SMARTer bodies

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A Discussion About Mindfulness With Dr. Peregrine Kavros

A Discussion About Mindfulness With Dr. Peregrine Kavros

Dr. Peregrine Kavros is a friend of ours who is a licensed Psychologist & Clinical Neuropsychologist who provides individual psychotherapy, couples counseling, and sex therapy.  She founded Management Focus to address the often overlooked needs of students and professionals in academia and the workplace: Among the many tools she uses, Dr. Kavros has found that mindfulness techniques can change the moods that control your life.  So, obviously we wanted to pick her brain and share with you what makes her work with others so successful. She explains the neuroscience that proves that there is indeed a connection between emotions and the physical body.  This science also proves the need for all of us to learn mindfulness techniques to help maintain a functional mind/body relationship.

SB: Dr. Kavros we believe the physical, emotional and mental bodies are distinct, but connected.  Can you speak to that?

Dr. K:  There is a clear systemic or neurological basis for the inter-relationships of the body, mind and emotions. That is why having a physical movement practice is so important in helping us to affect the change that we would like orchestrate in those relationships. Centering the body can be helpful when we feel out of control either mentally or emotionally.  It’s also important that the physical movement we engage in be fun and enjoyable!

SB:  We are big anatomy and neuroscience nerds.  Can you describe some of the brain functions that fit into the context of this conversation about the body/mind and trying to create a practice that allows us to keep that connection healthy?

Dr.K:  The specific neurobiological underpinnings of Mindfulness, in this context, can be read about in the work done by Drs. David Vago and David Silbersweig.  In the linked article, they describe how one may, “through meditation…modulate self-specifying and narrative self-networks through an integrative fronto-parietal control network.” (Thankfully, Dr. K will now translate for the rest of us.)

Rather than our thoughts, emotions or body controlling us, with practices of mindfulness, we develop a greater capacity to choose which part of us needs to be in control at any given point in time. Until a regular practice of mindfulness is enacted, the Narrative self, which is associated with the structures of the brain that are more likely to hold our “stories”, (the hippocampus, ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and other memory related structures), may be overly dominant. The Narrative self, the voice that does not seem to fade and replays over and over again, reminds us of what we’ve experienced in the past and how that past may influence our experience in the future. This process of recollection can be an overwhelming sensory experience. For instance, if an experience triggers a memory of an event you had when you were 8 years old then you can also re-experience the physical sensations that go along with that memory.

SB:  So the neurobiological process you have described can make moving beyond past trauma difficult as well as make it challenging to remain in “reality” due to our ever-shifting emotions. How does practicing mindfulness effect that process?

Dr K.: These Narrative brain structures that we have been speaking about compose what neuroscientists refer to as Task Negative Networks. When Task Negative Networks are shown during functional magnetic resonance imaging (a test that measures blood flow in the brain) individuals are engaged in non-goal related activities such as, daydreaming. Alternatively, Task Positive Networks, which involve structures such as, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, precuneus (a structure involved with episodic memory, visual processing and self-awareness), frontal eye fields, primary motor cortex, parietal lobe, among others, activate on a conscious and unconscious level when individuals engage in goal related activities. In one study, prior to a sustained practice of mindfulness, the posterior part of the Insula (one of the brain structures associated with emotion) was activated at the same time as the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (the Narrative Self). After a sustained practice of mindfulness, the Insula was activated with the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, thus shifting from rumination to a stronger capacity to attend, initiate, execute and follow through. Drs.  Vago and Silbersweig suggest that the brain actually becomes more efficient in integrating information and switching between the Task Positive and Task Negative Networks; thus, coordinating our processing of emotion and physical sensory in a much more helpful manner. Rather than being lost in our emotions and physical sensations, we can direct our activity where it needs to be directed, while at the same time feeling grounded and centered in our experience.

SB: Nice!  So can a physical practice, like yoga or dance, that demands your focus be part of a mindfulness practice?

Dr.K: Absolutely! Engaging in a physical practice, while also directing one’s attention, can help us develop our muscles, so to speak, as we shift our brain activity. The brain does not function with separate conversations happening in distinct areas of the brain.  Activity in the brain is more like a chorus of voices and we are the conductor.

SB: Aaaah.  A tenent of SMARTer Yoga™ is that your physical practice should increase your awareness of your body, of your mental processes and of your emotions.  We believe that with this increased awareness comes the ability to make better choices.  Do you believe that this relates to the neuroscience we are talking about here?

Dr.K:  Absolutely!  A mindfulness practice (physical or meditative) can help one to discriminate among the voices that make up the chorus in an active brain.  With mindfulness it is easier to choose the voice that will help us to pay closer attention or complete our task without necessarily being distracted by memories that can negatively influence our experience. We become less reactive and are able to stay focused in the moment.

SB: This is so exciting! Integrating information in a way that lets us make good choices is ultimately the reason we have a practice that is physically demanding, yet meditative.  Taking our time while confronting uncomfortable sensations, breathing, staying focused and making good movement choices is the way we learn how to evaluate pieces of information in daily life, but not be overwhelmed by triggers.  Mindfulness can be an incredibly empowering experience.  How would you recommend someone begin practicing?

Dr.K:  Start with what you have: your body.  Begin by focusing on your breath for 5-10 minutes a day.  A really simple beginning to your practice can start by counting to 4 on the inhale and then counting to 4 on the exhale. One can also go to Dr. Dan Siegel’s site for more information and examples on how to begin.

 

3 Reasons You Are Failing at Meditation

3 Reasons You Are Failing at Meditation

Meditation can be full of benefits for the practitioner.  But it is challenging!  Here are 3 things you need to avoid to help you get the most from this practice.

1) You are sleep deprived:

Ever been in a yoga class and hear the snoring people in Savasna (corpse pose)?  Been one of them?  That usually means that those poor sleep-deprived folks can’t even lay back without their brains and bodies expressing relief at the opportunity for rest.  This is the real challenge Savasana and meditation present to the over-worked (who obviously need it); a practice in mental focus is not an opportunity to nap.  Until you get the rest you need on a daily basis your body may not let you tell the difference. Note: If you are learning to meditate in order to improve your sleep or just to get to sleep it’s not bad to start.  You may notice that you have an easier time falling asleep in your bed at night when you do try to focus on your breath. Great!  But just don’t get into the habit of confusing this with a meditation session, in which you do NOT fall asleep.

2) You are trying too hard:

You get that meditation works and you know for sure that you would benefit from it.  So you go after it with enthusiasm, which is AWESOME!  But if meditation is new to you, sitting (or however you choose to do it) for more than 2 minutes at a time may make you run from the room screaming.  Sitting and connecting with yourself is no joke!  You will be confronting the nasty thoughts and emotions as well as the peacefulness inside you that makes you a complicated and lovable human-being.  Take it serious and take it slow.  Start with two minutes and then progress from there.

3) Your body hurts:

If you can’t get comfortable in your own skin you will be setting yourself up for failure when you try to sit still for any focused period of time.  WORD! This is reason #34,865,499 that yoga and meditation go hand-in-hand (that # is totally verifiable…). Yoga can help you get comfortable hanging out in your own body on both a physical and emotional level.  Sometimes being in one position for any period of time can bring up ants-in-the-pants sensations, among other aches and pains.  Try 5 minutes of moving in your body, moving through joints, lengthen muscles that feel cramped before you meditate.  Set up your physical body so that you can be comfortable exploring your emotional and mental bodies.

 

The Power of Positive Visualizations…Oh Wait…

visualizations

We know that using visualizations can help some people get clear on a goal, so they can stay focused and take the appropriate steps to make that happen.  But have YOU ever felt like it was just wishful thinking or you couldn’t relate to the process?  Well, you are not alone!  Kim shares her personal frustration with how some people exhort the positives of visualization without really explaining what it’s about.  Bottom line, nothing is wrong with you and there are other strategies you can use to help you get to where you want to go:

Often, one of the main differences between our westernized version of yoga and other types of physical exercise is the emphasis on meditation (or at least, it should be…). This comes in various forms and there seems to be a trend lately focusing on positive visualizations, or in other words, visualizing yourself attaining a certain goal. In a general class, a teacher might spend a few minutes at the beginning or end of class asking you to sit with your eyes closed and think about yourself surrounded by puppy dogs or rainbows or something else that makes you happy (chocolate covered bacon?) and this practice is supposed to somehow, magically help you manifest your goal. I have heard people rant and rave about this kind of technique and how transformative the practice can be… However in my own experience, I have never found it to make much more of a difference than day-dreaming. WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH ME???

Well, turns out I’m not such a weird freak after all! According to this study published in Forbes, Visualize Success if You Want to Fail,  positive visualizations actually seem to invite failure. Their test subjects seemed to have less ambition towards their goal after the visualization, perhaps because their brains tricked them into thinking that they had already achieved it. So why does it feel better when you think about kitty cats and flowers in yoga class? It seems that even though the visualizations may not be effective in manifesting personal goals, they are effective in a physiological sense. During these visualizations, the subjects would experience an overall calming effect, which included lower blood pressure. That is something to rave about! So go ahead and visualize yourself swimming around in a vault of money, Scrooge McDuck style, while in savasana! Just don’t expect to wake up a millionaire (and definitely don’t dive head first into gold coins from a 20 ft. diving board; you might actually die).

That all being said, this study was very limited and I certainly don’t want to discredit the experience of those who have used these techniques with success. I’m sure lots and lots of people have found a way to use positive visualizations to help them achieve things. All I am saying is that, if it doesn’t work for you, it’s ok and there is research out there on your side. Different techniques work for different people and you have to find the one that works for you. Interestingly, in the article, it is suggested that one try visualizing failure.  This may sound odd, but some brains may react positively to the challenge and turn on their problem solving skills.  Perhaps we should stop day-dreaming and just get things done? Or create manageable steps towards change and take it one step at a time? What do you think?

The Pain of Changing Negative Patterns and Experiences

Doing good for yourself hurts.  We’re talking specifically about the discomfort involved with undoing bad habits and changing patterns of behavior for the better.  This kind of pain is familiar to those of us with a conscious movement practice like yoga, pilates or dance.  When the goal is to have focus, be aware of the processes of what’s going on in the body and change “bad” habits for better ones (Note: What is “bad” and what is “good” changes depending on the situation and individual.  That’s another post) one is bound to confront feelings of frustrations and a myriad of unpleasant physical sensations.

Sounds like it sucks, right? This is one reason why we lose motivation so easily to continue to make good changes, live better/more conscious lives, stick to New Year’s resolutions….
So why do something that hurts or feels bad?  If you’re clear on your intentions and what your goals are then you can learn to use these sensations as indicators for how the process is going.  A great example is avoidance behavior.  Sometimes our instinct to avoid pain can keep us stuck in a rut.  We can only change for the better if we are willing to look at and sit with whatever it is we need to change and move past.  This process is the same for the emotional over-eater, the alcoholic driven to numb emotional pain, the one who is okay with limping and favoring one leg in hopes that an injury will eventually sort itself out, one who doesn’t like the way “certain movements” feel and will instead accept other physical limitations, and so on…

Mel (and many others) can easily relate to this difficult process when she battles depression.  Mel has a history of clinical depression throughout college. It was during that time that she learned how to mitigate much of the physical and emotional ramifications of coping with the sense of inertia and anxiety that can characterize depression for some.  (We will not be discussing the chemical imbalances in the brain often responsible for the biochemical causes of Depression.  It’s too complicated a subject for this post, although, much of what is discussed here can be applied to the neuroscience.  For the sake of keeping this not novel-length we’re skipping it).  The physical sense of heaviness and the emotional feeling of hopelessness was often so overwhelming. But Mel noticed that physical activity was often helpful and in fact could even prevent an oncoming cycle. Much of this awareness has come from a deep yoga practice (see, yoga CAN help you!). She noticed when an episode, which can last many weeks, started to rear its ugly head and forced herself into activity.  Depression, once it has its sticky, dark grip on a person can feel impossible to shake and if nothing is done can get progressively worse as time passes.  Winter was always a particularly hard time, but Mel realized that once the gloomy feelings began to creep up that she had to act fast if there was any hope of mitigating the negative experience and maybe even shake it off completely.

Mel shares: “It took a lot of discipline.  The second I could identify what was going as something beyond the normal stress we all experience in college I knew I had to act fast.  I didn’t want to.  I didn’t always like it.  But I had seen the other side of letting the depression take over and knew how much worse it could get.  I spoke to therapists and had other coping methods in place, but physical activity was key FOR ME.  So I would force myself to run, walk or crawl.  Sometimes it really felt like all I could do was crawl!  But I did it.  It felt fighting for my life; it was so painful.  Despite that, I knew in those moments that I was taking control while I still had it in me to do.  I knew I was changing my chemistry, my outlook and my entire sense of feeling victimized.  Through movement, of any kind, I found power.  Even now, although my depression is nowhere near as bad, I can feel when emotions are starting to overwhelm me.  One of the things I force myself to do is workout as hard as I can.”

This pretty looking shit takes hard work.

As you know, we believe that there are (at least) 3 bodies:  the physical, the emotional and the mental.  They are inextricably connected; in fact are 1.  Whatever is going on in one will affect the others.  Mel continues, “Sometimes it’s weights, it’s plyo or it’s yoga.  But I get moving and it’s in those moments when emotionally I don’t want to move that I know I HAVE TO.”  That’s a moment when one uses the sensations as indicators for change.  “As long as I know I’m not damaging my physical body, the more I don’t want to do it the harder I work myself.  There have been moments when one more burpee makes me feel like crying.  Not because of the physical demand.  I could be working well below my endurance level.  But it’s the fight to shift my energies that hurts so much.  Trust me; I’ve cried through the burpees.  It’s at the apex of that pain that I’m aware that in this moment I make a change for the better.  Often, after pushing past the discomfort there is a sense of relief, accomplishment and the black cloud starts to lift.  It’s an incredibly difficult, but worthy undertaking.  There are many who will know what I’m talking about.”

The above process shows what it is to use awareness of all 3 bodies and gather valuable information.  Taking the signals out of the “good” or “bad” categories can be helfpul.  For instance, one may feel the sensations of despair in the body as pain and think, “Oh no.  I can’t move.  It’ll hurt too much and maybe damage myself.”  This is an example of the emotional body dominating the physical and mental bodies in an unhealthy imbalance (this language may not sound familiar compared to previous posts, but this is the same thing as saying that this is an example of the limbic system overriding the pre-frontal cortex in regards to choices for body movement).  It’s precisely in that moment when an individual can shift energies and strike a balance again.  One can take the opportunity to change how the physical body responds to difficult emotions.  We’ve discussed this before in other posts about confronting fear or difficult relationships.  The more control and awareness you have over the complex system of the human experience as expressed on these 3 levels the better the chances you have at making good choices…even when it hurts.

The concept of using physical movement or exercise is not new, particularly in this therapeutic context.  There are many teachers, therapists and scientific studies that speak about the benefits.  Take a look at Movement Efficiency Training, which incorporates emotional states to optimize movement ability.  You can take a look at this line of studies about exercise and depression along with several studies from Harvard, which try to be as exhaustive with variables, causation and validity as possible.

Brain Health: More Reasons to Pay Attention

It’s Monday, which can suck, but here’s a great video to provide some fun distraction.  It explains the benefits of a mindfulness practice, giving yourself down time, giving children your full attention and respect, and how the internet measures up to your brain.  Whew!  Who would have known all this could be covered in 10 mins?  Our take away:  Attention is your brain’s most valuable resource. 

Feeling Stuck? Alicia Suarez Tells Us to Pay Attention.

Our good friend and awesome yoga teacher/movement person/anatomy fiend, Alicia Suárez, sends out newsletters sharing her experience and insights.  This month’s in particular struck a cord.    Here we share what she wrote about feeling stuck and getting unstuck.  We hope you find her reminder about cultivating awareness as helpful as we do.  Then sign up for her newsletters and expect more goodness:

When making a decision one usually checks out the options at hand, considers the “pros and cons” and picks. But, have you ever considered that the number of options one sees as available is based on what one is already predisposed to notice?

While it might take effort, slowing down and being more mindful might reveal options that we did not realize we had. This is something that I am currently trying to do. In order to explore some of the vast number of possibilities out there that I never considered, I am trying to expand my focus and allow myself to sense beyond my usual habits.
 
Simply put, I am “shutting down the autopilot.” And, in doing so, I am forcing myself to pay more attention to the movement and thinking patterns I have developed over the years. For example, I have a ritual of wiping my desk clean every morning before I start working…a little OCD perhaps, but it is a habit that I find very useful as it helps to ground me and shift gears for work. On the other hand, a habit that I have discovered that it is not so useful is my tendency to chew food on the left side of my mouth. I have no idea how long I have been doing this but at least I now know why the left side of my jaw is always so tired and tense and can choose to do something different. Like chewing on both sides…

Becoming aware of habits (mine and my clients’) is at the core of my teaching and personal practice. In my experience, being mindful does, indeed, require effort and a desire to unravel, at times, years of unawareness. Although sometimes not an easy task, it has been profoundly healing for me and, to top it all off, it makes me feel more “in the moment.” Woohoo!

Turn on Your Heart Light, er…Brain?!

Have you heard of the “cardiac brain?” You might be familiar with the concept of the stomach/gut/enteric nervous system as the “second brain.” There is now a body of growing research that supports the theory that the heart functions as its own “brain” and exhibits its own consciousness, “Far more than a simple pump, as was once believed, the heart is now recognized by scientists as a highly complex system with its own functional “brain.”

Let’s just dive right in:

Research in the new discipline of neurocardiology shows that the heart is a sensory organ and a sophisticated center for receiving and processing information. The nervous system within the heart (or “heart brain”) enables it to learn, remember, and make functional decisions independent of the brain’s cerebral cortex. Moreover, numerous experiments have demonstrated that the signals the heart continuously sends to the brain influence the function of higher brain centers involved in perception, cognition, and emotional processing.

The heart generates the body’s most powerful and most extensive rhythmic electromagnetic field. Compared to the electromagnetic field produced by the brain, the electrical component of the heart’s field is about 60 times greater in amplitude, and permeates every cell in the body. The magnetic component is approximately 5000 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field and can be detected several feet away from the body with sensitive magnetometers.

We have demonstrated, for example, that brain rhythms naturally synchronize to the heart’s rhythmic activity, and also that during sustained feelings of love or appreciation, the blood pressure and respiratory rhythms, among other oscillatory systems, entrain to the heart’s rhythm.

This may sound pretty far out right here. Obviously, there are many implications involved if the theories presented continue to prove positive (which they do). We take certain terms for granted like, “emotional intelligence,” but in the context of these findings emotional intellect takes on a much more serious meaning. What about the implications of emotional health and wellbeing on the physical body? On this blog we often refer to the “physical,” “emotional,” and “mental” bodies and their interconnectedness.  That being said, if we take the third bullet point above to be indicative of how emotional states effect our physiology than everything we have said before about the importance of working with emotions when rehabilitating the physical (and obviously the mental) body is much more true and important than previously understood. (By the way, here’s a good place to mention a book, Molecules of Emotion. If you haven’t read it yet…Just Read It!).

There is an institute that, gratefully, dedicates its funds and time to studying the phenomenon of the heart-brain. It is called HeartMath and its study of the intelligent heart has shaken (“vibrated” if you will) previously held scientific beliefs about the human body to their core. HeartMath believes in and uses scientific research that proves that the heart can independently send messages to the brain, effectively doing away with the one-way only brain dominant brain-to-heart communication model:

The Laceys noticed that this simple model only partially matched actual physiological behavior. As their research evolved, they found that the heart seemed to have its own peculiar logic that frequently diverged from the direction of the autonomic nervous system. The heart appeared to be sending meaningful messages to the brain that it not only understood, but obeyed. Even more intriguing was that it looked as though these messages could affect a person’s behavior. Shortly after this, neurophysiologists discovered a neural pathway and mechanism whereby input from the heart to the brain could “inhibit” or “facilitate” the brain’s electrical activity.

Wow, Wow, Wow…Awesome. A piece written in 2007, by Professor Mohamed Omar Salem sums up nicely that there is now room in the scientific field, where there wasn’t previously, for the exploration of what we have always called the “spirit” within the physical body. No longer must we believe that conscious awareness originates only in the brain. (This article my seem a little “woo woo” for some people. If it is go back to HeartMath where “Neurocardiology” is grounded in hard science.).

The main point of this post is to share new research, to stay true to our belief that one should question everything, and to whet your appetites into exploring new ways in which our perceptions of and interactions with the world may be redefined. The video below, from HeartMath, demonstrates how exploring this new scientific field can illuminate how we effect one another in our daily interactions. The implication is that the better we behave and feel towards other people and ourselves, the better the physical bodies do. We’ve said that for a long time, but now we are closer to having “legitimate” proof.”

How Do You Interpret Pain?

We are often asked by our students (especially now following all of this talk of injury in yoga) how to discern “good” pain from “bad” pain. The first thing is to realize that pain is neither good nor bad, it is simply information. The important thing is how we relate to (listen to) and integrate this information. A chiropractor we know in NYC, Robert Davidowitz, has said, “Pain means: pay attention inside now.”  Pain comes in several varieties and one could literally write volumes on the subject. In this post, we will touch lightly upon distinguishing certain types of pain that pertain to movement, but more importantly, how to relate to that pain in such a way that you decrease your potential for injury. Read More

Great Stress Reliever…Books

I found myself on the busy and noisy streets of New York, which usually I love, but not today.  Usually, I’m pretty good at just letting the noise and intensity wash over me.  Today, though, was more of a challenge.  In the midst of the external cacophony and my internal mounting chaos I walked by a bookstore.  Didn’t have to think twice before I just ducked right in.

The smell, the quiet, and the piles of books allowed me to let go and instantly calmed my overstimulated nerves.  I must have spent 40 minutes inside.  Without buying a thing I walked out feeling renewed. Books have always been an important part of my daily life.  I know there are many others that feel the same.  They provide an escape and allow for the senses (touch, sight and smell) to be completely absorbed in the moment.  Reading really does have a transformative affect. (Like Yoga anyone?)

My suggestion:  Next time your feeling stressed, if you can, walk into a bookstore.  Take your time looking and being fascinated by every new story and subject that surrounds you.  The most important part:  DON’T BUY ANYTHING!  Let this be an experience that allows you to disengage with the outside world.  If the focus then becomes about acquiring something new that can interrupt your ability to connect with your internal self.  Try it!

If you happen to by in NYC check out:

Strand Book Store.  The Most famous used bookstore in NYC.

McNally Jackson Books.  This Soho bookstore always has amazing displays and author signings.

Mercer Street Books.  Located on Mercer St. next to the Angelika Film Center, one can spend hours looking through the shelves for hidden and very cheap treasures.

 Please share some of your favorite spots, wherever they are.