SARA LAZAR is a neuroscientist at Harvard. In a TEDx Talk delivered in 2011, she related how she took up yoga strictly as an exercise regimen. As a scientist, Dr Lazar admitted to rolling her eyes in response to her instructor’s New Age claims about yoga increasing compassion and opening up the heart and all the rest.
Funny thing, though: “After a couple of weeks, I started noticing some of these changes.” She observed that she was calmer and in better shape to handle difficult situations. Not only that, she felt more compassionate toward others. Curious, she discovered a substantial body of research linking yoga and meditation to reduced depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia, plus enhanced ability to pay attention and improved quality of life.
She also pulled up a study that showed three months of juggling changed the parts of the brain responsible for detecting visual motion. What about mediation? she wondered.
In her first study, she recruited a group of people who practiced meditation for 30 to 40 minutes a day and compared their brain scans to a matched group of non-meditators. The results showed thicker cortical grey matter in the meditators. As we age, grey matter is expected to become thinner, but the older meditators’ brains were indistinguishable from those half their age.
A follow up study performed before-and-after scans on a group of non-meditators receiving an eight-week meditation course. You guessed it - massive increase in the hippocampus (involved in mood and memory). There was also an increase in the temporal parietal junction, associated with, among other things, empathy and compassion. And, last but not least, a decrease in the amygdala (which activates fight or flight). Not only that, the greater the reduction the subjects reported in their stress the smaller the amygdala.
The smaller amygdala finding paralleled in reverse findings of studies done on rodents. You can’t exactly teach rats and mice to meditate, but you can subject them to stress. Lo and behold - at the end of ten days, these on-edge critters had larger amygdalae. After being left alone for three weeks, the researchers found the rodents’ amygdalae remained large, and that they stayed stressed.
Back to the humans, Dr Lazar pointed out that nothing had changed in their environment. They still had their same stressful jobs. The economy still sucked. Yet their amygdalae got smaller and they reported less stress. As Dr Lazar concluded: “So the idea I would like to share with you today is that meditation can literally change your brain.”Is there hope for us?
Yoga for Depression
Back in 1985, Amy Weintraub’s therapist told her that, psychically, she would always have empty pockets. "And I visualized myself, like Virginia Woolf," she wrote, "filling those empty pockets with stones and stepping into the river." Instead, through yoga practice, she filled them with fresh air and divine light, and slowly pulled her way out of her chronic depression, an accomplishment that transformed her and changed her life.
Books on yoga and meditation offer us age-old insights into the nature of suffering, together with time-tested techniques to alleviate that suffering. Depression and self-help books provide a more contemporary focus. Amy’s book, Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga, proves the twain of Patanjali and psychology can meet. Amy is a Kripalu-trained senior yoga instructor and writer who has thoroughly researched depression.
"Living in this mortal body," she quotes the Buddha, "is like living in a house on fire." We suffer. "Depression," says psychologist and yogi Stephen Cope, "is the common cold of the deluded human being." Don’t take this personally - we’re all deluded, including your psychiatrist and therapist. But we’re also all divine, or at least we’re connected to the divine. Yoga is about establishing this sense of oneness. It is probably fair to say a good many people take up yoga simply as a proven stress-buster or alternative to Richard Simmons, but they may also find themselves reaping unexpected rewards, such as beatific inner calm or heightened awareness. Some also find it helps their depression.
What is going on in the body, says Amy, is muscular relaxation, restored natural diaphragm breathing, improved oxygen absorption and carbon monoxide elimination, and increased alpha wave activity, plus the release of the anterior pituitary ("feel good") hormones, including oxytocin, prolactin, and vasopressin.
SIGN UP FOR MY FREE EMAIL NEWSLETTER
Yoga is an eight-limbed path which uses postures, breathing, and meditation as both a means and an end. Back bends, which open up the chest and increase lung capacity, are especially useful for depression. So are inversions such as headstands and shoulder stands, which stimulate the brain (but which should not be attempted without the guidance of a qualified yoga instructor). Some positions are meant to be calming and others energizing. Anxious types are advised to employ calming positions while energetic positions are de rigor for those who find it hard to get out of bed.
Breathing exercises follow the same energizing/calming dichotomy. One reason so much emphasis is placed on the breath is that most of us have forgotten how to breathe. Instead of using the diaphragm, we use the chest, which is not as efficient since the lower portions of the lungs are not exposed to air. The yogis imbue the air we breathe with a spiritual quality called Prana (with a capital P). "When we restrict the breath," writes Amy, "we are diminishing the spirit. When we relearn to breathe fully and deeply, we are enlarging the spirit and reconnecting with the Self."
If posture can take us into breathing, breathing can take us into meditation, which, says, Amy, "can create a calm, healing state in body and mind." Pain doesn’t go away with meditation, she advises, but through the practice of mindfulness we learn not to identify with the pain. For people with major depression, she cautions, meditation may be counter-productive at first, as depressed people tend to be stuck in their negative thoughts. Since meditation may also bring up flashbacks and bad memories, learning under a skilled instructor is strongly encouraged.
Amy’s breakthrough came in a yoga class while holding the bridge pose, suppine with pelvis and chest thrust upwards She released the posture ten minutes later to a flood of sensations and a "time-out for the rational mind, a few moments of deep rest, a glimpse of samadhi [cosmic consciousness]."
What if, she asks, that intelligent awareness of bliss is not an altered state but your natural state? "Eventually, through practice," she informs us, "those moments of samadhi expand until they are firmly established in your mind and you are living with your eyes wide open."
Bipolar's Number One Killer App
Let’s talk about the breath. Of all the tools in our overall wellness toolkit, this is by far the most important. As a killer app for managing bipolar, I also rank it number one. Nothing else comes close.
What finally got me motivated to write about the breath was a short piece I came across in the 2009 book, What Have You Changed Your Mind About? The book is part of an annual series put out by Edge, where about 150 leading thinkers respond to the same thought-provoking question.
The particular response was by writer and technology guru Linda Stone. Ms Stone happened to notice that people tended to hold their breaths when responding to email and to hyperventilate when talking on their cell phones.
Both these tendencies, she reports, disturb oxygen and CO2 balance. She cites research that shows that disrupted breathing contributes mightily to stress-related diseases. Our body’s biochemistry gets thrown off.Our autonomic nervous system, which regulates our body functions at a mostly unconscious level, is divided into the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The former is about rest-and-digest, the latter about fight-or-flight.
When everything is working right, there is a healthy tension between the two systems. Amazingly, our breath can shut down or kickstart either one. Breathe wrong and suddenly our body is converting glucose into raw energy, which is the very last thing we want to happen when our boss calls us into her office.
Breathe right and we may be able to call up that same energy on demand, when we need it, say to drag ourselves out of the house. We can also breathe right to activate the relaxation response.
According to Ms Stone:
I’ve discovered that the more consistently I tune in to healthy breathing patterns, the clearer it is to me whether I’m hungry or not, the more easily I fall asleep and rest peacefully at night, and the more my outlook is consistently positive. I’ve come to believe that within the next five to seven years, breathing exercises will be a significant part of our fitness regime.
Breathing figures mightily in yoga’s many paths, so much so that the yogis assign the air about us a spiritual quality one they call Prana (with a capital P). Amy Weintraub points out that most of us tend to breathe inefficiently using the chest rather than the diaphragm.
According to Amy, mindful breathing "can create a calm, healing state in body and mind." Taking longer out-breaths than in-breaths, she notes, activates the relaxation response and can be employed as an instant and very powerful anxiety-buster.
Likewise, there are breathing “energizers” that feature rapid diaphragm movements.
I have personally benefitted from mindful breathing. Unfortunately, I am a creature of bad habit. I seriously need to work a lot harder at this. With that in mind, here are some of my tricks:
Just breathing, small dose - Stop whatever you’re doing at regular intervals during the day and take a minute or two to focus on your breath. Sit up straight, close your eyes and follow your breath in and out. “When you breathe, just breathe.” I feel the effect instantly. Mentally and physically, I am in much better shape to get on with my tasks.
Just breathing, larger dose - If you can get away from your desk for five minutes or more, find a quiet place, sit comfortably with erect posture, close your eyes, and follow your breaths in and out to the count of 20. The calming effect is instant, palpable, and long-lasting. The exercise also helps clear the mind for meditation, if you are so inclined.
Quiet time - We all need our quiet time. A few deep breaths can work wonders.
Stepping outside - It’s amazing what fresh air can do.
One nostril at a time - You can do this on the go or in a quiet place. With one finger, close your left nostril. Breathe through your right nostril and hold for a few seconds. While holding the breath, release your finger from your left nostril and close your right nostril. Breathe out slowly through the left nostril. Breathe back in through the same nostril and hold. Switch your finger back to the left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
Repeat the process. Exhaling should be twice as long as inhaling.
I find there is no better technique to slow down my runaway brain, or when I anticipate my brain going into runaway mode. The catch is I need to remember to use it.
Remembering to breathe - This is critical if the conversation or the situation is starting to heat up. Before you respond, either to a provocation or positive feedback, take a deep breath or two. You will thank yourself later.
Energizing breath - In yoga, the term is skull-shining breath. Please learn this under a trained practitioner. Sit comfortably and erect. With your diaphragm, force air out of your nostrils. The inhale is automatic. Repeat several times, but do not overdo it.
The effect is instant and energizing, and works to fend off those depressive states. Again, learn this under expert guidance.
The breath is central to yoga, tai chi, martial arts, and similar practices. If you regularly engage in these, you are probably already a master breather. The same is true if you are a regular jogger or cyclist or swimmer. Going out for walks can also help you become aware of your breathing.
I practice the didgeridoo daily. I have mastered a technique called “circular breathing” that is very conducive to entering a calming meditative state. There is also “bounce breathing” that employs pushes from the diaphragm, very similar to the yogic shining skull breathing exercise. Thus, my didgeridoo acts as both a stress-buster and an energizer.
If we paid the same attention to our breathing as we did to our hair or our teeth, we would be far healthier, physically and mentally. We would sleep better, have less stress, and function better day-to-day. We would also have a better handle on our moods and anxieties.
Seriously, I’m not kidding when I say that breathing is bipolar’s number one killer app. We need to put some serious work into this.
Check out my article on neuroplasticity.
Update: Jan 3, 2017
I uploaded this piece four days before experiencing a heart attack and undergoing a quadruple bypass. By rights, I should be under the ground rather than above it. The stresses I faced over a life-time, I am convinced, led to the build-up of plaque which totally blocked my heart. What kept me going, I am equally convinced, was my advanced breathing. Thanks to my capacity to take far fuller "normal" breaths than the average person, my cells stayed oxygenated. This literally gave me the breathing room I needed. My heart should have stopped beating months before. Here I am ...
Revised July 10, 2016
Follow me on the road. Check out my New Heart, New Start blog.