The word asana literally means “to take one’s seat”. The great first century sage, Patanjali, in his famous yoga sutra, the “declaration of independence” for all students of yoga, refers to asana as both the inner and outer posture one takes in seated meditation. At first glance this would seem at odds with our modern interpretation and understanding of asana that we are accustomed to finding in sweaty yoga studios on practically every street corner of urban America. In fact hatha yoga, the yoga of movement, did not come into existence until the beginning of the second millennium approx 1000 years after Patanjali wrote his famous sutra. However the contrast between the ancient and contemporary meaning of asana ends at a superficial level.

One can be in a yoga flow moving from one posture to the next in quick succession while being “in one’s seat” fully present to the ebb and flow of experience from moment to moment. Hatha yoga invites the practitioner to remain still within the movement of life. By that I mean being fully present to sensations of body and breath as they arise and pass away. Practicing in this way over and over again the yogi learns a powerful truth. All things are impermanent. Everything that arises must pass away. All conditioned phenomena are subject to the forces of birth and decay. This is the great lesson of yoga.

The Sanskrit word “yoga” has the literal meaning to “yoke” from the root “yuj” meaning to join, to unite or to attach. As practioners of yoga we are literally yoking to our experience each time we arrive awake to this moment. The mind is habitually lost in worries about the past or fantasies about the future. It is rarely here in this moment. Our practice is to wake up to that reality. We set the intention over and over again to wake up to this moment for this is the only moment we have. Hatha yoga is a set of physical postures that are merely a form or vehicle to practice the true meaning of yoga – waking up to this moment afresh, alive and renewed. Without the intention of waking up, yoga is nothing more than a series of physical exercises. Yoga builds greater strength, flexibility, emotional stability and clarity of mind. These are all secondary benefits to yoga’s true purpose which is perfect harmony with the world and union with all things.

What makes for a successful and fulfilling life? How do we maintain a sense of balance in the face of life’s challenges and difficulties? How do we maintain a sense of who we are and what we consider to be valuable and true when life gets tough? Phillip Moffitt’s wonderful new book Emotional Chaos to Clarity addresses these questions with clarity and wisdom. It goes to the heart of what we all face as human beings regardless of our background, economic status, religion or belief system.

This book helps you get in touch with your authentic self, the genuine part of you that acts from your deepest values and intentions.
Our society conditions us to believe that our material possessions, recognition from our peers and our health are the markers for a successful life. The author argues that it is fine to have skillful goals as long as we don’t determine our self-worth by the success we have in reaching those goals. The hallmark of a successful life is how well our actions reflect the intentions that are formed by our core values.

Skillful living requires that we first have to discover for ourselves our core values and intentions. It is in life’s difficult moments, whether it be at work or in our closest relationships that we come to rely on our values and intentions to guide how we respond when we are in the midst of a difficult situation. Otherwise we get lost in a storm of reactivity which compounds our suffering. Moffitt acknowledges that living from our values and intentions is not an easy thing to do. It requires patience and persistence and the willingness to start over.

The author states that a necessary condition to bringing about more clarity in our lives is the practice of mindfulness which trains you to be present and aware in daily life. Without mindfulness we would fall back on unskillful habit patterns which cloud the mind and form the basis for reactivity.

What sets this book apart from the multitude of other books that deal with this subject matter is the author’s skillful use of pedagogy. Each chapter addresses an aspect of our lives: practicing gratitude and generosity, starting our day with clarity and making major life changes are some of the topics that are addressed. At the end of each chapter, Moffitt lists practical exercises that one can incorporate into one’s daily routine. I personally found the self-reflection exercises to be very helpful. They allowed me to pause and ask the really important questions that we all long to ask – how do I want to spend the rest of my precious life for the short time that I am living on this earth?

Two prominent institutions are currently undertaking scientific studies to measure the effectiveness of yoga on alleviating post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans.

The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in collaboration with Harvard Medical School faculty and research assistants have developed a comprehensive yoga program specifically designed to relieve symptoms of trauma.

There are pre-, mid-, post-, and long-term follow-up treatment measures that include questionnaires and interviews that measure PTSD symptoms, subjective well-being, and mood; electrocardiogram readings to monitor heart-rate variability; and 24-hour urine samples to assay the presence of stress hormones. Three months following the study, subjects will complete a long-term follow-up.

A second study under the direction of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds will apply the tools of neuroscience – including brain imaging to determine what if any effect such contemplative practices have on veterans with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Researchers hope to develop psychological profiles and a kind of tool kit that help them target contemplative practices in ways that are most effective.

There is, at least, anecdotal evidence that contemplative practices are beneficial for veterans. Both Navy veteran Dennis and Jennifer Kannel, who spent a year in Iraq with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, said the breathing exercises and meditation practices improved their sleep and sense of well-being.

Andrew Hendrickson, who leads a yoga-based relaxation series for returning combat troops asks vets in his program to rate their level of distress, on a scale of zero to 100, before and after participating.

“I frequently get people who drop from 80 to 20 or 10,” said Hendrickson, who used yoga to sleep at night while working at a combat hospital in Afghanistan. “One guy with severe depression went from 60 to zero.”

A human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind wrote psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University in the Journal Science. According to these researchers, mind-wandering is a human brain’s default mode of operation.

Using modern technology, the authors created an iphone app that contacted volunteers at regular intervals throughout the day to find out what they were currently doing and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Intrigued by the researchers skillful use of modern technology to determine the causes for human happiness, I decided to sign up as a participant. Five times per day over a period of ten days, my trusty iphone would beep prompting me to answer the designated questions. The questions ranged from my current level of happiness, how well I slept the night before, what I was busy doing in the moment that I was beeped and how focussed I was with that particular activity. I was also asked if I was judging myself, the people around me or my current environment. After 10 days of answering questions , I was rewarded with a handsome set of charts measuring my level of happiness across a wide spectrum.

The results did not surprise me. I am happiest when I am doing my yoga practice or when I am helping others in need. For both of these activities, I am fully participating in life as it is happening in the present moment. Also not surprisingly the results confirmed that I am least happy when I am commuting over long distances. My mind wanders a lot when I am sitting in the car with nothing to do.

“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now,’” Killingsworth and Gilbert note in Science. “These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Recent scientific studies suggest that people with mindfulness traits have the ability to calm their emotions by naming them. Mindfulness is a process where one is aware and receptive to present moment experiences.

In a study conducted by UCLA researchers Matthew Leiberman and David Creswell, subjects in an MRI scanner were shown emotionally expressive faces. When they were asked to name the gender of the person expressing the emotion no changes occurred. However when the same subjects were asked to name the emotion they were seeing (such as anger, fear or sadness), the person’s right ventro-lateral region became activated at the moment that the emotion was being named and the subcortical regions that respond to facial expressions especially in the region of the right amygdala calmed down. Continue Reading »

In his poem, Ash Wednesday, TS Eliot writes, “Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still…

These words are like a paradox. How can we care and at the same time not care? We have goals and desires and we want things to be a certain way. What Eliot is suggesting in this poem is that we can have desires and at the same time not be imprisoned by them. Life is going to march on regardless of how we want things to be. Sometimes we will get what we want and sometimes we won’t. It’s just the way life is. However, when we hold on rigidly to the objects of our desire, we suffer.

This is the central teaching of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha instructs us “to abandon attachment to getting what we desire.” Continue Reading »

Our brains are composed of a left and right hemisphere connected by the corpus collosum, a small number of neural circuits located deep in the brain where energy and information is sent back and forth between the two sides. The left hemisphere is the more analytical, conceptual, fact based side that loves logical, linear, linguistic and literal communication. The right side of the brain is the more image-based side that processes non-verbal eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, gestures and timing. It sees the whole picture whereas the left sees the world in terms of either/or. The right is characterized by autobiographical memory which is non-language based whereas factual memory is dominated on the left. Continue Reading »

Increasingly we are hearing in the popular press the axiom “neurons that fire together, wire together”. In 1949 Canadian behavioral psychologist Donald Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing the other to fire) chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept was neatly summarizerd by neuro-scientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (from Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself“)

What this means in practical terms is that each time you repeat a particular thought or action, you strengthen the connection between a set of brain cells or neurons. As neuroscience expert and psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson says, “the mind and the brain are a unified system. As the brain changes, the mind changes. As the mind changes, the brain changes. This means that you can use your conscious mind to make lasting changes to your brain to bring about greater well-being and happiness in your life.”

In her now classic book, Train Your Mind to Change Your Brain, author Sharon Begley states it succinctly, “The power of neuroplasticity to transform the emotional brain opens up new worlds of possibility. We are not stuck with the brain we were born with but have the capacity to willfully direct which functions will flower and which will wither, which moral capacities emerge and which do not, which emotions flourish and which are stilled.”

The science of neuroplasticity is both optimistic and hopeful. As we set the intention to register what is good in our lives and allow the good feelings to permeate our bodies and our minds, we are making underlying changes to the neural circuitry of our brains increasing the probability that the same neural connections will fire in the future.

Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love (COAL) is an acronym invented by Dr. Daniel Siegel to describe the qualities of mindfulness. Interestingly, COAL are also the qualities present in secure parent/child attachments and between psychotherapist and patient in successful healing outcomes. It is a loving and openly accepting relationship between parent and child that determines how well the child will grow into a successful and mature adult.

In his book “The Mindful Brain” Siegel states that “the interpersonal attunement of secure attachment is paralled by the intrapersonal attunement of mindful awareness. Both interpersonal and intrapersonal attunement develop the capacity for intimate relationships, well being and resilience.”

When the child’s world is understood by the parent, the child feels good, connected and loved. This is attunement. Similarly, when we are mindful of our moment to moment experience with a kind, and open-hearted presence, we become our own best friend.

Siegel also states that “both forms of attunement share common neural pathways particularly those found in the pre-frontal cortex. The development of these regulatory circuits in the brain is associated with emotional resilience, compassion for oneself and others. Seigel lists nine prefrontal functions that overlap with mindfulness practice and secure parent/child attachments. “They are regulation of body systems, balancing emotions, modulating fear, responding flexibly, attuning to others, exhibiting insight, empathy, intuition, and morality.”

Seigel states “Another important dimension of looking toward the mindful brain is that by understanding the neural mechanisms associated with mindful awareness, we may be in a better position to identify it’s universal human qualities and make it more accessible and acceptable to a broader audience.” Seigel invites the reader to “imagine a world in which this health promoting, empathy-enhancing, executive-attention developing, self compassion nurturing, affordable, and adaptable mental practice is made available in everyone’s life”.