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Yoga May Be Good for the Brain

A weekly routine of yoga and meditation may strengthen thinking skills and help stave off aging-related mental decline, according to a new study of older adults with early signs of memory problems.

Most of us past the age of 40 are aware that our minds and, in particular, memories begin to sputter as the years pass.  Familiar names and words no longer spring readily to mind, and car keys acquire the power to teleport into jacket pockets where we could not possibly have left them.

Some weakening in mental function appears to be inevitable as we age.  But emerging science suggests that we might be able to slow and mitigate the decline by how we live and, in particular, whether and how we move our bodies.  Past studies have found that people who run, weight train, dance, practice tai chi, or regularly garden have a lower risk of developing dementia than people who are not physically active at all.

There also is growing evidence that combining physical activity with meditation might intensify the benefits in both pursuits.  In an interesting study that I wrote about recently, for example, people with depression who meditated before they went for a run showed greater improvements in their mood than people who did either of those activities alone.

But many people do not have the physical capacity or taste for running or other similarly vigorous activities.  So for the new study, which was published in April in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions decided to test whether yoga, a relatively mild, meditative activity, could alter people’s brains and fortify their ability to think.

They began by recruiting 29 middle-aged and older adults from the Los Angeles area who told the researchers that they were anxious about the state of their memories and who, during evaluations at the university, were found to have mild cognitive impairment, a mental condition that can be a precursor to eventual dementia. 

The volunteers also underwent a sophisticated type of brain scan that tracks how different parts of the brain communicate with one another. 

The volunteers then were divided into two groups.  One began a well-established brain-training program that involves an hour a week of classroom time and a series of mental exercises designed to bolster their memory that volunteers were asked to practice at home for about 15 minutes a day.

The others took up yoga.  For an hour each week, they visited the U.C.L.A. campus to learn Kundalini yoga, which involves breathing exercises and meditation as well as movement and poses.  The researchers chose this form of yoga largely because people who are out of shape or new to yoga generally find it easy to complete the classes.

The yoga group also was taught a type of meditation known as Kirtan Kriya that involves repeating a series of sounds – a mantra – while simultaneously “dancing” with repetitive hand movements.  They were asked to meditate in this way for 15 minutes every day, so that the total time commitment was equivalent for both groups. 

The volunteers practiced their programs for 12 weeks. 

Then they returned to the university’s lab for another round of cognitive tests and a second brain scan. 

By this time, all of the men and women were able to perform significantly better on most tests of their thinking. 

But only those who had practiced yoga and meditation showed improvements in their moods – they scored lower on an assessment of potential depression than those in the brain-training group – and they performed much better on a test of visuospatial memory, a type of remembering that is important for balance, depth perception and the ability to recognize objects and navigate the world.

The brain scans in both groups displayed more communication now between parts of their brains involved in memory and language skills.  Those who had practiced yoga, however, also had developed more communication between parts of the brain that control attention, suggesting a greater ability to focus and multitask.

In effect, yoga and meditation had equaled and then topped the benefits of 12 weeks of brain training.

“We were a bit surprised by the magnitude” of the brain effects, said Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A. who oversaw the study.

How, physiologically, yoga and meditation had uniquely changed the volunteers’ brains is impossible to know from this study, although reductions in stress hormones and anxiety are likely to play a substantial role, she said.  “These were all people worried about the state of their minds,” she pointed out.

Movement also increases the levels of various biochemicals in the muscles and brains that are associated with improved brain health, she said.

Whether other forms of yoga and meditation or either activity on its own might likewise bulk up the brain remains a mystery, she said.  But there may be something especially potent, she said, about combining yoga with the type of mediation practiced in this study, during which people were not completely still.

The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, which partially funded this study, provides information on its website about how to start mediating in this style.

-The New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds 6/7/16

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Yoga is Officially Sweeping the Workplace

1 in 7 workers say they practice mindfulness

The American workforce is becoming more mindful. In a new study of more than 85,000 adults, yoga practice among U.S. workers nearly doubled from 2002 to 2012, from 6 percent to 11 percent. Meditation rates also increased, from 8 percent to 9.9 percent.

That’s good news, say the study authors, since activities like yoga and meditation have been shown to improve employee well-being and productivity.

“Our finding of high and increasing rates of exposure to mindfulness practices among U.S. workers is encouraging,” they wrote in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal Preventing Chronic Disease. “Approximately 1 in 7 workers report engagement in some form of mindfulness-based activity, and these individuals can bring awareness of the benefit of such practices into the workplace.”

The study, which surveyed adults on whether they’d participated in specific activities in the last year, revealed that people with jobs were more likely to practice mindfulness techniques than those who were unemployed. (However, the participants were not asked where and when they practiced these activities, so it’s unknown how many people were actually doing them at work, versus on their own time.)

The authors point out that incorporating mindfulness practices into the workplace experience—through employee wellness and stress-reduction programs, yoga and meditation classes and web-based offerings—can be a way for companies to encourage their workers to take part.

The study also identified room for improvement in certain sectors. Blue-collar and service workers were less likely to practice mindfulness techniques than white-collar workers, and farm workers even less. Household income and education levels partially accounted for these disparities, but not entirely.

The authors say that employers in these occupations could benefit by identifying workers who do practice mindfulness techniques, and involve them in planning and promoting these activities for other employees.

Institutional obstacles, such as lack of funding, lack of time or personal beliefs, “should be addressed to make these practices available to all workers,” they wrote. Men and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups within these occupations are the least likely to do them.

In previous research, these types of workplace interventions have been associated with a host of benefits for employees. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce burnout and mood disturbances in health care providers, and to improve sleep quality among teachers. (The study authors were unable to find any mindfulness studies that had specifically focused on blue-collar or farm workers.)

The new study also looked at the prevalence of two other mindfulness practices—tai chi and qigong—but did not find a substantial change in these rates over time. Yoga and meditation are likely more popular because they’ve received much attention in the general public over the past two decades, the authors point out.

As a whole, mindfulness practices can “address multiple workplace wellness needs, benefiting both employees and employers,” the study authors say. Kristin McGee, a yoga instructor in New York City and author of the upcoming book Chair Yoga, says that mindfulness techniques are important for managing workplace pressures, no matter what that workplace is. “Having any type of job nowadays is so stressful because of the long hours we spend working,” says McGee (who was not involved in the study). Mind-body techniques like yoga can help counteract some of that stress and some of the physical demands of work, whether from hard manual labor or sitting hunched over at a computer, McGee says.

McGee encourages people in all types of jobs to incorporate a bit of mindfulness into their workday, even if it’s just a simple breathing exercise. Research has shown that slowing down and deepening breath can have real effects on wellbeing, including controlling blood pressure and improving heart rate. “That oxygenating breath helps clear the mind and reminds you that you’re in charge of your breath and your body,” McGee says. “It’s a great tool for avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and having better control over the situation.”

To stretch a bit at work, McGee recommends side bends to help prevent back soreness and stiffness. These can be done standing or seated in a chair: Keep your back straight, lift your arms overhead, interlace fingers and press palms toward the ceiling, and bend gently to right and then to the left.

Other work-friendly yoga poses include spinal twists, (which can be done seated or standing) eagle arms (great for stretching out wrists and shoulders), and mountain pose (for resetting your posture, boosting energy, and improving focus).

 Source:  Time Magazine/Amanda MacMillan/Jan. 5, 2017

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12 Ways to Practice Daily Mindfulness

Mindfulness is all the rage these days. It’s been featured in countless publications, from Forbes to Psychology Today, and it’s being enthusiastically embraced by everyone from therapists and CEOs, to rappers and Hollywood celebrities.

But what exactly does “mindfulness” mean? Even more importantly, how do you practice mindfulness, and why should you bother?

Mindfulness has risen to popularity in the West along with the practice of meditation, and the concept has it’s roots in the Far East, and Buddhism. But that doesn’t mean that it’s exotic, or difficult to understand.

It can be described very simply as the act of paying close attention to the present moment, without judging or labeling it. Or, even better: it’s the pure awareness that precedes thinking, categorizing and other cognitive activity.

You practice mindfulness by simply observing your surroundings, without analyzing or over-thinking any of it. When thoughts and judgments do come up (and they will, believe me) then you simply observe your own thinking with the same calm impartiality.

The state of mindfulness, or pure awareness without thinking, puts us directly in touch with the world and our senses, instead of perceiving everything through the filter of our own mind, our own judgments. We can then see things as they really are – vibrant, alive, full of richness and variety. Food tastes better, music sounds better, and just about everything becomes more colorful and interesting.

The mindful state not only sharpen our senses, but it can also help us to free ourselves from the destructive thought patterns that cause depression, anxiety, and other common ills.

Sounds pretty good, right?

But wait a minute. You might be wondering, “Do I have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness, or meditate for hours every day?” Good news! You don’t have to be a Buddhist. And you don’t have to sit and meditate in order to practice mindfulness (although it certainly doesn’t hurt).

Here are 12 incredibly easy ways that you can add a little mindfulness to your day, as you do the things you normally do anyway.

Mindfulness in the Morning

You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, but it’s especially important to practice in the morning. How you start your day sets the tone for everything that comes after, so be sure to get started on the right foot.

1. Wake Up Mindfully

You can practice mindfulness the instant that you wake, before you even reach over to turn off your alarm. Just bring your awareness to the here and now. What do you sense? How do you feel?

Actually listen to the tone of your alarm, the noise of your air conditioner, the sounds outside your bedroom window. Feel the heaviness of your eyelids, the tension in your back and your legs. Give your muscles a long, slow, gentle stretch. Notice all the subtle little sensations that go on as you transition from sleeping to waking.

Take it all in without running any mental commentary about it (or try to at least; it’s easier said than done).

2. Practice In the Shower


You can take mindfulness right into the bathroom with you, as you prepare yourself for the day ahead. The shower in particular is a perfect place to practice. Pay close attention to the temperature of the water, and how it feels as it pours over your skin, and cascades down your body. Be aware of the scent of your soap, your shampoo, conditioner, lotion, etc.

Feel the softness of your robe and your towel, the way your damp hair clings to your skin, the contrast between wet and dry. Be mindful of the taste of your toothpaste, and the feel of the bristles on your gums. Again, just practice being aware of all this with minimal mental chatter.

3. Be Mindful Of Your Habits


I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I do every morning is make coffee. I’m usually only semi-conscious at this point (no caffeine yet, you see), and I can accomplish the entire job completely on autopilot – from grinding my beans and starting the machine, to raising the cup to my lips for that first, magical sip.

Or, I can slow down, pay attention, and practice mindfulness. I can bring my awareness to each step of the process, how I feel as I do it (tired, cranky, craving caffeine), the thoughts making their way through my groggy head (usually just one thought: need coffee), to the aroma of fresh ground beans.

And then, the cherry on top: the first sip as it hits my tongue; the glorious, heavenly taste that awakens my mind and body, and signals the official start of my day. Aaaahhh…

The same general principle applies to any habit or routine. You can use even the most mindless habit as an opportunity to wake up, to be aware, to practice mindfulness.

4. Mindful Eating


They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. That makes it the most important time to practice mindful eating.

Start in the kitchen. Be mindful of your selection; listen to what your body is craving. Do you really need to start the day off with a heaping plate of bacon, or biscuits and gravy? Or would be better off with lighter fare, like fruits and oatmeal? Be mindful as you prepare your meal, giving your full attention to each and every step.

And lastly, be mindful as you eat. Chew slowly, and pause between mouthfuls. Savor the flavor and texture of your food, feel it as it makes it’s way down to your belly, be aware of when you’ve had enough.

Mindfulness Out in the World

So you’re off to a good start. You’ve put the steps above to work for you, or invented your own way to be mindful in the morning (I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here). Now what?

As I said before, you can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere. Here are four ways for you to be more mindful when you’re out there in the great big world, taking care of business.

5. Mindful Driving


How many times have you gotten in the car, started the engine, cranked up your stereo, and pulled out onto the road… and the next thing you know, you’re at your destination.

Where did the time go? You drove the whole way, miles across town, on autopilot – lost in thought, daydreaming, zoning out, whatever you call it, you were barely paying attention to the road, and what you were doing. It’s alright. It happens to all of us.

But not today. Today you are going to practice mindfulness behind the wheel.

Turn the stereo off. You don’t need music or talk radio or any kind of entertainment (otherwise known as “distraction”). Just pay attention to the road, and all that there is to see. Be aware of your hands on the wheel, your feet on the peddles, the hum of the engine, the roar of the wind. Let the mental monologue go on, but don’t get wrapped up in it. Stay present, in the moment.

6. Mindfulness While Waiting


Speaking of driving, don’t you love a good traffic jam? Nothing takes a calm, sane and friendly person and turns them into an angry, raving maniac quite like bumper-to-bumper, gridlock traffic.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can use that time stuck in traffic to practice mindfulness. Put your car in park, sit back and close your eyes. Take a deep breath and relax. Bring your awareness to your body, your emotions. Feel any tension, frustration, boredom or anxiety as it arises.

Take another deep breath. Now let it go. Getting angry, tense or frustrated won’t help you. Being in a hurry won’t get you there any faster. Release it. Let it go. Just relax, and be here now.

This same principle also applies to time spent in waiting rooms, or long lines at the supermarket or the DMV. Whenever you find yourself stuck, waiting, and powerless to move things along…

Don’t get mad. Be mindful.

7. Mindfulness At Work


You can practice mindfulness in your office or workplace by simply focusing on one thing at a time, and giving your full attention to the task at hand.

Put your phone away, close your email, and let yourself become absorbed in what you’re doing. Don’t think about it – lose yourself in it. Even if your job requires you to juggle many different tasks, that just means switching rapidly from one thing to another. You can only really do one thing at a time, and the more you can zero on in that one thing, the more productive you’ll be.

And you’ll also feel more peaceful, and less stressed out. Who couldn’t benefit from that?

8. Random Mindfulness Moments


One super effective way to be more mindful is to program random “mindfulness moments” throughout your day. Think of it is a mindfulness life hack.

The easiest way to do this is to set a timer on your watch or your phone to go off every hour or two (bonus: there’s an app for that). This alarm is your reminder to pause for a few seconds, and take a deep breath, relax, and check in. Become aware of your surroundings, notice how you feel. Spend a few moments just being mindful, before you go back to what you were doing.

If the idea of setting an alarm seems crazy or impractical, then you can use certain “mindfulness cues.” For instance, anytime someone asks you, “How are you doing?” Instead of giving an automatic answer, pause for a mindfulness moment, and then respond.

Ending the Day on a Mindful Note

How you end the day is just as important as how you start it. Try these simple strategies to become more aware of how you spend your evenings, and your precious downtime.

9. Take Time to Unwind


When you come home at the end of the day, don’t head straight for the TV or the refrigerator. Take a few minutes just to relax and unwind, to sit and be mindful of the present moment – without reaching for comfort or distraction of some kind.

This is a great opportunity to take stock, to process the events of the day, to sort out your feelings and release any lingering stress or frustration. This way you can leave the past in the past, and go about your evening calm, clear, and present to the now.

10. Practice Active Listening


When you’re with the ones you love, be it your partner, your children, your family or friends, this is a great time to practice mindfulness. Give them your undivided attention. Actively listen to what they have to say, instead of tuning them out, or just composing your response in your head.

Being present in this way not only helps us to become more mindful, it enriches our relationships, and deepens our intimacy and connection with those dear to us.

11. Turn Household Chores Into Mindfulness Practice


Just like you can practice mindfulness at work by giving your complete attention to the task at hand, you can do the same thing at home, while doing the laundry, or the dishes, etc.

Don’t let your mind convince you that it’s boring, that it’s a burden or a drag. Just be present to what you’re doing, one movement, one moment at a time. Let yourself be absorbed in the repetition of it, paying attention to the tiniest details, giving no thought to what you could be doing instead.

Just be mindful, be present, and you can turn your daily chores into a meditation!

12. Go Unplugged


One of the best ways to practice mindfulness is to turn off all devices – TV, stereo, laptop, phone, everything – at a certain time in the evening, at least an hour or two before going to bed. This frees you from the endless distractions of electronic media, and forces you to be mindful of the present moment.

If the idea of going unplugged every night terrifies you, see a therapist. Ha, ha – just kidding! (But seriously though, people can be addicted to their devices. Don’t let it happen to you!)

You can start out with just one night a week, and work your way up. Be mindful of how you feel when you’ve been staring at a screen for hours, vs. how you feel when you go unplugged. If you’re anything like me, the difference is staggering – and more than enough to make you want to unplug more often!

Give these 12 mindfulness tricks a try, and see what a difference it can make in your life. 

Dhaval Patel - Zenful Spirit

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How to Make Valentine's Day A Self-Care Marathon

At this drizzly and gray time of year, many of us find comfort in overeating and indulging in treats laden with sugar, salt, and saturated fat. However, if you find yourself doing this more often than not, it is likely that you're an emotional eater. This behavior is more than just seasonal and often stems from much deeper and more complex issues like low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

So with Valentine's Day fast approaching, here is some guidance on how to start rebuilding a loving relationship with yourself, which will take you steps closer to achieving optimal emotional and physical health.

1. Learn to recognize negative thought patterns.

Negative thoughts are unproductive and fruitless; they fail to add any real value to our existence and instead encourage negative feelings to arise and consume us. Often, we fall victim to the views of our own unforgiving critic, who always sees the glass as half-empty. At first, it might be hard to notice your pessimistic thoughts, but once identified, try working on replacing each negative one with a positive one. If you can transform the belief "I will never be able to do that…" to "I don't know how to do that right now, but with practice I can learn" then you can literally rewrite your future. Although it may take a while to fully uproot your negative thought patterns, these changes will significantly improve your sense of self-worth, general well-being, and relationship with food.

2. Practice self-acceptance.

Given the all-pervading nature of the media, it is no wonder many of us have qualms about our body image. Indeed, comparing ourselves to the Photoshopped and airbrushed celebrities that we see in magazines and on social media can often leave us feeling deeply unsatisfied with the way we look. But the truth is that we are all made to be different shapes and sizes. As such, it's important to start loving and accepting yourself the way you are. So rather than focusing on your looks, start paying attention to the wonderful qualities of your character. Are you good with children? Are you compassionate toward others? Can you sing beautifully?

3. Act from a place of gratitude.

Rather than agonizing over what could happen or worrying about what you lack in life, why not take stock of what you have achieved and how far you have come? Replace one negative thought with two thoughts of what you have to be grateful for. For example, replace "I'm not earning enough money" with "I have a great social network" or "I love my walk to work." Approaching your life from a place of abundance rather than absence has been scientifically proven to reap positive benefits for your health, social life, and general well-being.

4. Create self-love rituals.

Many people are often so overwhelmed with the chaos of everyday life, they neglect their self-care and relaxation routine. However, by giving yourself some valuable downtime you will recharge your body, nourish your mind, and lift your spirits. Create some self-love and relaxation rituals that do not involve food: Start with small changes, such as going to bed one hour earlier, treating yourself to a monthly massage, lighting some scented candles, or taking a long bath. Learning some new skills or taking up a new hobby with also help to increase your self-esteem.

5. Use available resources.

Self-help books, websites, and worksheets are not new concepts and—if used with an open mind—can reap great benefits for your emotional well-being. With such a wide range of self-help resources available, you are bound to find something that speaks to you. In addition to this, consider using daily positive affirmations as a tool to build your confidence, replace your negative thought patterns, and help you stay motivated. Find or create an affirmation that you believe in and that resonates with you. For instance, in a stressful situation, use "I notice that I am out of my alignment. I choose peace instead of this."

By equipping yourself with these tools, you are taking the necessary steps to improve your self-confidence and self-love. Training yourself to think and act this way will help uproot emotional eating and enable you to reach a state of overall health and wellness.

Author Photo

Rosie Letts

February 14, 2017 

  • Rosie Letts (Nutritional Therapist BSc Hons, mBANT, CNHC) is a fertility, pregnancy, and integrated women's health expert. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Therapy from Westminster University, where she received first-class honours in clinical work. Following university, Rosie went on to train with the innovative Institute of Functional Medicine, and regularly attends seminars across the globe as part of her commitment to attaining the highest standards of knowledge, competence, integrity and professionalism in the practice of evidence-based Nutritional Therapy. In recent years, she has launched Bump and Beyond Nutrition, a nutritional consultancy that celebrates pregnancy and empowers women through nutrition a
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Mahan Bound Lotus Video

Mahan Kirn learned Bound Lotus according to the Kundalini Yoga tradition from Yogi Bhajan. Learn the sacredness of this challenging yoga practice, her story, anatomy, benefits and modifications to help in the Bound Lotus practice.

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