How breathing deep calms your mind

What’s the first thing that people tell you to do whenever you’re upset or anxious? Take a deep breath.

We know that slow, deep breaths can help us calm down. Pranayama, or yoga breathing, is a practice that has been around since at least the fifth or sixth centuries B.C. It focuses on using breathing techniques to calm and center the mind. The Sanskrit word pranayama translates to (prana,) “vital force” and (ayama) “to extend or draw out.” So for thousands of years, humans have known that by controlling our breathing, we can control our moods.

New findings from researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine may shed light on why it works.

The research team, led by biochemistry professor Mark Krasnow, looked at the neurons in the brains of mice. They found that of the 3,000 neurons that control breathing — also known as our breathing pacemaker — roughly 175 of those neurons also appear to control the part of the brain that regulates attention, arousal and panic. This would explain why we hyperventilate when we are anxious and why deep, controlled breathing helps us calm down.

For the study, which was published in the journal Science, researchers isolated the 175 neurons that they suspected acted as communications highways between breathing and arousal and then “turned them off” to get a better idea of their precise function. Researchers theorized that without these neurons, the breathing of the mice might be affected such that they would cough or sputter. But that’s not what happened. In fact, the breathing patterns of the mice initially appeared unchanged.

Mellow mice

The team originally thought that they had been off base with their theory. But after a few more tests, they noticed something odd about the mice. Unlike the control mice who spent the majority of their time in the test chamber exploring and sniffing, the mice in this experiment appeared more calm, spending most of their time grooming themselves and relaxing. They also breathed more slowly than they did prior to the experiment.

Of course, these are mice. So it’s unclear whether or not similar communication highways exist in the neurons of human brains. Also, it’s up for debate as to whether or not the mice were actually more relaxed after the neurons were turned off or if this was just a subjective assumption on the part of the research team. It’s hard to know for sure since the mice aren’t talking.

Still, this is a good start for researchers hoping to better understand the connection between breathing and arousal. If a similar pathway does exist in humans, medication that targets these neurons might help to control anxiety when the system goes into overdrive.

For now, the research just confirms what humans have known for thousands of years. If you’re stressed out, take a deep breath. And let those neurons in the brain work their magic.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

CO2 emissions stall, even as economy grows

For the first time, global CO2 emissions are expected to dip in 2015 despite economic growth.

Earth’s industrial carbon dioxide emissions are on pace to plateau this year, according to new projections, and they might even decline. On top of 2014’s relatively small increase in CO2 output, this surprising shift is raising hopes that an explosive era of greenhouse gas emissions may finally be winding down.

For most of the past 15 years, CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels increased by an average of 2.4 percent annually. But researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Global Carbon Project report that CO2 output grew by just 0.6 percent in 2014. And, more importantly, they say it may actually decline 0.6 percent in 2015.
Until now, global CO2 emissions have only fallen during economic downturns, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. But if these new forecasts hold true, 2015 would mark the first modern dip in CO2 emissions while the global economy is growing. It may not represent a true “carbon peak” — even the study’s authors say emissions will likely rise again — but it does offer timely evidence that economic prosperity and ecological responsibility aren’t mutually exclusive.

World leaders and diplomats are currently in Paris for major U.N. climate talks, which are meant to produce a new worldwide treaty for reining in CO2 emissions. The summit was already expected to succeed where many others have failed, but this kind of reminder about the economics of CO2 cuts can only help matters.

“We have broken the old arguments for inaction,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech on the summit’s opening day on Nov. 30. “We have proved that strong economic growth and a safer environment no longer have to conflict with one another; they can work in concert with one another.”

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the new findings are attributed largely to China, whose ranking as the No. 1 net emitter of CO2 puts it in a unique position to influence global emissions trends. “China is trying to deal massively with its air pollution problem,” study co-author Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, tells Nature News. “And its renewables are growing very fast.”

There are still uncertainties about China’s self-reported CO2 data, highlighted last month by news that China has been burning up to 17 percent more coal per year than its government had previously stated. Le Quéré says her research team factored China’s revised data into their new analysis, but she acknowledges that more transparency is needed in reporting of national CO2 emissions.

“We don’t have the capacity to check the energy reports of the countries,” she says. “We have to rely on the countries to tell us what types of coal they use and how clean it is. If the reporting was systematic, it would be wonderful.”

That kind of transparency is one goal of the Paris talks — formally known as COP21, short for “Conference of Parties” — where diplomats are working on ways to track and verify each country’s emissions. But in the meantime, based on China’s own data plus ongoing economic trends, the new study projects Chinese CO2 emissions alone will decrease by nearly 4 percent in 2015. After long resisting the idea of CO2 limits, China recently pledged that its emissions will peak by 2030.

Some have suggested the 2015 data may mean global CO2 emissions have already peaked, thus kicking off a new, downward trend in the main gas responsible for man-made climate change. But many experts doubt that, pointing out not only that Chinese emissions could rise again, but also that emissions from India and other developing countries will likely offset China’s progress at some point.

“Emissions in India are at the same level as China in the 1990s,” climate analyst Glen P. Peters tells the New York Times, adding that India “could actually dominate the global growth in the way that China has done in the past.”

The new study also doesn’t fully account for some man-made sources of CO2, namely those from deforestation — an especially big problem this year due to huge peat fires linked to land clearing in Indonesia. But in the long-running, often-gridlocked effort to curb climate change, any sign that humans are cutting back industrial CO2 emissions without sacrificing economic growth is reason for optimism, the researchers argue.

“Time will tell whether this surprising interruption in emissions growth is transitory or a first step toward emissions stabilization,” they write. “In either case, the trend is a welcome change from the historical coupling of CO2 emissions with economic growth and should be strengthened through efforts at the Paris COP and beyond.”

Credit: Russell Mclendon

Yoga improves men’s sex life

Yoga improves lung capacity, stronger bones and lower risk of heart disease, but it also helps men have better sex, it has been revealed.

During a Huffington Post Live discussion with men who love yoga, host Caitlyn Becker got the scoop on how the practice benefits them in the bedroom.

Life coach Joseph Robinson pointed out that during great sex, “you want to be in your body, you want to be really present,” and that sensation comes with yoga.

Robinson said that after the first week he had done yoga, he was with his second girlfriend and it was a different experience than the first five years of his sex life.

8 Ways to Make Meditation Easy and Fun

“The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.” ~Robert M. Pirsig

I know meditation is good for me. I know it can do wonders for my mind, body, and spirit. I deeply desire having a daily meditation practice.

And yet I can go months without meditating. I’ll think randomly, “I should really meditate sometime,” but when it comes down to it, I don’t.

My thing is this: I know meditating is good for me, and yet I don’t do it. I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I’ve read countless books on how to meditate. I have gone to so many meditation retreats and classes it’s not funny.

I know the meditation routines. I know the old staring at a candle flame one. I know the stilling your mind thing. I know the nose-breathing-in-and-out thing. I know about making your own visualization.

I also know that they feel like work. They feel like something I have to work at. It feels hard.

I know I’m not lazy. If you’re like me, I know you’re not, either. It’s just that we haven’t found the right way of meditating for us yet.

Here are some ways to make meditation less of a chore and more like a fun, doable thing for you.

1. Try the 100 breaths technique.

This is a highly complex meditation technique!

I take 100 breaths. I count them. I try not to think about anything else.

Yup. It’s revolutionary. And it also really works for me. It gives my brain something to do (wee! counting!) while the rest of me is just hanging out, inadvertently meditating.

The lesson here is this: There are so many ways you can meditate. Explore them to find a way that’s really easy for you, and just do that.

2. Take a meditationap.

Be careful. This one is complex. Oh yes—it’s the love child of a meditation and a nap.

Lie down on a bed, couch, or sun lounge, or pile your (empty) bath with pillows and blankets.

Close your eyes and do nothing. Maybe you’ll fall asleep. Maybe you’ll have Zen inspiration. Maybe you’ll just happily float along. Either way, it will be sublime.

My favorite meditationap consists of a sun lounge, a blanket, an afternoon, and my ipod filled with lovely music. If 10-day Zen master meditation retreats consisted of this kind of meditating, I could totally do them!

The lessons here is: Meditation should be enjoyable. We only consistently do things we actually like doing!

3. Use the alarm clock meditation.

If 100 breaths isn’t going to cut it for you, set a timer for 5 minutes. Then meditate until the timer goes off. This way, you don’t have to wonder about how long it’s been, or how much longer you should meditate for. It’s like meditation on cruise-drive.

The lesson here is: Make your meditation as cruise-drivey as possible.

4. Get comfortable.

I started looking at things that annoyed me about meditation – the stuff that held me back from doing it. And one of the annoying things was this:

I don’t like being uncomfortable.

I don’t think anyone does. And sitting cross-legged in lotus with a straight back and poised mudra fingers doesn’t spell comfortable to me. It spells pins and needles, sore butt, and achy back.

Maybe when I’m a woo-woo yoga guru master it won’t, but for right now, I’m not, and it does. So for me, it’s an exercise in getting comfy without falling asleep.

What this looks like for me is sitting in a comfy armchair inside, lying on a sun lounge on the back deck, or leaning against a wall outside. What comfy looks like to you might be totally different.

The lesson here is: Meditating isn’t an exercise in feeling uncomfortable. It’s a place of rest, stillness and comfort. So get comfy.

5. Fake it for 10 breaths.

When I really, really need to meditate, and I don’t feel like I have time, I make a little pact with myself. I say to myself:

“Okay, we so don’t have to meditate for any pain-in-the-ass time at all. Let’s just do ten breaths.”

And my logical brain says:

“Ten breaths? You think I have time for ten breaths of meditation? Are you kidding me! I have stuff to do lady! We’re not on retreat you hippy!”

And I say:

“Oh. I know you’re really busy. I really feel like I need this. You and me. Besides, it’s only for ten breaths.”

Logical brain:

“Fine. But only ten. And I’m counting.”

And then we do our ten breaths and it’s nice. And we either stop there because we feel like we’ve refreshed just enough, or we keep going for another ten or twenty because it just feels so good.

The lesson here is: Start small. Everyone has time for 10 breaths. See what happens. It’s a little way of moving around resistances.

6. Make it a reward.

Meditation should be fun and easy, and it should feel good for you—not excruciatingly boring or painful. Work out the thing about meditation that makes it really, really useful for you. Not “I should meditate because everyone says so.” Not even an “I should meditate.”

Find a way that makes you think “I want to meditate.”

Here’s the meditation pay-off for me:

Whenever I take 100 breaths, it’s kind of boring for the first 59. But then I hit 60, and for the next ten seconds, it feels like nirvana. I don’t know if it’s a rush of oxygen to the head, or just because I finally relax then, but whatever it is, 60 is good.

And it makes those 59 seconds before it so very, very worth it. My little reward is the 60-second release.

The lesson here is: Find your personal treat from meditating. And keep remembering it. Use it as a reward for getting yourself there.

7. Use help when you need it.

When I need extra help in meditating, I use CDs. They’re like my own little personal guides into sweet-calm-space.

Try out different CDs, guides, and meditation techniques, and see what works for you. And what works for you, make that the golden wisdom in your life.

The lesson here is: Don’t think you have to go it alone. Everything’s easier with a little support.

8. And most of all…

Remember that the reason you aren’t meditating right now is not because you are lazy. It’s because you haven’t yet found a way to meditate for you that is fun, easy, and comfortable for you. Find the way that does, and then it’s much, much easier.

Remove the annoying parts from meditating. Try out all the different ways you can to make it as lovely an experience as possible.

And remember: you are the expert on you. Find the wonderful things that work for you, and ignore the rest.

There are 6 billion paths to bliss, and your path is your own. Make it a happy one.

Putting Meditation Back on the Mat

Seated cross-legged on a black cushion atop a yoga mat, I struggled to keep my eyes closed and repeat the Sanskrit mantra in my head: ham-sa — I am that. Outside, on Third Avenue, police sirens wailed and cars honked as I tried to sit still in a room with eight other meditation students, keeping my breath slow and steady. Just as I was about to lose the focus on my breath, a soothing voice nearby chimed in: “You can hear the noises without getting attached to them. The attention comes from the inside.”

The voice belonged to Michael Bartelle, a tall, slender yoga and meditation teacher. The city kept up its racket, but for the next 18 minutes, Mr. Bartelle thoughtfully guided our midday meditation, occasionally offering encouraging comments. It was part of a one-hour class at Ishta Yoga that included movement and breathing exercises.

Ishta Yoga, with studios in Greenwich Village and on the Upper East Side, is one of a growing number of yoga centers in the city that are reporting increased meditation on the mat.

The asanas, or poses, of yoga are traditionally meant to prepare the body for meditation. But as yoga has been consumed by the gym and physical fitness industry in recent years — to the tune of an international yoga championship — many people have come to yoga for the workout, period.

Still, once they are there, they are often introduced to meditation, as well.

“Yoga is the gateway that opens the door for people to try modalities that they normally wouldn’t,” said Beth Shaw, founder and president of YogaFit, a fitness education program, based in Los Angeles that trains many of the yoga teachers at the city’s more than 50 New York Sports Clubs. A team from the clubs recently discussed with YogaFit the possibility of a meditation workshop at its annual conference for fitness professionals, which will be held in November in New York.

Cyndi Lee, the owner of Om Yoga near Union Square, which recently announced it would close its studio in late June, has an explanation for the seemingly greater enthusiasm for meditation among yoga students.

“The yoga community in New York City has matured,” Ms. Lee said. “I remember a time when we started with five minutes of meditation and a woman got annoyed and said: ‘I want to move. I want to sweat.’ Now they want to meditate.”

In August, Om Yoga introduced a meditation teacher-training program and has been running twice-weekly meditation classes. The Integral Yoga Institute, Jivamukti Yoga School and Pure Yoga, all in Manhattan, are among other centers reporting more students in their meditation classes.

At Ishta Yoga, Alan Finger, the founder and co-owner, said: “There’s a flood of more people wanting more meditation. I used to have about three classes a week — I stepped it up to five.” (A sixth is taught by Mr. Bartelle, alternating with Peter Ferko.)

Mr. Finger says that students often get a sense of what meditation is like by being in savasana, or corpse pose, at the end of a yoga class.

“At first, when people are in savasana, they may have a little snooze, but as they come and get more into it, they start to feel a different presence and say, ‘That was like meditation,’ and they start to explore more.”

Though most studios charge a fee for meditation classes that involve instruction, some, like the Jaya Yoga Center in Brooklyn, include meditation on their schedule simply to provide a time and space for people to come and sit, free.

“When people come in after a day of work or wake up in the morning, they are happy to shift their attention to something that’s a little more relaxing,” said Carla Stangenberg, who owns one of Jaya’s studios and co-owns the other. “Focusing on the breath and some phrases just calms you down, especially in New York City, where everything is just spinning around.”

A staff member keeps the time, and the rest is up to you and your breath. But why not just do it at home if you’re not getting guidance?

For many people, meditating in a group provides a deeper, more satisfying experience.

“Meditation is kind of like a dance class in that it’s better with other people,” said David Grotell, a student at my Ishta Yoga class. “There’s something about the energy. It would seem that if you’re not talking to people you’re not in contact, but you somehow feel close to others when you are meditating in a way that is not obvious.”

The heightened interest in meditation in yoga studios may be part of a larger movement toward the practice, which is clearly more mainstream than during the transcendental meditation craze of the 1970s.

When Sharon Salzberg, a meditation expert and teacher, began giving meditation workshops at Tibet House in the Flatiron district in 1999, about 30 people were in attendance. This winter, her class filled the room to its capacity, 135 people, with the overflow crowd finding space to sit on the floor.

“Meditation is no longer seen as fringe, esoteric and weird,” Ms. Salzberg said. “Its main association is now its link as a stress-reduction modality, and not just for coping, but also for flourishing.”

The Art of Living Foundation, an educational nonprofit organization, once offered a single meditation workshop a week at its office in Midtown; it now has four a week because of rising demand.

In addition to offering workshops at its Manhattan office, I Meditate NY, an initiative of the foundation, has teamed up with partners to offer meditation at various branches of the New York Public Library and at Whole Foods’ Wellness Club in TriBeCa. The next event, currently in its planning stages, is a meditation workshop in Central Park.

City College of New York is scheduled to begin a 10-week evening class next month called Introduction to the Organic Meditation Process. Part of CUNY’s Continuing and Professional Education Program, it will be open to those with and without meditation experience.

“Meditation helps you learn how to not be controlled by your emotions,” the teacher, Antonia Martinez, said. Or as Ms. Lee of Om Yoga put it, “People are realizing that meditation is a way to work with your mind, and the benefits are said to bring strength, stability and clarity.”

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.