Body, Mind And Spiritual Wellness

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How Yoga changes your Brain

Can Regular Yoga and Meditation Improve Your Brain Function?

There is increasing evidence that yoga and meditation can improve our memory and attention, both help us to function at a higher level at work, home or in school. Furthermore, these benefits occur whether you’re new to yoga and meditation or a long-time practitioner, and studies show it might even help starve off age-related neural decline. The reason, neuroscientists have discovered, is that certain areas of our brain undergo positive structural changes when we meditate. Because the brain exhibits plasticity, which means it has the ability to change, whatever you experience will be reflected in – and have impact on – your brain structure.

Several groundbreaking studies have shown how meditation, especially when practiced over the long-term, can produce significant changes in the structure and mass within certain brain regions. For example, a continued meditation practice can produce a thickening of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, awareness, thought and language. Like a body builder who pumps iron, the bigger his biceps get, the heavier weights he can lift. Likewise, when we meditate, we exercise the parts of the brain that involve the regulation of emotion and mind-body awareness that lead to changes in brain activity and structure, which in turn improve our memory and attention.

Studies show how meditation can produce significant changes in the structure and mass within certain brain regions.

One of my fellow researchers, Dr Sara Lazar of the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, found these brain changes to be especially apparent in long-time meditators. In her 2005 study, for example, MRI brain scans were used to assess cortical thickness in participants with extensive meditation experience (averaging about 9 years of experience and 6 hours per week of meditation practice), and a control group that did not practice yoga or meditation. Dr Lazar found the brain regions associated with attention, sensory, cognitive and emotional processing were thicker in meditation participants than those in the control group who did not engage in yoga or meditation.

This was the first significant study (of now more similar studies) to provide evidence for a link between long-term meditation practice and structural brain changes. Equally exciting is that the greater prefrontal cortical thickness found in the meditation group was most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that extensive meditation might also offset age-related cortical thinning. It appears that the brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing, which frequently diminishes over the years, can remain more youthful in those people who continue to practice meditation.

The brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing can remain more youthful.

In another interesting study conducted at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA, differences in the brain’s anatomy and structure called gyrification (or cortical folding) were also discovered in people who meditated. Although the implications of this research remain to be fully established, the findings from this study support the possbility that meditation can lead to changes in regulation of activities including daydreaming, mind-wandering, and projections into the past or future, and a possible integration of autonomic, emotional, and cognitive processes.

And while research reveals long-term meditation can produce structural changes in specific areas of the brain that enhance our ability to learn, one does not have to practice for thousands of hours to reap the positive brain benefits. Dr Lazar also found that these increases in grey matter in some regions of the brain occurred after just 8-weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Education (MBSR), a formal program involving meditation and some yoga practice. These results suggest that even short-term participation in meditation-related practices can lead to changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions that are involved in learning and memory processes, as well as in emotion regulation.

Yoga-Brain Fact: If you practice yoga and meditation techniques on a regular basis, your brain will be better able to cope with stress and emotion. This brain enhancement will help you to maintain higher levels of learning and memory.

Long-term meditation can enhance our ability to learn.

Yoga makes us Smarter

Think about how we feel when we’re stressed. We might eat more, lose our appetite, sweat profusely, or simply want to bury our troubles in mindless television or computer games. What happens to our brains when we are under stress is that our bodies increase the secretion of cortisol, a well-known stress hormone. When faced with sustained, high levels of chronic stress, the associated high levels of cortisol can actually be toxic and even fatal to our brain cells. Because our hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning, is particularly vulnerable to high sustained cortisol levels, we may ultimately compromise our learning and memory capacities when faced with uncontrolled chronic stress. By managing stress through yoga and meditation, you can actually improve your memory, concentration, and your ability to learn.

While researching the effects of long-term yoga and meditation, I found an intriguing study that reported improvements in attention, mood and stress over a very short time period. When a group of 40 undergraduate students were given 5 days of 20-minute meditation training, this group showed significantly better attentional abilities and control of stress than a similar control group of 40 students given only relaxation training, including greater improvement in attention, lower anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue and an elevated mood.

There was also a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol.

These studies, which are just a few of those being conducted today, clearly show a strong relationship between our ability to maintain attention and our responsiveness to stress and emotional reactivity. In other words, the more one practices the contemplative skill of controlling attention through meditation and yoga, the more one has a manageable stress response and improved emotional reactivity. Ultimately, our cognitive performance is most efficient and at its optimal level when we are more in control of our stress and emotions.

Our cognitive performance is most efficient and at its optimal level when we are more in control of our stress and emotions.

The Effects of Yoga on Memory and Decision Making

Yoga and meditation not only make our brain more efficient, they also improve brain activity related to decision-making and cognitive performance. In a research study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana, scientists compared the effects of a yoga exercise session to aerobic exercise, the results showed that the memory retention and cognitive performance after yoga was significantly superior (ie. shorter reaction times, increased accuracy) to aerobic exercise. The reason yoga can be better for the brain than aerobics (although both are good), is that it allows us to cope with stress and emotions more effectively.

Long-term yoga improves concentration, processing and motor speed

Research clearly indicates that yoga and meditation, especially a long-term practice, improves the way our brain functions, including our ability to concentrate and perform well on certain tests. In one study comparing 15 yoga practitioners with a control group of non-practitioners and involving a series of tests for attention, the yoga group performed significantly better. Long-term practitioners of yoga and meditation showed greater attention span, processing speed, attention alternation ability,and performance in interference tests.

Another recent study also showed improvement in cognitive functioning and dexterity among 57 research volunteers who were given tasks requiring attention, visual scanning and motor speed. Each participant was assessed before and after three types of sessions: yoga meditation, supine rest, and control (no intervention). The results showed that the yoga condition was associated with the greatest improvements in psychomotor functioning with no improvement in test skills for those who did not practice yoga and meditation.

Yoga was associated with the greatest improvements in psychomotor functioning.

Yoga Improves Computation Skills

Many people believe that equation solving and memorisation are the most effective ways to improve one’s mathematical aptitude—all of which can be extremely time-consuming and, to the math phobic, feel like an ordeal. The fact is that sessions of yoga and tai chi can also sharpen your mathematical ability. These were the findings of a Bolo University of Miami School of Medicine study in which 38 adults participated in a session that included two minutes of tai chi movement and two minutes of sitting, standing, and lying down yoga poses. The researchers measured self-reported math computation skills of each participant before and after the session. The findings showed that the tai chi/yoga participants performed better on basic math after the workout. Why? The increased relaxation may have contributed to the increased speed and accuracy noted on math computations following the tai chi/yoga class.

Yoga as a learning tool for students around the world.

Another study providing preliminary evidence that yoga may improve academic performance of children in schools was done on 8OO teenagers in India. The students in this study who were engaged in a yoga program performed better academically than those who did not do yoga. Researchers selected 159 high-stress students and 142 low-stress students. Both groups were given tests in mathematics, science, and social studies. Those who participated in a 7-week yoga program of (poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), and meditation performed better in academics than those who did not do yoga. The study also concluded that low-stress students performed better than high-stream students, showing, once again, that indelible connection between stress and academic performance.

By Sat Bir Singh Khalsa

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The 5 Minute Mental Detox To Start Your Day Right!

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Ever feel like your brain is swarming with bees and you can’t construct a clear thought? There’s nothing worse than the mental fog that comes from having a ‘wired and tired’ mind or a terrible night’s sleep.

Even while we sleep, our brains are busy working and sifting through mental clutter from the day before. So try this easy 5-day challenge: pick one of these simple, fast techniques to perform for five minutes first thing in the morning for five days straight, and notice how different you feel!

1. Reconnect With Nature
Our body’s natural circadian rhythms are kick-started by natural light. Plus, our brain loves to absorb natural scenery. First thing in the morning, take a five minute breather outside. Gaze upon the sky, listen to birdsong and feel the sunlight on your face. It’s amazing how this connection with nature can actually make you feel connected with yourself!

2. Practise Gratitude
When your heart is full of gratitude, there’s little room left for anger, fear or stress. For five minutes, write freely about all the things in your life that you feel grateful for. You may like to start with the simple things, like access to fresh food and water, but you may be surprised how richly blessed your life really is when you focus on how much good you have!

3. Do A Digi-Detox
How often do you wake up and reach for your phone? If you’re like many people, there’s a good chance that the first moments of your day are spent scrolling on Facebook or delving into emails. The trouble is, when you start your day with digital stimulation, you are starting your day on somebody else’s terms; your mood and thoughts are automatically influenced by the news, latest gossip or external demands in your inbox. Give yourself five minutes to start the day calmly on your terms, instead.

4. Read Something Positive
Opening your day with positive or inspiring words can have a powerful impact on how you filter your experiences for the rest of the day. Perhaps you could choose a quote that relates to an area of your life that you’d like to work on, or otherwise engage in reading that lifts your spirit and helps you to feel at ease.

5. Take 5 To Meditate
The benefits of meditation are profound. A daily practice of meditation can reduce anxiety and depression while simultaneously improving your focus and mood. There are no real rules for meditation and you can start by doing what feels best for you. Perhaps you’d like to simply breathe deeply for five minutes. Alternatively, you could practise clearing the mind and letting go of thought.

Natural Healing Clinic
To book an appointment call 604 202 7938

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The Important Distinction Between Solitude and Silence

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Solitude–spending time alone. Our mind may or may not be racing, we may or may not be truly be present in the moment

Silence–Being in a state where there is an absence of noise and sound, externally speaking. One isn’t necessarily alone at this time.

We sometimes tell ourselves, “I need some time to myself”. I wonder what people really mean when they think this…do they mean they just want time away from other people (solitude), or do they mean they want some time away from commotion, to have a chance to turn down the volume in life, and experience not only solitude but actual silence?

This begs the question….HOW does one quiet the mind? We can do so in several ways–by paying attention to our breathing–via meditation, yoga, or even via simple, mindful deep breaths (stopping, breathing from the abdomen, taking a minute or two to just be present).

Music can also help us do this, as can a gentle bath or shower.

We can also attain a level of silence by focusing on something–art, poetry, writing, even physical activity. If we do something we love, we can sometimes experience a silence and serenity that is very powerful.

Something else that I encourage: When we are first getting up in the AM, or laying down to sleep in the PM–take a few moments to be silent, breathe calmly and deeply, and appreciate the good things you have in your life. I also make it a point to read something inspiring, comforting, or hopeful during the first and last moments of each day. I’m convinced that this helps us set a positive tone for our day and for our rest. I believe that this ritual also cultivates serenity, a highly related concept!

One other question: WHY should we take time for silence in our lives? The benefits are many:

It allows us to reflect on our lives in a way that we cannot do when we are busy and there is noise around us

It gives us a greater sense of awareness of self and our environment

It can help us become more creative. When we are less invested in controlling our mind, creative and resourceful things bubble up in our minds

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you find that the experience of silence brings up painful issues for you, and/or creates more anxiety, sadness, etc. rather than doing anything good for you, I strongly encourage you to consult with a mental health professional! l can help you work through these issues and gain a greater level of serenity.

To book an appointment call Lazzaro at 604 202 7938

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Critical Consideration of Three Common Quotes/Statements

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I want to share three common statements that I am not fond of. In fact, the majority of the time I believe they are simply not true, even though many people accept them at face value.

1. Good things come to those who wait.

Hmmm…not necessarily. There must be persistence applied to the situation, otherwise one is passively waiting around for something to happen. When persistence and diligent awareness is combined with patience, this can be a very good thing. When applied over time, this combination can lead to triumph, even when there have been many setbacks or failures.

We think of Thomas Edison and the lightbulb–I hear different things about how many times he ‘failed’ to make the lightbulb work. He is reported to have once said the following to someone who labeled his efforts to create a working lightbulb as a failure:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 700 ways that won’t work.” People debate the actual number that he said, but I think you get the idea.

2. Adversity makes one stronger. Sometimes this is true, but often it is not. Adversity can beat people down. I see people often go into a tailspin after adverse events in their lives, especially after a series of them.

A very interesting question to ponder is this: What’s the difference between people who seem to get stronger from adversity and those who despair and become more depressed, cynical, etc.? Hmmm…

3. This last one is not so much a quote, but rather a statement that adults make to children, and/or one that older adults make to younger adults.

“When you get older, you are going to see that the world works like…” (fill in the blank, but it’s some prediction of how the younger individual is going to see the world, or people, or events, at some point in their lives).

This one drives me crazy, and it’s not helpful the majority of the time. What is really being communicated here? To me, this sounds like “I really know what’s best, and you’re going to learn to see it the way I do someday”

Wow, really?! How in the world does someone know this? Even if the advice or input is solid, more often than not this statement creates resentment and disengagement, rather than true learning or growth. I’ve witnessed this statement–and the accompanying negative reaction–more times than I care to remember, both in my work and in my life.

From my viewpoint, it’s easy to see why people don’t react well to this. One alternative to this statement could be “This has been my experience, and this is why I believe this to be true”.

I finish this blog by saying that Statement #2–and the question of why people respond so differently to adversity in life–deserves more attention, and soon!

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Can Your Food Affect Mental Health?

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It is the deep, integral connection between mood and food. Beyond the happy coincidence that these words rhyme, the two are complexly and biochemically intertwined in a way that is far-too-often minimized in our modern discussion of behavior, emotion and overall health.

Somewhere along the line, we were cunningly persuaded to believe in the body and mind as two very distinct operational entities, and this rigid paradigm has left an unfortunate gap in our understanding of the scientific workings of nutrients as building blocks for the brain and nervous system. In an era where restrictive dieting and low-fat food choices are viewed as glimmering badges of health, mounting evidence displays a dangerous correlation between nutrient deficiencies, poor digestive health and rising mental distress.

Mental Illness on The Rise

Depression, anxiety and related mental health disorders are startlingly complex and pervasive. Involving tangled interactions of biological, psychological and social factors, such complex disorders have long been considered forlorn “outsiders” in the realm of scientific and medical study.

The terms depression and anxiety themselves have even come to carry with them an ominous cloud of stigmatizing beliefs- casting a shadow of shame and secrecy around those who struggle with these “mysterious” conditions. And yet, despite this cold and isolating perspective, such debilitating mental health disorders are startlingly common across our population.

In fact, best estimates reveal that during a lifetime, more than 25% of individuals develop at least one mental or behavioral disorder. The World Health Organization has even projected that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of medical disability on earth. Given these shocking predictions, mental health conditions, once written off as “personal failures” or “weaknesses,” are now garnering greater attention as significant public health concerns.

A recent report released at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Primary Care revealed that 70%of visits to primary care physicians in the United States are related to psychosocial issues. (2) With this incredible rate of visits, doctors do with their observations what they were trained to do: prescribe medications based on the symptoms they observe.

This trend has resulted in an extreme surge in the prevalence of antidepressant drugs being used across the population- a 400% increase since 1994. According to a recent government report, about 1 in 10 Americans aged 12 and over use antidepressants. As the third most common prescription across all ages, their use is rampant.

Paradoxically, researchers also found that less than 1/3 of the Americans taking an antidepressant medication had seen a mental health professional in the past year- making medication their sole route of treatment despite the acknowledgment of mental health as a complex realm that requires multiple care approaches.

The Role of Nutrition

These findings are startling and provocative to say the least, bringing into question the underlying cause to such disparities. What is the best way to heal these problems? And why the dramatic increase in anxiety and depression anyway?

These are convoluted questions, with deeply personal implications and answers that are largely varied, muddled and overall unclear. It is likely that there are many factors at play and that you could trace numerous threads in the situation without ever unknotting it completely.

There does however seem to be a changing tide when it comes to mental health. Until this point, there has been a great deal of focus in mental health care on artificially correcting potential biochemical imbalances in the brain.

Yet, emerging neurobiological evidence has revealed that the neurotransmitters and neuropeptides that steer our emotional course are not isolated to the head, but rather reside in each system of the body.

Of the almost three hundred internal communication substances used to carry out daily functions, nearly all are shared throughout the body. (4) Thus it seems to be time to take a look at disruption in mood from a whole body-mind perspective and to include in the discussion the undeniable value of nutrition.

At the very most basic level, all of our systems require the proper balance of nutrients and enzymes to work correctly- a balance that most Americans simply aren’t getting in our fractured modern food system. (4)

Our brain and body systems rely on receiving a substantial amount of raw material to carry out their complex and intricate roles. Without this foundation, no other interventions can be fully effective, optimal or lasting, and their impact in making a sustainable difference is lessened.

This fundamental link between food and mood is not new, and when you really think on it, the concept makes a lot of sense. Many historic figures and modern researchers alike have observed and discussed the connection between nutritional deficiencies and behavior patterns, yet their unprofitable projects have been far too often ignored and stymied by a backdrop of more “exciting” medical research.

Luminary researcher Weston A. Price is best known for his early twentieth century studies on the fundamental components of a healthy diet and the influence of clean, traditional foods in preventing chronic disease. However, what many people don’t realize is that he also observed a great deal about mood and behavior.

According to Sally Fallon-Morrell, president of the Weston A Price Foundation “he often wrote about their cheerfulness, optimism, balance and reverence for life.” One of the mainstays of primitive diets is the intake of wholesome saturated fats and fat-soluble activators including vitamins A, D and K2, which Price believed to all directly influence mood. His early field findings are just now being replicated in sophisticated laboratories- and with shockingly concordant results.

Starting the Conversation

In summary, there are countless overlapping psychological, physiological and sociocultural factors that contribute to our behaviors and moods. There is no single cause to blame nor “magic remedy” that will work to unanimously absolve all mental struggles.

However, accumulating research in the field of neuroscience has confirmed that nutrition can significantly impact mental health. It is unfortunate that this piece of the puzzle has been so severely overlooked until now, yet this insight does offer a new hope for improved mental health care going forward. By looking more deeply at the connection between nutrition and mental health, we will find tools for building happier, healthier families— now and for generations to come.

Natural Healing Clinic
To book an appointment call 604 202 7938

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True Loyalty -A Core Component of a Meaningful Life

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Loyalty is such an important quality in life that I’m not sure one can have a truly meaningful life without it.

When I consider the concept of loyalty, I think about the conviction to stand by something or someone that we value greatly, regardless of the cost. It isn’t thoughtless, but comes about over time and from a thoughtful evaluation of our own values and priorities.

True loyalty cannot be blind, if it is, than it’s nothing more than foolishness. We see this type of foolishness all around us on a daily basis.

Loyalty can take various forms. It could be to a cause–do you have something you feel strongly about? Something you’re willing to die for? Loyalty can be to an idea. Ideas can be inspiring. An idea that truly captures what we hold most near and dear is something we can be loyal and dedicated to. What is more virtuous than living according to our most deeply held values?

Martin Luther King Jr. once said “If a man hasn’t discovered something he’s willing to die for, he isn’t fit to live”. That quote has always challenged me and continues to do so. It cuts to the core of true loyalty.

Loyalty can be to a person or group of people, even to an organization. This underscores the importance of considering what we most value in relationships. What’s truly most important to us in our relationships? What types of people do we feel the most loyalty toward? How much do we actively consider this when developing friendships and intimate relationships?

some quotes about loyalty that I believe get to the heart of the matter.

If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. Elbert Hubbard

Loyalty cannot be blueprinted. It cannot be produced on an assembly line. In fact, it cannot be manufactured at all, for its origin is the human heart-the center of self-respect and human dignity. It is a force which leaps into being only when conditions are exactly right for it-and it is a force very sensitive to betrayal–Maurice R. Franks

The highest spiritual quality, the noblest property of mind a man can have, is this of loyalty … a man with no loyalty in him, with no sense of love or reverence or devotion due to something outside and above his poor daily life, with its pains and pleasures, profits and losses, is as evil a case as man can be–Algernon Charles Swinburne

Loyal companions are an unequaled grace, stanching fear before it bleeds you numb, a reliable antidote for creeping despair–Dean Koontz

Be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, you build the trust of those who are present–Stephen Covey

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it–Edward R. Murrow

The Natural healing Clinic
To book an appointment call 604 202 7938