Science Reveals the Benefits of Meditation

Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits

Contemplative practices that extend back thousands of years show a multitude of benefits for both body and mind
Oct 14, 2014 |By Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neuroscience-reveals-the-secrets-of-meditation-s-benefits/

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When the Society for Neuroscience asked Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (the leader of Tibetan Buddhism), to address its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2005, a few hundred members among the nearly 35,000 or so attending the meeting petitioned to have the invitation rescinded. A religious leader, they felt, had no place at a scientific meeting. But this particular leader turned out to have a provocative and ultimately productive question to pose to the gathering. “What relation,” he asked, “could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science?”

The Dalai Lama, putting action before rhetoric, had already started trying to find answers to his own question. Back in the 1980s, he had sparked a dialogue about science and Buddhism, which led to the creation of the Mind & Life Institute, dedicated to studying contemplative science. In 2000 he brought new focus to this endeavor: he launched the subdiscipline of “contemplative neuroscience” by inviting scientists to study the brain activity of expert Buddhist meditators—defined as having more than 10,000 hours of practice.

For nearly 15 years more than 100 monastics and lay practitioners of Buddhism and a large number of beginning meditators have participated in scientific experiments at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and at least 19 other universities. The article you are reading, in fact, is the product of a collaboration between two neuroscientists and a Buddhist monk who originally trained as a cell biologist.

A comparison of the brain scans of meditators with tens of thousands of hours of practice with those of neophytes and nonmeditators has started to explain why this set of techniques for training the mind holds great potential for supplying cognitive and emotional benefits. The goals of meditation, in fact, overlap with many of the objectives of clinical psychology, psychiatry, preventive medicine and education. As suggested by the growing compendium of research, meditation may be effective in treating depression and chronic pain and in cultivating a sense of overall well-being.

The discovery of meditation’s benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. These studies show that when we learn how to juggle or play a musical instrument, the brain undergoes changes through a process called neuroplasticity. A brain region that controls the movement of a violinist’s fingers becomes progressively larger with mastery of the instrument. A similar process appears to happen when we meditate. Nothing changes in the surrounding environment, but the meditator regulates mental states to achieve a form of inner enrichment, an experience that affects brain functioning and its physical structure. The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body.

What Is Meditation?
Meditation has roots in the contemplative practices of nearly every major religion. The prevalence of meditation in the media has given the word various meanings. We will refer to meditation as the cultivation of basic human qualities, such as a more stable and clear mind, emotional balance, a sense of caring mindfulness, even love and compassion—qualities that remain latent as long as one does not make an effort to develop them. It is also a process of familiarization with a more serene and flexible way of being.

In principle, meditation is relatively simple and can be done anywhere. No equipment or workout attire is needed. The meditator begins by assuming a comfortable physical posture, neither too tense nor too lax, and by wishing for self-transformation and a desire for others’ well-being and for the alleviation of their suffering. Later the practitioner must stabilize the mind, which is too often disorderly—and occupied by a stream of inner chatter. Mastering the mind requires freeing it from automatic mental conditioning and inner confusion.

We will examine here what happens in the brain during three common types of meditation developed through Buddhism and now practiced in secular programs in hospitals and schools throughout the world. The first one, focused-attention meditation, aims to tame and center the mind in the present moment while developing the capacity to remain vigilant to distractions. The second one, mindfulness, or open-monitoring meditation, tries to cultivate a less emotionally reactive awareness to emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment to prevent them from spiraling out of control and creating mental distress. In mindfulness, the meditator remains attentive, moment by moment, to any experience without focusing on anything specific. Finally, another type of practice is known in Buddhist tradition as compassion and loving kindness and fosters an altruistic perspective toward others.

Under the Scanner
Neuroscientists have now begun to probe what happens inside the brain during the various types of meditation. Wendy Hasenkamp, then at Emory University, and her colleagues used brain imaging to identify the neural networks activated by focused-attention meditation. In the scanner, the participants trained their attention on the sensation produced by breathing. Typically during this form of meditation, the mind wanders from an object, and the meditator must recognize this and then restore attention to the gradual rhythm of the inhaling and exhaling. In this study, the meditator had to signal mind wandering by pressing a button. Researchers identified four phases of a cognitive cycle: an episode of mind wandering, a moment of becoming aware of the distraction, a phase of reorienting attention and a resumption of focused attention.

Each of the four phases involves particular brain networks. The first part of the cycle, when a distraction occurs, increases activity in the wide-ranging default-mode network (DMN). This network includes areas of the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus, the inferior parietal lobe and the lateral temporal cortex. The DMN is known to become activated during mind wandering and to play a general role in building and updating internal models of the world based on long-term memories about the self or others.

The second phase, becoming aware of a distraction, occurs in other brain areas such as the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, regions of what is called the salience network. This network regulates subjectively perceived feelings, which might, for instance, lead to being distracted during a task. The salience network is thought to play a key role in detecting novel events and in switching activity during meditation among assemblies of neurons that make up the brain’s large-scale networks. It may shift attention away from the default-mode network, for instance.

The third phase engages additional areas—among them the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the lateral inferior parietal lobe—that “take back” one’s attention by detaching it from any distracting stimulus. Finally, in the fourth and last phase, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex continues to retain a high level of activity, as the meditator’s attention remains directed toward an object such as the breath.

In our laboratory at Wisconsin, we further observed different patterns of activity depending on a practitioner’s level of experience. Veteran meditators with more than 10,000 hours of practice showed more activity in these attention-related brain regions compared with novices. Paradoxically, the most experienced meditators demonstrated less activation than the ones without as much experience. Advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state of mind with less effort. These effects resemble the skill of expert musicians and athletes capable of immersing themselves in the “flow” of their performances with a minimal sense of effortful control.

To study the impact of focused-attention meditation, we also studied its volunteers before and after a three-month retreat with intensive meditation exercises for at least eight hours a day. They received headphones that broadcast sounds at a given frequency, occasionally mixed with slightly higher-pitched sounds. They had to focus on the sounds played in one ear for 10 minutes and react to periodically interspersed high-pitched tones. After the retreat, we found that meditators, compared with a nonmeditating control group, showed less trial-to-trial variation in their reaction times on this highly repetitive task, which lent itself easily to distractions. The result suggested that the meditators had an enhanced capacity to remain vigilant. The brain’s electrical responses to high-pitched tones remained more stable at the second session only for the meditators.

Stream of Consciousness
The second type of well-studied meditation also involves another form of attention. Mindfulness, or open-monitoring meditation, requires the meditator to take note of every sight or sound and track internal bodily sensations and inner self-talk. The person stays aware of what is happening without becoming overly preoccupied with any single perception or thought, returning to this detached focus each time the mind strays. As awareness of what is happening in one’s surroundings grows, normal daily irritants—an angry colleague at work, a worried child at home—become less disruptive, and a sense of psychological well-being develops.

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With Heleen Slagter, then in our group at Wisconsin, we sought to learn about the influence of this form of training on mental functioning by measuring the participants’ capacity to detect rapidly presented visual stimuli—a means to measure mindfulness meditation, which is also sometimes called nonreactive awareness. To perform this experiment, we used a task in which the participants had to detect two numbers presented on a screen rapidly, amid a succession of letters. If the second number appears about 300 milliseconds after the first one, subjects often do not see the second, a phenomenon known as attentional blink.

If the second number appears after a delay of 600 milliseconds, it can be detected without difficulty. The attentional blink reflects the limits of the brain’s ability to process two stimuli presented to the observer at close intervals. When too much of the brain’s attention is devoted to processing the first number, the second number cannot always be detected, although the observer usually can see it on some of the trials. We hypothesized that mindfulness training could reduce the propensity to “get stuck,” or absorbed by seeing the first number. Mindfulness practice cultivates a nonreactive form of sensory awareness, which should result in a reduced attentional blink. As we predicted, after three months of an intensive retreat, the meditators perceived both numbers more frequently than the controls did. This improved perception was also reflected in lessened activity of a particular brain wave in response to the first number. Monitoring the P3b brain wave, used to assess how attention is allocated, indicated that meditators were capable of optimizing attention so as to minimize the attentional blink.

Staying aware of an unpleasant sensation can reduce maladaptive emotional responses and help one to move beyond the disagreeable feeling and may be particularly useful in dealing with pain. In our Wisconsin lab, we have studied experienced practitioners while they performed an advanced form of mindfulness meditation called open presence. In open presence, sometimes called pure awareness, the mind is calm and relaxed, not focused on anything in particular yet vividly clear, free from excitation or dullness. The meditator observes and is open to experience without making any attempt to interpret, change, reject or ignore painful sensation. We found that the intensity of the pain was not reduced in meditators, but it bothered them less than it did members of a control group.

Compared with novices, expert meditators’ brain activity diminished in anxiety-related regions—the insular cortex and the amygdala—in the period preceding the painful stimulus. The meditators’ brain response in pain-related regions became accustomed to the stimulus more quickly than that of novices after repeated exposures to it. Other tests in our lab have shown that meditation training increases one’s ability to better control and buffer basic physiological responses—inflammation or levels of a stress hormone—to a socially stressful task such as giving a public speech or doing mental arithmetic in front of a harsh jury.

Several studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness on symptoms of anxiety and depression and its ability to improve sleep patterns. By deliberately monitoring and observing their thoughts and emotions when they feel sad or worried, depressed patients can use meditation to manage negative thoughts and feelings as they arise spontaneously and so lessen rumination. Clinical psychologists John Teasdale, then at the University of Cambridge, and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto showed in 2000 that for patients who had previously suffered at least three episodes of depression, six months of mindfulness practice, along with cognitive therapy, reduced the risk of relapse by nearly 40 percent in the year following the onset of a severe depression. More recently, Segal demonstrated that the intervention is superior to a placebo and has a protective effect against relapse comparable to standard maintenance antidepressant therapy.

Compassion and Loving Kindness
The third form of meditation under study cultivates attitudes and feelings of loving kindness and compassion toward other people, whether they are close relatives, strangers or enemies. This practice entails being aware of someone else’s needs and then experiencing a sincere, compassionate desire to help that person or to alleviate the suffering of other people by shielding them from their own destructive behavior.

To generate a compassionate state may sometimes entail the meditator feeling what another person is feeling. But having one’s emotions resonate empathetically with the feelings of another person does not by itself suffice to yield a compassionate mind-set. The meditation must also be driven by an unselfish desire to help someone who is suffering. This form of meditation on love and compassion has proved to be more than just a spiritual exercise. It has shown potential to benefit health care workers, teachers and others who run the risk of emotional burnout linked to the distress experienced from a deeply empathetic reaction to another person’s plight.

The meditator begins by focusing on an unconditional feeling of benevolence and love for others, accompanied by silent repetition of a phrase conveying intent, such as “May all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness and be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” In 2008 we studied experienced volunteers who had practiced this form of training for thousands of hours and found an increase in activity in several brain regions while they listened to voices conveying distress. The secondary somatosensory and insular cortices, known to participate in empathetic and other emotional responses, were more activated for experts than controls in response to the distressed voice, suggesting an enhanced ability to share the feelings of others without reporting any sign of becoming emotionally overwhelmed. The practice of compassion meditation also produced more activity in areas such as the temporoparietal junction, the medial prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus, all typically activated when we put ourselves in the place of another.

More recently, Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki, both at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, in collaboration with one of us (Ricard), sought to distinguish differences between the effects of empathy and compassion on meditators. They noted that compassion and altruistic love were associated with positive emotions, and they suggested that emotional exhaustion or burnout was, in fact, a kind of empathy “fatigue.”

According to the Buddhist contemplative tradition from which this practice is derived, compassion, far from leading to distress and discouragement, reinforces an inner balance, strength of mind, and a courageous determination to help those who suffer. If a child is hospitalized, the presence of a loving mother at his side holding his hand and comforting him with tender words will no doubt do that child more good than the anxiety of a mother overwhelmed with empathetic distress who, unable to bear the sight of her sick child, paces back and forth in the hallway. In the latter case, the mother may then end up with the common experience of burnout, which, in one U.S. study,beset about 60 percent of the 600 caregivers surveyed.

To further explore the mechanisms of empathy and compassion, Klimecki and Singer divided about 60 volunteers into two groups. One meditated on love and compassion, and the other experimental regimen trained participants to cultivate feelings of empathy for others. Preliminary results showed that after a week of meditation-based loving kindness and compassion, novice subjects watched video clips showing suffering people with more positive and benevolent feelings. The other subjects, who devoted a week to an experimental regimen that just cultivated empathy, experienced emotions that resonated deeply with others’ sufferings. But these emotions also brought about negative feelings and thoughts, and this group experienced more distress, sometimes to the point of not being able to control their emotions.

Aware of these destabilizing effects, Singer and Klimecki added training for the empathy group in compassion and loving kindness meditation. They then observed that this additional exercise counterbalanced the detrimental effects of training in empathy alone: negative emotions diminished, and positive emotions increased. These results were accompanied by corresponding changes in the areas of several brain networks associated with compassion, positive emotions and maternal love, including the orbitofrontal cortex, the ventral striatum and the anterior cingulate cortex. The researchers, moreover, were able to demonstrate that a week of training in compassion increased prosocial behavior in a virtual game specially developed to measure the capacity to help others.

A Door to Consciousness
Meditation explores the nature of the mind, providing a way to study consciousness and subjective mental states from the first-person perspective of the meditator. In a collaboration with expert Buddhist meditators at Wisconsin, we have studied the brain’s electrical activity using electroencephalography (EEG) during compassion meditation in which the meditators described the well-defined sense of self as becoming less fixed and permanent.

We found that these long-term Buddhist practitioners were able, at will, to sustain a particular EEG pattern. Specifically, it is called high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and phase synchrony at between 25 and 42 hertz. The coordination of brain oscillations may play a potentially crucial role in the brain’s building of temporary networks that can integrate cognitive and affective functions during learning and conscious perception, a process that can bring about lasting changes in brain circuitry.

High-amplitude oscillations persisted throughout the meditation for several dozens of seconds and gradually increased as practice progressed. These EEG traces differed from those of control subjects, in particular, in the lateral frontoparietal cortex. Changes in electrical activity may reflect an increased awareness in expert meditators of their surroundings and their internal mental processes, although additional research is needed to better understand the functioning of gamma oscillations.

Meditation brings about changes not just in well-defined cognitive and emotional processes but also in the volume of certain brain areas, possibly reflecting alterations in the number of connections among brain cells. A preliminary study by Sara W. Lazar of Harvard University and her colleagues showed that among longtime meditators, as compared with a control group, the volume of the brain’s darker tissue, its gray matter, differed in the insula and prefrontal cortices—specifically, regions called Brodmann areas 9 and 10, which are frequently activated during various forms of meditation. These distinctions were most pronounced in older participants in the study, suggesting that meditation might influence the thinning of brain tissue that comes with aging.

In a follow-up study, Lazar and her colleagues also showed that mindfulness training decreased the volume of the amygdala, a region involved in fear processing, for those participants who showed the most noticeable reductions in stress over the course of training. Eileen Luders of the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues further observed differences in meditators in the fibers called axons that connect different brain regions, suggesting an enhanced number of brain connections. This observation may support the hypothesis that meditation actually induces structural alterations in the brain. An important limitation of this research relates to the lack of long-term longitudinal studies that follow a group over the course of many years and to the absence of comparisons between meditators and people of similar backgrounds and ages who do not meditate.

Some evidence even exists that meditation—and its ability to enhance overall well-being—may diminish inflammation and other biological stresses that occur at the molecular level. A collaborative study between our group and one led by Perla Kaliman of the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona showed that one day of intensive mindfulness practice in experienced meditators turned down the activity of inflammation-related genes and altered the functioning of enzymes involved with turning genes on and off. A study by Cliff Saron of the University of California, Davis, looked at the effect of meditation on a molecule involved with regulating the longevity of a cell. The molecule in question was an enzyme called telomerase that lengthens DNA segments at the ends of chromosomes. The segments, called telomeres, ensure stability of the genetic material during cell division. They shorten every time a cell divides, and when their length decreases below a critical threshold, the cell stops dividing and gradually enters a state of senescence. Compared with a control group, the meditators who showed the most pronounced reductions in psychological stress also had higher telomerase activity by the end of the retreat. This finding suggests that mindfulness training might slow processes of cellular aging among some practitioners.

A Path to Well-Being
About 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced practitioners. These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.

More studies using well-defined, randomized controlled trials are needed to isolate meditation-related effects from other psychological factors that can influence the outcome of a study. Other variables that may affect study results are the level of motivation of a practitioner and the roles played by both teachers and students in a meditation group. Further work is needed to understand the possible negative side effects of meditation, the desirable length of a given practice session and the way to tailor it to a person’s specific needs.

Even with the requisite cautions, research on meditation provides new insights into methods of mental training that have the potential to enhance human health and well-being. Equally important, the ability to cultivate compassion and other positive human qualities lays the foundation for an ethical framework unattached to any philosophy or religion, which could have a profoundly beneficial effect on all aspects of human societies.

This article was originally published with the title “Mind of the Meditator.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who trained as a cellular biologist before he left France to become a student of Buddhism in the Himalayas about 40 years ago.

Antoine Lutz is a research scientist at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and also works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has been a leader in studying the neurobiology of meditation.

Richard J. Davidson has pioneered the science of meditation as director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

MORE TO EXPLORE
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Matthieu Ricard. Little, Brown, 2006.

Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence. Antoine Lutz et al. in Journal of Neuroscience. Vol. 29, No. 42, pages 13,418–13,427; October 21, 2009.

Mind Wandering and Attention during Focused Meditation: A Fine-Grained Temporal Analysis of Fluctuating Cognitive States. Wendy Hasenkamp et al. in NeuroImage, Vol. 59, No. 1, pages 750–760; January 2, 2012.

FROM OUR ARCHIVES

The Physiology of Meditation. Robert Keith Wallace and Herbert Benson; February 1972.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE Watch talks by Davidson and Ricard at http://ScientificAmerican.com/nov2014/meditation

 

 

 

 

Prenatal Yoga Class Sampler – Standing Poses

So what does a prenatal yoga class look like? Cindy has been teaching prenatal yoga for the past five years. In this video we begin with standing poses.

Start with a steady standing base, drop the arms by the side, lift the arms above the head with a a breath, and exhale takes the arms down fold forward. Watch along and practice along prenatal yoga with Cindy at home.

If you are in Toronto come by Saturday 11.30am or Tuesdays 8pm at Fireflow’s Yonge Eglinton studio. Feel much better after moving, learn breathing techniques, meet other moms to be, and get more energy.

Yoga for muscle stiffness and pain.

Ever wonder about muscle stiffness and where it comes from? Or how about joint pain?

You are twenty-five and play an intense game of tennis. Thte next day feel back pain and can hardly walk. You are thirty-nine and play your Sunday hockey game.You alwayss feel like you can’t move the next morning. You are forty eight and feel low back pain. In the mornings you wake up with your body feeling stiff.So often we assume it’s a natural result of getting old. That is only partially true. If you do you can be fully active and feel fine the next day, walk around without back pain, and feel as good as ever.

At Fireflow Yoga, our Toronto Yoga studio, we focus on providing active yoga helps you increase mobility, flexibility, stiffnes, soreness, and pain.

Like all good machines, the body needs some tender loving care to bring it back to its shiny, agile nature. Whether you are in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, or sixties, you have the ability to bring your body towards optimum health. Yoga is a process to both energize and bring your body back to shape, like a car after a good tune-up and oil change.Yoga also works to reduce injuries, reduce stress, and provide mental focus. The one caveat is you must be doing the pose right, with correct alignment, otherwise you just reinforce bad habits. So you do need a good teacher.

Yoga works for both men and women.Many men thing yoga is only for women.Before starting yoga Sting thought yoga was something done by little old ladies in leotards.

Yoga was created by men and originally done by men.It’s an interesting shift that in the West yoga is definitely practice by more woman than men. Many people then assume it’s a practice for women, particularly flexible one. Yoga works for both women and men. It is a way to bring your body towards optimimum mobility through precise poses and movements.The more inflexible you are the most yoga can work for you.

Each night when you go to sleep, the interfaces around your muscles potentially grow fuzz. When you wake up and stretch the fuzz melts.

Natural fuzz buildup is one way of viewing stiffness and aging. Every night fuzz accumulates in your body. It’s real. In the fuzz speech below, Gil Hadley shows what this actually means. Fuzz build up is something which happens every night as we sleep.

Body work (like yoga) introduces movement manually to tissues that have been fuzzed over.

Yoga serves as a great way to remove even long-standing fuzz which may have been building up over years or even decades.

Building Core Strength with Chaturanga

Building core abdominal strength provides many benefits. It helps posture, relieves back pain, and helps create the six pack. We often begin a class warming up with Sun Salutations. One of the poses in that sequence is Chaturanga Dandasana, Four Limbed Staff Pose. But just doing the pose like most people do in classes does not build abdominal strength and can be harmful. Along with headstand, handstand and shoulder stands chaturanga has been labelled a dangerous yoga pose. I still struggle to unlearn patterns developed from years of doing chaturanga in a way which perpetuates patterns in the shoulders and upper back which leads to stress, neck pain and overall discomfort.

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When I break down the pose in class often people react that they can’t figure out how to generate the movement from their core muscles. After a few attempts many suddenly activate the core. They laugh and grin and remark that it’s so much harder then they ever knew. Some come into the pose for one breath and then quickly come down. Doing chaturanga wrong is still work – and can make you sweat. I have learned over time there is no relation between sweat, work and endorphins and overall balance and alignment. Only with precise work can you begin to use the abs in this pose. It’s not natural and it is quite difficult, but it is achievable and feels amazing once you begin to find it. In the video below Darby demonstrates two ways to prepare for Chaturanga.

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Forearm Balance

Lie down on your stomach.
Come onto your forearms and make a fist of your palms.
Curl under your toes and push out through your heels.
Lift your ribs, then lift the waist.
Hold for 10 breaths.

Slowly Finding Chaturanga

Lie down on your stomach.
Bring your hands back underneath the elbows, not the shoulders.
Lift your shoulders to the same height as your elbows.
Press the palms down to stabilize the upper body.
Lift the waist.

There’s a tendency to further lift the neck or upper body and shoulders instead of the waist since that’s a lot easier. Try and keep the upper body stabilized and just lift from the waist. Feel the difference.

How’s your chaturanga? Try practice this exercise 3 to 5 times a week for a few weeks and feel how much your chaturanga can change. It will effect not only your chaturanga but basic standing, walking, and almost every pose. Try it!

Finding A Guru

A guru is known as a remover of darkness. Sounds good. Where can you find a guru? Do gurus live in west-end Toronto? Do they hang out at Starbucks, Istanbul Cafe, or DeMello’s? Are they easily found or hidden in the back alleyways?

Many years ago I searched for spiritual gurus. I went to Jerusalem searching for kabbalistic masters. Someone gave me a printed list of names and addresses of teachers who achieved supernatural feats. It listed visiting times and how to make appointments.

Where do you find a yoga guru? A few years back it was difficult to find yoga. Now in the heart of a large city you can find dozens of different classes every hour. How do you find a good teacher? Is it just finding someone to lead you through a good stretch? Should they be able to bring a good playlist to every class ? Does the quality of your yoga practice depend on who guides you? Can you learn yoga from a book or a Youtube video? Who are your favourite teachers? Do you have any gurus? How can you tell a true guru from a false guru?

A few years ago an American filmmaker impersonated a guru for a documentary.  He came up with his own rituals and attracted well-educated followers. The filmmaker said, “I met a lot of religious leaders who claimed to have the answers. But were these gurus real? To find out I decided to impersonate a spiritual leader and build my own following.”  The film documents how people perceive a guru, what it takes to build trust, and how to determine what is true.

The current guru of Ashtanga Yoga, Sharath Jois, leads the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. Westerners flock to Mysore attending the daily self-practice surrounded by a group of fellow seeking yogis. It has become a place of pilgrimage for people dedicated to Ashtanga Yoga.

Each week Sharath leads a conference on yoga philosophy and practice. At one talk he described becoming a teacher or guru.  “Not from book knowledge,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much you read, or watch on DVDs, or think you know. Proper knowledge comes from practical experience over a long period of time. When and if you teach, it comes from your own experience and has more meaning, for you, and for your students.” It’s like meditation. Reading and studying only teach you on one level. You need to put in the time and learn from experience. There is no substitute for practice.

According to Danny Paradise we can become our own gurus. He says, “A guru is a recent phenomenon and is really an anomaly of the true ancient purposes and teachings of Yoga. The necessity to have gurus no longer exists. Yoga was created for the purpose of helping people heal themselves, restore and preserve their energy and come back into contact with the life forces that created the Universe.” Read more.

Do yoga and unravel the guru within. It happens a little with every practice. The journey itself never ends. The sooner you start the sooner you feel the benefits. The more you practice the stronger you become. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, says “Do Your Practice and All is Coming.” We have brought to Fireflow some of the world’s most distinguished yoga teachers, such as Matthew Sweeney, Mark Darby, and Danny Paradise. I opened Fireflow as a place committed to teaching real yoga. The mission has been to create a place to connect with the amazing things which occur when yoga works. And when yoga works we begin to hear echoes of the guru within.

 

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Pregnancy and Breathing

Learning the art of breathing during pregnancy is a little like relearning how to ride a bike. It’s something we do automatically, but the presence of baby forces us to learn how to breathe in a whole new way. Towards the second and third trimester baby starts to take up more space in the abdomen, shifting organs out of the way in their quest for space. This puts pressure on the diaphragm, the main muscle that controls our breathing. The shifting of the internal organs and the growing size of baby is often the cause of shortness of breath. The abdominal, or belly, breathing that most of us do subconsciously starts to become more laboured. That is why we often focus on the breath in prenatal classes, whether it be in a simple seated meditation pose or during more physically challenging asanas. We learn how to breathe more deeply with the upper body, something I tend to call a “three-dimensional breath,” where we look to expand the breath into the upper part of the body, breathing into the back and side ribs rather than just the front of the chest.

The other important aspect of breathing is the evenness of the breath. In class we try to balance the inhalation as well as the exhalation, producing a deeper, more rhythmic and ultimately relaxing breath that reduces tension in the body and delivers the increased oxygen that both you and baby need.

These breathing techniques not only greatly benefit you during pregnancy, but they can also be an invaluable tool once contractions begin. Focusing on the breath during the birthing process can encourage the body to relax, the mind to calm, and help mom to preserve her strength for the duration of her delivery. I can say without a doubt that the breathing techniques I teach and practised myself during my own pregnancy were the single most important tool I used during my birthing experience. They helped me focus at a time when anxiety and fatigue wanted to take over as well as stay calm and keep my muscles loose as the contractions progressed.

Yoga During Pregnancy Improves Mood and Energy

Exercise during pregnancy improves overall mood and boosts energy levels. The University of Western Ontario did a four-week study with over 50 non-active pregnant women.  They were on average 22 weeks pregnant.  They exercised four days a week for 30 minutes a day.  Findings showed more positive moods as a result of experiencing less fatigue. The results are written the journal Psychology and Health.

The video above was shot during a Saturday prenatal class at Fireflow. It shows the type of movements and poses done in prenatal classes. Join today and feel the benefit, extra energy, and pain relief. Call 416-839-6621 to register for an upcoming class.