Tag Archives: health

Jnana Yogis

(The second in a series of catch-up blogs inspired by a weekend at the Omega Yoga Service Conference.  Check out the first blog on Nikki Myers, Addiction and Authenticity)

There was no shortage of knowledge (or wisdom) at the  Omega Yoga Service Conference this weekend.  Two jnana yogis (jnanins) in particular really lit up the room lecturing on key topics for service yogis.

DSC06597Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University (the top ranked uni for graduate psychology programs in the US), delivered a brilliant presentation on compassion, some of the neurophysiology behind it, and how people in the helping fields can strengthen this powerful skill.

We were treated to summaries of findings by Paul Gilbert and host of other leaders in psychology and compassion research (Fiske, Goetz, Longe, Slovik, et al.) – years of scientific mining filtered down to the gems of their labor (priceless for the lay people in the audience, including myself!).  And despite the limited time, we were offered several hands-on exercises to nourish our own compassion, or to utilize in a clinical setting.  Kelly’s presentation was practical, clear, and absolutely inspirational as both a yogi and an aspiring academic.

“Kelly McGonigal is a leader driven by compassion and pragmatism.” – Forbes.com 20 Inspiring Women

bessel1Trauma was a big theme throughout this conference and Bessel Van der Kolk closed the gathering with a presentation on Yoga, Neurobiology, and Trauma.  Bessel’s approach was a comfortable mix of personal sharing as a clinical psychologist and the intriguing new research emerging about which areas of the brain are most affected by trauma.  He opened with a few aesthetic representations of trauma, including a video clip from shell-shocked WWII veterans in Europe – otherworldly and fundamentally disturbing.

We were later shown brain imaging scans of PTSD patients just a few years back – illustrating almost complete lack of activity in their temporal parietal insula and parietal cortex areas.  For PTSD patients, sensations from the body were almost totally blocked.  Their brains no longer wanted them to physically ‘be,’ their trauma had been so severe.  Bessel described pranayam as the only known technique to regulate the brain stem, the part of the nervous system in charge of automatic functioning.  He also discussed the importance of the vagus nerve, which contains 80% efferent fibers, nerve communication going to the brain.

Clearly, I’m still connecting some of the dots; all this information, along with my discoveries in Health Psychology and Mindfulness and Meditation in Psychology this year, clarifies the “why” questions that pop up when I suggest asana, meditation and pranayam to my students.  The scientific research might seem redundant to hardcore practitioners, but is absolutely vital in locating the process of efficacy, what *exactly* is working, *how* is it doing what it does, do duration and frequency of practice make a difference, and if so, how much?

It’s also great fodder for recruiting new yogis (especially you skeptical lot!)  – something this yoga evangelist is very keen on (be warned! ;)).

jnanaJnana?  Really?

Already what I’ve written could be broken into *two* blogs, one about Kelly’s presentation on compassion/science and one about Bessel’s on trauma/yogic techniques/science.  But this is a blog on how grateful I am for jnana yogis.  Yogis like Kelly and Bessel who are discerning the Real from the unreal or illusory, yogis who exhibit the best of svadhyaya (self-study).  Their extensive studies and commitment to yoga provide great clarity in the grey areas that arise where Eastern philosophy meets Western science.

If you’re a traditionalist, you may find my definition of a jnani rather modern.  Kelly and Bassel did not give presentations on spiritual texts like the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads – and they made absolutely no mention of self-realization.  Would they call themselves jnanis?  I have no idea!  But they’ve shone a flashlight along my path, a light that came through their profound study, and so, for me, they are jnana yogis to be grateful for!

A Traditional Explanation of the Path of Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is considered one of the many paths of yoga (along with Hatha, Karma, Bhakti, Raja/Classical/Patanjali, etc.) – though the techniques and nuances of philosophy differ, they all lead to one state: samadhi (bliss, liberation, self-realization, etc.).  Jnana Yoga is known as the path for the intellectual.  According to Sadananda in his Vedanta-Sara, a fifteenth century text on jnana yoga, there are 4 principal means for attaining liberation on the path of jnana:

1. Discernment – viveka – between permanent and the transient

2. Renunciation – viraga – of the enjoyment of the fruit of one’s actions

3. The six accomplishments: tranquility (shama), sense-restraint (dama), cessation (uparati), endurance (titiksha), mental collectedness (samadhana), faith (shraddha)

4. The urge toward liberation (mumukshutva), similar to the bodhi-citta of Mahayana Buddhism.

(Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition, 31)

If you’re interested in diving into what jnana yoga is all about, the Bhagavad Gita (500-200 BC) is the first text to reference this path, and Swami Vivekananda is said to be the penultimate example of a jnanin.  His commentary, “Jnana Yoga,” published by Advaita Ashrama, though written in the language of the Victorian Era, is an elucidating read on the subject.


Grateful for DNA Readings!

A few months ago, I sent my spittle to a company called 23 And Me.  It sounds a bit strange, I know.

Why would I spit (quite a bit) into a little plastic collector, add a splash of some unknown chemical, shake it all up, then send it back across the country to some lab in California?  Well, I’ve always been curious about how accurate my family’s oral recount of our ethnic history could be (and what about genetic predisposition for diseases?) – 23 And Me is the go-to company for public DNA exploration.

Today I got the results . . .

Good news: I don’t have any of the mutations they can read for breast cancer.

Potential bad news: I may have Hemochromatosis (HFE-related), a condition that makes processing iron complicated (thankfully I mostly gave up red meat ages ago!).

There are all kinds of things to explore on their website now that I know my genetic code (D4b2a2) – apparently, I’m 74.29% similar to a Japanese person,

  • Haplogroup: D, a subgroup of M
  • Age: 45,000 years
  • Region: Americas, Asia
  • Populations: Native Americans, Yupik, Chukchi
  • Highlight: People carrying mitochondrial DNA from haplogroup D may have been among the first to reach the tip of South America.

I perused my potential drug response dangers, and found out my Neanderthal composition!  In a few more days, I’ll know even more . . . and once my dad gets on board, I’ll be able to trace my patriarchal line as well.

Science is rad.

The company is 23andme.com, and they were even featured on Oprah – so there’s some credibility for ya!

Obamacare: Explained

Cheers to the Atlantic for posting this gem for those of us out there who are a little fuzzy on just what Obamacare means (myths busted at the NYTimes) … are you ready for it (Mother Jones sure is)?




What Is Obamacare?
By James Hamblin

Only 37 percent of Americans say they’re in favor of the 2010 health-care law. When you describe specific changes happening under the law, though, closer to 70 percent are on board with them. That’s among data from Kaiser Family Foundation that was highlighted on All Things Considered this weekend. Also of note: 50 percent think the law gives health-care subsidies to undocumented immigrants, 80 percent don’t know if their state will expand Medicaid, and 40 percent think the law sets up “death panels.”

Even though the law passed three years ago, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding out there about the basics of what it is/does. So hopefully some people will find this of use. I totally relate to situations where everyone is talking about something for a while, and you never really got it, and then before you know it everything you try to read is beyond comprehension because it assumes everyone already knows the basics. So you just nod passively when people bring it up and try to change the subject and continue not to know about it. I’m that way with Syria and food trucks.

If you consider yourself conversationally fluent in Affordable Care Act banter, then what I write here will bore you. Detailed discussion is at healthcare.gov — and also like, everywhere else.

Obamacare … okay to call it that?

Yes. The name used to have a negative vibe, but the President has since owned it.

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act = PPACA = ACA = Obamacare = “the health-care law”

None of these in particular imply that you love or hate Barack Obama or intend to support or subvert the law.

What does it do for people?

SHARK300200.jpgObamacare does not mandate that anyone bend over. This is a playful sodomy reference. (RebeccaCook/Reuters)


The stated purpose is to “increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance and decrease the cost of health care.” The most widely relevant and talked-about parts are that no one will be excludedfrom getting insurance, and everyone will have to get insurance.

Insurance companies can’t refuse to cover people like they used to, and they can’t revoke coverage when people get sick. People won’t be forced to pay extra for insurance because of pre-existing conditions. There will be a limit on how much insurance companies can legally profit, and they will eventually have to cover all kinds of preventive care.

Those things, among other measures aimed at containing U.S. health care spending, which was $2.6 trillion last year …


This law passed three years ago. It doesn’t feel like much has changed.

Changes are rolling out over a ten-year period. So far, things have mostly affected insurance companies and the industry side. Increases in health care spending have (coincidentally?) slowed since 2010.

The most disputed part of the law — the “individual mandate” that requires “most Americans to have “minimum essential health insurance coverage” (the part that drove the ACA to the Supreme Court last Spring, where it was upheld) — goes into effect in January 2014.

45 million Americans don’t have health insurance, though. How are so many people supposed to get it by 2014?

First, state and federal governments are setting up exchanges. That will start in October.

What are exchanges?

Exchanges are markets where small businesses and people can shop for insurance and compare prices and benefits. They’ll be on web sites.

Well, what if people still can’t afford it?

People with “moderate” incomes can get money/discounts from the federal government to help pay for insurance. People with “low” incomes will get their care from Medicaid. More people than ever before will qualify for Medicaid. People who make less than $15,856 (or $26,951 for a family of three) will qualify. As you’ve heard, Medicaid is expanding, but the federal government is leaving it up to states to decide whether to accept that expansion. The Supreme Court upheld the ACA, but it limited the federal government’s ability to enforce expansion, so it’s up to states.

Is my state expanding Medicaid?

Here is where we stand as of last week.

States_continue_to_weigh_the_Medicaid_expansion_decision.jpgWhere the States StandThe Advisory Board Company

What about undocumented immigrants?

Not eligible for Medicaid or for buying coverage through an exchange

What are death panels?

Not a thing

Why do 40 percent of people think they are a thing, then?

When discussions turn to rationing care — for example, not spending millions of dollars to keep a 145-year-old person in a coma on life support indefinitely; and, instead, using that money to provide basic preventive care to thousands of underprivileged kids — someone will bring up the term “death panels.” That is, if we are not going to always keep everyone alive at all costs, who decides how care should be rationed? An important question, but “death panels” are fiction.

The law did create an independent nonprofit organization called the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) that compares treatments and tries to figure out which options make the most sense for particular people. That’s the closest thing to what someone could somehow call a death panel. But it’s actually a body to help make sure more of the decisions made by doctors are supported by evidence.

I get it. How many death panels will Obamacare create? How many astronauts per death panel?

[No response]

Can I still have bacon and giant sodas under Obamacare?

Yes. The only thing in that realm you might care about is that chain restaurants have to list calories on their menus.

Also tanning beds, right? Obama wants to disassemble the free market?

There is a tax on tanning salons. UV rays cause skin cancer, which costs the system money. If you object to taxing things, you could think of it this way: Tanning salons are paying for the costs they create.


I trust and love my family doctor. Under the Affordable Care Act, is there a chance she will be replaced by a drone?


But drones are everywhere. At least robot doctors are in the works? They are. I saw it on the cover of The Atlantic magazine.

If the Affordable Care Act leads to less money wasted on inefficiently providing health care, then more could be invested in tech. So this is not an insane inference. Tech won’t replace doctors, though.

I remain unconvinced and am pretty sure there’s fine print somewhere that gives undocumented immigrants access to my kids’ medical records and whatnot.

You can read the entire act here. It’s 955 pages, though.

And also join the ongoing discussions about health reform everywhere, dinner parties to angry Internet comment threads. I hope this helped a little in getting someone somewhere somewhat more comfortable with that.

This article available online at:



Despite this icky cold festering in the back of my sinuses, I have a lot to be grateful for today (and the past several days I took a break from the blog).  Since I’ve already written about libraries, I can’t blog about all the meditation books I found at the Brooklyn Public Library yesterday.  And since I’ve already blogged about baby smiles, I can’t be writing about that, despite the hearty dose of toddler grins on Easter.

So for the April Fool’s Day’s blog, I’m grateful for spontaneity in the form of: an Impromptu Dinner Chinwag (The history of yoga!  A nuclear Japan!  Are publicists evil?  Subject matter to keep the candle burning well into the night …) and an unexpected Trip to the Central Park Zoo (How often does it happen that your best friend from the age of 13 is in the *exact* same neighborhood as you in New Yorkazoid – at the exact same time – with their whole family while visiting from Seattle, without a single shred of a plan?  Synchronicity sure is a theme in my life . . . )

Yes, April Fool’s was all about spontaneity … and for that, I am grateful.  Check out Part 5 in a Psychology Today series on the awesomeness of spontaneity . . .

Published on Psychology Today (http://www.psychologytoday.com)

The Wisdom of Spontaneity (Part 5)

By Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.
Created Apr 22 2009 – 11:02am

 Spontaneity and Happiness

Despite considerable research on the topic, I’ve discovered very little explicitly relating spontaneity to happiness. Admittedly, it’s doubtful that any straightforward, one-to-one correspondence actually exists. Still, what various theorists have said about this ideal state of consciousness suggests that, however indirectly, spontaneity does play a crucial role in its achievement. For whether these writers talk about the importance of living in the moment (or “mindfulness“), liberating oneself from self-consciousness, or even “being in the zone,” the underlying notion of living more spontaneously to foster a greater state of well-being is generally not far below the surface.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has become eminent in the burgeoning field of happiness research for his ideas on “flow,” which he defines as “the psychology of optimal experience.” To the author, an individual “in flow” is so satisfyingly immersed in an activity (mental or physical) that all awareness of space and time simply disappears. Such a state is now commonly recognized as pivotal to a basic understanding of happiness dynamics. And Csikszentmihalyi’s elaborate characterizations of this state reveal much about its essentially uncontrived, unforced nature. Similar to spontaneity and happiness, it can’t be “commandered” into existence–but it can be cultivated, and the author suggests numerous ways of doing so.

jump for joyBy way of qualification, I should mention that our basic personality structure itself partly determines our potential for spontaneity. For example, the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory (MBTI) posits that there are essentially two ways of orienting toward the outer world. So-called “Judging” (J) types tend to live in a controlled, self-regulated, orderly fashion; more adaptive “Perceiving” (P) types prefer to live in a more flexible, unscheduled–i.e., spontaneous–way. Nonetheless, the very capacity for spontaneity hinges mostly on how much individuals are able to trust themselves. Absent this self-trust, neither a “J” nor “P” is likely to feel comfortable enough to demonstrate much willingness to act extemporaneously. As I’ve already indicated, becoming more self-confident, as well as developing more faith in one’s decision-making, and being prepared to take some risk in this wondrous adventure called “life,” all seem inextricably linked to happiness.

Whether we’re “J’s” or “P’s” on the MBTI, happiness–like spontaneity–is nothing that we can ever take for granted, or directly plan for. Nor is it anything we can contrive, arrange, or manipulate. By its very nature, it’s unforeseen and unpredictable. But although most theorists today have concluded that regularly experiencing this state is at least fifty percent biological, virtually all of these writers also believes (again, like spontaneity) that it can, to a considerable degree, be “courted” or “nurtured” into being.

Much of the abundant literature on Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology, for instance, focuses on helping individuals learn how to increase their odds of attaining happiness. There’s also an increasing amount of literature on such things as volunteer work (and giving to others generally), and embracing an attitude of gratitude–as both these practices can assist us in experiencing an improved sense of well-being. Neither of these behaviors can bring about happiness directly, for (as has already been emphasized) such a mental/emotional/spiritual state doesn’t directly depend on anything, nor does it have any formal prerequisites. But such pro-social, or life-affirming, practices do promote feelings of happiness, even though the state itself always exists in the spontaneous here-and-now.

happiness icon flowers and fruit It might be asked, “How does counseling or therapy relate to all of this?” If most people report feeling happier after undergoing therapy, it’s not simply because they’ve learned new techniques and skills to cope more effectively with their problems. It’s that the process of their self-work has led them to feel better about themselves in general. Liking themselves more, having higher self-esteem, their “enhanced,” more assured sense of self permits them to become less rigid–or more spontaneous–in both word and deed. At the same time, this altered self-image also contributes to a greater sense of well-being. And, too, this new (or at least “restored”) sense of who they are enables them to break free of irrational self-constraints, place more trust in their intuition, and express themselves more freely with others. In short, greater self-acceptance permits greater spontaneity.

Therapy at its best is a liberating experience. And it might be said that, as much as anything else, what is being freed is the individual’s spontaneity. Herein lies the path to that self-actualization which I believe almost everyone implicitly links to happiness. And whether an individual finds this path through therapy, or quite independent of it, it is a path that reflects the ultimate wisdom of spontaneity: the faith and abiding trust in one’s self from which only good things can come.

Note 1: Here are links to Parts 123, and 4 of this extended post.

–I invite readers to follow me on Twitter.


Sugar Enhances the Stupid. Omega-3s Bring on the Smart.

Just about every health magazine and column has offered up an article on the benefits of eating omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in chia and flax seeds, and – wait for it – the oil of a bearded seal.  Wouldn’t it be fabulous to just pop a pill and know you’d be in brainiac mode all day?

These points I’ve heard and pondered before, but in an article from Alice G. Walton over at Forbes (I subscribe to her feed, not the magazine), we’re introduced to a recent study from UCLA that also shows how sugar could actually make us dumber.  In the case of rat subjects, problem solving skills took a measurable plunge when given a diet higher in fructose over the course of 6 weeks.

And how did the omega-3 rodents compare?  Read on to find out …

Though we may not have fully come to terms with it, in theory we know that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is an adversary of health. Lots of work has been done looking at the effect of fructose on weight, liver function, diabetes risk, and even the growth of cancer cells. But not much has looked at the role of fructose in brain function, until now. Researchers have just reported that among the list of bodily ills that fructose contributes to, it may also “make you dumb.” Luckily, eating a diet rich in the healthy omega-3 fatty acids seems to counteract this phenomenon.

In the new study, UCLA researchers had rats spend a few days learning to navigate a maze. Then some of the rats ate diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids or deficient in them; some rats also drank a fructose solution in the place of their regular drinking water. After six weeks on their respective diets, the team put the rats back in the maze to see how well they recalled it.

All You Can Eat Nutrition Stats

Yesterday’s gratitude shout out goes out to the Nutrition Database website, for being the best online reference I know of for clear, in-depth information about what I’m feeding my temple.

Wanna know the difference between eating a cup of fresh boiled broccoli and a cup of frozen boiled broccoli?

Ever wondered if roasted almonds have the same nutrition value as the raw variety?

ND has all the answers – in pretty little graphs and tables.  My kinda website 😉