The Early Yield of the 40 Day Practice

One of the many things I notice when I am inconsistent with my meditation is that it takes me about twenty minutes to slog through the distractions and unconscious inattention to get to the clear, calm state of concentration. If this happens to you, simply persevere w/o judgement or frustration. With practice you’ll get there, I promise.

This is exactly why I’ve set myself the challenge of a 40 day practice. I’ve grown weary of of the faulty construction I’ve made of my life by inconsistent practice. Forty days of practice helps us to instill new habits, to compose a new song for our lives. As you may know, 40 is a significant number in spiritual traditions the world over.

Speaking of composing a new song for our lives, have you ever seen a metronome? It’s a simple time keeping device used by musicians to set the tempo for a certain time signature of music. The pendulum of the metronome sounds the beat as it sways back and forth according to the speed set by the practitioner.

The breath is the metronome of the human being. As we begin our meditation, we engage the breath not only physically but mentally, psychologically and emotionally as well. We settle into a tempo of slow, regular diaphragmatic rhythm. We sing the sensual song of the body and allow it to suffuse every cell of our anatomy. We find the natural cadence of being that lies in our souls beneath all the competing storms that disturb our peace.

The metronomic rhythm of the attentive breath sweeps away the seeds of potential disturbance before they sprout. We clean the soil of our minds so that we may sow the seeds of peace and steady attention that root and give rise to the creativity that invariably germinates from this fertile state of mind.

Now the garden of the mind is set to become absorbed in the neurochemistry that creates the deep foundational union of the human spirit with our cosmic origins. Persisting in meditation quite simply changes our brains. The work of Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, demonstrates how meditation stimulates growth in the hippo campus and parietal lobe where memory and empathy respectively reside. At the same time, the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, is soothed and pacified. When we develop a habit of starting our day with this kind of mindset, we open the doors of possibility to being the kinds of people we really want to be–the kinds of people who can make positive, permanent change in our lives and the lives of others.

Another wonderful benefit is the seeming contradiction between feeling elevated and grounded simultaneously. I love this so much because it gives me the assurance that I will be more likely to think, speak and act with greater awareness. I will be less likely to think unkind thoughts and speak and or act out of unconscious reaction.

I am only a four days into my devotional period of 40 days, and the results are already such a joyful relief.

Here’s a good example of how a clear, considered state of mind can make a big difference: I heard a story today on NPR about an airline pilot whose plane was disabled by a broken engine fan blade that tore a hole in the wing of the jet aircraft he was flying. His actions defied my comprehension. The report told of how he sat back, took his hands off the controls and closed his eyes. WOW! He meditated. The instant guidance he got for consciously controlling his response was to treat that big hulking jet like a small Cessna. Rather than reacting to all the alarms and warnings produced by multiple systems failures, he cut through all the noise and carried out the fundamental, necessary actions that saved over 400 passengers and crew.

We may never fly a jet aircraft in an emergency situation, but each day, we know there are triggers and traps that have the ability to make us lose our composure, depress us, or send us careening off into an emotional detour that may have significant consequences. By starting each day with the habit of meditation we reconstruct our minds so that we are able to set the stage for goodness before negative influences confront us. We are ready and equipped to overcome life’s challenges before they gain enough strength to defeat us. The habit of meditation is the guarantor of our ability to respond to life in victory.

The Science of Building Confidence Through Yoga Asana

 

 

One of the great contributions to culture in the recent past is the TED Talks. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. Accomplished people from all over the world and from many disciplines appear on the TED stages to share the compelling work they are pursuing.

National Public Radio in the United States has formed a partnership with TED and broadcasts a weekly one hour program comprised of related talks. One that was aired recently brought together five experts addressing language. My favorite talk of this recent show is Amy Cuddy, Professor of Social Psychology at Harvard University. Dr. Cuddy’s presentation focused on the intentional use of body language and how it can change our attitudes through influencing our neurochemistry. Cuddy’s talk has been heard by more than 17 million people.

As others have done before her, Dr. Cuddy has analyzed postures that communicate both confidence and defeat. The confident postures are expansive and broad. Defeated postures are contracted and withdrawn. Our nearest cousins the primates exhibit these postures just as we do.

Of course, I immediately thought of yoga postures and how their practice changes our feelings and attitudes. Cuddy’s work also aligns with her Harvard colleague, Sara Lazar (another TED alumna), about whom I’ve written in the past. Lazar used MRI to show the positive brain changes in yoga and meditation practitioners.

Cuddy’s favorite illustration of a confidence building pose is what she calls the “Wonder Woman” stance. Picture Lynda Carter, who portrayed the character in her trademark pose—feet wide, hands on hips, erect torso, and direct gaze. Practice this pose with intention and breath awareness and see if you don’t feel more confident.

Cuddy cited medical evidence that leaders who used assertive body language secreted dominance hormones like testosterone (women and smen) and less of the stress hormone, cortisol.

If you don’t quite feel as confident as you look, no matter. You will look that way to others. Cuddy used some recent studies about how people perceived body language and how that body language caused them to favor people with confident postures versus those who looked less self-assured.

But the major point of her talk that stood out for me was her “fake it ‘till you make” attitude or do it until you become it. Rather than faking it, what she is really saying is practice who you want to be until you become that person.

This is the whole point of practicing yoga. As we practice yoga postures with mindfulness and breath awareness, we change our brain chemistry. The yogis intuitively understood this. As we take up yoga practice we may feel unsure or even doubtful that it will make any difference. With practice we see our lives and attitudes begin to change. We develop self-mastery. Each pose, as I’ve said in the past, is a specific energy template that helps us express prana or life force in different beneficial ways.

Once again, modern science and the ancient science of yoga are in profound agreement. Thank you Amy Cuddy for further confirmation that asana, or postural yoga, speeds us on our paths toward being ever-more positively stronger, better human beings.

 

Rewiring the Brain!

Because of the results reported by practitioners, medical researchers are training their sights and technology on yoga and why it works the way it does. Harvard neurologist Dr. Sara Lazar is one of those researchers.

Dr. Lazar injured herself while training for the Boston Marathon. Her orthopedist recommended stretching in lieu of running.

She started practicing yoga and loved it. She did skeptically roll her eyes though when her yoga teacher claimed that yoga would increase her capacity for empathy and compassion. With continued practice she began noticing the presence of these very traits becoming more pronounced in her life. As a scientist, she wanted to know why.

Since she had her own lab and Magnetic Resonance Imaging equipment, she began using the MRI to record images of the brains of yoga practitioners and a control group of those who did not practice yoga and meditation. She was astounded at her findings!

The brains of the yoga and meditation practitioners showed significant differences in the eight weeks of the study. The hippocampus, where learning, memory and emotional regulation take place became denser and larger with practice. Likewise, the parietal lobe, where empathy is initiated, also grew and got denser. The amygdala, home of fear, fight and flight, actually shrank. The control subjects showed no appreciable change in brain anatomy or physiology. The ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to stimuli like yoga and meditation is called neuroplasticity.

Because of the criticism of her methods, Dr. Lazar repeated her study beginning with subjects who had never practiced yoga. The results were the same. In the eight week span of the study, the brains of yoga and meditation participants displayed the same dramatic changes previously demonstrated by established practitioners, while the control subjects showed no measurable change.

I can add my personal testimony to this research as well. At times in the past ten years, challenging life changes have led to my own very real experience with depression. While medication proved to be a temporary bridge to wellness, I wanted to restore myself to health without the undesirable side effects with which such remedies often inflict upon us.

Even though I’d been a hatha yoga practitioner for many years, I had not cultivated mental resilience through meditation. This is where I had to put up or shut up about my confidence in yoga’s ability to deliver me to wholeness. I realized that I simply lacked diligence and consistency in my meditation practice. I also realized that new levels of challenge demand new levels of commitment.

It began with me making a commitment to myself, a commitment to total health through the conscious examination of my life and the diligent application of that knowledge in my practice. Though this path is not always strewn with roses, my daily practice of mental and physical hygiene rewards me without ceasing. Like so many people in the past and present, I am learning that the conscious breath is the beginning of a path to liberation from the demons of tension, stress, and depression. It is a gateway to plumbing the depths of what it means to be human and to tapping into the infinite well of boundless joy and creativity that is the birthright of each one of us.