The Gene – An Intimate History (2/2)

This post follows on the heels of an earlier post this morning. As noted at the end of that post, about half of the sticky tabs I stuck throughout the book deal with a particular interest of mine and that’s what this post covers. What we consider as normal and not normal in terms of our physical, biological, and cognitive lives is determined in large part by how we choose to frame the definitions. 

As the 1800s was turning into the 1900s, the English doctor Archibald Garrod “had conceptually visualized a human gene and explained human variation as ‘chemical diversities’ encoded by units of inheritance. Genes make us human, Garrod had reasoned. And mutations make us different.” [bold face my addition] Garrod’s work set off “a systematic effort to create a catalog of genetic diseases in humans” and, oh my, there is an astonishing array of such diseases. Penetrance refers to the fact that “even if a mutation was present in the genome” of a person, “its capacity to penetrate into a physical or morphological feature was not always complete.” 

I am intrigued by Mukherjee’s further elaboration on these ideas as he takes us through a growing definition of disease.

The definition of disease rests, rather, on the specific disabilities caused by an incongruity between an individual’s genetic endowment and his or her current environment–between a mutation, the circumstances of a person’s existence, and his or her goals for survival or success. It is not mutation that ultimately causes disease, but mismatch. (p 264)

Even the nature of the “mismatch” is mutable: since the environment is constantly subject to change, the definition of disease has to change with it.”

…the lack of fitness–illness, in colloquial terms–was defined by the relative mismatch between an organism and environment. (p 265)

Over and over I was struck by the normalcy of differentiation among humans. It turns out that “facial features and heights are shared because genetic variations are shared among individuals,” meaning within families. Stop for a moment to consider what humanity would be like if we all looked the same with the same physical traits. How would we know who was who? And what traits would be the ones that we all had? Surely there is already a sci fi book with such a pretense. (If you know of one, please list it in a comment so I can borrow a copy from the library. Thanks!)

The natural segue is to move from pondering physical differences to intellectual differences and the influence of environment. More vocabulary words emerge from this discussion: heritable, which is a trait influenced by genes, and inheritable, which is a trait that is handed down intact from one generation to the next. (p 346) 

Using the example of growing a tall and short plant in various conditions (insufficient nourishment and appropriate nourishment), both plants grow short without the necessary nutrients, while both plants grow to their natural height with adequate nourishment, meaning the short plant grows to a short height and the tall plant grows to its tall height. Mukherjee states that

Whether genes or environment–nature or nurture– dominates in influence depends on context. When environments are constraining, they exert a disproportionate influence. When the constraints are removed, genes become ascendant. (p 347)

This is an important idea to him, and he asterisks it to a footnote on the page: There can hardly be a more cogent genetic argument for equality. It is impossible to ascertain any human’s genetic potential without first equalizing environments. [italics my addition]

There is much food for thought in this book. It is filled with a history of the discovery and science of genes, diving deep into DNA and spiraling back out to try to discern what it means to be human. I am very much in synch with Mukherjee’s thoughts about equalizing environments and think about this in the context of 38 years of teaching, 36 years of parenting, and over 60 years of living in a world consisting of beautifully diverse humans!

I leave with this image of the circular flow (p 410) of biological information, the final flow that began as a few statements many pages earlier in the text (and was noted in my previous post).circular flow

 

The Gene – An Intimate History (1/2)

In January I finished reading and wrote about The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I was bemused that the history of cancer could be so captivating, all due to Mukherjee’s story telling prowess and facility with language. I immediately wanted to read more by him, and last night completed The Gene – An Intimate History.

Reading this book was no small feat! Night reading was difficult as my mind tended to wander or my eyes would droop into tiredness. I had no choice but to make this purely a the genedaytime read, meaning it took awhile to make my way through the 495 pages of text. Mukherjee’s writing sparked many questions and points of interest, as the sticky tabs attest. At one point I grabbed the nearest piece of paper, a page from the Sunday Times with sufficient white space for me to jot down my thoughts after reading pages 274-275, which is one of several times that eugenics and newgenics are discussed.

My response whilst reading those pages: If we are all alike we lose the beauty of our unique human differences because often a disease in one area yields a strength in another. That variety of strengths is what creates the range of thoughts, actions, and ideas without which we become more mono-thinking, mono-acting; we give up potential creative approaches and solutions to obstacles that life presents. “Uber-normalcy” yields inability to sustain life when, as will happen, an abnormality occurs.

Turns out, Mukherjee feels similarly. As he went on to state on the next page, “What if ‘disease-causing’ gene variants were also genius enabling?” To a certain degree, this theme percolates throughout the book as scientists uncover the foundations of genes, heredity, DNA and their inner related worlds, and discover (an ongoing process) ways of meddling in that soup. To be sure, sometimes the meddling is phenomenally beneficial, such as highly targeted approaches to cancer care. But the ability to meddle with our humanity opens up numerous safety, philosophical and ethical questions to which there are no easy or quick answers. Taken as a whole, this is a book about science, philosophy, ethics, social science, history, medicine, disease, and people.

I have gotten ahead of myself! Let’s back up to page 61, where I chuckled at chicken…was merely an egg’s way of making a better egg. This was the conclusion of Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist turned geneticist. de Vries built upon the work of Mendel and is credited with using the word mutants (change) to describe variations in plant life. From there he postulated that “these mutants had to be the missing pieces in Darwin’s puzzle.” And from there it became apparent that “natural selection was not operating on organisms but on their units of heredity.” Hence the italicized quote at the start of this paragraph.

Parts of this book were like biology and vocabulary lessons. (I was once exposed to some of this in high school.) The interplay of natural selection and evolution as they relate to genetics results in the words genotype, “an organism’s composition…[referring] to one gene, a configuration of genes, or even an entire genome” and phenotype, “an organism’s physical or biological attributes and characteristics–the color of an eye, the shape of a wing, or resistance to hot or cold temperatures.”

Along the lines of more basic biology and chemistry, how often do any of us stop to remember that sugars provide energy, fats store the energy, and proteins enable the chemical reactions that manage the process.

With the contemplation of the interplay of nature (genes) and nurture (environment), this led to some of the early stepping stones delineated by Mukherjee (p 107).

  • a genotype determines a phenotype
  • genotype + environment = phenotype
  • genotype + environment + triggers chance = phenotype

Slight digression – as a yoga teacher who has been known to say “let your breath be your guide” and “move with your breath,” I enjoyed the visual that came from an early chapter about the “gene molecule.” Mukherjee writes “Cells depend on chemical reactions to live: during respiration, for instance, sugar combines chemically with oxygen to make carbon dioxide and energy. None of these reactions occurs spontaneously (if they did, our bodies would be constantly ablaze with the smell of flambé sugar).” 

As the story of the gene unfolds, Mukherjee paints a picture that perfectly clarified for me the process of trying to understand DNA. He explains that

Chemists generally piece together the structure of a molecule by breaking the molecule down into smaller and smaller parts, like puzzle pieces, and then assembling the structure from the constituents. But DNA, broken into pieces, degenerates into a garble of four bases–A, D, G, and T. You cannot read a book by dissolving all of its words into alphabets. With DNA, as with words, the sequence carries the meaning. Dissolve DNA into its constituent bases, and it turns into a primordial four-letter alphabet soup. (p 216)

This post covered a little less than half of the sticky tabs stuck throughout the book as I marked pages to return for further thought. As most of the remaining tabs deal with a particular interest of mine, I will save them for a second post.

Did you PANDICULATE today?

Periodically I will be reposting here, often with a few minor changes, posts that I crafted for my professional yoga site, as some of those posts may have relevance for readers of this blog. This is one of those posts. 


Pan-di-cu-late.

Say each syllable, then let the whole word roll off your tongue like a wave. Pandiculate was my new movement vocabulary word in 2019, having learned it while viewing Mary Bond’s Google Talk The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World. Turns out, every cat and dog pandiculates, and so do humans, but if you aren’t familiar with the word then you likely have no idea when you are pandiculating!

S – T – R – E – T – C – H – I – N – G

It’s that simple. Stand and stretch. Raise your arms as high as you are able, pressing your fingers away from your shoulders. Perhaps roll onto your tiptoes and let them hug the ground, lifting your heels as if to take off. Sit and stretch. Let your arms hang long and press your fingers towards the ground. Extend your legs and lift your feet just enough to press your heels away from your legs. Or better yet, find whatever position is available for you and stretch your limbs as comfortably and firmly as you are able. Simply stretch!

Then add a yawn, and maybe even some sound to stretch your jaw.

There you have it. Pandiculating.

Like saying each syllable separately, a stretch awakens each part of your body. Like the word rolling off your tongue, a full body stretch sends a wave of energy and alertness throughout your being. If you’re curious about this simple yet powerful action, the Somatic Movement Center’s What is pandiculation? provides a more detailed explanation of this marvelous function that we often make use of on a daily basis and often without any familiarity with its formal name. That’s me, below, stretching through my heels and the crown of my head, grounding down through my palm as I reach up stretching through my raised fingers. How else to have fun and stretch during the day at work!

side plank copy

Gentle Edge

with PaulaReprinted from the original on my professional yoga site.


Starting Out – January 2016

That’s me on the first session of my 2016 Yoga Teacher Training (YTT). I registered for the six month training with the thought of improving my practice and had only a tiny thought that the training would become the groundwork for my teaching. At that time the very thought of teaching quite unnerved me – maybe you know that sensation – butterflies that do not settle, a digestive system that does not calm.

In the photo Paula, one of our three YTT teachers, is handing me a glass container with a candle inside and my name hand-written on the outside. The candle was a gift of welcome to light my way, a similar candle given to each student.

My entire training was an exercise in taking my practice and my journey to my gentle edge.

Take it to your gentle edge of expression – where any more would be too much, and any less would be too little.

This is a sentiment I have heard numerous times from various yoga teachers, and it always brings to mind Lev Vygotsky and his idea of ZPD, Zone of Proximal Development. In yoga the edge is “a place of neither too much nor too little stretch” and “unless you find your edge, there is no growth, no learning, and no change.” (Michael Lee, from Kripalu Yoga, A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat, chapter 4.)

Vygotsky believed that children could learn from watching and following adults, with the adult assisting the child to go beyond what the child was able to do on their own. This place, where the child has gone as far as possible on their own – their gentle edge – and was ready to go beyond, was the zone of proximal development. He felt that optimal learning experiences should take place in each child’s ZPD, with that zone being specific to each learner.

I have learned yoga through a combination of observing my teachers, following their cues, giving my teachers permission to make subtle changes in my postures, and practicing regularly. My teachers, especially in my 200-hour training, have taken me beyond what I could do on my own. They have helped me get to my gentle edge of expression and over time, with their assistance and my practice, the placement of that gentle edge has shifted. They have met me in my ZPD and guided me beyond.

Yoga and psychology, a gentle meshing of both.

graduation

 

Yoga Nidra

WORKSHOP OVERVIEW
This past weekend I was at a 3-hour workshop hosted by the Yoga Teachers Association (YTA) of the Hudson Valley. The workshop, Yoga Nidra & Restorative Yoga, was led by Mona Anand, someone with whom I was already familiar having been introduced to her by a yoga colleague who extolled Mona’s training and online Yoga Nidras. I was eager to learn more and purchased Yoga Nidra to Lift Your Spirits on iTunes; it did not disappoint!

As with her iTunes album, the in-person experience did not disappoint either. During the  first 15 or 20 minutes Mona shared a bit about her background and provided an overview of what the remainder of the workshop would entail. From there she guided us through Restorative yoga followed by a 35-45 minute Yoga Nidra. The final 30 minutes consisted of elaboration and discussion based on a summary handout she provided. For more about Yoga Nidra in her own words, read Mona’s Introduction to Yoga Nidra. Be sure to scroll the page because the section about the Benefits of Yoga Nidra comes after the email slot for subscribing.

WHAT IS YOGA NIDRA?
The quick answer is that it is an experience somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, and you are led into that place by someone who continually speaks as they guide your attention (not your movement) to various parts of the body. This is different from Savasana, which is the final resting pose after any yoga practice and is a quiet practice. At the end of the practice Mona added that Yoga Nidra is designed to release thoughts and feelings, but not to analyze those thoughts or feelings.

THE HANDOUT
Mona’s approach to Yoga Nidra consists of nine steps and was developed by her and Alan Finger. The Yoga Nidra that I have experienced in the past has usually consisted only of what is Step 4 in this approach. The steps below, with some commentary by me, are from the handout shared at the conclusion of the workshop, copyrighted by Mona Anand and Alan Finger, 2008-2018.

1. Ekagrata – planting an image on the screen of the mind
Begin lying on the back with any support necessary to provide warmth and comfort. In this step you are guided to check in with your inner state as you draw your senses inward. Mona used the imagery of visualizing a flame at the third eye, that space between the brows.

2. Asana with nyasa – pre-yoga nidra asanas
The physical practice of yoga consists of poses (also called asanas). In looking up the meaning of “nyasa” I learned it is a series of touches on specific locations on the body. In the case of Yoga Nidra, these are not physical touches but visualized touches (more on this in Step 4.) As Mona guided us through asana she moved the flame down the body through the chakras. Typically chakras move from the bottom to the top, but she intentionally guided top-down to help draw us inward. She especially wanted us to focus on places where the body holds tension at the back of the neck and in the hips.

3. Pratyahara (antar mouna) – letting the mind move from sound to sound
Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses. During this phase Mona first guided us to listen to sounds around the room as we become aware of “antar mouna,” the practice of becoming aware of external sensory perceptions. From there she led us to draw our senses inward, pratyahara.

4. Rotation of Awareness – moving the mind through the body
This is the portion of Yoga Nidra with which I was familiar, having been led through it multiple times over the years. The guided travel through the body is intentional in its sequencing. The rotation is designed to clear the conscious mind, relax the physical body and increase body awareness, neurologically creating a circuit of energy in the brain, thus letting you go to the hypnogogic state. This is the state immediately before falling asleep. I have usually experienced this as a slow flow through the body where my attention was guided first fully to one side of the body, starting with a pinky finger and wending its way to the same side little toe, and then traveling the same route on the other side, leading to deep relaxation. When Mona guided this she “pinged” the body parts, thus pinging the brain, and had us travel from the feet upwards.

5. Nirodha – counting the breath backward
Starting with the number 11, count each breath going backwards. Since self-counting can tend to put people to sleep, Mona’s voice was intentional here in order to help people remain awake. Nirodha deprograms the mind and brings it to the present moment.

6. Pairing of Opposites – creating opposite sensations and emotions
The purpose of this step is to clear the subconscious mind and release emotional tension. The opposites are meant to induce a feeling of heaviness as muscles relax. Mona noted that the pairing of opposites is useful for people with PTSD to help them experience the range of what they miss when blocking out sensations. As she explained, you “cannot feel one side of the coin unless you can feel the other.” Examples of opposites include:

  • hot-cold
  • heavy-light
  • pleasure-pain

7. Rapid Visualization – fast moving images
In this step the unconscious mind is cleared, relaxing it so it can purge itself of painful memories. It is meant to be quick and consists of reference points to release what is in the subconscious so that it can “take out the garbage.” I enjoyed listening to the items but did not retain them and in the discussion that followed was tickled to hear one person list almost all of the items:

  • best childhood friend
  • Tinkerbell
  • hot cocoa
  • rainbow
  • warm sand
  • roses
  • white petals
  • smell of lavender
  • mother’s eyes
  • bonfire

8. Long Visualization – guided imagery
I have been guided through visualizations before and every time, including this one, I get lost somewhere along the line. It’s not that I do not know where I am, rather I simply tune out any speaking and eventually come back “online” usually towards the latter part of the visualization. This portion of Yoga Nidra frees one from being trapped by the boundaries of time and form, which is known as “maya.” It is a safe bubble.

9. Sankalpa – order from the conscious mind to the subconscious 
This is done seated and invites each person to set an intention before leaving. It is more productive to give instructions to the subconscious mind. Mona notes that in more advanced Yoga Nidra a seated meditation may be added between Steps 8 and 9.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Mona shared a way to think about how our brains deal with negatives and positives. She said negative emotions stick like velcro, whereas positive emotions slide off like teflon because we are wired to remember the one negative event (or comment) rather than the twenty positives. This comes from very early human history, when remembering the location of the one hungry lion (who might want to eat you) was more important than thinking about the twenty smaller animals you killed that day for food.

If you ponder those thoughts, you may perhaps see a similar pattern in yourself, noticing how the single slight can overtake the many positive interactions in a given day. This is likely why practices such as keeping a gratitude journal or doing the “Three Good Things” practice can be so beneficial.

That’s Mona in the left photo, leading the discussion after the experience. The workshop was packed and the room was quite chilly. We had been forewarned about the temperature so I dressed in layers (yellow arrows in second photo are pointing to me). Nothing like a mirrored wall to make the room seem larger and some of us seem to be in two places at once. 😉 I had the delight of sitting next to Paula, one of my three 200-hour Yoga Teacher Trainers (she is in the red top to my left.) Photos are from Mona’s Instagram feed.

 

Yoga Studio revisited

This time Studio begins with an upper case “S” as we have been practicing in this space for close to four years and our stash of supplies has begun to mimic a small yoga studio. I first shared a post about the space here (with a lower case “s”) in 2017 and figured it was time for an update. The closet holds all the props, with the mats on the shelf being loaners. This is what a typical setup looks like.

The community where I lead yoga has a Clubhouse that was renovated beginning in the Fall of 2015 and completed by early Spring 2016, just in time for the summer season. The Clubhouse and surrounding grounds sit at the end of a road; any further and they would be in Long Island Sound! This, in large part, is why the Clubhouse was renovated, having sustained damage over the years due to hurricanes and super high tides. The renovated building included raising the ground floor up a level, with storage underneath the building. With a wall of windows on the Sound and Harbor sides, and the space where we practice now up a flight of stairs, you can imagine the views are much appreciated! (You can see a view of the entire space here.)

Since the space is a Clubhouse, as you may have noticed in the above photo there is some furniture that occupies about a third of the room. The remainder of the space is wide open and is where we set up our mats. These next few pictures are from a Monday evening restorative practice. I usually set up my mat facing the entrance to the room, and yogis set up their mats facing Long Island Sound and the larger wall of windows.

MY MAT

Since this was a restorative practice the overhead and wall lights eventually get turned off and we are graced with the light from the Yoga Lights sculpture created for us by my husband. The lights gently cycle through random colors and perhaps you are able to get a sense of the variety. They provide a calming light for an evening practice of restorative yoga.

Our neck of the woods has had one snow fall with enough to carpet the ground. This last photo was taken the morning after, on the grounds of the Club looking out at Long Island Sound.

GROUNDS

My Mom’s Email Sign-Off: Metta

Periodically I will be reposting here, often with a few minor changes (or in this case, several additions), posts that I crafted for my professional yoga site, as some of those posts may have relevance for readers of this blog. This is one of those posts.


All blessings bright and beautiful

That is how my Mom would sign her emails to me, followed by Love.

When I began leading yoga practices my Mom’s sign off became my closing words along with an added sentiment – 

May all blessings bright and beautiful be yours, may you shine them inward to nourish and reflect them outward to share with those you meet.

My additional words change with each practice, as the moment takes hold, but always they reflect inner self-nourishment, and outward kindness and consideration for others.

Over the years the Buddhist tradition of a Metta practice has found its way to my awareness, either from reading books or having my yoga teachers explain and then guide such a practice. A little over a year ago, while reading Frank Ostaseski’s thought provoking “The Five Invitations,” I was struck by his mention of the first Sanskrit chant I ever learned: Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. (My review of this book is here and my reflection about the book is here.)

In English it translates to “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” Ostaseski describes Metta as “a practice in which we consciously evoke a boundless warm-hearted feeling” and that by reciting this chant, or similar chants, “we gradually establish benevolence, friendliness, and love in our own hearts, and then we extend the wish for well-being and happiness to all beings in every direction.”

There are two interesting aspects of chanting that resonate with me. The first is that it is much easier to remember something if it is set to a melody, particularly if there is a repeatable rhythm. The second is that chanting can help to clear the mind and prepare it for relaxation or meditation. I wrote a bit about chanting in early 2011, and find it interesting that almost ten years later very few of my yoga teachers incorporate chanting into their classes. After typing that sentence a smile spread across my face with the realization that I, too, do not include chanting in the classes I teach!

EileenAndLaurieMy Mom was practicing Metta long before I ever understood that it was something, a practice, a way of being and thinking. Her closing words always resonated with me as a powerful and beautiful expression of love – love for self and love for others. I wonder if she was consciously practicing Metta or if the words just simply resonated with her, as well. Thanks Mom. 🙂