A Master of Memory in India Credits Meditation for His Brainy Feats

The young man sat cross-legged atop a cushioned divan on an ornately decorated stage, surrounded by other Jain monks draped in white cloth. His lip occasionally twitched, his hands lay limp in his lap, and for the most part his eyes were closed. An announcer repeatedly chastised the crowd for making even the slightest noise.

From daybreak until midafternoon, members of the audience approached the stage, one at a time, to show the young monk a random object, pose a math problem, or speak a word or phrase in one of at least six different languages. He absorbed the miscellany silently, letting it slide into his mind, as onlookers in their seats jotted everything down on paper.

After six hours, the 500th and last item was uttered — it was the number 100,008. An anxious hush descended over the crowd.

And the monk opened his eyes and calmly recalled all 500 items, in order, detouring only once to fill in a blank he had momentarily set aside.

When he was done, and the note-keepers in the audience had confirmed his achievement, the tense atmosphere dissolved and the announcer led the crowd in a series of triumphant chants.

The opportunity to witness the feat of memory drew a capacity crowd of 6,000 to the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stadium in Mumbai on Sunday. The exhibition was part of a campaign to encourage schoolchildren to use meditation to build brainpower, as Jain monks have done for centuries in India, a country drawn both toward ancient religious practices and more recent ambitions.

But even by Jain standards, the young monk — Munishri Ajitchandrasagarji, 24 — is something special. His guru, P. P. Acharya Nayachandrasagarji, said no other monk in many years had come close to his ability.

“Munishri’s mind is like a computer during the download process,” the guru said during an interview in a temple in central Mumbai on Monday. “Many processes can happen in his mind at one time.”

“Like when I forgot No. 81,” Munishri chimed in. “The rest of the processes continued, and then, later, that one process began and I remembered it. It takes no effort. I’m simply able to extract it from my subconscious, where I have stored it.”

He sees brainpower as directly proportional to sacrifice, however, and he and his guru have made some great sacrifices.

The guru, now 58, said he had worked in a diamond-cutting workshop as a young man, but at 23 he became disillusioned by the material world and renounced it, including his family and profession. Three years later, he took a vow of almost complete silence and solitude, and set out to walk across India barefoot, living off alms, chanting, praying and translating Jain scripture from Sanskrit into Gujarati.

In 2000, he passed through Unjha, a town in Gujarat State, where Munishri Ajitchandrasagarji was a 10-year-old boy known as Ajay. The guru made such an impression on the boy that Ajay gained the blessing of his family to join the guru in his travels, and two years later he, too, began a life of itinerant solitude, meditation — and total recall.

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Munishri Ajitchandrasagarji has committed more than 20,000 verses of Jain scripture to memory, the guru said, adding that in the privacy of the temple, he has been able to retain as many as 800 random items in order.

The monk does not see himself as specially endowed, or some kind of rare genius. “I have sacrificed everything, and that is why I can do this,” he said. “Anyone can do this, it is not a miracle. My message is this: When you know your own capacity, when you get rid of your distractions, the power of your mind is immense.”

Many followers of the Jain religion have been successful in Indian politics, science and business, particularly in the diamond industry. The recollection event on Sunday was financed by a private nonprofit group called the Saraswati Sadhna Research Foundation, using donations from a lengthy list of Jain benefactors. The foundation says that more than 14,000 children have received training in meditation at its centers, and that the goal is to reach a million children in the next 10 years.

Jainism is the smallest of India’s major organized religions, with around five million adherents. Some Jains revere gods and goddesses that Hindus also worship, including Saraswati, the embodiment of knowledge, creativity and intellectual enlightenment. Munishri Ajitchandrasagarji follows a knowledge recollection method centered on devotion to Saraswati.

A trustee at the foundation, Girish Shah, said that for India, a country whose education system is largely based on rote memorization, meditation is a way to strengthen the mind so that the hours students spend studying will pay off. “Memory, I.Q., concentration ability, interest in studying and moral upliftment will all increase with meditation,” Mr. Shah said. “It offers many practical advantages for young people.”

Four other young disciples of Munishri’s guru have also performed feats of recollection, but so far only 100 or 200 items. Munishri is working his way up to 1,000.

Citing an obscure historical text, the guru said the last time anyone did that was in the Mughal court of the Subahdar of Khambhat, six centuries ago.

How Yoga Might Save the U.S. Trillions of Dollars, And A Lot of Lives

Scientific evidence is mounting daily for what many have long sensed: that practices like mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can help us address certain intractable individual and societal problems.

Prominent companies – Google, General Mills, Target, Apple, Nike, AOL, and Procter & Gamble among them – and prominent individuals have already embraced this possibility. Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who wrote the book A Mindful Nation, has been a big proponent of bringing mindfulness to the masses. He, along with others, believes that mindfulness should be a part of everyone’s day, to help wire our brains to deal with our many modern stressors.

And, perhaps more importantly for our global health, for kids dealing with extreme stressors, traumas and abuse, putting these practices into schools could be the difference between failure and success.

Last month, a group of American and Canadian scholars, researchers, businesspeople, and yoga teachers came together for a weekend at Omega Institute to discuss how this group of practices that helps us self-regulate as individuals could, quite possibly, help us regulate on a society level. The issues the country is facing – the massive dropout rate of school kids, substance abuse among all age groups, PTSD among veterans, the staggeringly high incarceration and recidivism rates – cost the country volumes in human potential, not to mention trillions in dollars. There are no single solutions, but the evidence suggests that some or all of these problems may be amenable to the practices that have been shown to redirect attention, improve concentration, increase self-control, and endow people with reliable and healthy coping mechanisms in the face of stress and trauma.

Some of the faculty at Omega’s conference have been key players in making this happen. BK Bose, PhD, of the Niroga Institute, a former Silicon Valley engineer who grew up practicing yoga, now works to make mindfulness/meditation/yoga the game-changer that many believe it can be. Rob Schware, PhD, who heads the Give Back Yoga Foundation and the Yoga Service Council, and writes for the Huffington Post, brought his two decades of management experience with World Bank to help grow the movement as a second career. Many, including Bose and Schware, say that the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a famously insidious and costly problem in lives lost and money wasted, is one of several that could be altered by a little mindfulness training early on in life.

In terms of economic cost alone, Cecelia Rouse at Princeton estimates that one high school dropout “costs” about $260,000 in lost earnings over his or her lifetime. Given the fact that at least a million kids drop out of school every year, the annual cost of school failure alone is estimated at $260 billion. As Bose points out, “Over ten years, the cost is upwards of 3 trillion dollars. And this is just for dropping out alone.”

If you continue the trajectory a little further, he says, based on the relatively common course that can include juvenile hall and prison, the numbers grow. “The school-to-prison pipeline is incredibly costly,” says Bose. It can cost upwards of $250,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison, if you factor in all the direct and indirect costs that tend to come with it, like loss in productivity, damage to the family, the escalated health and mental health costs. “Folks have been looking at career criminals – and estimates over their lifetimes are between $4-7 million. If you apply this to all those who land in jail over and over again, the numbers become stratospheric.”

One approach is to increase school retention; the national dropout rate is between 25% and 35%, and up to 50% in inner city schools. But if you go back a necessary step, Bose argues, the real culprits are enormous stresses and traumas that are so often present in the kids’ lives. “The single common denominator is stress: Chronic stress, toxic stress, traumatic stress, primary and secondary post-traumatic stress. Trauma is endemic. The tentacles of stress and trauma run right through – domestic abuse, substances abuse, poverty, racism. And once a kid drops out, homelessness, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, crime, violence are just waiting to pounce. Not to mention the boatload of chronic disease, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, diabetes… You start to see this powerful trajectory between school failure and adult outcomes.”

And this is where the capacity to cope becomes highly relevant. Methods that train the brain attend differently, self-regulate, and respond to stressors are one part. “If you look to neuroscience,” says Bose, “it tells us that stress, among other things, disrupts brain functioning, especially in the prefrontal cortex. And the same neuroscience is also saying there’s also class of practices that mitigate all of this: Mindfulness.”

There’s some good evidence for the idea. In 2011, a Harvard study showed that mindfulness is linked to increased gray matter density in certain cortical areas, including the prefrontal cortex and regions involved in self-referential thoughts and emotion regulation. There seems to be a strong connection between mindfulness and the brain machinery involved in self-regulation. Other work has shown mindfulness to be linked to relative de-activation of the default mode network (DMN), the brain system that’s active during mind-wandering and self-referential “worry” thoughts, which are generally stressful in nature. Indeed Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD at UMass has developed his career to developing the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) to helping people learn to change the stress response.

This is all well and good, Bose adds, but there’s an obvious caveat. When they’re in the midst of stress and trauma, few kids have the ability to sit still enough to take part in a sitting practice. “If you’re not ready to sit in classroom,” says Bose, “you’re not ready to do sitting meditation. If you have drugs and gangs and violence all around you, you simply can’t sit still. Teachers tell us that they often yell at kids 100 times a day to sit and pay attention. It doesn’t work. And to ask them to do this in the context of meditation can have a worse-than-neutral effect – it could be disastrous.”

So, you have to go beyond the neuroscience-of-meditation field and look to the trauma research, which tells us that physical activity can help the brain deal with stress and trauma. “Trauma research tell us that we hold trauma in our bodies… The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex doesn’t even talk to the amygdala. Neuroscience says mindfulness; trauma research says movement. All of the sudden you’ve got moving meditation or mindfulness in motion. Mindfulness alone isn’t going to cut it for these kids.” One theory is that because the executive areas of the brain can be affected by stress and trauma, “getting in” through another avenue is key. Indeed, some studies have shown that physical activity can enhance cognitive control via the prefrontal cortex in children, and exercise is well known to enhance neurogenesis in brain regions like the hippocampus, in you and old alike, which can be affected by stress.

Therefore, Bose and his colleagues have done what are also beginning to, combining movement and mindfulness into one program, called Transformative Life Skills (TLS), which incorporates elements of movement, attention training and relaxation skills. The 18-week program can be introduced to schools relatively cheaply. The research so far has shown that it can be extremely helpful in helping kids reduce levels of negative thinking, negative affect, revenge motivation, depression, emotional arousal, physical arousal, rumination, perceived-stress, attitudes toward violence; and it’s been associated with greater levels of self-control, tolerance for distress, and school engagement.

The return-on-investment seems to speak for itself. The cost of training and coaching 50 teachers in TLS is $5,000. And if they work with 1,000 students, works out to be about $5 per kid. If even one kid took a different path in life, the program would be worth the investment many times over.

And similar programs, like the one run by the Holistic Life Foundation, Inc. (HLF) serving inner city schools in Baltimore, have found just this. Ali Smith, Executive Director, who founded the program along with his brother and college friend as a way to bring meditation to “at-risk” kids, has seen the results firsthand. So has the early research. Smith and his brother grew up in this hectic environment, but his parents had them mediate every day before school. He says he didn’t understand its purpose so much back then, but it made a difference on some level, and sparked his and his brother’s desire to give back in the same way as they got older. He hopes that mindfulness will be a part of every school day in the future: “Even just to give kids a moment of stillness in their day, so that they stop, and can have inner and outer silence… That would be amazing.”

One problem with this type of service at this juncture is the relatively small size of the operations. Though service programs are growing, many are still local in reach, and affect people only on the order of tens or hundreds per year. “What I see happening,” says Schware, “is a lot of very fired up yoga teachers who want to serve; so they go work in drug rehabs or jails.” After a year or two, though, many realize they can’t pay their bills while doing this work, so find themselves in a difficult position. “And if you’ve set up a nonprofit,” adds Schware, “it’s even harder financially.” The Yoga Service Council helps many of these small non-profits become sustainable, but it’s unclear where the future of the industry really lies here, or in a larger domain.

“The math is pretty simple and clear,” says Schware. “We’re going to get our money back many, many times over. There’s a huge potential return on investments, if we’re going to implement these thingssystematically.” Policy-level initiatives would, of course, be ideal, and they may come in time. Hopefully the right people will see the connection sooner than later.

“This is about more than just mindfulness,” says Bose. “It’s about the integration of these modalities. This is not some feel good, foo-foo practice from the Himalayas. This is based in cutting edge neuroscience, trauma research, and in somatic psychology. This is vital to ensure our well-being, and to our economy.  Let’s come together under the banner of transformative practices, and put forward the essence of yoga, not the hype. This is simple. Anyone can do this, anytime, anywhere. If you can move, if you can breathe, then you can do the practice.”

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.

 

Help Promote The Smithsonian’s Yoga Art Exhibit

Yoga lovers – Yoga: the Art of Transformation is coming this Fall to the Smithsonian! Read on to learn how you can help promote this unique event ….

From a Smithsonian Press Release:“The Art of Transformation,” on view through Jan. 26, 2014, explores yoga’s philosophies and its goals of transforming body and consciousness, its importance within multiple religious and secular arenas, and the varied roles that yogis played in society, from sages to spies.

To support the exhibition, the museum is launching the Smithsonian’s first major crowdfunding campaign May 29. “Together We’re One” will run through July 1, raising funds for exhibition production, Web content, catalog printing and free public programs for adults and families. Beginning late May, supporters can learn more, donate and download campaign materials—including e-cards and desktop and smartphone backgrounds—at asia.si.edu/yoga or by contacting yoga@si.edu.

Check out more art from Yoga:The Art of Transformation.