The Yoga Place Blog

Raising Global Consciousness

Divide and Conquer: How the Essence of Mindfulness Parallels the Nuts and Bolts of Science

If you have an hour to spare and want to learn how mindfulness meditation and yoga work from both a generic level and scientific basis then I highly recommend this talk given by Shinzen at Google earlier this year.

I am trained as a Chemical Engineer and have a natural affinity to the scientific method and the concepts of energy and transforming things. And this effects the way I see the world and teach yoga.

The key points that Shinzen brings up are.

  1. The skills that we learn in Yoga / mindfulness meditation are generic and Foundational - this means that they are skills that can be used in all areas of life and are key leverage skills.
  2. The three skills that Shinzen mentions that are built in meditation are concentration, clarity and equanimity
  3. Shinzen’s definition of concentration is the same as the definition of the state of yoga - it is the capacity to focus the mind exclusively on any object or subject and sustain this focus for as long as you like without getting distracted by anything. It is Shinzen’s experience that meditation can raise base line concentration - the level of concentration available in daily life - by 200% to 300% . With this level of increased baseline concentration it is possible to increase your life by 50 years. What he means by this is that the amount of extra stuff you will be able to get done with a 3 fold increase in base line concentration is the amount of stuff that would take you 50 years to achieve without the increase. Using the metaphor of a TV, concentration is the capacity to dial into a specific station/channel and stay there.
  4. Clarity is the capacity to see subtle detail. Staying with the television metaphor, think of how much more detail you can see on a wide screen TV with high definitional digital than on a 13 inch TV with normal reception. Clarity allows us to see the subtle relationships that exist between things in life and in our minds that are “invisible” with normal baseline clarity.
  5. Equanimity is the capacity to choose to remain un - reactive to what comes to us in life. Without mindfulness and clarity we mostly respond to life unconsciously without even realising this. As we get more skilful in meditation we gain the clarity to see and feel this normally unconscious process on a moment by moment basis. This gives us the choice to choose how we react. Life is lived with less internal and external resistance and conflict.
  6. How much time will you need to invest in practice to get these skills - Shinzen says 30 minutes every day with one 4 hour session each month. Not much for an extra 50 years!

Divide and Conquer: How the Essence of Mindfulness Parallels the Nuts and Bolts of Science

Improve your brain function and risk of mental disease with exercise ... and preferably with yoga that is structured a specific way

I realised that in my last blog I had made the statement that exercise was one of the best known ways of reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease without giving any evidence. ( I correct this with charts below)

Yet exercise provides more than just a reduction is aged related mental diseases - it produces a whole host of improvements in brain function .... as long as it is creating increased blood flow that contains growth hormones to your brain. So not all exercise is equal for all functional outcomes.

If you have limited time to exercise, in my opinion, you would be hard pressed to find something that delivers more than a "breath" and "mindfulness" centric yoga practice that combines dynamic strengthening physical work that specifically generates growth hormones in a class where a large proportion of the class is "inverted" so that the increased blood flow and hormones are driven to your brain.

These two criteria eliminate a lot of what has now been come to be called yoga. I will deal with the "inversion logic" in this post and the "breathing" and "mindfulness" in a following post.

To give you an example, I have calculated that on average students spend 47% of the first 300 breaths of the asana part of the class in an inverted position. In the equivalent part of of an Iyengar or Bikram class this would be zero.

Yoga and Ayurveda, as opposed to manufactured functional foods, are the gateway to health

Health is the product of the harmonic coherence between our own individual environment/nature and the larger environmet/Nature. This is a dynamic process. It is not something that is fixed. Therefore it is not something that is amenable to mass marketing and "one size fits all" manufactured solutions based on reductionist thinking like functional foods. Read More...

Is the gym contributing to the unhappiness epidemic? RX - Yoga

I was reading a news story in the New York Times yesterday about the latest research findings on happiness. It was titled "What happy people don't do". In a nutshell the discovery was that happy people spend a lot of time socialising, going to church and reading newspapers — but they don’t spend a lot of time watching television.

That’s what unhappy people do. And data show that people who spend the most time watching television are least happy in the long run.

This got me thinking about Television and the gym - could there be unintended consequences of the usual gym workout routine? Could the gym be making people unhappy?

If you go to the modern gym the chances are you will see television screens everywhere. And if you go into the actual gym area you will see most people staring at these television screens while they are working out. Recent research found that 70% of gym members watch TV when they go to the gym and they watch 40 minutes on average per visit.

Why are people watching TV while they are exercising? One reason is that they experience the exercise they are doing is boring. Watching TV keeps them distracted and detached from the boredom. It also keeps them disconnected from their physical experience

Another way to read this is that many people are actually paying money to train themselves to disconnect their minds and their bodies. They are training themselves in mindlessness and distraction. And now the latest research shows that by watching more television they are probably training themselves to be more unhappy too.

Yoga is the antithesis of the gym/TV disconnection gig. Yoga is a training in mindfulness - it is mental, physical and emotional training interconnected and rolled into one. You learn be present, to live in the present moment and connect with the flow of your life. . You learn to connect vs. disconnect. You learn to focus and pay attention vs. training for distraction.

Yoga can be a practice that transforms your life. The purely physical aspects of yoga, like the physical aspects of working out at the gym, will slide away if you stop practising. And many forms of yoga don't really get much past this anyway.

The real long term benefits from yoga come from learning a new way to relate to yourself and to life. We teach you a generic approach and skill that you can apply to the whole of your life. TThe real practice of yoga has nothing to do with "perfecting" certain physical positions in terms of how they look from an external perspective - that approach teaches "conformity and the idea that self value comes from being perfect in the eyes of standards set by an external authority. In our approach we train you to connect to, and express yourself from, an "internal reference point" - to be internally directed rather than externally directed.

Three key qualities we want you to develop are concentration, clarity (discrimination) and equanimity.

Yoga is ultimately about relationships and, as the happiness study shows, it is relational activities that contribute to happiness. One of my teachers, TKV Desikachar, once said to me: " from the perspective of yoga it is more important for your students to fix their relationships with their mothers than to be able to do any yoga postures or breathing exercise"

And a few final thoughts about happiness. Happiness is a relative concept. The state of happiness exists relative to the state of unhappiness. If unhappiness were to disappear then happiness would also disappear. If you doubt this I suggest that you reflect on your own experience. When you are happy do you consciously register the fact? How much of your time do you spend thinking about how happy you are? I imagine very little to none. When we are happy we aren't usually aware of it. But unhappiness is the opposite - when we are unhappy we are aware of it and think about it - but we don't generally think "how do I become happy" - we think "how do I get rid of this unhappiness" .

If we were constantly happy we would become used to it just like we become used to anything that doesn't change - it would be the normal state and life would be become flat. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't aspire to be happy.

Maybe we would be happier if we focused on first avoiding doing the things that made us unhappy rather than trying to work out what makes us happy. But then where would the whole happiness industry be?

I have in front of me right now a brochure for the fourth annual conference on "Happiness and it's Causes - Tools and Techniques for a happier life". Somehow I don't think that "Unhappiness and it's causes - tools and techniques for removing unhappiness" would sell as well. Happiness is now a consumer item - something to buy, something that is acquired, rather than the natural state that exists when unhappiness has been removed. Feel free to go along and get scalped.

As a caveat I should mention that we do have an aspect to yoga practice where we learn to generate positive internal self talk, positive images and positive emotional states. These practices are done with the intention of training consciousness and development of concentration, clarity and equanimity.