Tag Archives: yoga

Remembered Wellness

I have just completed reading Timeless Healing – The Power and Biology of Belief by Herbert Benson, the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is the third book by Benson that I have read in the past month, and definitely the most compelling. About two-thirds through the book I took a break to read the Relaxation Response (also by him) and found that book and this one to be excellent complements to one another with each illuminating the other. If you opt to read one, I heartily recommend reading the other and within a short time period of one another.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – What it is

What drew me to this book was wanting to understand “remembered wellness”, which many of us might know as the “placebo effect.” The placebo effect is the belief a person has to heal based upon projecting “our intense desire for wellness onto the medicine we take” even if the medicine is just a sugar pill with no medicinal chemical ingredients. In addition, as Benson states “…all of us have the ability to “remember” the calm and confidence associated with health and happiness, but not just in an emotional or psychologically soothing way. This memory is also physical.” Hence, Dr Benson’s conclusion that the placebo effect should be renamed and thought of as “remembered wellness.” To me, the simple act of conjuring remembered wellness is more powerful than the thought of taking a pill called a placebo. As marketers know, there’s much to be said for how something is labeled!

In the late 1990s I was diagnosed with a Stage 1 breast cancer. I vividly recall the conversation with Dr Josephson, the breast surgeon who would operate on my left breast.

Me: Will I die.
Dr J: No.
Me: Will I lose my hair?
Dr J: No.
Me: Okay then, let’s do it!

It is important to know that up till that time I was generally a hard core optimist about most things in life, that I had a head of long, curly, thick red hair, and – most important -– I was the mother of 7 and 14 year old sons.

I didn’t give the conversation much thought again till recently, upon reading this book. Early in the book Dr Benson states what is necessary for remembered wellness:

THREE COMPONENTS OF REMEMBERED WELLNESS

  1. Belief and expectancy on the part of the patient
  2. Belief and expectancy on the part of the caregiver
  3. Belief and expectancies generated by a relationship between the patient and the caregiver

As per my conversation with Dr Josephson each of those items would have a big checkmark next to them. And number 3 was surely impacted by my knowing Dr Josephson as the warm, funny, kind mother of one of my older son’s soccer teammates. (Heck, I knew she went to circus camp as an adult!)

None of this was a placebo – I did have surgery, I did have treatment in the form of radiation, and I did take medicine for five years. However, the surgery and my recovery went smoothly and, after reading Benson’s book, I am convinced that my desire for “remembered wellness” played a major positive part in the process. As the book title suggests, Dr Benson spends a large portion of the book discussing the importance of and science behind the impact of belief.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – It’s opposite

Turns out there is the opposite side of remembered wellness, the “nocebo” effect. If the placebo effect results in a person believing the best about their treatment, the nocebo effect results in a person believing the worst about their treatment. And what the mind believes, the body does; the body responds to the beliefs we have.

Benson refers to Dr Arthur Barsky, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who “reminds us that paying attention to a symptom or problem amplifies it while distractions lessen our experience of it.” Barsky is quoted as stating “the mandate for self-discipline and self-control becomes so burdensome and so arduous that it begins to erode our sense of well-being and makes us feel increasingly insecure about [our] health.”

THE BIOLOGY

Regardless of whether a person believes in the placebo or the nocebo effect, in times of perceived stress the brain will cause specific hormones to be released. The hormones, in turn, cause physical responses within the body. The severity of those responses and how they are dealt with, using one or any combination of what Dr Benson refers to as the three-legged stool of medicine (Health and Well-Being is the seat supported by the three legs of Self-Care, Surgery and Procedures, and Pharmaceuticals) is influenced by the belief held by the individual. I found an interesting and information-packed TED Talk by Lissa Rankin from 2012, Is there scientific proof we can heal ourselves? that pulled together much of what I’ve been mulling over in Benson’s books.

Your thoughts and feelings about the daily experiences of your life both originate from and transmit signals to your body, neurologically and biochemically instructing and changing your health. [p 245]

RELAXATION RESPONSE and REMEMBERED WELLNESS

They seem to go hand-in-hand, these two, with the relaxation response preparing the mind – and hence, the body – for positive receptivity for remembered wellness.

We know that mental focusing techniques that elicit the relaxation response quiet the mind and the body to a more substantial degree and with greater speed than any other means. We know that the experience seems to clean the slate of the mind, making it more receptive and creative. And we know that the experience feels very spiritual to some people, and that spirituality agrees with them, producing better health. [p 213]

Spirituality is a highly personal feeling. People experience and seek out spirituality in their own way, in their own time, and to varying degrees. Spirituality is separate from  religious belief, though it can definitely be a major component of religious belief. It is not so much religious belief that impacts the magnitude of the impact of remembered wellness as it is simply a belief in something, in other words, some sort of spiritual belief.  For more about spirituality and health, visit the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing website, which I found when doing a search for What Is Spirituality.

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The Relaxation Response – part 2

My previous post introduced Dr. Herbert Benson and his work on the Relaxation Response. In particular, I wrote about the opposite of the Relaxation Response, the “fight or flight” response and its relationship to stress and how stress impacts the human body. Benson’s research illuminated what he termed the Relaxation Response, the body’s natural capacity to counter the stress response.

While both responses are inherent in our nervous system, the “fight or flight” response is involuntary, meaning it is automatically set into action by the brain, and the Relaxation Response needs to be consciously called upon.  RelaxationResponse.org lists the Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response. and you can also hear Dr Benson explain the steps in the video below.

What interests me about the Relaxation Response is how it relates to the practice of yoga. I have been practicing yoga since 2005 and teaching it since 2016, and have experienced as a yogi and a teacher how yoga can help calm the body, calm the mind, and set the circumstances for invoking the Relaxation Response. The reading I have been doing over the past two weeks (yippee for vacation!) has been to help me understand the underpinnings of why yoga can be a powerful entry to eliciting the Relaxation Response, and to guide my thinking as I plan and cue yoga practice for others.

Dr Benson begins by describing the ancient yogis and their meditation practices. As a scientist, Benson was not content to merely accept what history told him. He studied, measured and monitored monks practicing yoga in Asia (Hemis and Rumtek monasteries) as well as practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who came to Harvard asking to be studied because “they felt they could lower their blood pressure through” TM.

Benson’s research found that Yoga caused physiologic changes that elicited the Relaxation Response: decreased oxygen consumption, deceased respiratory rate, decreased heart rate, increased alpha waves, and decreased blood pressure in those with elevated blood pressure. [the Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, pgs 74-75.] In his book the Relaxation Response, Benson explains

Yoga meditation is concentration on a single point – for example, a physical object or a thought. By dwelling upon an object one may cancel out all distractions that are associated with one’s everyday life and thus achieve a passive attitude.

In my years of practicing yoga it has not been the meditation, per se, that appealed to me. Rather, it has been the physical practice of yoga – the flowing through the asanas, or poses, while moving with my breath. This breath-guided movement has calmed my body and, with it, calmed my mind, and has likely and unknowingly caused me to invoke the Relaxation Response. For the majority of my early years of practicing yoga I was not tuned in to doing any form of conscious meditation, focusing instead on absorbing the asanas into muscle memory and refining them thru subsequent yoga explorations. Still, I did practice forms of silent sitting as my various teachers each guided breath explorations during silent sitting or lying down.

Now that I am a bit more seasoned as a practitioner and as I learn to be a teacher, I believe an initial benefit of yoga is to calm the body. This is akin to Step 3 of how to elicit the Relaxation Response:

Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. 

A good yoga practice is grounded in stretching, strengthening, and relieving tension in the body, the end result of which is often relaxed muscles. With that physical relaxation present, sitting to invoke the Relaxation Response becomes a natural next step, one that is often guided by yoga teachers as they cue breath explorations, and quiet or guided meditations toward the end of a practice. It is where I find the therapeutic benefits of yoga to truly kick in, and why yoga provided such solace for me when I initially began practicing and continues to nourish my psyche and, I hope, that of my students.

Arthritis

I woke up this past Monday morning with pain and swelling in my left wrist and by Tuesday, when it had not dissipated, it was time to have it checked out by a doctor. X-rays revealed mild radoiocarpal joint arthritis (also see this Cleveland Clinic article for a clear explanation of arthritis), which prompted me to see an orthopedist on Thursday. The end result is a left wrist splint cock-up and a 10-day prescription for 800mg of Motrin taken 2 times a day to mitigate the swelling and pain.

I am intrigued by this diagnosis as it is yet one more look into my body, and am not fully surprised because having turned 63 recently and knowing that my Aunt (my Mom’s sister) has arthritis, it is something that is not foreign to me. Age sometimes brings with it interesting challenges, plus I have been practicing yoga for over 12 years and a favorite pose has me balancing on my arms in an egg shape.

Thankfully, this appears to have been a mild occurrence, with my arm not currently in the splint as I type. By the end of this coming weekend, if not sooner, wearing the splint will have been  phased out. I am now only wearing it while at school due to teaching in a makerspace; the splint ensures that my left hand is not pressed into inappropriate use for the types of activities that cause the pain, mostly lifting or pushing if my hand is in a certain position.

So what does arthritis look like?

A trained eye can distinguish the arthritis as well as the mild tendonitis identified by the orthopedist. Arthritis occurs when there is an inflammation between the joints, a joint being the place where two bones come together. In a healthy joint cartilage allows for smooth movement between the bones at the joint. Tendonitis refers to inflammation of a tendon, tendons being fiber that attaches muscle to bone. Essentially, the arthritis and tendonitis together have sent a signal that something is amiss and should be tended to!

Being an avid yogi, practicing and also teaching, it is no surprise that yoga is also recommended for people with arthritis. (See these articles from Johns Hopkins and the Arthritis Foundation.) With that said, I suspect an errant move on my part while doing yoga may have exacerbated this instance! Nonetheless, there are two useful books for assisting people with arthritis thru the practice of yoga:

Our Nervous System, explained

I am taking the online course Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga, which partially explains why it has been two years since my last post on this blog. During the first half of 2016 I was studying for my 200-hour yoga teacher certification and blogging at my other web home, Yoga ~ Dance ~ Music ~ Movement. And for large portions of 2015, 2016, and the summer of 2017, my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were living with us. Spend time blogging here or with my family; easy decision!

My yoga blog has been the recipient of all yoga-related writing and below is a cross-post of my most recent post, written earlier today. It deals exclusively with the nervous system and how stress impacts and is dealt with by the nervous system. The post is reprinted below.


The lectures by Catherine Spann and Stacy Dockins from Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga have explained the basics of what happens when stress manifests in the human body. A little bit of stress is manageable; a lot of stress begins to break down our capacity to effectively deal with the stress, and that in turn can manifest in the malfunctioning of other body systems.

Our nervous system consists of two parts, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. I use the word “central” to help remember what the central nervous system consists of – it consists of our brain and spinal cord, the part of our nervous system that runs center or central in our body from our head to the bottom of the spine and is housed in our axial skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system is the communications conduit between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. The word “peripheral” means outlying items or those not centrally located. Again, this helps me remember what the peripheral nervous system deals with – the parts of our nervous system peripheral to the brain and spinal cord, the parts of our nervous system that run through our appendicular skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system consists of the somatic nervous system, which are our voluntary actions, and the autonomic nervous system, which are our unconscious actions such as our heart beating (though we can control that to some extent), and the regulation of digestion, respiration, to name a few of the systems.

Finally, the autonomic nervous system is further composed of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two have alliterative words to quickly and easily describe their functions. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight, flight or freeze response, which Catherine likens to putting a lead foot on a gas pedal.  The parasympathetic nervous system invokes the rest and digest response, which Catherine equates to putting on the brakes. All of these systems interact with the hypothalamus in the brain, which along with the pituitary gland and the thalamus are part of the endocrine system.

The last piece of this puzzle is the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. Its role as part of the parasympathetic nervous system involves regulating the heart, lungs and digestive tract. You can read more about this intriguing nerve in 9 Nervy Facts About the Vagus Nerve.

Now we come to stress and how it impacts our nervous system. Stress can be of a short duration, known as acute stress, or it can be chronic stress meaning it is ongoing over a long period of time or simply recurring over and over and over. Our nervous system has a “set point” where it is relatively in balance; this is called homeostasis. Each time our body undergoes some form of stress, our nervous system makes adjustments to return to homeostasis. This adjustment process is known as allostasis. If we are frequently engaged in allostasis it leads to allostatic load, which is the wear and tear on our body systems that often leads to an autonomic imbalance, meaning our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are out of whack.

Eventually allostatic load causes a cycle that over time makes it difficult to reset our nervous system and find our way back to homeostasis. This is where yoga comes in! Yoga can calm the nervous system and strengthen the ability to self-regulate. A calm nervous system can begin the process of allostasis and correcting for the growing internal imbalances.

One way of calming the nervous system is by stimulating the relaxation response as described by Dr Herbert Benson. Deep, slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which then positively triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. As noted in a prior post, the combination of movement (the physical part of yoga), breath, mindful attention, and relaxation lead to improved mental health. This combination makes for a powerful self-regulation tool that lets you consciously partner with allostasis to reset your body in homeostasis.

Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition!

A number of my posts have dealt with my foray into teaching yoga and facilitating movement for folks who are dealing with movement limitations, the normal process of aging, or changes in cognitive functioning due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. I have also mentioned Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, related posts being available here.

I am delighted to share that yesterday part 1 of two posts furthering the above conversations has been posted on the SharpBrains blog. My post is Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition! I hope you’ll pop over to read it, and if you have any feedback, please feel free to share, especially if you have related experiences that we can all learn from. Thanks!

The Benefits of Exercise (besides the fact that it can be fun!)

This post is thanks to guest blogger David Haas, who is passionately and actively raising awareness about the benefits of exercise, eating healthily, and making use of a support network for dealing with diagnosis and treatment of cancer. You can read more by David and other bloggers at The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog

Reasons to Continue Fitness Following a Cancer Diagnosis

Years ago it was common practice for people diagnosed with cancer to be asked to restrict their activity levels in favor of resting and relaxing. While rest is an important component of working through cancer treatment, too much inactivity can result in negative consequences such as reduced range of motion, loss of function and depression. Many organizations and research foundations now stress the importance of exercise following a diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer or any other type of cancer. Participating in regular physical fitness activities can supply you with physical and emotional benefits that serve to help you before, during and after cancer treatment.

Maintain Range of Motion

Over time, inactivity causes joints and muscles to feel stiff. The lack of exercise leads to decreased range of motion as muscle atrophy sets in and you become less flexible. Exercise is to your joints like oil is to a car engine. To keep your joints flexible and pain-free, you have to move them and keep them well-conditioned. By incorporating strength exercises into your physical fitness routine you can support the joints with the surrounding muscle tissue.

Build Strength

In addition to the strength your body needs to get through daily activity, it also needs extra strength and stamina to deal with the fatigue experienced during cancer treatment. Use light weights every other day to strengthen your arm and leg muscles, at the very least. Exercise DVDs can serve as an effective guide to help you build muscle strength. Even 10 minutes three times per week is sufficient to see improvement in your strength and stamina.

Reduce Treatment Side Effects

Cancer patients experience treatment side effects to varying degrees, but nausea, dizziness and fatigue are common side effects experienced by most people. Aerobic exercise is very beneficial to help fight fatigue by energizing your body in a sustained manner. Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi can help you relax and are also effective for fighting nausea. Go slowly and exercise whenever you are able. Breaking up 30 minutes of exercise into three 10-minute segments throughout the day is just as effective as doing it all at once.

Encourage Empowerment

Feeling empowered to do something about your health is critical to your overall wellness. Regular physical activity makes you feel like you’re doing something good for yourself, and you are. As physical activity lifts your mood and makes your body feel stronger, it also gives you greater hope and confidence.

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer has a tremendous impact on your life but you have the power to fight back and work toward wellness through regular physical fitness. As you exercise regularly, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of greater physical conditioning as well as a stronger emotional state. No matter where you’re at in your fight against cancer, fitness and exercise can prove to be one of the greatest tools of empowerment and well-being. Use this tool regularly to help you move away from a mindset of illness toward one of well-being.

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I can attest to David’s advice. In the spring of 1998 I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. Following a summer of treatment, I wound up with radiation pneumonitis (pneumonia contracted due to radiation that reached a lung), and also managed to contract Lyme Disease. Health wise, it was a discouraging 12 months.

In an early 1999 issue of Cooking Light, I came upon a small ad for the Danskin Triathlon. The Danskin seemed the perfect way to kick me out of my health doldrums, and I wound up participating in four Danskins beginning with 1999. Having a goal, enlisting friends to help with achieving it, and following through, made a hugely positive difference in my recovery. 

And if you are looking for a way to get started, you might start simply with SuperBetter, an online game designed to help “you achieve your health goals – or recover from an illness or injury – by increasing your personal resilience. Resilience means staying curious, optimistic and motivated even in the face of the toughest challenges.”

This Is Your Brain On Music

This morning I was putting away the syrup that garnished the scrumptious french toast made by my husband, and as I closed the refrigerator door, some of the many tiles of magnetic poetry caught my eye. As our sons come and go on home visits, they alter the poetry, so I have no idea which one crafted this gem, but how appropriate given the book I am currently reading!

I am two-thirds of the way through Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music. When this book came out in 2007, I ordered a hard cover copy from amazon and eagerly awaited its delivery. When it arrived, I thumbed through the book and decided it wasn’t for me.

Rather than letting it languish on my book shelf, I gave it to a student – an accomplished high school musician who played (and still plays) clarinet and saxophone, who has studied at Julliard, and with who I had a close relationship developed over years of her assisting with faculty technology workshops and my being her advisor for her eleventh grade independent study project that resulted in her authoring and publishing this book. As her lulu.com bio states, she is “currently studying Music Education and Clarinet Performance at the University of Maryland, College Park.”

Now, five years later, guess what book I am reading? This time I have a paperback copy borrowed from my local library. And I am two-thirds of the way through Levitin’s book, absorbing his words and relating them back to my experience – in caring for my Dad, who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimers; in teaching yoga to people with mobility or other limitations; in teaching yoga to people who are at the upper realms of aging; in learning to teach dance to people with Parkinson’s. There will be much more about all of this as I continue to read, take notes, reflect and wonder, with a possibility of everything coming together in a blog post for SharpBrains.

But for now, I am just smiling at the magnetic poetry on my refrigerator door. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it – last night Levitin’s invitation to participate in a survey about music came across my Twitter feed. Of course, I participated! For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, I do not know Levitin but I “follow” him, so everything he tweets about shows up in my timeline. How fitting that the magnetic poetry and Levitin’s tweet both deal with music and mood.