When you are in touch with your body and heart, it allows you to then be in the world and act with intention and clarity and kindness
— Tara Brach
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The Physiology of Mindfulness

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An important part of learning about mindfulness and meditation is understanding the impacts that both stress and intentional relaxation have on our physiology. Although the effects of practicing mindfulness and meditation can feel subtle, and cumulative impacts of adopting these practices are significant. Likewise, the cumulative impacts of living with high levels of stress is also significant.

Personally, understanding the science behind the benefits of meditation has played an important role in inspiring the consistency of my practice. It was like, if I’m going to get up early to sit silently in the dark, I wanted some tangible reasons why this was necessary. And there are.

This is your body on stress….

Adapted from The Relaxation Revolution, Herbert Benson, M.D., and William Proctor, J.D. (Scribner, 2010).

First, the stress response signals the body to tighten the muscles and the cells in the body begin to shrink and pull away from one another, causing higher rates of cellular deterioration. This activates the adrenals to secrete adrenaline. Many people get stuck in this state of self protecting even when there is no longer a threat present, and the adrenals become fatigued. The blood pressure rises and the heart beats faster, causing increased wear on the organs. The breath quickens 2-3x its normal rate, increasingly thought waves, often causing a sense of anxiousness. Blood is redirected away for non-essential systems such as the stomach & intestines, often causing the digestive system to slow or stop completely. And in the brain, only survival related neuropathways begin to light up. Like emergency lighting on a plane leading to the closest exit, the brain’s function simplify to the exclusion of more creative relevant problem solving information.

Stress may contribute to or exacerbate health problems, including:

allergic skin reactions, anxiety, arthritis, constipation, cough, depression, diabetes, dizziness, gum disease, headaches, heart problems, such as angina (chest pains), arrhythmias, heart attack, and palpitations (pounding heart), heartburn, high blood pressure, hypertension, infectious diseases, such as colds or herpes, insomnia and resulting fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, “morning sickness,” the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy, nervousness, pain of any sort, including backaches, headaches, abdominal pain, muscle pain, joint aches, postoperative pain, and chronic pain caused by many conditions, Parkinson’s disease, postoperative swelling, post traumatic stress, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), side effects of AIDS, side effects of cancer and cancer treatments, sleep disorders, slow wound healing, ulcers

Benefits of Meditation


Physiological effects

Normalizes blood pressure, Improves immune function, Slows the aging process, Reduces anxiety, burnout, improves stress related disorders, Promotes the experience of relaxation throughout the day, Decreases insomnia


Psychological effects

Improves psychological health and self-esteem, Lowers incidence of depression, anger, irritability, Improves concentration, Increases positive thinking, Enhances creativity, Facilitates psychological development

Case studies on the effects of meditation

* Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital Study

  • An 8 week study with new meditators

  • Showed eliciting relaxation response changes gene activity

  • Switches off genes related to inflammatory responses (heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease)

  • Switches on genes related to use to energy in body, maintenance of healthy cells, and function of mitochondria (build energy reserves to counter the effects of stress response)

  • Changes genes related to controlling body response to free radicals

  • Demonstrated that relaxation response must be regularly elicited for benefits to last


* University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness (similar at Harvard and Yale)

  • 8 week study new meditators

  • Increased experience of stress reduction

  • Increase in grey matter associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection (this increased particularly for older participants)

 

Three Reasons You Need a Self-Care Plan

* shared from mindful.org

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A Self-Care Plan is an intervention tool that keeps you from being completely sucked into the vortex, saving you when you find yourself standing on the precipice gazing into the dark abyss. It’s a fail-safe, created by you, and filled with your favourite self-care activities, important reminders, and ways to activate your self-care community.  

1) Customizing a Self-Care Plan is a preventative measure. By designing a roadmap that is unique to you, in moments when you’re NOT in crisis, you’re directing your best self to reflect on what you may need (and have access to) in your worst moments. The reality is that only YOU know how intense your stress levels can get and what resources are available to you. Write that sh*t down.

2) Having a plan takes the guesswork out of what to do and where to turn in moments of crisis. From a mindfulness point of view, it helps you respond instead of react to the situation at hand. When you have a plan in place, you’ll feel more in control of your circumstances and life won’t feel quite as chaotic. (It also makes it easier to ask for help from those you share your plan with.

3) A Self-Care Plan helps you stay the course. You’ll find it far easier to stick to your personal care strategy and avoid falling into the trap of making excuses. Having a plan helps you establish a routine, ensuring that you and your self-care partners don’t wind up in isolation, but rather check in with each other, hold each other accountable, and share the responsibility to support one another. 

How to Create A Self-Care Plan

Your Self-Care Plan is a roadmap that you can carry in your back pocket. It’s there to help you walk your talk as well as help you find your way back to equilibrium by providing a clearly defined route back home if you find yourself on off-track. 

Creating and following a plan helps you balance your mental, physical, and emotional needs while reminding you of the important people in your support system and the self-care goals you wish to accomplish. 

How do you begin creating a Self-Care Plan? 

1) First, create an activity list organized around different parts of your life: I’ve found that the easiest way to start is by breaking up this daunting task into several categories, for example: 

  • Work

  • Physical Fitness

  • Emotional Life

  • Relationships & Community

For each area above, write down the activities or strategies that you can call on, that are authentic to you and contribute to your wellbeing.

Some examples we’ve discussed over the past weeks include spending time with friends, eating healthy, being active, mindfulness meditation, and finding the confidence to create healthy boundaries (here’s a template). Have fun, be creative, and most impprtatnly, be real with yourself about what works for you and what doesn’t.

2) Second, note any barriers that may be in your way and how to shift them. As you write down each activity, ask yourself what barriers might get in the way of you being able to accomplish it. Then, try to strategize ways that you might be able to shift these barriers (FYI, this works even better when you do so with a friend, partnerm or community!).  If you find that you can’t shift the barriers, feel free to adjust the activities. Your Self-Care Plan is NOT written in stone! It’s meant to be a living, breathing guide that adapts as your life circumstances and demands change.

3) Third, share your plan with your closest friends. Don’t forget to rely on your network of self-care buddies, your community of care. Share a copy of your Self-Care Plan with them and ask them to hold you accountable. Encourage them to create their own Plan and share it with you so you can do the same for them.

 

The Three Gunas

as taught by Swami Sivananda

Understanding the three gunas helps us understand the qualities leading to health and diseases.  There are three qualities in nature, called Gunas:

  1. Tamas is the quality of inertia, darkness and ignorance. If the mind is tamasic the person will be lazy, depressed, and negative.  Tamasic food and tamasic lifestyle lead to diseases and blockages in the flow of prana.

  2. Rajas is the quality of activity, passion, action, egoism, and indulgence. If the mind is rajasic, the person will be passionate, competitive, busy with self centered activities, and full of desires.  Among other causes, excess Rajas causes stress.  Rajasic food and rajasic lifestyle can also bring disharmony and diseases that come from the disturbances of the flow of prana.

  3. Sattva is a quality of purity, balance, knowledge, wisdom and discipline. The sattvic mind is clear, focused, harmonious and connected (with self and others).  Sattvic food, sattvic company, and sattvic environments bring about health.

The function of the gunas is different in the universe vs. the mind. None of the 3 gunas are inherently bad nor good. They are each essential ingredients that make up creation.

Because the mind is inherently sattvic, the introduction of rajasic or tamasic energy into the mind creates distortion…

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Increase Sattva

Practicing the five points of Yoga will increase Sattva, remove Tamas, and calm down Rajas so our life will not alternate up and down.

Tamas is like a thick veil over our consciousness.

Rajas is like a constant projection of ideas that create fragmentation, division, separation, and conflict.

Sattva is like a clear lake in which you can see a true reflection of yourself.

 

The 5 points of Yoga

The five points of Yoga are:

  1. Proper Exercise – Asanas

  2. Proper Breathing – Pranayama

  3. Proper Relaxation – Savasana

  4. Proper Diet – Vegetarian

  5. Positive Thinking and Meditation – Vedanta and Dhyana

* click each point to find more in depth information on each point

 

Yogic Diet

The yogic diet is based on foods’ inherent tendencies and influence on body, mind and energy. Below is a basic overview of a yogic diet. Of cuurse, most important is that you listen to your own unique body and its needs. As you apply mindfulness to food and how you feel after you eat various foods, you will subtler and subtler awareness of the effects that foods have on you personally.


Sattvic  Diet

  • lacto vegetarian

  • whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds

  • Fruits (both fresh and dried) & Vegetables

  • Herbs

  • Natural Sweeteners


Other factors that make food sattvic:

  • amount of food

  • The way it was prepared (attitude of the cook)

  • State of mind when eating it

Rajasic Foods

  • overly spicy, bitter or sour food

  • Caffeine (coffee, tea), Tobacco

  • Too many sweets

  • Onions, Garlic, Radishes, eggs

  • Junk food

Tamasic Foods

  • overcooked or processed food

  • Leftovers or reheated food

  • Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, mushrooms and vinegar

  • Alcoholic beverages, marijuana and other altering substances

  • Stale, decomposing, overripe food

  • Fermented, burned, fried foods

  • Preservatives

 

Writing Practice

A few questions for contemplation and reflection…

What types of spaces, activities and interactions decrease my energy?

What types of spaces, activities and interactions increase my energy?

How do I know when my body needs more mindful attention?

 

Meditation Practice

This week we are aiming for a sitting practice of 25 minutes per day. If sitting for 20 minutes per day was manageable last week, go ahead and try increasing the length of your practice to 25. If 20 minutes was challenging, stick with the length that is manageable for you, or simply add one minute to whatever your current practice time is, for the next week.

Again, In this recording I guide you into the practice, setting you up with a good seated position, breathing and focus. Silence. And at the end of 20 minutes I bring you back out of the practice with three OMs.

OM

 

Yoga suggestions 

Downward Dog 

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  • Helps us look inward and see life from new perspectives

  • Unifies the spirit within and connection to the physical world

  • Calms the mind

(click here for full instructions)

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Mountain Pose

  • Increases awareness of mind/body connection

  • Fosters gratitude and motivation

  • Encourages vulnerability

  • Builds strength and confidence in ourselves

  • Increases Prana, life force energy

(click here for full instructions)

Warrior

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  • Increases stamina

  • Teaches how to find ease within effort

  • Develops peace in the uncomfortable moments of life

(click here for full instructions)

 

Painting Review

* Add images of symbols and helpers using the techniques used until now, using a small round brushes to draw in the outline.

* Fill in using the dry brush technique, or another technique that provides the desired texture of the object, remembering to sometimes leave a glow space between the lines and the filling of the lines

* If desired, for larger additions, you may also want to use 3 tones to add dimension to the new images. This is not always necessary since sometimes the additions may be simpler in contrast to the main imagery in your painting.

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