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Month: June 2017

Can Yoga Slow Brain Aging and Increase Neuroplasticity?

Valerie Knopik for Yoga Digest discusses yoga’s ability to slow brain aging, summarizes the science behind it, shares some other possible psychological benefits.

Yoga and Meditation – The Fountain of Youth?

When I first started to practice yoga over 20 years ago, it was for the physical practice. As my practice matured, I stepped onto my mat not only for the physical connection but also because it soothed me – mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. It brought me to a peaceful place even after the most tiresome or stressful of days. And now, as my meditation practice has become consistent, I am able to tap into the peaceful space with as little as 10 minutes of sitting in stillness. As a yogi who is also a scientist, I have to sheepishly admit that I didn’t dwell too much on the physiological changes that might be happening in my brain. Although, I figured that some change must have occurred. Ask yourself, have you ever stopped to think about the effects of yoga and meditation on the health of your brain?

There is a growing body of research that suggests that mind-body therapies, such as yoga, pranayama, and meditation, can have a profound effect not only on our physical musculature and our mood, but also on the health of our brain. In short, there is suggestive evidence that yoga, meditation, and pranayama can keep our brain ‘young’.

Top/Down, Bottom/Up

How does this happen? A recent review (Muehsam et al., 2017; Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews) beautifully summarizes these pathways as ‘top/down’ and ‘bottom/up’. You can think of top/down effects as those that result from targeting an individual’s cognitive state. More specifically, top/down effects occur when we practice mind-body techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and focused intention tasks. These types of techniques have been shown to influence brain activity in regions that are involved in reducing psychological stress and increasing the parasympathetic response.

These top/down effects have downstream results of reducing heart rate, increased immune function, and more efficient digestion. All of these systems send messages to the brain to affect mood and behavior. Bottom/up effects occur when we engage in the physical aspects of yoga or controlled breath work. Both of which require us to use our musculoskeletal system and increase our cardiovascular output. These physiological changes also subsequently influence the body’s capability to fight illness, the balance between the parasympathetic/sympathetic nervous system, and mood. You can think of top/down and bottom/up pathways working together to produce direct effects on physiology and the nervous system.

Connecting the Dots

If we drill down a bit deeper, we see that these effects can come in many forms. They can change our immune system through the expression of stress-signaling genes. They can change our cognitive response to stimuli and our ability to learn through increased brain activity and connectivity.

Let’s connect the dots even further. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as the cessation of the modifications, or vrttis, of the mind. When we change brain activity, particularly in regions known to be involved in the process of learning to identify maladaptive or irrational thoughts (i.e., vrttis), through yoga and meditation, we have the amazing capacity to also change the landscape of our brain. This concept is called cortical plasticity. Essentially, it is our brain’s way of reorganizing itself by forming new neural connections based on our experiences, lifestyle, and environment.

The Takeaway

One lingering question might be on your mind. Are these only available to the most seasoned of yoga practitioners? Not necessarily.

While there is some evidence to suggest that long-term practice is needed to acquire enhancement of specific cognitive skills, such as processing of visual stimuli, there is also research to suggest that those newer to the practice of yoga and meditation can also benefit, particularly in areas of the brain involved in memory.

The take-home message? Practice. Step onto your mat. Sit on your meditation pillow. Or, simply just take a few moments each day to focus on your breath. Because you just might begin to tap into your own personal fountain of youth for your brain.

Read the article here.

Yoga for Kids: Reduce Stress & Teach Control

Kristi Pahr for Green Matters shares a few easy postures for teaching yoga to kids. Learn the benefits of yoga for kids, including teaching emotional control, a decrease in stress and anxiety, and physical/spatial awareness.

The Best Yoga Poses To Reduce Stress In Kids

Recent studies have shown that today’s kids are more stressed than many parents realize. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America research, “Children age 8 to 17 say they worry about doing well in school, getting into good colleges and their family’s finances. They also report suffering headaches, sleeplessness and upset stomachs.” The survey also found that many parents don’t know their children are experiencing stress.

Our world is increasingly hectic. Children’s days are filled with school, homework, and extracurricular activities. It’s vital that they know how to deal with stress, especially since they seem to be keeping it to themselves. By developing coping strategies early in life, kids may be less likely to develop psychological conditions related to chronic stress.

Managing Stress

One way to help children handle stress is to incorporate a yoga practice into their daily routine. Yoga has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in adults, and the same techniques often work for children. By helping kids focus on the present moment and become aware of their breath and body, we teach them a very important coping mechanism for stressful situations: mindfulness.

According to Marsha Weng in Yoga Journal, “When children learn techniques for self-health, relaxation, and inner fulfillment, they can navigate life’s challenges with a little more ease. Yoga at an early age encourages self-esteem and body awareness with a physical activity that’s noncompetitive. Fostering cooperation and compassion—instead of opposition—is a great gift to give our children.”

Children derive many other benefits from a regular yoga practice in addition to the reduction of stress and anxiety. For example, yoga can be physically strenuous and promote fitness, helps children with body awareness, promotes motor function and balance, and teaches children to listen to their bodies.

Alice Louise Blunden, a senior Yoga Medicine instructor who teaches both locally in London and instructs teachers in training all over the world, is also the founder of The Yoga Project UK, a company that connects yoga teachers with schools across the UK. She discussed her recommended yoga poses for children via email in an interview with Green Matters, which has been edited for clarity below.

Tree Pose

To build self-confidence, we always practice tree pose in my kid’s yoga classes. Balancing in this pose is great for building core and leg strength. And, focusing the mind helps with their concentration skills. It can be a really challenging posture to begin with and often the kids will fall over like dominoes! But when the little yogis finally manage to balance, even for just a moment or two, they always shout out in glee so it’s worth the effort.

Child’s Pose

Resting in child’s pose is perfect for bringing a sense of calm. Whenever the class starts to feel a little chaotic (which can happen quite quickly with kids), I bring the children into child’s pose. It always transforms the atmosphere from being a manic mess to a place of peace and quiet.

Lion’s Breath

I’ll always include pranayama exercises in my kid’s yoga classes. Lion’s breath is without a doubt the all-time favorite among the students. Most kids need little encouragement to pull a silly face by crossing your eyes and poking your tongue out, so this one always ends in giggles. Is there any better way to release tension than laughing?

Read the Article here. 

Looking for more information on children’s yoga? Here are a couple other resources on the research and benefits surrounding yoga for kids:

Happy Father’s Day from Yoga Medicine!

Fathers come in all forms. Biological, step, traditional, non-traditional, uncles, brothers, friends, single mothers who take on the role of both mother and father, you name it.  Let’s honor these father figures in our lives today (and how about everyday!) by foregoing the traditional Father’s Day gifts. Instead, give them the gift of our TIME and by extension, the gift of CONNECTION.

My father had to take on the roles of both mother and father when my mom passed away from cancer when I was 12. I’ve given him countless ‘traditional’ gifts of golf balls and World’s Best Dad coffee mugs.  The most special times were when I sat with him in the kitchen and asked questions. How he bought his first house. What it was like to be let go from a job when he had three young children and a wife at home.  Or when I asked him to teach me how to make his famous coleslaw or his traditional Polish holiday bread. It’s in those moments, even when he’s schooling me on the intricacies of cutting cabbage or kneading dough, that the most lovely and lasting memories are made.
These memories will allow me to tell his story to my children. Then they can pass along his stories to their families. In today’s world, there are ‘virtual connections’ to so many people. Yet, we often feel so alone. We invite you to spend this day giving the most amazing gift. The gift of your time and attention, and ultimately, the gift of connection. Happy Father’s Day from all of us at Yoga Medicine! May your day be filled with love, light, and true, authentic connection.

Goal Setting for Your Most Productive Summer Yet

Live Lead Play shares the three things to focus on for your most productive summer yet. Learn how to better your goal setting, and how to achieve the goals you set.

Stay Rooted This Summer… The 3 Keys To Better Mental And Physical Health

Ah, the start of summer! An open road to go running, a yoga class on the beach, and a bike ride through the mountains… the great outdoors is calling. But, before you take “action” find out why fitness experts are urging us to better align our mental health, not just our physical health, with our goals.

Turns out, getting in touch with our emotions and desires — those things that really root us — are what set us on the path to real change.

“We don’t need to be perfect, just to keep moving in our desired direction,” says Rachel Land, a senior Yoga Medicine teacher.

Land notes recent research into neuroplasticity, which is our ability to reshape our minds. Experts say that we re-assess our sense of self every 50 milliseconds.

“The implication is that we don’t have to wait for an auspicious date like New Year’s Day to make changes; we all have the power to change, the moment we truly want to,” Land adds.

Let’s explore a few ways to launch your inner journey and align the mind, body, and spirit to attain your goals.

Goal Setting – Using your Feelings

Danielle LaPorte’s method for identifying our “core desired feelings,” instead of goals, has helped many people get in touch with what they really want and reach those goals. As outlined in “The Desire Map,” LaPorte says we should go after the feelings we want to achieve instead of the goals. Once you have those core desired feelings established, you can then map out what things will help you realize those feelings.

In first establishing the feelings you want instead of goals, you may see that your goals don’t really align with what you really want. That’s okay — follow your feelings, she encourages. For example, if your goal is to feel better in your clothing, setting a goal of losing 10 pounds may not achieve it. Maybe starting a walking regimen or strength training will enable you to tone up instead of watching the scale drop.

Think Small

Shoshana Bennett, a clinical psychologist, said New Year’s resolutions are typically a set-up for failure. “If we root our happiness on particular outcomes, it’s an anxiety-producing way to live,” she tells LiveLeadPlay. “There’s nothing wrong with dropping fat, earning more money, or moving into a larger home, but you never want to base your enjoyment of life on huge, external events. That’s a trap.”

Instead, choose one simple behavioral change that will support your physical, mental, or spiritual health and make it a habit. Instead of reading the entire Bible, read a few verses from a devotional book each morning. “When we choose one little and uncomplicated behavior, it’s easy to set ourselves up for success. And as an extra bonus, one little positive change often leads to another,” Bennett adds.

Get Active

Okay, you don’t have to start training for the Olympics, but finding one activity you enjoy is a great way to improve physical health — and that’s where a lot of people want to improve, especially during the summer. Jimmy Minardi, a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher, says that forcing ourselves to go to the gym or take classes we’re not passionate about makes working out feel like a chore.

“I’m a huge proponent of getting outside, communing with nature, and reconnecting with your environment. Going for a hike or even doing outdoor chores help you develop spiritual awareness,” he tells LiveLeadPlay.

Recently, a study found that outdoor exercise was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy, and positive engagement. The study also reports that it lowered tension, depression, confusion, and anger. Study participants also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.

Yoga Practice for Mental Clarity

You don’t have to go outdoors to be active. Land notes that a few yoga practices can help us gain better mental clarity:

Tapas, or self-discipline, refers to the tie between physical effort and mental resolve. Every time we deliberately ignite our willpower to do something we don’t want to do in the moment, like stay in a challenging yoga pose, we feel tapas in action. We’ve all felt the surge of resolve we gain from overcoming inner resistance and staying the course; yogis believe that this tapas heat builds to burn away lethargy and impurity.

Abhyasa, another key mental discipline described in Patanjali’s sutra, means “sustained effort” or “diligent practice”. When we commit to regular yoga practice or a training schedule, we exhibit abhyasa. Each time we walk the path, we make it easier to walk the next time.

Svadhyaya translates to “meditating on one’s self”. This encourages us to examine the true source of our resistance to achieving our goals. When we hit snooze on our morning alarm instead of getting up to practice yoga, svadhyaya prods us to uncover the true source of our reluctance. Are we simply tired, or self-sabotaging, so that our outer reality continues to reflect our inner image of ourselves? Does our inner image need to change to reflect the life we want to lead?

Dharna is focus. When we practice goal setting and keep our goals in plain view, we are using dharana.

Giving yourself time to mentally unwind and breathe can be key to really aligning what you want with what you do. If you think about using all three of these techniques together, you can get outside to walk or reflect — it doesn’t have to just be about losing weight, as many people’s goals extend beyond that.

Getting out can make you feel better in general and help you define your “core desired feelings” or goals. It also gives you time to think up small ways to take positive actions towards them.

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