Island of Hawaii. The fungus is labeled as a Dictyophora species, a group of mushrooms which are, perhaps appropriately, known for being phallus-shaped. The mushroom’s bright color and the fact that it grows on lava flows just makes it all the more sexier.

The study, which appeared in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, was the first to describe the morphology and chemistry of the mushroom. It also included a smell test whereby half of all female participants were recorded having experienced spontaneous orgasms while sniffing the mushroom.

Sound too good to be true? Well, there is a catch. While the mushroom’s odor produced a heightened arousal in most of the female participants, men who took the smell test found the odor to be absolutely disgusting. The aroma, in and of itself, was described as being “fetid,” which means it won’t exactly make for a very appealing cologne, in spite of its remarkable ability.

Researchers also discovered what they believe to be the mushroom’s orgasm trigger: hormone-like compounds found in the spore mass that may have similarities to human neurotransmitters released during sex. Thus, the reason the mushroom can induce sexual arousal despite smelling like rotting flesh simply comes down to chemistry.

The sexual aftereffects of the mushroom’s stink are likely just a coincidence. The reason for its foul smell is to attract insects, which transport the spores and allow the mushroom to reproduce.

There might be something to the aphrodisiac quality of the mushroom after all, though. Some other kinds of fungi are known to contain pheromones which can attract animals. For instance, androstenone, a human and pig pheromone, can be found in truffles– which is why boars are so compelled to dig them up. Perhaps the Hawaiian Dictyophora has evolved a similar strategy, though more research will need to be performed to know for sure.

credit: Bryan Nelson


7 diet gurus who died of poor health

We commonly hear stories of people whose health defies the odds: the chain-smoking grannies who live to 100, the skinny dudes who pack away unreasonable amounts of calories without gaining an ounce. But often it’s the reverse that prevails; the physically virtuous who drop dead way before their time. And it’s never more surprising than when such a fate befalls the very people have become famous for espousing good health.

With a life expectancy in the United States for males at 76.3 years and 81.1 years for females (according to the CDC), it’s confounding to discover so many diet gurus who have succumbed years ahead of the national average. And this isn’t to suggest that their practices and philosophies contributed to their deaths in any way — who’s to say where nature tramples nurture, so to speak – but the irony is hard to deny. We don’t suggest throwing in the towel on healthy eating based on the unfortunate deaths of the diet gurus listed here, but it does provide some food for thought.

1. James Fixx
The author of the 1977 runaway bestseller, “The Complete Book of Running,” Fixx is often credited with starting the American running craze. Fixx ran 10 miles a day in addition to other vigorous exercise, and was described as being in fine physical condition by friends — yet he had a fatal heart attack at the age of 52 while jogging near his home in Vermont. Although he showed no symptoms, autopsy results revealed that his left circumflex coronary artery was almost totally blocked. About 80 percent of the blood flow in his right coronary artery was blocked and half of the left anterior descending was blocked in places. Although he had a family history of heart disease, his problems had gone undiagnosed by a physician.

2. Michel Montignac
The famous French doctor originally developed the Montignac diet to help himself lose weight. The diet went on to become the backbone of his best-selling books and a chain of restaurants and stores promoting his nutritional regimen. His research focused on the glycemic index and the distinction between good and bad carbohydrates. (For example, whole grains are good; refined flour is bad.) His 1987 book, “Eat Yourself Slim,” sold 17 million copies in several countries, and his work and theories were the inspiration behind the South Beach Diet. Montignac died of prostate cancer at the age of 66.

3. Nathan Pritikin
Perhaps the granddaddy of all diet gurus, few names are as associated with the health revolution as Nathan Pritikin. The inventor with a passion for nutrition and fitness was one of the first to promote the connection between diet and heart disease, which in the 1970s was a surprisingly novel idea. His bestselling books, which promoted a low-fat diet, his media appearances and namesake longevity centers have been responsible for guiding many followers into good health. And although his diet and exercise regimens brought him into excellent cardiovascular health, they were not enough to combat the leukemia that ravaged his body; Pritikin committed suicide in his hospital bed at the age of 69.

4. Paavo Airola

The European born and based Airola was a nutritionist and naturopathic doctor with a background in biochemistry and natural healing. Airola promoted natural healing through a diet of nutritious, whole foods and holistic medicine. He lectured extensively across the globe and spent time as a visiting lecturer at prestigious universities including Stanford University Medical School. Airola served as president of the International Academy of Biological Medicine, and authored 14 books, two of which became international bestsellers. The American Academy of Public Affairs went as far as to issue Airola the Award of Merit for his book on arthritis. This brilliant man was felled by a stroke at the age of 64.

5. Robert Atkins
Creator of one of the world’s most famous diets, the Atkins Nutritional Approach, aka the Atkins Diet, Robert Atkins basically gave the okay for bacon lovers to pig out on all things protein, condemning carbohydrates to the hall of dietary shame. Dieters swore by the program and vegetarians shuddered. Meanwhile, Atkins himself was revealed after his death to have had a “history of serious heart problems including myocardial infarction (a heart attack), congestive heart failure and hypertension,” which has been suggested by some to lead to his death, caused by a fall on the ice. He died at the age of 72.

6. Robert E. Kowalski

The author of The New York Times best-selling book (which was on the list for a remarkable 115 weeks) “The NEW 8-Week Cholesterol Cure” as well as “The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure Cookbook,” “Cholesterol & Children,” “8 Steps to a Healthy Heart,” “The Type II Diabetes Diet Book” and “The Blood Pressure Cure: 8 Weeks to Lower Blood Pressure Without Prescription Drugs” died at the age of 65 from a pulmonary embolism.

7. Adelle Davis

Born in 1904, Adelle Davis, was one of the country’s best-known early nutritionists and contended that almost any disease could be prevented by proper diet. The visionary author penned four best-selling books: “Let’s Cook It Right,” “Let’s Have Healthy Children,” “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Eat Right To Keep Fit.” Although she received criticism for some of her more far-out ideas, her enthusiasm for health food led her to become an early advocate for the need to exercise, the dangers of vitamin deficiencies as well as the need to avoid hydrogenated fat, saturated fat and excess sugar consumption — all of which remain standard guidelines today.

Davis succumbed to cancer at the age of 70. While some consider her death premature based on the current national average, others say she lived a relatively long life for a woman born in 1904. She had maintained that cancer was a result of the inadequacies of the American diet, and upon discovering her illness, expressed hope that her diagnosis would not disappoint the many people who took her good advice to heart.

credit:Melissa Breyer

Yoga effective against arthritis pain as new study shows.

Those suffering from the debilitating pain of rheumatoid arthritis might want to consider purchasing a yoga mat. A recent study published in the Journal of Rheumatology discovered that people with arthritis who practice yoga regularly stand to reap the benefits of reduced joint pain and depression and increased flexibility and energy. As the authors note, this news is especially important in shattering the myth that yoga is not appropriate for those with sensitive joints.

“I think the study is more evidence that, in fact, that’s not true,” one of the study’s authors, Dr. Clifton O. Bingham III, director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, told Time.

The study, called the “largest, most rigorously conducted, randomized, controlled trial of yoga to date,” involved 75 people who did not regularly exercise and had rheumatoid arthritis. One group practiced yoga twice a week with a yoga therapist and once a week at home, while the control group carried on with the normal routine. After eight weeks, improvements with the yoga group were seen across the board, with gains in “joint health, physical functioning, and mental/emotional well-being.”

Even more promising, these benefits were still found to exist some nine months later.

And just how intense were these classes? From the researchers:

“Each class began with questions/comments (5 min), breathing exercises and chanting (5 min), a warm-up and moving sequence (surya namaskara; 15 min), and isometric poses (asanas) (20 min) to increase strength, flexibility, and balance. Classes ended with deep relaxation (sivasana; 10 min), a closing chant, and meditation (5 min).”

Speaking with Time, Bingham called the activity transformative for some of his patients.

“What [one patient] learned from the yoga experience was the philosophy of non-harming and the idea that where she is today is good enough,” he said. “Those types of things are very difficult to measure in terms of an outcome from a study, but we certainly saw them on a real one-on-one patient level.”

Want to give it a try yourself? A quick search online found a variety of arthritis-focused yoga poses available to try, as well as a few videos. Like any other physical activity, the authors recommend checking with your doctor first. A full checklist is available here.

Credit: Michael D’estries

Manipulating gut bacteria may cure disease, study shows

Researchers fed volunteers extreme diets of meat and cheese followed by extreme diets of grains and vegetables and found gut bacteria changed greatly according to diet.
I started paying attention to information about gut bacteria after my friend Amanda started educating me about fermenting food. She introduced me to the fact that science is increasingly linking many food-related ailments to our gut bacteria. I’m still learning about it, and I found the results of a recent study interesting.

The scientific study by Harvard University scientists put volunteers on extreme diets to see if consumption of certain foods can significantly alter gut bacteria in a short period of time.

A group of nine volunteers were first put on an extreme diet of meat, eggs and cheese for five days. After a break, the same volunteers were then put on an all plant-based diet of legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables.

During both time periods, the change in gut bacteria was evident after three days. When the gut bacteria of the volunteers during the animal-product only diet was tested, their guts began to make “microbes that ‘love bile’ — the Bilophila.” It’s believed that Bilophila promotes inflammation in the stomach. When the volunteers ate the plant-only diet, there was not an increase in Bilophila.

Of course, the meat diet was extreme, and for many people, the plant-based only diet was extreme also. Most of us, except for vegans, eat a combination of plant and animal products. If so, why should we be interested in the results of this study?

The results are interesting, and I’d also say they’re important, because as study contributor Dr. Lawrence David noted, “Our study is a proof of concept that you can modify the microbiome through diet.” It’s an initial step in figuring out how to treat intestinal diseases with diet.

The researchers admit they are a long way off from being able to “manipulate the community” of bacteria in a person’s stomach to actually treat disease, but it’s a step in the right direction. That’s why the study is important. When the scientific community is working to discover how changing what we eat can treat diseases, instead of just creating drugs that will manage the diseases that our diets may create, it’s important.

Source: Robin Shreeves

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.

Apple Spinach Protein Smoothie

This recipe calls for vegan protein powder. There are quite a few brands out there to choose from. Two of my favorites are Vega Sport, which has chocolate and vanilla flavors, and Garden of Life Raw Protein “Beyond Organic Protein Formula,” which is unflavored. I use them mostly depending on what kind of flavor I want in the smoothie. Much of the time if I want added protein without changing the flavor much, I’ll add Garden of Life. But if there’s a recipe that would benefit from the flavor — such as this recipe which is delicious with vanilla flavored powder — then I’ll use Vega Sport. It’s up to you — and you might have a different brand you really love even better. Go with what you like best.

As for spinach: Use as much spinach as you want. You can’t add too much, since it won’t do much to alter flavor. And you’ll get tons of fiber, and a boatload of nutrients and vitamins like potassium and vitamins A and K. So don’t be shy with the spinach! Also, remember to get an organic apple and leave the peel on so you can get the most nutrients from this fruit.
In all, this smoothie offers about 33 grams of protein.
Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 large smoothie or 2 small smoothies
Apple Spinach Protein Smoothie

1 large organic apple
3-4 cups organic spinach
1 Tablespoon organic almond butter
1 scoop (or packet) Vega Sport vanilla protein powder
1 cup unsweetened original almond milk
4-5 ice cubes
Add all the ingredients except spinach to a blender and process until smooth.
Add spinach in batches, blending a handful at a time until it is all incorporated.
Pour into a glass and enjoy!


Subway eliminated yoga mat chemical but many others still use it

The Environmental Working Group’s food database turns up nearly 500 supermarket foods that contain azodicarbonamide, a chemical found in yoga mats and rubber soles of shoes.
Earlier this month, Subway announced it was removing azodicarbonamide, a chemical that bleaches flour and conditions dough, from its bread products. The chemical isn’t used only in food products; it can also be found in yoga mats and rubber soles. It’s banned in many other countries because it can cause respiratory problems.

Subway isn’t the only food chain that used the chemical in its bread products. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Starbucks all have some foods that contain it, and it looks like many of those companies are working to eliminate it now.

Today, the Environmental Working Group released a list of nearly 500 products that contain azodicarbonamide. These products don’t come from fast-food chains. They come from the grocery store shelves.

I won’t post the entire list here. You can head to the EWG site for that. But, it’s a good list to look at and familiarize yourself with if you’re concerned about eliminating azodicarbonamide from your diet. Several brands of hot dogs and hamburger buns come up on the list. Since there are a few signs of spring finally happening and we all think about firing up our grills, which brands contain the chemical might be something you want to know.

Azodicarbonamide “is not known to be toxic to people in the concentration approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration,” but workers who are around large volumes of it have “reported respiratory symptoms and skin sensitization.” The chemical has not been extensively tested for any harmful health results.

There are big names on the list like Pillsbury, Sara Lee and Wonder, although it’s only a few of their products that contain the chemical. Shoprite, the grocery store that’s closest to me, has it 24 of their products.

Credit: Robin Shreeves

Yoga:the breastcancer recovery key

Breast cancer survivors have a lot to think about when it comes to their recovery. There are often suggestions from doctors on what kind of food to eat, or how often to exercise in order to help reduce the chance of recurrence. But for breast cancer survivors, sometimes just the thought of exercise can make them want to sit down and rest. A cancer survivor is often weak from the treatments he or she has gone through.

Consistently, cancer survivors’ average fitness levels are about 30 percent lower than those of sedentary people without a cancer history. That’s why I think the findings of a new study that I just completed will help these patients. The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, show that yoga is beneficial in many ways to breast cancer survivors. Yoga provides graded exercise that can be tailored for individuals who have been sedentary, and the postures can be modified to accommodate functional limitations.

It is widely known that yoga benefits your health. Many people who practice yoga experience gains in flexibility, feel more relaxed, sleep better, have stronger muscles and also might even see a drop in their blood pressure. What my colleagues and I at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center concluded in our study is that inflammation for cancer patients also dropped when they routinely practiced yoga. [Yoga Holds Benefits for Breast Cancer Survivors]

My study was a randomized, controlled trial (RCT) of 200 women who are breast cancer survivors. I compared a 12-week hatha yoga intervention with a wait-list control condition, which is a group who did not do yoga during the study. We collected questionnaires and fasting blood samples at beginning, immediately post-treatment, and 3 months post-treatment — with both groups. Participants ranged in age from 27 years to 76 years old, and had completed cancer treatment within the past three years. We chose these participants who were at least two months past their surgery or last radiation treatment, whichever occurred last. Women in the yoga group participated in two 90-minute weekly sessions, while participants assigned to the wait-list control group were told to continue performing their usual activities, and to refrain from beginning any yoga practice. After their final assessment, they were offered the yoga classes, meaning everyone had the chance to join yoga after the study ended.
When we began this study, we hypothesized that participants who participated in yoga would have decreased inflammation, depressive symptoms and fatigue in contrast to those participants in the wait-list control. After reviewing the outcomes of all women in the study, we now know that our hypothesis was correct.

Immediately post-treatment, vitality was higher in the yoga group compared to the control group. At 3 months post-treatment, the yoga group’s fatigue was lower, vitality was higher, and the inflammation markers in their blood that we tested for (IL-6, TNF-α, and IL-1β — which are pro-inflammatory markers) were lower for yoga participants compared to those in the control group. What we also discovered is that the more a woman participated in yoga, the greater the benefits in fatigue, vitality and inflammation reduction.

Despite the fact that our participants’ weight did not change and our trial did not include aerobic or resistance exercise, pro-inflammatory cytokine production decreased significantly in yoga participants compared to the wait-list group. This is important, because inflammation enhances risk in many age-related diseases including heart disease and diabetes, and also increases the risks for cancer recurrence.

Another benefit of this trial was that we showed yoga can help cancer survivors get better rest. Previous studies have shown that up to 60 percent of cancer survivors report sleep problems during survivorship, a rate that is two or three times as high as similar adults without a cancer history. The problem with that is disturbed sleep elevates inflammation, as well as fatigue, and thus the improved sleep reported by yoga group participants likely contributed to the positive changes both at the beginning of the trial and through the 3-month post-treatment visit.

While our study may underestimate the entire list of potential benefits of yoga, the results show that yoga can have a significant benefit, and therefore I recommend that all breast cancer survivors consider adding it to their exercise plan.