Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Grateful for: The Atlantic

. . . because they publish articles like this one (below) by Oliver Sacks, MD,  professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine, in perfect synchronicity with what I’m already reading   (“The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain,” at the moment – which is actually sited in this article!)  More synchronicity? A good mate of mine just sent me Sacks’ most recent book, Hallucinations. Can’t wait to dive into that one . . .

(feature photo: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a rare view of a pair of overlapping galaxies, called NGC 3314. The two galaxies appear to be colliding, but they are actually separated by tens of millions of light-years, or about ten times the distance between our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. The chance alignment of the two galaxies, as seen from Earth, gives a unique look at the silhouetted spiral arms in the closer face-on spiral, NGC 3314A. The motion of the two galaxies indicates that they are both relatively undisturbed and that they are moving in markedly different directions. (NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and W. Keel, University of Alabama))

The Atlantic also publishes articles like “How the Mafia is Ruining Naples’ Food Scene,” “Why America has one of the Highest Child Poverty Rates in the World,” and something my grandfather would enjoy, “Photographing the Dawn of Amtrack.”

But on to the Oliver Sacks article!

(note to reader:  I do not necessarily agree wholeheartedly with the genius doctor.  For example, I cannot see how, based on our definition of the metaphysical or divine, we could *ever* prove their existence.   But epistemological landscapes are always fun to explore …)

check it out . . .

Seeing God in the Third Millennium

By Oliver Sacks

How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies



There are many carefully documented accounts in the medical literature of intense, life-altering religious experience in epileptic seizures. Hallucinations of overwhelming intensity, sometimes accompanied by a sense of bliss and a strong feeling of the numinous, can occur especially with the so-called “ecstatic” seizures that may occur in temporal lobe epilepsy. Though such seizures may be brief, they can lead to a fundamental reorientation, a metanoia, in one’s life. Fyodor Dostoevsky was prone to such seizures and described many of them, including this:

The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don’t remember anything else. You all, healthy people … can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit. … I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.

A century later, Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard published a detailed report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry of a bus conductor who had a sudden feeling of elation while collecting fares. They wrote:

He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss. He felt he was literally in Heaven. He collected the fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven. … He remained in this state of exaltation, hearing divine and angelic voices, for two days. Afterwards he was able to recall these experiences and he continued to believe in their validity. [Three years later] following three seizures on three successive days, he became elated again. He stated that his mind had “cleared.” … During this episode he lost his faith.

He now no longer believed in heaven and hell, in an afterlife, or in the divinity of Christ. This second conversion — to atheism — carried the same excitement and revelatory quality as the original religious conversion.

More recently, Orrin Devinsky and his colleagues have been able to make video EEG recordings in patients who are having such seizures, and have observed an exact synchronization of the epiphany with a spike in epileptic activity in the temporal lobes (more commonly the right temporal lobe).

“I was flying forwards, bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.'”

Ecstatic seizures are rare — they only occur in something like 1 or 2 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. But the last half century has seen an enormous increase in the prevalence of other states sometimes permeated by religious joy and awe, “heavenly” visions and voices, and, not infrequently, religious conversion or metanoia. Among these are out-of-body experiences (OBEs), which are more common now that more patients can be brought back to life from serious cardiac arrests and the like — and much more elaborate and numinous experiences called near-death experiences (NDEs).

Both OBEs and NDEs, which occur in waking but often profoundly altered states of consciousness, cause hallucinations so vivid and compelling that those who experience them may deny the term hallucination, and insist on their reality. And the fact that there are marked similarities in individual descriptions is taken by some to indicate their objective “reality.”

shutterstock_59735221.jpgEEG with epileptic waveforms [Wikimedia Commons]

But the fundamental reason that hallucinations — whatever their cause or modality — seem so real is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.

In OBEs, subjects feel that they have left their bodies — they seem to be floating in midair, or in a corner of the room, looking down on their vacated bodies from a distance. The experience may be felt as blissful, terrifying, or neutral. But its extraordinary nature — the apparent separation of “spirit” from body, imprints it indelibly on the mind and may be taken by some people as evidence of an immaterial soul — proof that consciousness, personality, and identity can exist independently of the body and even survive bodily death.

Neurologically, OBEs are a form of bodily illusion arising from a temporary dissociation of visual and proprioceptive representations — normally these are coordinated, so that one views the world, including one’s body, from the perspective of one’s own eyes, one’s head. OBEs, as Henrik Ehrsson and his fellow researchers in Stockholm have elegantly shown, can be produced experimentally, by using simple equipment — video goggles, mannequins, rubber arms, etc. — to confuse one’s visual input and one’s proprioceptive input and create an uncanny sense of disembodiedness.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience.

A number of medical conditions can lead to OBEs — cardiac arrest or arrhythmias, or a sudden lowering of blood pressure or blood sugar, often combined with anxiety or illness. I know of some patients who have experienced OBEs during difficult childbirths, and others who have had them in association with narcolepsy or sleep paralysis. Fighter pilots subjected to high G-forces in flight (or sometimes in training centrifuges) have reported OBEs as well as much more elaborate states of consciousness that resemble the near-death experience.

The near-death experience usually goes through a sequence of characteristic stages. One seems to be moving effortlessly and blissfully along a dark corridor or tunnel towards a wonderful “living” light — often interpreted as Heaven or the boundary between life and death. There may be a vision of friends and relatives welcoming one to the other side, and there may be a a rapid yet extremely detailed series of memories of one’s life — a lightning autobiography. The return to one’s body may be abrupt, as when, for example, the beat is restored to an arrested heart. Or it may be more gradual, as when one emerges from a coma.

Not infrequently, an OBE turns into an NDE — as happened with Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who told me how he had been struck by lightning. He gave me a vivid account of what then followed, as I wrote in Musicophilia:

“I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.’ I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman — she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me — position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs — my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay. Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light . . . an enormous feeling of well-being and peace. The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me . . . pure thought, pure ecstasy. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up . . . there was speed and direction. Then, as I was saying to myself, ‘This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had’ — SLAM! I was back.”

Dr. Cicoria had some memory problems for a month or so after this, but he was able to resume his practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Yet he was, as he put it, “a changed man.” Previously he had no particular interest in music, but now he was seized by an overwhelming desire to listen to classical music, especially Chopin. He bought a piano and started to play obsessively and to compose. He was convinced that the entire episode — being struck by lightning, having a transcendent vision, then being resuscitated and gifted so that he could bring music to the world, was part of a divine plan.

Cicoria has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and he also felt that his sudden accession of spirituality and musicality must have gone with changes in his brain — changes which we might be able to clarify, perhaps, with neuroimaging. He saw no contradiction between religion and neurology — if God works on a man, or in a man, Cicoria felt, He would do so via the nervous system, via parts of the brain specialized, or potentially specializable, for spiritual feeling and belief.

shutterstock_97460153.jpgDr. Alexander’s October 2012 Newsweek cover article

Cicoria’s reasonable and (one might say) scientific attitude to his own spiritual conversion is in marked contrast to that of another surgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who describes, in his recent book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, a detailed and complex NDE which occurred while he spent seven days in a coma caused by meningitis. During his NDE, he writes, he passed through the bright light — the boundary between life and death — to find himself in an idyllic and beautiful meadow (which he realized was Heaven) where he met a beautiful but unknown woman who conveyed various messages to him telepathically. Advancing farther into the afterlife, he felt the ever-more-embracing presence of God. Following this experience, Alexander became something of an evangelist, wanting to spread the good news, that heaven really exists.

Alexander makes much of his experience as a neurosurgeon and an expert on the workings of the brain. He provides an appendix to his book detailing “Neuroscientific Hypotheses I considered to explain my experience” — but all of these he dismisses as inapplicable in his own case because, he insists, his cerebral cortex was completely shut down during the coma, precluding the possibility of any conscious experience.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific.

Yet his NDE was rich in visual and auditory detail, as many such hallucinations are. He is puzzled by this, since such sensory details are normally produced by the cortex. Nonetheless, his consciousness had journeyed into the blissful, ineffable realm of the afterlife–a journey which he felt lasted for most of the time he lay in coma. Thus, he proposes, his essential self, his “soul,” did not need a cerebral cortex, or indeed any material basis whatever.

It is not so easy, however, to dismiss neurological processes. Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the neural basis of NDEs and other forms of “deep” hallucinating for many decades. In 2011, he published a wise and careful book about his research, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience.

Nelson feels that the “dark tunnel” described in most NDEs represents constriction of the visual fields due to compromised blood pressure in the eyes, and the “bright light” represents a flow of visual excitation from the brainstem, through visual relay stations, to the visual cortex (the so-called pons-geniculate-occipital or PGO pathway).

Simpler perceptual hallucinations — of patterns, animals, people, landscapes, music, etc. — as one may get in a variety of conditions (blindness, deafness, epilepsy, migraine, sensory deprivation, etc.) do not usually involve profound changes in consciousness, and while very startling, are nearly always recognized as hallucinations. It is different with the very complex hallucinations of ecstatic seizures or NDEs — which are often taken to be veridical, truth-telling and often life-transforming revelations of a spiritual universe, and perhaps of a spiritual destiny or mission.

Even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith.

The tendency to spiritual feeling and religious belief lies deep in human nature and seems to have its own neurological basis, though it may be very strong in some people and less developed in others. For those who are religiously inclined, an NDE may seem to offer “proof of heaven,” as Eben Alexander puts it.

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route — the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization — imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:

Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind’s eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of “presence” are accompanied by intense emotion — emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one — but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.)

In the last decade or two, there has been increasingly active research in the field of “spiritual neurosciences.” There are special difficulties in this research, for religious experiences cannot be summoned at will; they come, if at all, in their own time and way — the religious would say in God’s time and way. Nonetheless, researchers have been able to demonstrate physiological changes not only in pathological states like seizures, OBEs, and NDEs, but also in positive states like prayer and meditation. Typically these changes are quite widespread, involving not only primary sensory areas in the brain, but limbic (emotional) systems, hippocampal (memory) systems, and the prefrontal cortex, where intentionality and judgement reside.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.


Obrigada, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain

. . . or more specifically, Kevin Nelson, M.D., for writing a book that’s kept me not just awake but *engaged* on my commute into the Upper East Side each morning.

I found the book by searching for “neurology and spirituality” on the Brooklyn Public Library’s online catalog.  Honestly, I didn’t manage to unearth much – except for this little gem right here.

About half of the book deals with near death experiences, Dr. Nelson’s area of expertise, but what really interests me are his descriptions of the “architecture” of spiritual experience in general.  Nelson begins with a brief history of the study of the brain in relationship to spirituality.  Whereas Hippocrates (the Greek father of modern medicine) believed the cerebral cortex to be the doorway to the spirit, Descartes believed it to be the pineal.  The author sides with the Taoist tradition in their belief that the brainstem is the “Mouth of God” (Nelson later relates this assertion to his observation that “two different minds from the two discrete hemispheres of the brain, which have very different attributes, must lead to different expressions of the sacred”).

The more I read, the more notes I take, some simply for my own review at a later date, still others to share with students in my yoga classes.

Did you know . . .

  • That the default brain state is belief.  It takes more brain activity to work out if a statement is false than it does to decide it’s true (Harris, Sheth, Cohen, UCLA)
  • The pineal gland, now situated at the center of our brains and responsible for melatonin production, was once a cluster of photo-sensitive cells at the tops of our heads.  It was a kind of third-eye, when our evolutionary ancestors were once birds and reptiles.  Now *there’s* a biological basis for the sahasrara chakra (or the ajna, depending on how you see it)!
  • Charles Lieber (Harvard) is producing a kind of nanotechnology that allows matter to interact with the brain’s energy (the wires used are only a few nanometers wide.  To put that into perspective, a strand of hair is 100,000 nanometers wide!).  This allows Lieber’s team to detect signals from individual nerves on a circuit board that creates a grid of neural reflexes.  This is close to mimicking the natural synapses that connect nerves – a much more accurate reading of brain activity than an MRI, which can only observe blood flow (and cannot observe inhibition of flow).
  • Our right and left hemispheres are really two separate consciousnesses.  I’ve always suspected this a bit, being sensitive to dichotomies in my own personality, and observing the bigger yin/yang, sun/moon, ebb/flow, Jekyll/Hyde binary relationships in life.  But the experiments on a split-brain patient named Paul (his corpus callosum had been severed) at Cornell Medical Center illustrate these internal opposites beautifully.  “When asked to rate what he ‘liked or disliked,’ his hemispheres were in accord.  Both liked TV, sex, school, church, and the Fonz.  Only “dope” was discordant: the right brain liked it while the left disliked it “very much.”  As researchers proved, other differences emerged.  Paul’s right hemisphere wanted him to become a race car driver; his left, a draftsman.”  (And the TED video by Jill Bolte takes it to another level!)

I’m nowhere near completing the book, but so far it’s been educational, entertaining and enlightening all at the same time.  I haven’t been so stoked on a book since Hanson’s “Buddha’s Brain.”  Big thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library system, too – I get to read all this goodness for free!

Reppin’ BPL

If you’re interested in reading more from the author, Dr. Nelson writes regularly for Psychology Today.  Though I would not agree that “spiritual experience happens in the brain” (I would say our *perception* of that experience happens in the brain.  *Where* it is occurring may be more of a question for quantum physicists), the research he presents is fascinating, and his delivery makes for truly enjoyable reading.

From V.S. Ramachandran: “Bold, provocative, and highly readable . . . ”

From Oliver Sacks: “A landmark in our understanding of human nature.”

And yes, he’s been featured in Oprah’s magazine!

Teacher Series: Lisa Schrempp

I met Lisa in 2008 whilst in Tucson, completing my first teacher training.  Although it wasn’t my first time experiencing Ashtanga, Lisa’s classes really introduced me to the nuances of alignment, the power of mantra, practice as devotion and the importance of seva (service).  It was her Project 108, when we offered 108 sun salutations to raise awareness and funds for children who had suffered during the Iraq War, when I had the pleasure of working more closely with her.  Lisa is truly a gift to the world of yoga, and I’m so blessed to have had her as an inspiration and teacher on the path.

Thank you, Lisa!

Lisa’s Bio from her site:

Lisa began her studies of yoga in 1985. She was encouraged to go to India and study deeply by David Life and Sharon Gannon of the Jivamukti yoga lineage. She has teaching certificates from Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram in Kerala, South India 1990 and a Yoga Therapy Certificate from B.K.S. Iyengar in Rishikesh, India 1996. She has practiced Ashtanga Yoga since 1991. Having completed the primary and intermediate series with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, she was blessed by him to teach in1997. Lisa is a certified Jivamukti teacher, having also served as a mentor and educator in the Jivamukti Yoga Teacher.
In 1999 she graduated from the Ayurvedic Studies Program in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Dr. Vasant Lad, with an invitation for advanced studies in the Gurukula Program. After one more year with Dr. Lad ending with a study and practice trip with him to his hometown Pune, she continued her study of therapy and treatment with Dr. Sunil Joshi, a noted Ayurvedic clinician. Under the tutelage of Dr. Vasant Lad, Dr. Joshi, and Dr. Anil Kumar she has studied sacred texts, herbs, disease pathology, and Pancha Karma treatments.

Lisa last returned from India in September 2009. She was blessed to be with Sri K Pattabhi Jois just days before he left his body. During this trip she participated in the first Ashtanga Yoga teacher training and received highest marks from R. Sharath Jois to teach the full intermediate Ashtanga series. She also worked 4 months in the Ayurvedic clinic of her teacher Dr. Anil Kumar. She is extremely grateful to her teachers and their teachers for passing on the sciences of Ayurveda and Yoga.

Lisa is the only level 2 Ashtanga teacher in Arizona blessed to teach by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

Goodness Gracious Great Cups of Green Tea!

While green tea actually does the complete *opposite* of “shakin’ nerves” and “rattlin’ brains,” my enthusiasm for this tasty little cup of joy is still perfectly expressed by Jerry Lee Lewis’ classic . . .

Today I’m thankful for my morning ritual of green tea, soy or nut milk, and a touch of maple syrup.  It’s just the right brew to get me out of bed as the days get colder . . .

There was a time when the very words, “green tea,” would elicit visions of fresh emerald leaves, dew-kissed from the morning’s mist.  Somewhere atop a mountain, in a land far from impatient car horns and sneering bagel dealers, a strong country mama, wearing a straw hat under the gentle sun, picks baskets full of these leaves.  Somehow, by train or donkey, burlap sacks full of green tea cuttings would find their way to our American shores and those “in the know” would soak them, for just the right amount of time, as medicine, as comfort, as an alternative to the common cuppa joe.

Exotic no more, green tea’s received so much press in the last several years, you might call it the poster beverage of the modern health movement.

. . . or, not-so-healthy- movement . . .

Personally, I love the flavor.  Put it in a soy shake, a pudding, a mochi ice cream, a cupcake – put it in a kit-kat, why don’t ya?  After living in Japan, I’m open to green tea just about anything, and can’t say I’ve ever had a bad green tea fusion failure.  Not once.

Caffeinated beverages hold a special place in the hearts of morning risers, and as much as I do love the butt-kicking effects of coffee, my stomach doesn’t always agree.  If I don’t line my belly in some kind of food before I drink coffee, I tend to get nauseous and shaky.  Green tea, on the other hand, that’s a drink I can put down any time of day.  I get the same boost of clarity without any of the cracked out side-effects.

But just how healthy is green tea?  Advertisements featuring svelte green tea drinkers adorn glossy mags, articles on their antioxidant content in all manner of newspapers and books abound.  Claims of green tea’s benefits seem to hit on just about every health anxiety you could imagine these days: stress relief, improved focus, smoother digestion, weight loss, brighter skin, and a possible answer to heart disease and cancer.

Caffeine in green tea: keeps you awake *and* free from wrinkles! (?)

To examine that question, let’s define our terms:

Healthy: in terms of food and drink, healthy means (according to Webster himself) “conducive to health.”  OK, then what does “health” mean?

  1. The condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit;
  2. A flourishing condition (well-being)

And green tea?  Well, green tea comes in at least 44 known varieties, some loose leaf, some in powdered form, and each containing different levels of minerals, catechins, caffeine, etc.  The Japanese, historical refiners of Indian and Chinese genius, were the first to make powdered green tea (gotta love ancestral pride ;o)).

While journeying the Taoist mountains of China in 2009, I was blessed to sample an array of green teas, some said to ease digestive issues, others specific for reproductive health.  All I know is they were delectable tipples in the chill of March, and yes, I did feel healthy afterward.

Wudang Shan (Mountain) ~ where the Wutang Clan got their name ;o)

Did someone say WuTang?

Enough Storytime, Gimme Some Facts!

Proving beyond a reasonable doubt the health benefits of this ancient elixir is no easy task, especially when there isn’t nearly the same funding behind clinical trials on green tea as there would be for pharmaceuticals, for example.

This article from Spark People does a great job of laying out what the research proves, might prove, and definitely does not prove so far.

Most studies on green tea as a drink have been inconclusive as to its potential health benefits.  More randomized controlled studies would need to be conducted before conclusive evidence could prove what healthcare practitioners in Asia have been saying for thousands of years: Drink it.  It’s good for you.  (I say it’s just a matter of time before we can back that up with some reductionist scientific method-style proof …)

A promising study done by the Mayo Clinic on the value of treating leukemia with green tea *extract*, however, was published in 2009 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.  I can’t read the full text to see if it was randomized/controlled, but this isn’t the first or last trial of its kind boasting similar results.

Green Tea Extract Shows Promise in Leukemia Trials

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Mayo Clinic researchers are reporting positive results in early leukemia clinical trials using the chemical epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), an active ingredient in green tea. The trial determined that patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) can tolerate the chemical fairly well when high doses are administered in capsule form and that lymphocyte count was reduced in one-third of participants. The findings appear today online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

VIDEO ALERT: Additional audio and video resources, including comments by Dr. Shanafelt describing the research, are available on the Mayo Clinic News Blog.

“We found not only that patients tolerated the green tea extract at very high doses, but that many of them saw regression to some degree of their chronic lymphocytic leukemia,” says Tait Shanafelt, M.D., Mayo Clinic hematologist and lead author of the study. “The majority of individuals who entered the study with enlarged lymph nodes saw a 50 percent or greater decline in their lymph node size.”

CLL is the most common subtype of leukemia in the United States. Currently it has no cure. Blood tests have enabled early diagnosis in many instances; however, treatment consists of watchful waiting until the disease progresses. Statistics show that about half of patients with early stage diseases have an aggressive form of CLL that leads to early death. Researchers hope that EGCG can stabilize CLL for early stage patients or perhaps improve the effectiveness of treatment when combined with other therapies.

The research has moved to the second phase of clinical testing in a follow-up trial — already fully enrolled — involving roughly the same number of patients. All will receive the highest dose administered from the previous trial.

These clinical studies are the latest steps in a multiyear bench-to-bedside project that began with tests of the green tea extract on cancer cells in the laboratory of Mayo hematologist Neil Kay, M.D., a co-author on this article. After laboratory research showed dramatic effectiveness in killing leukemia cells, the findings were applied to studies on animal tissues and then on human cells in the lab.

In the first clinical trial, 33 patients received variations of eight different oral doses of Polyphenon E, a proprietary compound whose primary active ingredient is EGCG. Doses ranged from 400 milligrams (mg) to 2,000 mg administered twice a day. Researchers determined that they had not reached a maximum tolerated dose, even at 2,000 mg twice per day.

The study was sponsored by Mayo Clinic, the CLL Global Research Foundation, CLL Topics (including contributions by individual CLL patients) and the Commonwealth Foundation for Cancer Research. Medication for the study was provided by Polyphenon E International. Others on the research team were Timothy Call, M.D.; Clive Zent, M.D.; Betsy LaPlant; Deborah Bowen; Michelle Roos; Charla Secreto; Asish Ghosh, Ph.D.; Brian Kabat; Diane Jelinek, Ph.D.; and Charles Erlichman, M.D., all of Mayo Clinic; and Mao-Jung Lee, Ph.D., and Chung Yang, Ph.D., both of Rutgers University.

I Heart TED

Today’s inspiration for gratitude has *got* to be TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, now celebrating one billion views!  Amazingness.  I can’t tell you how many hours (days?) of contemplation have been inspired (especially while journeying solo!), or how many times I’ve forwarded and posted with bubbly excitement links to these glimpses of genius.  Projects like this have been crucial in globalizing brilliance, offering up fully digestible sessions of 20 minutes or so each, from trailblazers in all manner of studies.  Compare this accessibility to academia 100 or even 200 years ago . . .

What reminded me about how much I truly appreciate TED, was this earnest presentation by the inventor of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman. The subject of his talk? The role of the experiencing self and the memory self in happiness.  At the very end of the talk, the presenter brings up the topic of how happiness studies might play a future role in domestic policy.  While it’s already playing a role in many countries’ approach to modern governance, the question remains: how long will it take the States to catch up?

What is TED?

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

Read more about TED here.

Some of my TED favorites, previously published on TWJ:

You can even watch playlists from players in other fields, like Bill Gates, Bono & Glenn Close.

—-> NEW!  ** Bjork’s playlist **

Or my personal fave: Jill Bolte’s playlist, 10 talks on human nature.

Do you have a favorite TED vid?

Pranayama for Winter: Ujjayi

Today I’m thankful for the warming and centering effects of Ujjayi pranayama (breathing exercise)!  I’ve been instructing a variation of the technique in my classes and a few students have loved the effects so far.

Check it out . . .

(oo-jy [rhymes with “pie”]-ee)
ujjayi = to conquer, to be victorious

“Ujjayi” comes from the Sanskrit prefix “ud” (उद्) added to it and root “ji” (जि): “ujji” (उज्जि), meaning “to be victorious”.  Ujjayi (उज्जायी), thus means “one who is victorious”. Ujjayi breath means “victorious breath”

According to the Wiki, “Ujjayi breathing is a breath technique (pranayam) employed in a variety of Hindu and Taoist Yoga practices. In relation to Hindu Yoga, it is sometimes called “the ocean breath” (just like the ocean in a conch shell!).”  Although ujjayi was classically done on its own, recently it’s been integrated with asana practice.

Sivananda’s description of how to perform Ujjayi:

“Sit in Padmasana or Siddhasana. Close the mouth. Inhale slowly through both the nostrils in a smooth, uniform manner till the breath fills the space from the throat to the heart. (You’ll hear a slight hissing sound.)

Retain the breath as long as you can do it comfortably and then exhale slowly through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with your right thumb. Expand the chest when you inhale. During inhalation a peculiar sound is produced owing to the partial closing of glottis. The sound produced during inhalation should be of a mild and uniform pitch. It should be continuous also. This Kumbhaka may be practised even when walking or standing. Instead of exhaling through the left nostril, you can exhale slowly through both nostrils.

This removes the heat in the head. The practitioner becomes very beautiful. The gastric fire is increased. It removes all the evils arising in the body and the Dhatus and cures Jalodara (dropsy of the belly or ascites). It removes phlegm in the throat, Asthma, consumption and all sorts of pulmonary diseases are cured. All diseases that arise from deficient inhalation of oxygen, and diseases of the heart are cured. All works are accomplished by Ujjayi Pranayama. The practitioner is never attacked by diseases of phlegm, nerves, dyspepsia, dysentery, enlarged spleen, consumption, cough or fever. Perform Ujjayi to destroy decay and death.”


Those are some pretty spectacular claims!


In Iyengar’s “Light on Pranayama,” the technique is described in much greater detail.
After much preparation, in the 8th stage, Ujjayi is described without retention.  As the stages increase, various retentions are explored: the deliberate internal retention (sahita antara kumbhaka), deliberate external retention (sahita bahya kumbhaka), internal retention (antara kumbhaka), external retention (bahya kumbhaka), and finally the combination of antara and bahya retentions in the final advanced stage 13.

Iyengar takes special care to note, “Listen to the sibilant sound of the breath.  Control, adjust and synchronize its flow, tone and rhythm.  The flow is controlled by the resonance of the sound, and the tone by the flow.  This is the key to success in pranayama.”

“As you breathe in, your body, lungs, brain and consciousness should be receptive rather than active. Breath is received as a divine gift and should not be drawn in forcefully.”

“Inhale with warmth, elation and joy as if you are receiving the life force as a gift from God.  Exhale with a sense of gratitude, silently expressing your humbleness as a surrender to the Lord.”

Iyengar was on the verge of death when he came to yoga .  He had suffered every severe respiratory condition imaginable in his childhood and doctors had very little confidence in his ability to survive.  Luckily, he was a relative of Krishnamacharya and was sent to the ashram to learn yogic practices and heal his lungs.  At the impressive age of 94, no one knows breathing techniques better than this man!

If the chill of winter is slowing you down, experiment with Ujjayi and see how it effects your day . . .

Gratitude Day 30: Poetry

Poetry, eh?  Inspiring and inspired, reflective of our generation and sometimes creepily prophetic.  It’s the rawest form of the written word, and I always found something so satisfying about explicating it!  These days I don’t read much poetry.

(Although I’m an eternal fan of Ginsberg’s Howl.  If you’re a teacher, this is a great lesson plan for how to use the legendary poem in your classroom.

Speaking of brilliant poetry for the classroom, more ideas for teachers who want to use a ‘lil bit of Shel Silverstein right here!)

I don’t write much poetry either, but . . .

A friend of mine read me a few poems she wrote as we lazed about in Spa Castle last week.  The unexpected lyricism tickled parts of my imagination I hadn’t visited in a while.  So here’s one of the poems she read, and one of Hafiz’s gems, one of my go-to poems these days . . .

On Spring in Fall (Madeline Corbin Beal)

I will try to start anew

I will choose my words carefully

so you will know, without my telling you, that I am writing this on yellow paper

even though I am sure you are reading it on white or are hearing it in hollow air

The storm did not blow the leaves off the trees.

But it shocked them so.

24 hours after the storm had passed

the leaves fell off

all at once

in the middle of the night

leaving black wet limbs (branches, boughs)

and a stream bed turned yellow with fresh layers of poplar leaves

A footprint on the moon,

like the last kiss you left on my lips,

forever fades into loneliness

I cannot even remember the precise moment of that last kiss

So perhaps the fading began sooner/began even with the first kiss

the one so easily remembered:

an early evening mist

damp grass on flip flopped feet

damp cold that reaches in from all corners and edges

as it does only in San Francisco

in a dark foggy evening in a tiny city back yard

until the sudden instant of the reality of the coming kiss–

such sudden warmth

shivering still, your hand knocked my sunglasses, perched on my head from the sunny afternoon, to the ground

Spring is when things will begin to get easier

I know it will happen in spring

This fall air, the cold sheet of trees facing the highway

what does it mean to plagiarize a heart, to plagiarize in love?

even the fog disintegrates at dawn

even the fog leaves at dawn

fading out from the center

so imperceptible that you only notice when you see sunlight and you can’t remember the last moment you felt the dewy mist on your arms

Am I am being too obvious here?

I am sorry, but some things are obvious though they go unsaid.

Sometimes the words must lead.

Sometimes the honor of the uniform outranks the polyester reality of its indiscriminate blue,

the bizarreness of the little folded cap draping out of a back pocket

These words help to give your life, my life, something bigger. Some bigger, intimate, intricate secret.

In the end, I realize that it was only bigger because it was disparate

(it started expanding with the kiss)

When condensed back down

when all the particles are nearly touching

it can fit easily into your pocket

like a lucky pebble rubbed between your fingers while walking along the pier

(on the way to our first real date)

The tree clearly wants to be surrounded by other trees

it does not want to face the cold highway

and the many cars, minivans, semis, and contractor trucks

the tree wants this so badly that it believes it will happen.

It believes that nature is more powerful than man,

that one day the forest will rise from the highway

the roots will plow through the cars

and the leaves will shine out against the rays of sunlight.

But the tree is wrong

because man would sacrifice himself for something

that fits into the palm of his own hand.

The tree has forgotten that indeed man is nature.

This innocence is not surprising

Rising from the mist,

on the edge of the highway,

the trees are spectacular colors.

Yellow, flame orange, red, bright red

but only if you don’t look directly at them.

When you focus in, the color fades out from the center into drabness, uniform drabness.

So unlike that new green of spring

that intensifies the more you examine it,

until as you roll back a new leaf it almost becomes ridiculously green.

So green you exhale inadvertently, you exhale audibly.

So green it almost appears to be lit from within with neon

Especially poplar leaves

This is what i want now

(and what I have lost)

neon green leaves glowing from the core.

The Hafiz poem I recited to Sivananda Ashramites, Kerala, India, May 2010.

All the Hemispheres

Leave the familiar for a while.

Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season

Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.

Make a new watermark on your excitement

And love.

Like a blooming night flower,

Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness

And giving

Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence

Lie beside an equator

In your heart.

Greet Yourself

In your thousand other forms

As you mount the hidden tide and travel

Back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven

Are sitting around a fire


While stitching themselves together

Into the Great Circle inside of


Hafiz is considered one of the greatest lyrical poets of all time.  He never actually wrote down his poetry, but only spoke it out loud or sang it when in the mood.  Some of the most respected Hafiz scholars feel that the first complete manuscript of his poems wasn’t even compiled until many years ofter his passing.

Persian poets of Hafiz’s era would often address themselves in their poems as if carrying on a conversation – giving the poems feelings of intimacy and playfulness.  Sometimes Hafiz speaks from the point of view of a seeker, sometimes from the point of view of a realized Master and guide.  His experience on the path from student to enlightened teacher is reflected in these beautiful poems … (text courtesy Daniel Ladinsky, translator of Hafiz’s “The Subject Tonight is Love” – slightly modified)

“A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to nourish your beautiful parched, holy mouth.”   Funny, Hafiz’s definition of a poet so closely resembles my definition of a friend.