Category Archives: meditation

What we do once yoga becomes second nature

From troubled couples to problem kids, mindful awareness to the rescue

Washington Post It Isn’t About the Trash Can explores some of the growing uses of mindfulness by psychologists:

In mental health terms, mindfulness is the awareness that emerges from focusing on the present and the ability to perceive — but not judge — your own emotions with detachment; it enables you to choose helpful responses to difficult situations rather than reacting out of habit. While Western thought separates religion and science, Buddhists see mindfulness as both a spiritual and psychological force.

Also check out the test for innate mindfulness. None of this stuff is earth-shattering news for anyone who has been practicing. It’s the mainstreaming of non-Western knowledge.

Mala beads and my practice

I bought a wrist mala from YogaBasics Japa Mala Beads. Twenty-seven beads on an elastic cord. I see the mala beads as a constant reminder that I can take my practice with me through out the day. The slight pressure on my wrist or the beads between my fingers and thumb can be evocative of the healing and strength that I develop on the mat, just as I often feel the same reaction to certain songs or kirtans that often serve as the background music to my practice.

My daughter gave me a full mala for Christmas, two years ago, which I keep hanging near my monitor at home. It’s a bit bulky to carry around and I can’t put it around my neck while at work. The wrist mala is more inconspicuous and more meaningful to me than wearing one of those colored plastic wristbands that symbolize various causes, like yellow for Lance Armstrong’s campaign for cancer research.

YogaBasics Japa Mala Beads has a wide selection of full and wrist malas, as well as bags and boxes to store them. Diverse materials range from gemstones to hand-carved bone to wood.

Meditation in a maximum security prison – see the movie!

The Dhamma Brothers: East Meets West in the Deep South is a documentary about a vipassana retreat in the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama and the before and after effects of the experience on the prison population, their keepers and the surrounding community, deep in the Bible-Belt South. There was a write-up about in in the New York Times last September.

I’ve just seen the promo site and a few of the trailers so I cannot vouch for the finished product, but it is intriguing. The film is making its way through the indie film festivals and art film theaters and may eventually make it to a TV screen near you.

This is not the only experience of meditation and yoga reaching into prison walls to relieve human suffering and restore human dignity. Windmill Buddhist Meditation has a section on it, as does S. N. Goenka’s website. Here is a link to an academic article . For more links, just follow this Google search.

Stillness as the goal

That past few weeks have confirmed that the quality of meditation/yoga that appeals me to me most is stillness or samahdi; it’s the pay-off for the investment of time and energy in practice. There are many definitions for it. In the Buddhist lineage, it is “concentration of the mind.” It’s not the easiest quality to attain and it can be fleeting, but even a short exposure to it can pull you up from a stormy emotional current. It’s that instant when the white noise of our minds goes silent and we can turn our gaze inward.

Meditation for pain relief

Los Angeles Times Doctor’s orders: Cross your legs and say ‘Om’ [MLS: Article no longer available online, but may be available through subscription.] reports on the growing interest in the medical applications of meditation and mindfulness:

It appears to work. In a new study, published in October in the journal Pain, Natalia Morone, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, tracked the effect of mindfulness meditation on chronic lower back pain in adults 65 and older. The randomized, controlled clinical trial found that the 37 people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program had significantly greater pain acceptance and physical function than a similar size control group. Subsequently, the control group took the same eight-week program and had similar results.

Via SharpBrains blog which is a great place to keep track of trends in neuroscience, “brain fitness” and mental wellness. I check Alvaro Fernandez’s site or news feed at least once a day. There are also brain teasers, in-depth articles, links to online resources, book recommendations and other information.

A gathering of minds in LA

Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: Cultivating Well-Being in the Present Moment [MLS: page no longer exists] is offered by UCLA Extension and Lifespan Learning Institute in collaboration with the Center for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy and InsightLA on October 5-7. If you’re not going to fly to California on 24 hours notice, you might want to check out the speaker handouts page [MLS: page no longer exists]  because the convergence of interests is stirring up a lot of heat and insight. Some of the handouts are more detailed than just an outline. As mentioned here before, I am plodding my way through Sharon Begley’s Change Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and this conference offers similar material.

One speaker, Sarah Lazar from Harvard, has a site with her research information on meditation, called Meditation Research (catchy title). She has a link to New Yorker cartoons on yoga, always good for a yuk.

Giving some spin to my breathing

I have been paying closer attention to my breathing during my yoga sessions and meditation since I’ve regained some space in my nasal passages. It’s almost as if I were breathing for the first time. I’ve noticed that what might appear a slight adjustment in my spine can result in a dramatic difference in the quality and depth of my breathing. As a person who works constantly stooped before a keyboard and monitor, I have a strong tendency to round my spine forward. That’s the direction that my body is being pushed By keeping a small curvature to my lower back and a slight tilt forward of by pelvis, I seem to find the optimal position for getting maximum movement from my diaphragm, my rib cage opens up and my shoulder blades draw together. If I ever so slightly move towards a straight back (no natural curvature in my lower back), my breathing seems to start shutting off. It’s almost as if my diaphragm got turned off.

Why is this important for me? Because I’ve noticed times in my practice when my breathing seems to shut down. I could never understand why. Now I think that in certain movements or positions, I lose form in my lower back and that triggers what seems like a diaphragm freeze.

I first felt the difference when I was seated in meditation. I usually sit on a block because I want to keep my knees below my hips. In that position, it’s very easy to slip out of the correct posture because the back gets tired of holding the position and I start gradually slipping into rounding my back forward. I then sensed the quality of my breath as I tilted my hips forward (putting in curvature) and then released my hips to a lazier position. This has almost before a focus of meditation as I savor the quality of my breath depending on the slant of my back.

Back to basics — mind and breath

I’ve been doing my body scans nightly as a kind of back-to-the-basics initiative to rein in my central nervous system. I have not had another bad scan in which I get jittery and overanxious for nearly two weeks. At most, I’ve had a couple of arm jerks in which my hand and forearm snap up. A more serious problem is not dozing off momentarily. Laying prone on the ground at 11:00 pm at the end of a long day is probably an invitation for sleep so I should not be surprised. I’ll just have to find a coping strategy — maybe opening my eyes for the whole session.

This week, I’ve been fitting in my sudarshan kriya practice in the morning before heading off to work. It has really kept me upbeat the whole day. It’s amazing how a breathing practice can change my outlook to sunny. Why do I ever skip my breathwork?

Body scan gone bad

I have a problem with savasana or more precisely the flat-on-my-back position that I take in order to do a body scan, following the audio instructions of Jon Kabat-Zinn. This exercise is part of a process to increase awareness of the body and sensitize the mind. In effect, I focus my attention on specific parts of my body progressively — my toes, ankles, knees, thighs, hips, etc., up both legs, both arms, through my torso and up to the crown of my head. Kabat-Zinn recommends that a novice to meditation do this exercise for at least two-three weeks before actually starting to meditate in a seated practice.

What happens? After I settle prone onto my mat for five minutes, I start feeling really fidgety, antsy and with a strong desire to get out of there. My leg muscle become jittery and I feel tingling in my fingers. I feel as if there’s a little motor running inside me and I can’t turn it off. My mind becomes restless and all kinds of reasons for getting up bubble to the surface. I start paying more attention to this anxious sensation than to the narrator’s voice. I am definitely not at ease. I’ve cut the session off a couple of times and on some evenings, I’ve avoided doing the exercise.

It’s really disconcerting because I can easily maintain meditation in seated pose for 15-20 minutes. After a good yoga session, savasana is a welcome respite and I do not have the urge to bounce up. When I go to bed, I usually drop off into sleep immediately and do not lie in bed twitching. In this case, with the CD, I actually have a voice to listen to and explicit instructions to follow. I don’t have to purge my head of mental processes or zone out everything but my meditative focus.

Three years ago, when I got my first Kabat-Zinn CDs, I tried to do the body scan and I had the same edgy feeling to the point that I did the exercise seated in a chair, rather than lying on the ground. After a while, I stopped doing it. Since then, I’ve been practicing meditation and added yoga to squeeze out the pent-up energy in body and train the mind to spiritual disciplines. I thought I would have outgrown this reaction to the body scan.

A friend of mine said that I should not get too uptight about the whole thing, looking at the phenomenon as a symptom of some kind of disorder. It may be a natural way that the body has of venting energy or it could actually be something like restless leg syndrome that might need medical treatment. But I am not going to cure the problem by fretting about it — if anything, it will make it worse. I just need to observe dispassionately what’s happening as I move through the process.

Short attention span can be good in some ways

New York Times Study Suggests Meditation Can Help Train Attention: Although this findings of this study does not surprise anyone who has become familiar with meditation, it does provide scientific validation of its powers.

…three months of rigorous training in this kind of meditation leads to a profound shift in how the brain allocates attention.

It appears that the ability to release thoughts that pop into mind frees the brain to attend to more rapidly changing things and events in the world at large, said the study’s lead author, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

We need to use all our senses optimally through awareness.