exercise

Seven ways to collect and concentrate your mind and energy

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I’m old enough to remember a time when people usually answered “good” when you asked them the standard, “How are you?” (often said “harya?”). These days the answer is commonly “busy.”

In the last few months I’ve been very busy myself and starting to feel dispersed: juggling a dozen priorities at any moment, attention skittering from one thing to another, body revved up, feeling stretched thin and spread out like an octopus squished between two sheets of glass.

You know the feeling? Besides being both unpleasant and a spigot of stress hormones, it’s weirdly contagious. Spreading from one person to another and fueled in part by the underlying economics of consumerism, we now have a Western and especially American culture of busyness. If you’re not busy, you must not be important. If you don’t have a lot on your mind, you must be under-performing. If your kids aren’t busy with homework and after school activities, they won’t get ahead. If you don’t look busy, someone will ask you to work harder. Etc.

Enough already. Instead of being scattered to the four winds, collect and concentrate your mind and energy. Besides feeling a lot better, it’s more effective in the long run. For example, what does an Olympic gymnast do before launching into a run or a rocket before heading into space? Come to center.

1. Savor Pleasure
As the brain evolved, pleasure and its underlying endorphins and other natural opioids developed to pull our ancestors out of disturbed fight-flight-freeze bursts of stress and return them and keep them in a sustainable equilibrium of recover-replenish-repair. Let physical or mental pleasure really land; give yourself over to it fully rather than looking for the next thing.

2. Move
Dance, exercise, yoga, walks, lovemaking, play, and athletics reset the body-mind. For me personally, movement at either end of the intensity spectrum – very subtle or very vigorous – has the most impact.

3. Get Wild
We evolved in nature, and multiple studies are showing that natural settings – the beach, wilderness, sitting under a tree in your back yard – are restorative.

4. Enjoy Art
By this I mean making or experiencing anything aesthetic, such as doing crafts, listening to music, watching a play, trying a new recipe, playing your guitar, building a fence, or taking a pottery class.

5. Feel the Core
Most of the inputs into your brain originate within your own body, and most if not all of those signals are like night watchmen calling, “All is well. All is well. All is well . . .” Feeling into your breathing, sensing into your innards, and noticing that you are alright right now are endlessly renewing opportunities to settle into the physical center of your being.

6. Be Now
The center of time is always this moment. A primary difference between humans and other species (with the possible exception of cetaceans) is our capacity for “mental time travel.” But this blessing is also in some ways a curse in that the mind keeps dispersing itself into the past and the future; it proliferates worries, plans, rehashings, and fantasies like manic vines in a speeded-up jungle. Instead, right now be now. And again.

7. Get Disenchanted
This means waking up from the spell, from the enchantments woven by the wanting mind in concert with culture and commerce. We normally pursue hundreds of little goals each day – return this call, organize that event, produce these emails, get across those points – associated with presumed rewards produced by ancient brain centers to motivate our reptilian and mammalian ancestors. Let the truth land that these rewards are rarely as good as promised.

Again and again I’ve had to remind myself to quit chasing the brass ring. While staying engaged with life, return to the reliable rewards of feeling already full – the undoing of the craving, broadly defined, that creates suffering and harm. Try a little practice on first waking or at other times in which you take a few seconds or longer to feel already peaceful, already contented, and already loved. This is the home base of body, brain, and mind.

Come home to center.

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Exercise and meditation — together — help beat depression

EurekaAlert: Meditation and aerobic exercise done together helps reduce depression, according to a new Rutgers study.

The study, published in Translational Psychiatry this month, found that this mind and body combination – done twice a week for only two months – reduced the symptoms for a group of students by 40 percent.

“We are excited by the findings because we saw such a meaningful improvement in both clinically depressed and non-depressed students,” says Brandon Alderman, lead author of the research study. “It is the first time that both of these two behavioral therapies have been looked at together for dealing with depression.”

Alderman, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science, and Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, both in the School of Arts and Sciences, discovered that a combination of mental and physical training (MAP) enabled students with major depressive disorder not to let problems or negative thoughts overwhelm them.

“Scientists have known for a while that both of these activities alone can help with depression,” says Shors. “But this study suggests that when done together, there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.”

The men and women in the Rutgers study who completed the eight-week program – 22 suffering with depression and 30 mentally healthy students – reported fewer depressive symptoms and said they did not spend as much time worrying about negative situations taking place in their lives as they did before the study began.

This group also provided MAP training to young mothers who had been homeless but were living at a residential treatment facility when they began the study. The women involved in the research exhibited severe depressive symptoms and elevated anxiety levels at the beginning. But at the end of the eight weeks, they too, reported that their depression and anxiety had eased, they felt more motivated, and they were able to focus more positively on their lives.

Depression – a debilitating disorder that affects nearly one in five Americans sometime in their life – often occurs in adolescence or young adulthood. Until recently, Rutgers scientists say, the most common treatment for depression has been psychotropic medications that influence brain chemicals and regulate emotions and thought patterns along with talk therapy that can work but takes considerable time and commitment on the part of the patient.

Rutgers researchers say those who participated in the study began with 30 minutes of focused attention meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. They were told that if their thoughts drifted to the past or the future they should refocus on their breathing – enabling those with depression to accept moment-to-moment changes in attention.

Shors, who studies the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus – the portion of the brain known to be necessary for some types of new learning–says even though neurogenesis cannot be monitored in humans, scientists have shown in animal models that aerobic exercise increases the number of new neurons and effortful learning keeps a significant number of those cells alive.

The idea for the human intervention came from her laboratory studies, she says, with the main goal of helping individuals acquire new skills so that they can learn to recover from stressful life events. By learning to focus their attention and exercise, people who are fighting depression can acquire new cognitive skills that can help them process information and reduce the overwhelming recollection of memories from the past, Shors says.

“We know these therapies can be practiced over a lifetime and that they will be effective in improving mental and cognitive health,” says Alderman. “The good news is that this intervention can be practiced by anyone at any time and at no cost.”

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Pay attention: how to enjoy every minute of exercise

Sarah M. Whitman, M.D., Philly.com: Do you hate those first few minutes of a jog? Do you dread the starting few poses of yoga? Does it take a while to get into your exercise class?

I was talking to a colleague recently who loves skiing in the Alps. But as you might guess, that’s impossible for him to do 3-4 times a week; so instead, he runs for 45 minutes every day. However, he told me he hates the first 20 minutes of his exercise regimen. I was shocked – that’s almost …

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How to de-stress from work worries

meditatingThe Vancouver Sun has a nice, although brief, article on reducing stress.

1. Exercise. It helps to release stress, as it improves overall physical and mental health, and improves sleep. This could include any type of activity or meditation, including yoga, tai chi or even a brisk walk to the store.

I don’t know if meditation strictly counts as exercise, but certainly both physical exercise and meditation are very valuable in reducing stress.

2. Focus on building a strong support network. Relationships are vital to coping with stress throughout the year.

Buddhist teachings place a lot of stress on building a sense of community, with an emphasis on spiritual friendship, lovingkindness, and sangha (spiritual community).

3. Unplug. Slow down your pace by taking a break from all the emails, text messages, meetings and information overload – even if it’s for short periods at a time.

Of course meditating is one way to unplug, and retreats are an important way to take a break from the stresses of our normal lives and recharge our batteries. Avoiding multitasking is also very helpful at reducing stress. “Uni-tasking” has been shown to be more efficient.

4. Keep an appreciation journal. Taking stock of all the good things going on in our lives helps us to regain perspective.

Appreciation is a key component of maintaining positive mental states. In Buddhist practice it’s called mudita or empathetic joy, where we focus on the positive. Sometimes we practice what’s called “rejoicing in merits,” where we consciously name the things we appreciate about ourselves or another person.

5. Re-prioritize. Make time for your passions and explore new ones. Learn to play guitar or learn a new language – find a hobby of personal interest.

It’s crucial that we nourish ourselves. Too often we focus on giving our energy at work and at home. When we get exhausted we often make things worse by numbing ourselves with alcohol or television. True “self-metta” helps us to get in touch with what we really need, and that includes nourishing ourselves through creative pursuits. In the long-term, this is necessary in order that we can keep giving.

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Yoga Reduces Fatigue In Multiple Sclerosis Patients, OHSU Study Finds (Science News)

Oregon Health & Science University: Just six months of yoga significantly reduces fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis, but it has no effect on alertness and cognitive function, says a new Oregon Health & Science University study.

The study, published June 8 in the journal Neurology, found that yoga is as good as a traditional aerobic exercise program in improving measures of fatigue, a common and potentially disabling symptom of MS. It was the first randomized, controlled trial of yoga in people with MS.

A parallel study by the same OHSU authors, presented in April at the 56th annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, found that cognitive function does not improve among healthy seniors in a six-month yoga program or exercise class, but physical health and quality of life appear to be enhanced.

The MS study was not designed to determine the impact of yoga on the disease itself, said the study’s lead author, Barry Oken, M.D., professor of neurology and behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine. Rather, it was intended to determine the effect of yoga and aerobic exercise on cognitive function, fatigue, mood and quality of life among people with MS.

“There are some claims out there that yoga helps MS itself, that it can decrease the number of lesions” in the brain caused by MS, said Oken, director of the Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurological Disorders (ORCCAMIND) at OHSU. “I’m not sure that that’s not the case, because stress may have an impact on MS. But that was not what we were trying to show.”

Study co-author Dennis Bourdette, M.D., professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Oregon, said yoga was studied because many people with MS already are using it and reporting benefits.

“We wanted to see whether or not it was beneficial when studied scientifically and how it compared with a type of exercise that physicians are more comfortable recommending — exercise on a stationary bicycle supervised by a physical therapist,” said Bourdette, chairman of the School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology and associate director of ORCCAMIND.

An earlier survey of nearly 2,000 MS patients in Oregon and southwest Washington found about 30 percent of respondents tried yoga. Of those, 57 percent reported it to be “very beneficial,” Bourdette noted. Indeed, many chapters of the National MS Society sponsor yoga programs.

“So it is used fairly commonly, and I believe with publication of our results it will gain even more acceptance and use,” he said. The study “also clearly demonstrates that yoga postures can be modified for use among people with MS who have disabilities caused by their condition and that yoga can be done safely and effectively.”

The study examined 69 MS patients in three groups: one taking weekly Iyengar yoga classes along with home practice; another taking a weekly exercise class using a stationary bicycle along with home exercise; and a third group placed on a waiting list to serve as a control. Participants were monitored for attention, alertness, mood, anxiety, fatigue and overall quality of life.

The yoga classes were offered once a week for 90 minutes. Participants were taught up to 19 poses, each held for 10 seconds to 30 seconds with rest periods of 30 seconds to a minute. They also performed breathing exercises to promote concentration and relaxation, as well as progressive relaxation, visualization and meditation techniques. And daily home practice was strongly encouraged.

The MS study’s aerobic exercise component was similar to the yoga intervention, with one class per week plus home exercise. It consisted of bicycling on recumbent or dual-action stationary bicycles, and each class began and ended with about five minutes of stretching. Participants were given exercise bikes to use at home and were encouraged to use them outside of the weekly class.

While the yoga and aerobic exercise programs produced no significant changes in alertness, attention or other measures of cognitive function in MS patients compared with the waiting-list group, the study found there were improvements in two fatigue measurement tests.

“We think they’re equally beneficial for symptoms of fatigue from MS,” Oken said of yoga and aerobic exercise.

The study cautioned that the reasons behind the reduction in MS fatigue symptoms are unclear. The socialization aspect of the yoga and exercise classes, as well as a placebo effect — simply telling participants that the exercise program was specifically designed to improve psychological well-being — could be credited.

Yoga is a type of so-called mind-body medicine that includes tai-chi, meditation, and dance, music and art therapy. It is a commonly practiced method involving behavioral, psychological, social and spiritual approaches to health, and it is centered around meditation, breathing and postures.

Of the active or hatha yoga techniques, Iyengar yoga is the most common type practiced in the United States. Participants assume a series of stationary positions that employ isometric contraction and relaxation of different muscle groups to create specific body alignments. There also is a relaxation component.

“I see it mostly as a kind of physical activity with a stress-reduction component and body awareness features,” Oken said of yoga. “It has this aspect of bringing your attention to the present moment. But it’s hard to know if that’s due to relaxation or getting your mind not to worry for a little bit.”

Whatever the workout method, exercise seems to help MS patients reduce fatigue symptoms, Bourdette said.

“This is true whether the regular exercise is yoga, swimming, using a stationary bicycle or any other physical activity,” he said. “Sometimes the effects are quite dramatic and other times less so. But everyone with MS who exercises regularly reports benefit.”

The parallel study on the effects of yoga and exercise on healthy seniors focused on 136 participants aged 65 to 85. It showed there were some improvements in physical measures, such as cardiovascular fitness, and quality-of-life measures, such as energy and fatigue.

There was no improvement in measures of cognitive function, however, compared with a waiting-list control group.

“I was hoping to show some cognitive benefit, but the main benefit was a decrease in fatigue and higher energy levels,” Oken explained. “I think those relative benefits are only going to be seen over quite a long period of time. In healthy people, it’s probably going to be a fairly subtle effect.”

Both studies were funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Exercising the demons

The Observer (UK): For millions of Britons suffering from depression, therapy and pills are a first-stop solution. But when conventional treatment failed him, Dan Roberts chose to play and pray.

As anyone who has experienced severe depression knows, it is a hellish state. Your confidence, self-esteem and energy are eviscerated by anxiety, self-doubt and a darkness from which there appears no respite. Symptoms commonly include insomnia, acute anxiety, loss of appetite, libido and energy, with even the most minuscule task taking on Herculean dimensions. In its severest form, depression is crippling, rendering the sufferer unable to lead a normal existence.

Depression is becoming the affliction of our time – one in four people in the UK suffer from it at some point in their lives. For the past 11 years I have been among that 25 per cent, laid low by bouts that can last for weeks and which have ranged from mild to severe.

Depression runs in my family. We are all hugely driven, highly motivated people, prone to often scathing self-criticism. We feel deeply, but vent our emotions poorly, especially anger. As in any good Jewish family, guilt is second nature and (one of the key components in any depressive personality) we expect a great deal – from life, love, the world. When our experience fails to match our lofty dreams we fume, often turning that indignation in on ourselves.

My own cycle of emotional boom and bust began with the untimely death of my father in 1992, when I was 25. I was travelling and hadn’t seen him for two years, so I never got to say goodbye – it was as if he just vanished from my life…

I returned to England and eventually entered counselling to help with the bereavement. I spent the next five years in individual and group therapy, but with hindsight, I believe this examined every dark corner of the past too minutely. Having become disenchanted with therapy in 1997, I spent a year battling my demons alone and, after an especially brutal episode (in which, for the first and last time, I came close to suicide) I visited my GP. She recommended Prozac, but I did not trust antidepressants – I felt it was like taking aspirin to cure a broken leg. A year later, I again bottomed out and was referred to the Tavistock Clinic, where an old-school psychiatrist assessed me and frostily recommended analysis – four times a week. I was working full-time and had a young son, so it was out of the question. Once again, my GP suggested Prozac. Again I refused, and in light of the increasing evidence about the potentially harmful side-effects of SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) such as Prozac and Seroxat, I’m glad I did.

Eventually, like millions of others, I discovered Dorothy Rowe. Her book, Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, spoke with greater simplicity and truth about the causes of depression than any therapy session. Her assertion that depression is a choice made at a very young age, and that we construct the ‘prison’ of depression through rigidly held belief systems, struck a profound chord with me. If, however unconsciously, we choose to be depressed, we can also choose not to be.

Rowe also asserts that regular exercise is a key tool in combating depression. I recently contacted her to seek clarification. ‘Exercise is very helpful,’ she said, ‘because the depressed person is doing something to benefit himself, instead of constantly punishing himself. The decision to do something for yourself, even if it is the tiniest thing, can be the starting point of change and coming to value yourself.’

The precise physiological reasons are not yet clear, but exercise is believed to alter neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine in the brain; the changes are similar to those produced by antidepressants. Better documented is the release of endorphins during and after working out, which provide a natural high.

Whether the effect is mental or physiological, it works. I exercise almost daily; running, swimming, playing tennis and kickboxing. In the weeks where I let my regime slip, my self-image worsens, I feel sluggish and lethargic, and often end up depressed.

The other key component of my anti-depressive programme is meditation. As Rowe says: ‘The depressed person might appear to an outsider to be inactive, but inside, the person’s thoughts are churning around. Meditation, or just learning to centre yourself and relax, can quieten these thoughts.’

This is an oft-ignored aspect of depression – the anxiety and whirling clouds of noxious, self-destructive thoughts that precede and/or accompany it. I meditate daily and find it provides an invaluable aid in my battle with the blues. Meditation taps into a hugely powerful resource – that of an inner calm, strength and resolve which survive any external assault. Depression and psychological turmoil are nothing new, and people have been self-regulating their psyches for millennia through prayer and meditation.

I am not claiming that my approach will work for everyone, but it works for me. I have come to accept that depression will probably be a lifelong, though unwelcome, companion; but never again will I consider suicide. Never again will it suffocate me for weeks on end.

I have learnt how to live with and manage my depression. Perhaps one day I may even free myself from its shackles for good.

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Athletic Ch’an—melding movement with meditation for relaxation, health

Taiwan Journal: Only a few months ago Taiwan was in the grip of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Now that the crisis has passed and life is returning to normal, the experience has engendered a positive legacy: realization of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

In the post-SARS period, many have come to see exercise as an essential ingredient in the maintenance of good health and resistance to disease. Consequently, Taiwan has witnessed a marked increase in the number of people doing early-morning exercise in city parks and plazas or working out in gymnasiums.

A newcomer to the many varieties of exercise is one known as “Dharma athletic Ch’an,” promoted by the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Foundation as a way of enhancing mental and physical harmony. The Chinese word Ch’an, a translation of the Sanskrit dhyana, or concentration, names a tradition of Buddhist meditation developed in China, which, since its transmission to Japan, has become known to the world by the Japanese-language equivalent Zen. The word Dharma is a Sanskrit term meaning the fundamental way of things, or Reality, underlying the world of phenomenal appearances.

According to the Dharma Drum Foundation–an enthusiastic advocate of Ch’an meditation–the exercise emphasizes relaxation and harmonious alignment of body structure rather than muscular development. Although Dharma athletic Ch’an is similar in principle to tai chi chuan martial-art training techniques, it emphasizes meditation on the body as a whole rather than chi kung disciplines for cultivating the body’s subtle chi energy flow. “As a way of mastering coordinated physical action, meditation allows practitioners to gain insight into ‘universal oneness of being’ and to thereby attain a physically and mentally balanced state,” read the foundation’s press release.

This new approach to cultivation of mental and physical well-being comprises eight standing movements combined with meditative observation: upright spinal twisting; circular head-and-neck motion; circular hip motion; reaching for sky and ground; shallow squatting with forward-extending arms; rotational left- right lateral reaching with bent waist; circular motion of bent knees; and a forward-stretching motion similar to an epee plunge. “Although the exercise appears very simple and ordinary, only when you actually practice the principles of effortless breathing, rhythmic movement and physical equilibration can you realize its benefits,” said practitioner Chen Wu-hsiung.

“Relaxation is the key to the exercise,” added Chen. “It involves the entire body and mind, so as to ensure that every bone and muscle is relaxed, thereby allowing chi to flow without hindrance and enabling practitioners to be aware of their surroundings and move in rhythm with Nature,” he explained.

Since 1987, when martial law was lifted in Taiwan and religious groups began developing freely, Ch’an has become increasingly popular throughout the island. According to legend, it originated with Siddhartha Gautama–popularly known as the Buddha, or Awakened One–and was transmitted to posterity via his disciple Mahakashyapa and a subsequent lineage of Ch’an masters stretching over the two and a half millennia since then. When the Buddha held out a bouquet of flowers in front of his disciples without uttering a word, nobody knew what the gesture meant except for Mahakashyapa, who just smiled. “Only Mahakashyapa understands the true Dharma and the wondrous mind of nirvana,” said the Buddha.

A reputed link in the chain of Ch’an transmission, Bodhidharma, introduced the precursor of Ch’an to China a millennium later in the 6th century. Though few people know of this story, what attracts them to Ch’an is the possibility of experiencing meditative insight leading to the attainment of enlightenment, or clear perception of one’s true nature.

“To meditate, a practitioner starts by concentrating on inhaling and exhaling. With concentration, one can ignore any thoughts that arise and thus return to a thought-free state,” said Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, founder of the Chung Hwa Institute of Buddhist Culture and the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Foundation. “The combination of meditation and exercise enables people to become aware of the life energy underlying all achievement and expression,” said the master, who has practiced the exercise for some 20 years.

Practitioners attest to both physical and psychic benefits of Dharma athletic Ch’an. “The relaxation that the exercise brings gets rid of my serious muscle aches and helps me reduce stress,” said a 45-year-old woman surnamed Lee. Another zealous practitioner surnamed Huang claimed that since beginning to do the exercise, he not only has become slimmer but calmer as well. “Before taking up athletic Ch’an, I tended to lose my temper easily, as in traffic jams. Now I’m more patient.” Though Dharma athletic Ch’an is a relatively recent development, debuting in April of this year, this melding of meditation and motion is finding growing favor among Taiwanese, thus far having attracted 4,000 practitioners island-wide. In order to boost the exercise, many enthusiasts have volunteered to teach the technique at hospitals, prisons, companies and schools.

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