Monday, December 28, 2015

The Brain Before and After Meditation

Scientist’s Brain Scans Show How Meditation Literally Increases The Size of Your Brain

Most people seem to think meditation is only a spiritual practice that spiritual people use to ‘find themselves’. This could not be further from the truth.  When practiced correctly it has amazing effects for both your mental and physical health.

In the video you are about to watch neuroscientist Sara Lazar carried out an experiment which showed how meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress.

Based on the findings in Sara’s experiments it was found that meditation practice can actually slow down and even prevent the natural age-related decline our brain suffers as we get older. So not only is this ancient practice backed by science you only have to speak to anyone who has meditated and they will tell you that it is a wonderful practice for both mental and emotional development.

People who meditate will tell you how they feel more connected to the world around them and more at peace with themselves. You will probably notice how they deal with stressful situations better than most and are able to appreciate things in life that perhaps most people take for granted.
This is no longer spiritual mumbo jumbo but science confirms – Meditation is good for you and it literally changes your brain for the better!
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Monday, December 21, 2015

Mindfulness Meditation & Addiction

Causes for addiction and how mindfulness meditation can help with them.

One of the first steps in dealing with addiction is to discover the emotional cause of it, whether it is fear, depression, anxiety, or pessimism. Many times these unwholesome thoughts and beliefs come from what I call the “wanting mind.” In wanting mind, we feel that our current state of unhappiness could be cured if only we could have the money, job, relationship, recognition, or power we had and lost, or never had and strongly desire. Often we cause ourselves suffering when we ache for something that lies out of our grasp or cling in vain to something that has already passed away. Sometimes, wanting mind involves tightly holding on to something negative: an unwholesome belief about how things ought to be or should have been, or an unwholesome emotion such as anger, sadness, or jealousy. Mindfulness practice helps us develop the capacity to see clearly exactly what we’re attached to so that we can let go of it and end our suffering. The hidden areas of resistance that emerge into our awareness can be noted and examined later so that we can make the conscious choice to reject them.

You can never completely avoid the wanting mind or any other hindrance. Desire is part of being human. It causes us to strive toward bettering our lives and our world, and has led to many of the discoveries and inventions that have provided us with a higher quality of life. Yet despite all that we can achieve and possess, we can become convinced that we won’t be happy or contented unless we acquire even more. This unwholesome belief can lead to competitiveness and feeling resentful toward, or envious of, those who seem to have an easier life.

If I have a patient who is using drugs or even food to manipulate their moods I first refer them to a nutritionist; a psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist; or a holistic doctor, such as an integrative medical doctor, to break this habit. In addition to this I recommend mindfulness meditation, yoga practice, and regular exercise as they are all excellent to help mood regulation. These types of activities lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your bloodstream, increase your interleukin levels (enhancing your immune system and providing you with greater energy), and streamline your body’s ability to cleanse itself of chemical toxins, such as lactic acid in your muscles and bloodstream, which can affect neurotransmitter receptors and alter your mood (Chopra 1994; Rossi 1993).

The challenge to altering addictions is the fear that you can’t change which can push you into denial and cause you to minimize the consequences of your unproductive behaviors. Whatever you discover about yourself and however painful your discovery, dramatic breakthroughs are always possible. Research on mindfulness meditation indicates that qualities we once thought immutable that form temperament and character can actually be altered significantly. By retraining your mind through mindfulness practice, you create new neural networks. If you’re aggressive, you can find ways to temper that aspect of yourself, becoming assertive and clear about your boundaries without entering into a competitive and possibly even hostile mind-set that will sabotage you.

For many years, scientists believed that the brain’s plasticity, that is, its ability to create new structures and learn, was limited after childhood. However, new research shows that we can alter the structure of the brain and reap the benefits well into adulthood. Sara Lazar, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered that the more one practices mindfulness meditation, the thicker the brain becomes in the mid-prefrontal cortex and in the mid-insular region of the brain. Changing your mind (or thought processes) actually causes changes in the brain (Lazar et al. 2005). Lazar found that, while people who’ve practiced meditation for ten or twenty years are adept at quickly achieving a state of concentration and mindful awareness, newcomers who engage in mindfulness meditation as little as four hours a week can achieve and sustain a state of mindfulness that leads to creative flow, or what I call “open-mind consciousness.” She discovered that even beginning meditators in their early twenties were able to achieve advanced states of concentration and insight (what I refer to as “mindstrength”) equal to that of senior meditation practitioners. Intention and attention of focus were the keys to reaching these states, not the number of hours spent on a meditation cushion (Lazar and Siegel 2007). From my own experience and work, I know that regular mindfulness practice allows us to set aside distractions and enter the transformative state of open mind.

Mindfulness practice may positively affect the amount of activity in the amygdala, the walnut-sized area in the center of the brain responsible for regulating emotions (Davidson 2000). When the amygdala is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system engages to counteract the anxiety response. The heart rate lowers, breathing deepens and slows, and the body stops releasing cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream; these stress hormones provide us with quick energy in times of danger but have damaging effects on the body in the long term if they’re too prevalent. Over time, mindfulness meditation actually thickens the bilateral, prefrontal right-insular region of the brain (Lazar et al. 2005), the area responsible for optimism and a sense of well-being, spaciousness, and possibility. This area is also associated with creativity and an increased sense of curiosity, as well as the ability to be reflective and observe how your mind works.

By building new neural connections among brain cells, we rewire the brain, and with each new neural connection, the brain is actually learning. It’s as if we’re adding more RAM to a computer, giving it more functionality. In The Mindful Brain, leading neuroscientist Daniel Siegel (2007, 5), defines the mind as “a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” His early brain research showed that “where neurons fire, they can rewire” (2007, 291); that is, they create new neural pathways or structures in the brain. He postulates that one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation practice is this process of creating new neural networks for self-observation, optimism, and well-being. Through mindfulness meditation, we light up and build up the left-prefrontal cortex, associated with optimism, self-observation, and compassion, allowing ourselves to cease being dominated by the right-prefrontal cortex, which is associated with fear, depression, anxiety, and pessimism. As a result, our self-awareness and mood stability increase as our harsh judgments of others and ourselves decrease. By devoting attention, intention, and daily effort to being mindful, we learn to master the mind and open the doorway to the creativity available in open-mind consciousness.

It’s entirely possible that the same effects can be achieved through other practices that appear to open up new neural pathways, such as tai chi, yoga, and other forms of meditation, but thanks to researchers studying mindfulness meditation, we now know that we can actually remap the brain and affect the way it functions, as well as the way it influences the body.


Article c/o Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. for Psychology Today 


Monday, December 14, 2015

Five Fascinating Health Benefits of Mindful Meditation

“Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

Mindfulness meditation has been around for literally thousands of years, and there’s a reason for that: it works. Through science we’re starting to get a better understanding of why it is so beneficial. Everyday more research is drawing a clearer link between meditation and human health. Its effect on our mind body and soul is undeniable. People as diverse as David Lynch and the Dalai Lama have praised the benefits of mindful meditation, asserting that it can increase attention, combat stress, boost overall health, and even foster compassion. With that in mind, here are five interesting health benefits of mindful meditation.

1.) Stress & pain relief:
“What we have to learn in both meditation and in life is to be free of attachment to the good experiences and free of aversion to the negative ones.” – Sogyal Rinpoche

A new study in the journal Health Psychology shows an association between increased mindfulness and decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Another study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist University found that meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40% and pain unpleasantness by 57%, compared to morphine which only shows pain reduction of 25%. As such, it lowers anxiety and depression by helping us feel, more than think, about that which conflicts us psychologically.

Meditation on the Brain

Anybody who has practiced mindful meditation long enough understands that meditation beats almost all other methods of stress relief, except maybe physical exercise. This is because being present with that which stresses us out turns the tables on the push-pull power dynamic between our daily troubles and our ability to withstand them. In the quiet spaces between our thoughts, stress itself becomes a thing for us to embrace and understand as opposed to a thing that controls us and dictates our happiness.

2.) Increased Gray Matter & Neuroplasticity:
“It is likely that the observed larger hippocampal volumes may account for meditators’ singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior,” –Eileen Luders

We don’t have to be Yogis to reap the health benefits of mindful meditation. It turns out that our brains are being molded in profoundly beneficial ways by daily meditation practices. In 2008 a team of researchers from UCLA compared the brains of long-term meditators with those of control subjects. In the brains of the meditators, they found larger volumes of gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus, regions thought to be implicated in emotion and response control.

Breathe in; Breathe out: Focus!

Sustained meditation can also lead to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as changes in neural connections and synapses, both structurally and functionally, which are due to changes in behavior and environment.

Research by University of Wisconsin, neuroscientist Richard Davidson on Tibetan Buddhist monks has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity that seem to reflect the impact of meditation on attention and synchrony of high-frequency oscillations that probably play an important role in connectivity among widespread circuitry in the brain.

3.) Increased Focus:
“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.” – Deepak Chopra

Have you ever wondered why meditation can make you feel more aware of yourself, others, and your environment, giving you that awesome sense of Zen? How we begin to notice details and textures that we never noticed before? How everyday life becomes clearer, sharper, and at the same time more spacious? According to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, it’s because meditation helps the brain to have better control over processing pain and emotions, specifically through the control of cortical alpha rhythms, which leads to focused engagement, body awareness, self-awareness, and the regulation of attention.

It even makes music sound better! According to a study in the journal Psychology of Music, meditation improves our focus, thus helping us to truly enjoy and experience what we’re listening to. Indeed, from Beethoven to Bon Jovi, Bach to Beck, mindful meditation seems to improve our enjoyment of music. Perhaps this is what Nietzsche was referring to when he wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

effect of meditation
“The flowering of love is meditation.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

4.) Increased Empathy:
“I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Spiritual traditions have suggested for years that mediation may boost our ability for compassion, but there has never been any scientific proof – until now. It turns out that mindful meditation can benefit non-meditators as well. This is because meditation can actually make us better people and improve our compassion for others.

According to a study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from Northeastern University found that meditation is linked with more virtuous behavior. “The truly surprising aspect of this finding,” researcher David DeSteno said, “is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous – to help another who was suffering – even in the face of a norm not to do so.”

Couple these findings with the discovery of mirror neurons, which constitutes our powerful system of empathy, and we see exactly how influential we can be as social creatures. When we see another person suffering, we can feel their suffering as if it is our own.

When we’re able to think more deeply about what others are going through, it can lead to some profound learning. “Mirror neurons,” writes Lea Winerman, “are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.” Daily Mindful meditation on these neural correlates of empathy could have a profound effect on our evolution as social animals.

At the end of the day, I can end up just totally wacky, because I’ve made mountains out of molehills. With meditation, I can keep them as molehills.” – Ringo Starr

5.) Better Sleep
“Sleep is unconscious meditation. Meditation is conscious sleep. In sleep we get limited energy. In meditation we get abundant energy.” – Anil Kumar Singh

Have you ever wondered why you seem to sleep better when you consistently practice mindful meditation? According to a 2013 University of Utah study, mindfulness meditation can not only help us better control our emotions and moods, but it can also help us sleep better.

Study researcher Holly Rau said in a statement, “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day. In addition, higher mindfulness was associated with lower activation at bedtime, which could have benefits for sleep quality and future ability to manage stress.”

Meditation practices were also reported to regulate cortisol and catecholamine, and increase melatonin levels. Meditation increases melatonin concentration by slowing its metabolism in the pineal gland.

Diurnal melatonin levels were found to be significantly higher in Vipassana meditators than non-meditators, concluding that meditation practices could enhance melatonin levels and hence quality of sleep. Perhaps this is what the Dalai Lama was referring to when he said, “Sleep is the best meditation.”

Article c/o Fractal Enlightenment


Monday, December 7, 2015

4 Ways to Breathe Through Overeating Urges

4 Ways to Breathe Through Overeating Urges



We hope everyone fully enjoys the holidays and treats themselves on occasion, but do you feel the urge to overindulge regularly or throughout an entire season? Discover the science behind that drive in Hunger, Hope, and Healing by Sarahjoy Marsh and learn how to counter it with your breath. Here’s your holiday-party, home-alone-with-the-pie pranayama practice.

Each year as the holidays approach, my students—and people everywhere—find themselves facing food dilemmas. These aren’t limited to whether to serve cranberry sauce or not. No, the sorts of dilemmas my students face are the ones that can downward spiral into surges of regret and despair, spike into anxiety and panic, and may last for hours, overnight, or even careen out of control for months (Halloween candy started in September!). While the lure of the New Year taunts with its tempting resolutions, the kinds of resolutions that promise retribution, re-centering, and, yes, some weight loss, I am honored to teach my students how to better navigate the holiday season on behalf of their sanity, health, and vitality.
For any of us who’ve struggled with food or body image, the holidays become peak times for stress. Our vulnerability to our usual triggers may heighten. Our thoughts (“I’ll eat nothing all day because of that party tonight with all the appetizers and the buffet”) may be in conflict with our wisdom (“Maintaining balanced blood sugar makes my moods more stable. I’ll be more present if I’m not starving myself all day and feeling frenzied about indulgences at the party”).

The Science of Stress Eating

As we try to manage feelings, thoughts, fears, and stressors, our primitive brains are wired to come to our rescue by activating our “Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Submit” strategies in the face of threat (which very well may be tantalizing pie and eggnog, as opposed to a pacing mountain lion).
The Fight reaction is aggressive like a dog barking or attacking. Flight helps us escape, much like a cat fleeing a loud noise. Freeze immobilizes our decision-making as we stunned by a threat, like a deer in headlights. And submit mimics resignation or death, much like possums.
With food “dangers,” the brain employs these same hard-wired primitive reactions. We fight with ourselves—often experienced as the ruthless voice of the inner critic. We flee by taking leave of our body, our wisdom, or our self-care. We freeze when we brace against and clench in reaction to our inner or outer experience. And we submit when we collapse again to behaviors we later regret.
Although these reactions are biologically programmed to protect us, many of us have learned to over-rely on them even when there is no real threat to our biological survival. Feeling mentally, emotionally, or psychologically threatened (i.e., stressed) also triggers them. (The holiday season has countless triggers—small and large!) Shame and addiction set us up to feel threatened much more easily and frequently. This becomes a cycle to which we unknowingly acclimate. Our brain and body chemistry then promote anxiety, depression, and even food cravings. Getting a handle on how to shift this mind-body reaction empowers us to reduce our vulnerability and increase our resilience.

Why the Breath Is Your Best Intervention

The Fight-Flight-Freeze-Submit patterns are directly associated with particular breathing responses. The fight and flight reactions trigger the secondary respiration muscles—those meant for an actual physical emergency that would require our ability to ward off or run away from a predator. The freeze and submit reactions reduce breathing to shallow sips of air (mimicking death in life-threatening scenarios and encouraging a predator to lose interest).
The good news for yogis? Simple pranayama exercises can act as a direct antidote to these reactions. Shifting our breathing pattern back to diaphragmatic breathing—the breath of the relaxation response—reduces anxiety and calms both mind and body, shutting down the fight-flight-freeze-submit circuitry. By shifting how we breathe, we can regain leadership, confidence, and clarity.

4 Breathing Practices to Outsmart the Stress-Eating Circuitry

If you practice the following pranayama exercises on a daily basis, your body-mind circuitry will be better able to rely on these antidotes. If you only practice when you get triggered, the techniques will still be potent but will require more fervency from you to remember them, do them, and stick with them until the reaction dissolves and the remedy works.

For guided breath, click below and scroll down to the end of the article...
breathing through overeating urges