Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Loneliness causes stress and ill health

Now that the holidays are over, the rounds of parties and family gatherings done, you have returned to your regular routine, do you find yourself isolated, disconnected, lonely?

You're not alone in being lonely. More people live alone today than ever before. In 1950 only 10% of Americans lived in a one-person household; according to the most recent census figures, that number has risen to 25% - 27.2 million households. A study printed last summer in "The American Sociological Review" revealed that the number of trusted friends an average person had dropped from about three friends in 1985 down to two. The number of people who admitted to having no close friend to talk to or confide in at all was a whopping twenty-five percent! Another nineteen percent said they had only one close person with whom they could discuss personal matters, and that one was usually a spouse. If they lose that one person, it would create a devastating hole in their lives.

Oddly enough, the thing that gives people the widest range of connectivity may also be causing the highest level of personal isolation: the internet. Instead of getting out and meeting the new neighbors, people stay inside and email an old friend across the country. Instead of getting out and meeting other students, college freshmen often stay in their rooms and chat online with friends from high-school. It's not all internet use, of course. Young children stay inside and play video games instead of going outside to play with their friends, and the elderly often can't get around easily enough on their own to get out and connect with other people.

This kind of isolation and disassociation can lead to a host of illnesses for those of you in your middle and later years, and often manifests as anxiety and depression.

One of the most severe illnesses that is seriously affected by loneliness in middle-aged and older Americans is heart disease. In and of itself, heart disease can cause depression over your health and high levels of anxiety over your health-care and financial situation. After a heart attack or stroke, many patients recover more slowly or suffer further illness if they are isolated.

"A study of heart attack survivors showed that men who lived alone had twice the average death rate in the first year. Another large study found that people were more likely to die in the nine years after a heart attack, regardless of their physical condition, if they did not talk to their doctors, rarely visited friends or family, and did not belong to a voluntary organization.

"What matters, apparently, is not so much the size of a person’s social circle as a belief that help will be available when needed. People who say they lack friends in times of need are more likely to die or have a recurrent cardiovascular event, whether they are living alone or not. One study found that hospitalized female (although not male) patients with heart failure were more likely to avoid rehospitalization and death if they had someone to discuss their problems with and to help them make decisions." Source: Harvard Medical International)

Loneliness is not just about connecting with people – you can do that online quite effectively. It is about being with other people and getting that good, healthy dose of friendly, "I care about you and what happens to you" energy. There is a lot to be said about being in the company of friends where you can see the smiles, hear the laughter, feel the touch on arm or shoulder, share the hug at the end of the evening – and, yes, that one goes for you guys, too! Lonely people often don't take good care of themselves; they don't eat well or sleep well, the don't get proper exercise, they just "veg out" which is certainly an apt description of someone whose mental and physical functions are allowed to atrophy.

Participating in an active network of friends is so health-full! It reduces blood pressure, reduces anxiety and depression, and reduces stress hormones; it also helps to reduce bad cholesterol which can be raised by stress as well as poor eating and exercise habits. It boosts the immune system, and makes you happy which also brings a host of positive and healthy "side effects" like a longer life, raised levels of good hormones like serotonin, better mental and physical function; it helps you break bad habits, encourages attendance at social functions which encourages exercise (at the very least, you have to walk from your car to the site of the function!). Just knowing you have a few people you can call upon in case of emergency or talk to when you need to bend an ear, can make a huge difference in your level of health and wellbeing.

So, how do you get yourself out there? There are so many different possibilities; either join or start a hobby group. If you need a place to meet, check with your local public library – they often have available a room or two for local group meetings. They also are a good source on community happenings and you may find an established social group by asking at the library. If you can't find a group that supports your interests, start one! Figure out what kind of people you want to bring together, create a flexible schedule of meetings (depending on the schedules of the people who are interested in joining, you may need to revise your meeting schedule if you want them to participate), and have a suitable place to meet; the local library for a writers' group, a nearby empty field for a radio-controlled airplane group, etc. If you can, include healthy snacks…good food seems to be a universal facet of good companionship. When you have the foundation set, put an ad in the personals section of the newspaper with a brief description of the proposed group's interests and a contact number, put up fliers at the library, store, any shop that might cater to people with this interest (i.e. a flier in a hobby shop for people interested in joining that RC airplane group), your church bulletin if they allow announcements like that. Be ready to answer the phone…you are sure to find a few people who share your interests!

One of the best ways to meet other people and also help other people and your community is to become a volunteer. There are so many places in need of help, and so many ways to share your talents with others – schools, hospitals, shelters, Big Brother and Sister groups, Little Brother and Sister groups (I recently read about one of these in Boston, MA – each member "adopts" a senior citizen in need of companionship – what a great idea!), sports groups for kids, Meals On Wheels….the list is almost endless.

There is another perspective on loneliness, too. If you aren't the lonely one, you probably know someone who is; don't wait, don't say, "Oh, I should call so and so, I'll do it next week"….reach out right now and call that person, offer to include him or her on your next trip to the grocery store, or offer to take them out to lunch, or treat them to a movie once in a while. For a small investment in time, you will make a huge difference in another person's health and wellbeing.

So, get out there, have fun, and enjoy your new friends!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Holistic Ways to Cure Insomnia

Whether you suffer occasional or chronic insomnia, you often turn immediately to pharmaceutical sleep aids to get the rest you need, but this should not be your first line of offence against sleeplessness.

For one thing, the side effects can be devastating. They interfere with daytime brain cell activity and reduce short-term memory function; are highly addictive; affect lung tissue function; impair reaction time when awake; can impair physical motor function by making you clumsy and accident prone, and experience difficulty manipulating objects or completing tasks; do not cure or even improve insomnia. In fact, one study evaluating a survey of over 2,000,000 people found that extensive use of sleeping pills was as deadly as cigarette smoking. (source: Apollo Health)

Even though sleep aids put you to sleep, their use does not allow your body to relax through the four stages of sleep, and that effectively robs you of one of the most curative properties of sleep, the progressive relaxation of the muscles and the effect that has on your body systems; for example slower respiration and heart rate. Taking a sleep aid that robs you of experience of the four stages of sleep is like jumping down the elevator shaft instead of waiting for the elevator car – sure, you get to the bottom (to sleep), but at what cost to your health and wellbeing?

The quality of your sleep is important, too, not just the fact you are unconscious. A normal sleep pattern includes the four stages of relaxation sleep and one stage of REM sleep, Rapid Eye Movement, the dream stage of sleep. This cycle repeats approximately every ninety minutes throughout the night, so that you should experience four to five cycles with each night's sleep. Without experiencing the requisite number of these complete sleep cycles, including REM sleep, you will not experience the rejuvenating rest you need to help heal your body and restore your energy. Lack of proper sleep and rest can lead to serious illness.

Growth hormone is at its highest level during sleep, and is responsible for the increased rate of nutrient and amino acid absorption into your blood stream, aids the healing of tissue, and stimulates production of immune system cells. Additionally, irregular sleep cycles disrupt your body's manufacture of the hormone melatonin. "Melatonin also acts as a powerful antioxidant to clean our cells of toxins. When we don’t sleep well, our bodies don’t use melatonin efficiently and we can suffer from premature aging, heart risks and cancer. Low nighttime levels of melatonin may cause higher levels of estrogens and breast cancer in women as well as colon and bone cancer in men. Melatonin imbalances are also believed to be a cause of depression." (source: Apollo Health)

Uninterrupted sleep is important, too. A group of medical students at the University of Toronto Center for Sleep and Chronobiology agreed to have their sleep interrupted in a study on the natural rhythms of sleep. After a few nights of being awakened during their deep sleep levels, the volunteers developed symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

To insure you have an excellent, restorative night's sleep, here is a list of effective, holistic sleep aids that you will find beneficial.

1 Spend some early-morning time in bright light; outside in sunlight is best if possible. This stirs you fully awake and helps to regulate your inner clock so that you will be sleepy at night. Any amount of time you can spend soaking up some natural sunlight will benefit your health and wellbeing.

2. Get some exercise a few hours before bed. A walk after dinner in fresh air is perfect; you get exercise and it aids digestion. Avoid going to bed on a full stomach; it will make you uncomfortable and often leads to indigestion. Don't exercise too close to bedtime; it will keep you awake. Contrary to popular belief, exercise is a pick-me-up and a perk-me-up, it does not make you tired or sleepy!

3 Take a warm bath or shower. Relaxing in warm water for ten to twenty minutes before retiring for the night relaxes muscles which gets you ready for sleep. (My husband happened to take a shower this morning and commented that he felt like taking a nap after basking in the warm waters!)

4 Have a small snack. My earlier article on chocolate pointed out that chocolate triggers the release of endorphins, your body's natural "feel good," relaxing, pain relievers. A cup of hot cocoa could be just the thing to help you sleep. A carbohydrate snack would be good, too; carbohydrates help your brain produce serotonin, another hormone that produces relaxation. (See How to Eat Right to Reduce Stress and Friday Food Pharmacy: Pasta and Other Grain Products.) Alternatively, a cup of herbal tea containing ingredients for relaxation may be appropriate – try chamomile, lavender, or lemon balm. (These three herbs are very easy to grow in the garden, or indoors in pots. What could be better than a cup of tea made with fresh herbs?!) Always sweeten with natural ingredients if you need sweetener; avoid the use of sugar.

5 Go to bed at the same time every night. The body is a creature of habit even if the mind is not. Going to bed at the same time every night will develop a good habit and train your body to be prepared for sleep when you climb between the covers.

6 Go to sleep in silence, and in the dark. Even though you think it doesn't, playing the television or radio does disturb your sleep with unusual or unexpected noises and sounds during the night. If you must have sound to lull you to sleep, try a white noise machine, or put the tv/radio on a timer so it will shut off 30 to 45 minutes later. That should give you enough time to drift off to sleep. You do not want to leave a television on all night while you sleep. The light from a television is bright enough to interfere with the production of melatonin; the health risks of low levels of melatonin were discussed above. Sleep experts say that any light brighter than a nightlight can impede melatonin production. For the same reason, if your digital clock has exceptionally bright numerals, turn the face of the clock away from the bed.

7 If you find yourself tossing and turning, get up. Again, you can train your body to sleep in bed by getting out of bed if you can't sleep. Go into another room and read a book for a few minutes, play a game of solitaire, get a snack, write down a list of the things that are keeping you awake. Sometimes the reason you can't sleep is that things from the day are bothering you, or you don't want to forget things that must be done the next day. Making that list will allow your mind to relax, let go of the things troubling you, and you can rest assured that you won't overlook an important task or appointment the next day.

8 Follow the instructions in the Progressive Relaxation Technique posted here last July. This is one of the best relaxation techniques I have ever used both for myself and with clients.

9 Try a visualization. Imagine yourself in a beautiful, relaxing setting, a lazy evening on the beach watching the moon rise, an evening in the forest listening to the crickets chirping, or any other quiet and restful setting. You can even create a story about the wonderful day you just had, the relaxing and enjoyable things you are going to do tomorrow. Beware of creating too much excitement, though. Your body responds to your thoughts as if they were real commands sent to your muscles for action, so if you imagine yourself hiking through the jungle, you are only going to excite muscles you want to relax.

10 Make sure the room is a comfortable temperature. Most people sleep better in a cool room; if your room is even a few degrees too warm, it can make a difference. Try turning the temperature down to the 65 degree range (18 degrees C.) Likewise, make sure your bedclothes are of the right fabric weight for the season, and don't make you too warm. Keep the window open, at least a little, if it isn't too cold or hot outside; most people sleep better with some fresh air at hand.

11 Check the firmness of your mattress and pillows; make sure your sheets and blankets are soft, not scratchy. Sleep surfaces that are too firm, too soft, or otherwise not quite right can cause enough discomfort to wake you during the night, interrupting those very important and restorative sleep cycles. Also, some people are sensitive to foam pillow stuffing, so if you are sleepy but have trouble falling asleep, or if you wake during the night for no apparent reason, try a pillow with a different (perhaps more natural) stuffing material.

I'll leave you with these holistic words of wisdom from WebMD: "Overlooking the single most important thing you can do for your health is easy with all the clamor surrounding various health products in the marketplace. But good-quality sleep goes far and beyond those products when it comes to restoring your health. And best of all, sleep is free."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Are your socks making you sick?

Yup...certain socks, slippers, food containers, and anything you've washed in your new washing machine that uses silver ions to kill bacteria may make you sick. To kill germs, manufacturers are now using nanomaterials in their products, mostly containing silver, which is regulated as a pesticide!

There's a winning combination - pesticide in food containers. Makes you want to go foraging for nuts and berries, doesn't it. The manufacturer of the washing machine that "kills germs" even brags that it leaves behind a residual coating to keep your clothing smelling fresh for 30 days. Wash your clothes today, and they may be safe to wear in 30 days!

The Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate the use of silver as an antibacterial in products, but there is a loophole. If the manufacturer does not claim the product kills germs, the EPA can't regulate the use of the toxic chemical.

I'm sure these manufacturers realize they are being an enormous help to the medical industry not only in creating illness by exposing us to pesticides on an hourly basis, but killing too much bacteria (some of which we need to keep us healthy!) has proven to be a disaster since we do not have the opportunity to build a natural immunity to germs if we are never exposed to them. We know the germs evolve faster than we can create antibiotics to kill them because there are stories almost daily of "supergerms" and how you (yup, you) are at fault because you conned (?!) your doctor into prescribing antibiotics when you didn't need them.

Here's the whole story from "Environmental Science & Technology Online:"

Policy News –
January 3, 2007

Antimicrobial nanomaterials meet increased regulatory scrutiny

The first federal restrictions on nanotechnology could be coming soon.

Kris Christen
A washing machine made by Samsung Electronics is one of a rapidly growing number of consumer products that advertisements say are embedded with nanoscale silver particles that can kill bacteria.

In a major reversal, the U.S. EPA has determined that clothes washing machines that use silver ions as a disinfectant will have to be registered as a pesticide. Until now, the agency has not regulated nanomaterials, including silver ions, made of a bioaccumulating, persistent, and toxic metal. Yet EPA's decision may be meaningless, critics point out, because if the company deletes from its advertising the assertion that silver can kill bacteria, it won't have to register the washer.

The fact that a product can slip past the agency without being registered if the company doesn't claim that it can kill bacteria is a "quirk" of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and "it'll be intriguing to see where we go on this," says Andrew Maynard, science adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He and others are urgently calling for research into nanotechnology's potential environmental, health, and safety risks.

In an assessment updated in November, the project found that the number of consumer products made with nanotechnologies has increased by 70% since March 2006. The most prevalent nanomaterial being used is silver, now found in 47 products, Maynard says.

The wastewater treatment industry, in particular, has pointed out that widespread use of household products, like the Samsung washer, that release silver ions into sanitary sewer systems could greatly increase silver concentrations in treatment-plant discharges, leading to adverse effects, such as bioaccumulation in fish and killing of aquatic life.

"We think it's great that EPA's going to regulate" this application, says Phil Bobel, manager of environmental compliance for the city of Palo Alto, Calif., and past president of Tri-TAC, a technical advisory committee on regulatory issues affecting wastewater treatment plants in California. "Whether it'll end up going far enough to actually keep that silver out of our systems, we don't know."

Advertisements by the manufacturer, Samsung Electronics, claim that nanoscale silver particles released during the wash and rinse cycles achieve 99.9% sterilization of bacteria and leave behind a residual silver coating on clothing to keep it smelling fresh for up to 30 days. Yet the EPA scientists aren't certain whether this is an advertising gimmick to sell more machines or if this is a novel material. Silver is already regulated as a pesticide in a number of products.

If Samsung submits a FIFRA registration application to EPA, the agency will determine whether and under what conditions the silver ions can be used. The company must supply scientific data to show that the use of the nanoscale silver particles won't pose an unreasonable risk to people or the environment.

A finding by EPA that the technology involves nanomaterials could affect a wide range of consumer products, scientists say.

Previously, EPA classified the machine as a device, meaning it wasn't subject to registration requirements under FIFRA. Concerns raised by states and various industries, however, caused the agency to reevaluate the product and determine in late November "that the silver ions are defined as pesticides, and therefore it needs to be regulated," says Enesta Jones, an EPA spokesperson. "We don't know if it's a nanomaterial at this point," but if it is, "it would be the first federal restriction on nanotechnology."

Jones admits that if Samsung pulls pesticidal claims from its advertising, the company won't have to register the washing machine under FIFRA. Other companies have already taken note, removing statements of germ-killing capabilities in marketing their nanotech consumer products. A prime example is The Sharper Image, a company that has developed socks, slippers, and food containers embedded with silver nanoparticles, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that relayed its concerns in a November letter to EPA.

"Failure to identify nanoscale pesticide ingredients should not be an excuse to circumvent the FIFRA registration requirements," NRDC wrote. "Because of the significant potential for serious environmental harm, EPA must conduct a comprehensive assessment of all products that use nanosilver as a pesticide."

EPA will issue a Federal Register notice in the next couple of months outlining the agency's position on the classification of silver-ion-generating washing machines, according to Jones. KRIS CHRISTEN

Monday, January 22, 2007

Antidepressants may raise bone risk

[There are so many great holistic ways to counteract depression, you owe it to yourself to at least try the safer methods with few or no side effects before you go putting your bones at risk. Michelle]

Antidepressants may raise bone risk

By LINDSEY TANNER, AP Medical Writer
22 January 2007

CHICAGO - The most popular pills for depression might substantially raise the risk for bone breaks in older people, a drawback that should be considered when the drugs are prescribed, Canadian researchers say.

People aged 50 and older who took antidepressants, including Zoloft, Prozac and other top-sellers, faced double the risk of broken bones during five years of follow-up, compared with those who didn't use the drugs, the study found.

Still, few of 5,008 people studied used the drugs and had fractures. While more rigorous research is needed to prove the link, the study provides the strongest evidence yet tying these drugs to fracture risks, said Dr. David Goltzman, an endocrinologist at McGill University in Montreal and one of the study authors. The study was part of ongoing osteoporosis research funded partly by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and makers of osteoporosis drugs.

Antidepressants have been linked with low blood pressure and dizziness leading to falls, which can increase risks for broken bones, but the researchers said they found fracture risks independent of those factors.

Research in animals suggests that the pills might have a direct effect on bone cells, decreasing bone strength and size, Goltzman and colleagues said.

The results have important public health implications since millions of people worldwide use the drugs and because osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease that can lead to broken bones, can be so debilitating for older adults, Goltzman said.

Still, the researchers said potential fracture risks should be balanced against the drugs' effectiveness at treating depression, which also can be debilitating.

Depression affects about 10 percent of U.S. adults, or nearly 30 million people, including about 7 million aged 65 and older. Depression in older adults is often missed and untreated.

"If patients need these drugs, they should not be advised against taking them because of the fracture risk. They should however be warned about the risks," Goltzman said.

The study appears in Monday's Archives of Internal Medicine.

Some previous studies found similar results but did not adequately consider other factors, the researchers said.

Dr. Gregory Asnis, director of an anxiety and depression clinic at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, said depression itself has been linked with low bone density, and it's possible the disease rather than the drugs could explain the findings. He said more rigorous research is needed.

The drugs in question are called SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These are generally the favored treatment for depression in many patients and their combined U.S. sales jumped 32 percent from 2000 to 2004, to more than $10.9 billion, the researchers said.

The study tracked 5,008 Canadians aged 50 and older for five years. They included 137 people who reported using SSRI antidepressants daily. In this smaller group, 18 people or 13.5 percent had bone fractures during the follow-up, compared with 317 people with fractures or 6.5 percent among the 4,871 who didn't take the pills.

Broken forearms, ankles, feet, hips and ribs were the most common fractures.

Amy Sousa, a spokeswoman for Prozac maker Eli Lilly and Co., said the drug's label lists osteoporosis as a potential but rare side effect. Still, she said the new study was too small to establish any proof that SSRIs might cause fractures.

Pfizer Inc., maker of Zoloft, issued a statement responding to the study and calling depression "a serious problem in the elderly that is under-diagnosed and under-treated."

"SSRIs are an important option for the treatment of depression in this population. As the authors note, the risks must be balanced against the benefits gained by the treatment of depression," Pfizer said.


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Thursday, January 18, 2007

All About Qi

We usually translate the word qi (pronounced "chee") as "vital breath," or "life energy," or "subtle energy," or even "spirit" which is an association with the Latin-derived words for breathing such as respiration, inspire and expire (literally in-breathe and out-breathe). Almost every culture on Earth symbolically associates Life Energy with Air and Breathing which, of course, makes a lot of sense since breathing is the number-one requirement for human life.

The character for the word Qi even shows us the air we need to breathe. There are two components to the character, and I have colored the lower part red to distinguish it from the upper. The part in red represents grains cooking, and the part in black represents steam, i.e. visible air rising from the cooking pot. When you think about it, this character shows us all the things we need to take in for survival: air (as the rising steam), water (there must be water in the pot to cook the grain, otherwise there would be no steam), and food (the grain itself).

"Vital breath" is only one small part of the complex meaning of the word qi; it actually represents several types of energy in your human system. A practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine is familiar with all the different types of qi, and in fact, knows that some types of qi are actually derived from other types of qi!

Unless you are studying TCM, you probably don't need to go into such depth about qi. However, it is to your advantage to be aware of the two main types, often called Congenital Qi and Acquired Qi, and how they work.

Congenital Qi can be compared to the energy of your DNA, your genetic makeup, that which you inherited from your parents. Congenital qi cannot be replenished; whatever you are born with, is what you have. However, it can be supported by Acquired Qi and I will talk about how that works in a moment. Congenital qi is your constitution, your growth and development energy. For example, are you robust or weak? Big and tall or short and small? Are you at risk for certain hereditary illnesses? Are there family tendencies to be overweight or underweight, to develop arthritis or osteoporosis, to be short-tempered or have the patience of a saint? All these are manifestations of the energy of your Congenital Qi.

Acquired Qi is that energy you "acquire" (hence the name) after you are born. It is the energy you receive from food, drink, and air. It is the energy of the interactions of your internal organs with the nourishment you provide. You may provide lots of food and drink, but if it's all junk food and soda pop or alcohol, the nourishment of your body will be minimal, and you may outright harm yourself. Poor nourishment equals poor energy.

Acquired qi is also the energy of the interactions of the internal organs with each other. If you poorly nourish your arteries with trans-fats, that affects your circulation which affects the function of your lungs, your liver, your kidneys, and eventually every system in your body. You are not a machine in which a breakdown in one system or function can be isolated and dealt with like an exhaust system on a car, or the monitor of a computer. All your functions are interrelated and interdependent. You do yourself a grave disservice to try to separate them and treat one symptom or illness without regard to how that symptom or illness has affected the rest of the system, and how the treatment will affect the complete system, too.

The good news is that everything you do to properly nourish and support one system will also aid the health and wellbeing of every other system. If you nourish your heart, there will be less stress on your lungs, so your lung function will improve and more carbon dioxide will be released, too. If you eat healthy foods, you won't suffer indigestion so often (in fact, it may go away altogether!), and your liver won't be overburdened with toxins from the effects of poor digestion.

The best news is that acquired qi, when used properly and effectively, can offset poor congenital qi. You are emphatically not doomed to develop the health problems you may have inherited from your ancestors, you can get healthy and stay healthy without resorting to any extraordinary methods by taking responsibility for your life and lifestyle, making sure all facets of your life from physical to mental to emotional to spiritual are properly nourished and nurtured.

The guiding principle in working with health and qi is interaction, and interconnection. As the concept of qi was developing, it came to be understood not just as a single entity like "life force" or "vital energy," but as a process that connects everything in the universe.

In his book The Web That Has No Weaver, (McGraw-Hill, 2000) Ted Kaptchuk, O.M.D. says: (p. 69) Perhaps the best single statement concerning Qi that summarizes the sense that Chinese history has conferred on the concept appears in Tu Wei-Ming's writings: All modalities of being, from a rock to heaven, are integral parts of a continuum (ta hua). Since nothing is outside of this continuum, the chain of being is never broken. A linkage will always be found between any given pair of things in the universe. . . .The continuous presence of Qi in all modalities of being makes everything flow together as the unfolding of a single process. Nothing, not even an almighty creator, is external to this process.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Summing up meditation

Since the meditation series spanned more time than I would have liked due to my computer problem, I thought I’d do a bit of a summary to bring it all back together.

Meditation is the introduction to what meditation is and what it can do for you. The rest of the series describes the major styles of meditation from most active to most contemplative. I know you can find one that is just right for you!

Walking Meditation tells you how to synchronize walking with breathing, and discusses two forms of walking meditation: random and labyrinth or pattern walking.

Standing Meditation introduces you to zhan zhuang qigong, the energy practice of “standing like a tree.” To learn more about qigong, see Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong. I will also be talking more about qigong in the future, so stay tuned!

Journaling and Mandala Meditation is about stream-of-consciousness writing and art. This post contains links to several sites with free mandala drawings you may print and color.

Mantra and Mudra Meditation discusses the use of sound and vibration in meditation, and the use of hand acupressure to stimulate the flow of your qi, your internal energy.

Focus and Visualization Meditation are two different sides of the Art of Paying Attention.

Breath and Seated Meditation, the most contemplative of the meditation methods, discusses how to sit (and why!), and several breathing styles.

The wonderful Tree of Contemplative practices picture is courtesy of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. They have made available several sizes of the image for download. Thanks to JLB for letting me know about this image…I just love it!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Breath and Seated Meditation

Breath and Seated Meditation is sometimes called Insight Meditation because the practice has been known to lead to those “Ah-Ha!” moments.

On the surface, seated meditation appears to be the least active of the meditation styles which may be why it is considered to be the most difficult. If you are usually a very active person, doing what you perceive as “sitting and doing nothing” can be challenging. It goes against the grain of Western education and culture to not be “doing something” every waking moment. It’s very important to understand that while conscious physical activity is at a minimum during this style of meditation, you are far from “doing nothing.” There is quite a lot going on, energetically speaking, within your body and mind during seated meditation.

As with every meditation style, you should always strive to practice daily; the benefits of meditation are cumulative, so practicing five minutes every day will be more beneficial in the long run than a once-a-week marathon session lasting an hour or two.

The first thing to do for seated meditation is to be seated comfortably.

The Lotus Position is best for seated meditation. Take note of the picture above and notice how the toes are pressing on the thigh. I believe that posture is important, and will explain why in a moment.

The second best position can be attained easily by kneeling and using a meditation bench. Usually made of wood, these can be found from very simple to very elaborate designs, and come in two styles, one center leg or two legs. I prefer the center-leg version because I find it much easier to get into and out of the seated position, and it allows more freedom of leg movement. When using a meditation bench of either style, the tops of your feet will be on the floor and your toes will be pressing onto the floor from the top and outer-edge angle. (I’ll come back to that foot position soon.) The added benefit of kneeling while using a meditation bench is that you are not sitting on your legs and completely cutting off your circulation!

If neither of those postures suits you, just be seated comfortably in a chair with good back, shoulder, and neck support. Do not put your arms on the arms of the chair. That posture often forces your shoulders into a hunched position which creates tension and discomfort. Find something rounded that you can rest your foot on; it should be something fairly small (any smooth, round object about an inch in diameter is perfect) that will rest comfortably under your foot in the soft spot just behind the ball of the foot.

For all three seated styles, keep your elbows at your sides, and let your hands rest in your lap. You may do a mudra if you wish. (If you aren’t familiar with mudras, see Mantra and Mudra Meditation.)

Now, about that foot position: Here is why I believe it is important to sit in a position that creates pressure on that upper, outer edge of the toes and feet. On the side of the little toe that touches the toe beside it is the start point for the kidney meridian, an upward-flowing energy pathway that travels from your toes to your kidneys and onward. The spot just behind the ball of the foot is the second point on that energy pathway. By stimulating these points in the feet, you encourage the energy to flow in its upward direction. When it reaches the kidney, the main energy path continues on, travels through the liver, through the lungs, and ends at the base of the tongue. As this energy channel passes through the lungs, a secondary channel branches off, passes through the heart, and connects with yet another energy channel in the chest area. Knowledge of this energy flow is important because, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the kidney is the storehouse of your life essence, that energy that keeps the form of your body working and in balance, the source for growth, development, and reproduction. By placing your feet in a position that puts slight pressure on the first or second points of the kidney channel, I believe you are in effect giving yourself a mild acupressure treatment, and encouraging the flow of health-restoring, harmonizing, life essence energy through four very vital organs: kidney, liver, lungs and heart.

There are three breathing styles you may practice during seated meditation.

The first is “Belly Breathing,” or Tan Tien Breathing. Breathe slowly and deeply, filling your lungs. Inhale as though you are breathing so deeply that the oxygen is filling your lungs, your chest, and your abdomen. Always inhale through the nose; you may exhale either through the nose or the mouth. Done correctly, your abdomen will expand slightly as you inhale, and return to normal on the exhale. Of course, don’t “push” out the abdominal area, just let it rise and fall naturally. This breathing style is fluid; do not pause between breaths. You may count breaths if it helps your focus, or simply apply your attention to a positive emotion and let each inhaling breath fill you with gratitude, compassion, love, or the emotion of your choice. As you exhale, see yourself sharing the gratitude, compassion, or love with your family, your friends, your community, and beyond if you like. You may want to start with a five-minute session (yes, it’s okay to use a timer!) and build up to the amount of time that suits your schedule; twenty to forty minutes a day is recommended.

Another breathing style you may want to experiment with is breath pausing. This is performed the same as Tan Tien breathing, but you pause for a few seconds between each inhale and exhale. This style promotes deep relaxation. An advanced version of this practice is to lengthen the pauses between inhale and exhale until the pause is equal in length to the count of the inhale or exhale. For example, say you inhale to the count of 4, pause for a moment, then exhale to the count of four. The normal practice would be to hold the breath to the count of one then exhale. In the advanced practice, you may lengthen the pause to a two, three, or four count.

Alternate breathing is a style in which you inhale and exhale alternately through only the nostrils. It helps to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain. To practice, put your hands in the prayer position, and rest your thumbs under your chin. Place your index fingers so they rest on the sides of your nose.

1 - Press the left index finger on the left nostril so that nostril is closed and inhale through the right nostril.

2 - Release the left nostril, press the right nostril closed with your right index finger and exhale through the left.

3 – Don’t move your fingers; keep your right nostril closed and inhale through the left nostril.

4 - Press the left index finger on the left nostril so that nostril is closed and exhale through the right nostril.

5 - Repeat steps 1 through 4.

Are you vibrating at a higher frequency?

If you meditate, the answer is probably “Yes.”

If you have ever heard someone claim to be “vibrating at a higher frequency,” or if you have read things like “As humanity begins to vibrate at a higher level...” and thought it was a bit strange and “New-Age” (it’s actually very scientific), here is what that is all about. I have to admit that the reason I researched this topic was partly because you hear it everywhere these days, and partly because someone I trust actually told me I was vibrating at a higher frequency; I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to spontaneously combust or anything.

Brainwave frequencies as measured by EEG (electroencephalograph) are measured as follows (though there are slight variations on the ranges of cycles per second from source to source):

Delta: 0.5 to 4 Hz. (Hz or Hertz = cycles per second) Deep, dreamless sleep.

Theta 4 to 8 Hz. Deeply relaxed; daydreaming (the state between wakefulness and sleep).

Alpha 8 to 13 Hz. Relaxed but not sleepy.

Beta 13 to 27 Hz. Focused attention, alert mental activity

Gamma 25 to 42 Hz. Very high level information processing. “When the brain needs to simultaneously process information from different areas, its hypothesized that the 40Hz activity consolidates the required areas for simultaneous processing.”

This “higher vibration level” topic is usually spoken of within the context of recognition of spiritual energy or achievement. It takes time and dedication to achieve brainwave consistency at this vibration level, but it can be accomplished through meditation. It’s likely that the most devoted practitioners are found in Buddhist monasteries where up to eight hours a day is spent in meditation.

A small study compared the brainwave frequencies of long-term Buddhist meditation practitioners who routinely “vibrated at a higher level” in the Gamma range to a group of people who didn’t. These people expressed interest in meditation but had never practiced. The results of the study were extremely interesting [my emphasis]:

“Our study is consistent with the idea that attention and affective processes, which gamma-band EEG synchronization may reflect, are flexible skills that can be trained [i.e. learned]. It remains for future studies to show that these EEG signatures are caused by long-term training itself and not by individual differences before the training, although the positive correlation that we found with hours of training and other randomized controlled trials suggest that these are training-related effects.”

You may read the full study here: “Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice

The bottom line is: Yes, meditation can not only relax your body, lower your blood pressure, restore health and wellness, it can raise your level of vibration and lead to permanent improvements in many areas of brain function!