BOOK REVIEW: The Healer Within by Roger Jahnke

The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body's Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *BreathingThe Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body’s Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *Breathing by Roger Jahnke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines how four techniques – movement, massage [specifically, self-applied], breathing exercises, and meditation — can be used to facilitate a robust immune system and to stimulate the body’s innate healing capacities. Jahnke, as a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, specializes in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM,) but he acknowledges that these activities aren’t the exclusive domain of that system. The book is designed to be one-stop shopping for an individual seeking to build their own self-healing practice either as preventive medicine or as a part of one’s treatment regimen for an ailment or infirmity.

The thirteen chapters of the book are divided into five parts. The first two chapters form the book’s first part, and they discuss the body’s innate healing capacity and the literature on the roles of mind and self-applied activities on health outcomes.

Part II forms the heart of the book, and it consists of chapters three through seven. Chapter three offers insight into the process of building a personal practice from the four key activities including guidelines for how to organize disparate parts into a whole and how to fit it into one’s life overall. The other four chapters provide examples and techniques for each of the four components of the system: gentle movement (e.g. qiqong), self-applied massage, breathing exercises, and meditation and deep relaxation techniques.

Part III expands on the issues touched upon in Chapter 3. That is, it explores in greater detail the nature of building and deepening a personal practice.

Part IV, entitled “The Way of Nature,” provides a philosophical context for a global self-healing movement and describes how a community can be built around this endeavor. There are three chapters in this section. The last part consists of only one chapter and it describes a potential future self-healing regime. Throughout the book there is a recognized that, while modern medicine is invaluable, it’s also developed a dysfunction by undervaluing the role of the body’s innate healing factor, while not only removing the patient from of the driver’s seat but also stuffing them in the trunk as a sort of cargo in the health and healing process.

The book has line drawings to help clarify the techniques. There are several pieces of back matter (an appendix, a bibliography, and a resources section) to help make the book more useful. [The appendix is a little strange and unfocused for an Appendix. It’s almost more of a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version for someone who wants to get to brass tacks, but it does offer some interesting insight into how a community built around these ideas has formed.]

I found this book to be informative and believe it offers a great deal of valuable insight into how to not only develop one’s own preventive medicine activities, but also how to situate those activities within a community of like-minded individuals. I thought the author did a good job of presenting scientific evidence for building a self-healing practice while not becoming too bogged down technical detail and offering a way of thinking about it for those who look at such activities in more metaphysical or spiritual terms. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is considered engaging in health enhancing activities.

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BOOK REVIEW: Discovering the Power of Self-Hypnosis by Stanley Fisher

Discovering the Power of Self Hypnosis: The Simple, Natural Mind-Body Approach to Change and HealingDiscovering the Power of Self Hypnosis: The Simple, Natural Mind-Body Approach to Change and Healing by Stanley Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For many, hypnosis is the domain of stage artists who make people cluck like chickens. As with the feats of stage magicians, few give much consideration to wherein the trick lies, but they assume there’s a trick. In scholarly circles, hypnotic practices have been on a roller-coaster ride. Hypnosis was once mainstream psychology but then fell into disrepute but now there’s a resurgence of interest as neuroscience answers questions about what is happening in the brain during a trance state. Doctor Fisher’s book is an attempt to demystify the subject, and to explain how a personal practice can be used to achieve a wide range of benefits.

Fisher’s book culminates in a description of how to build one’s own self-hypnosis exercise to work toward change in one’s own life. However, there’s a lot of track that needs to be laid in anticipation of that final chapter (Ch. 9.) The first chapter counters seven of the most common myths about hypnosis. Given the aforementioned misapprehensions about hypnosis, this seems like a wise place to start to get readers on board. Chapter 2 starts where Fisher’s personal involvement with self-hypnosis began, with the use of it to prepare patients for surgery and surgical recovery. Here we get our first look at the technique of self-hypnosis as well as a discussion of cases of self-hypnosis used for surgical patients. Cases are central to Fisher’s approach, and are used throughout the book to inform the reader about how self-hypnotic methods worked for particular individuals in the pursuit of various goals. Chapter 3 explains what the trance state is and how it’s achieved.

Chapter 4 explains the process by which we make choices with an eye toward helping to disrupt destructive impulse behavior. In the next chapter the reader learns about how the state of mind can contribute to physical illnesses, and how changing the state of mind can help improve one’s health. Chapter 6 is about reevaluating ingrained beliefs that don’t serve us well. This includes the notion that one can’t change one’s behavior because it’s just how one feels, as well as the belief that one can simply quash one’s emotions through force of will. Chapter 7 examines cases involving a number of common problems resulting from stress and the pressures of everyday life.

The penultimate chapter offers comparison and contrast with a range of alternative methods that are used to achieve the same goals—some more advisable than others. The alternatives include: therapy, meditation, biofeedback, exercise, somatic desensitization, and drug use.

As indicated, the final chapter offers an outline for building one’s personal self-hypnosis practice to achieve one’s own goal. There are three sections to this chapter. The first is a simplified set of exercises to evaluate one’s capacity to enter a trance—including both a survey and physical methods (e.g. degree of eye roll.) Susceptibility to hypnosis varies widely. The subjects one sees at a stage show tend to be those rare specimens who are highly suggestible. Often, part of the act is separating them from the crowd. There are also those who can’t be hypnotized under any circumstance. Most of us are in the meaty middle, having some, limited capacity to be hypnotized. The second section offers advice about how one might go about setting up the suggestive part of one’s exercise, i.e. the core of the exercise carried out once one has induced a trance. The final section lays out three different methods of inducing a trance. The first of these is the eye roll-based method one is introduced to in Chapter 2, and the others are variants that may work better for some.

I found this book to be informative and useful. It gives the reader both the necessary background to understand how one’s subconscious mind can influence one’s life and how positive ideas are introduced through it, as well as a practical guide to setting up one’s own personal practice.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about self-hypnosis.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

Why Zebras Don't Get UlcersWhy Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Sapolsky’s book examines why stress and stress-related illnesses are rampant in humans. As the title suggests, prey on the Serengeti Plain, animals that are chased by fierce and fast predators, aren’t nearly so likely to suffer the ill effects of stress—despite living in a harsher world than most of humanity. To oversimplify, this has a lot to do with the fact that one downside of our big brains is an ability to obsess about what has happened and what might happen, and our sympathetic nervous system (i.e. the fight or flight mechanism) can be triggered even when there is no immediate threat in reality. In short, humans can uniquely worry themselves to death. Sapolsky gets into much great detail and lets the reader know what is known and what remains to be uncovered with respect to stress.

In almost 600 pages, arranged into 18 chapters, Sapolsky covers human stress in fine detail. While it’s a book written for a lay audience, it’s not a quick and easy read. The book discusses topics like the action of neurotransmitters and hormones, and, while it assumes no particular science background, it does assume a broadly educated and curious reader.

The chapters begin by looking at the stress mechanism from a physiological perspective. It then considers stress with respect to specific illnesses, the relationship between stress and various other topics in human being (e.g. sleep, pain, and memory.) The final chapter offers insight into how one can reduce one’s bad stress and one’s risk of stress-related illness. Among the most interesting topics are what personalities are particularly prone to stress-related illness and why psychological stress (as opposed to stress based in immediate real world stressors) is stressful.

Sapolsky has a sense of humor and knows how to convey information to a non-expert audience, but this isn’t the simplest book on the subject. It’s an investment of time and energy to complete reading this book, but it’s worth it if one’s interest in the subject is extensive enough. One of the strengths of the book is that it stays firmly in the realm of science. Because stress has been wrongly considered a fluff subject, many of the works on the topic—even those by individuals with MD or PhD after their names—have been new-agey or pseudo-scientific. This book stays firmly in the realm of science. Sapolsky explains what the studies have shown, and he tells the reader clearly when there is a dearth of evidence or contradictory findings.

If the reader has a deep interest in stress-related health problems, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Principles of Tibetan Medicine by Dr. Tamdin Sither Bradley

Principles of Tibetan MedicinePrinciples of Tibetan Medicine by Tamdin Bradley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Full disclosure: let me first state that I’m a scientific-minded person and skeptic by nature, and if you’re expecting a review by a true believer, you may be disappointed.

A couple of questions may arise from the disclosure above. First, why do I feel I need to make such a commentary? Well, because this is a book about a system of medicine (i.e. gso-ba rig-pa) that developed within a country that was isolated for centuries and in which every aspect of knowledge was infused with and influenced by religious belief—both pre-Buddhist and Buddhist. Because of this, while some of the advice offered is surely sound, some of it is—from a skeptic’s point of view—bat-shit crazy. For example, there are herbal and dietary preparations to aid in digestion that may be completely sound and reasonable, and then there is the idea that Zombie spirits (one of 18 types of evil spirits) cause constant shivering.

The second question is, “If I’m not a believer, why read the book and review it?” For one thing, as I indicated above, I don’t think that just because the beliefs behind the “theory” of this system of medicine are baseless, it means that there is nothing in the book that is true or of value. The theory is that there are three kinds of energy (Loong, mKhris-pa, and Bad-Kan) and that excesses or deficiencies cause health problems. But it’s a 2500 year old system of healing; certainly they learned a thing or two in the process. It’s quite possible that they have learned things that scientific medicine has not. (Consider for example, Tibetan Buddhist monks have repeated and verifiably demonstrated capabilities—i.e. consciously controlling autonomic systems, that Western medicine would have thought impossible.)

The analogy that I always use is with kid’s Christmas presents. Parents hide the presents, and tell the kids that if there’s any tampering with them the kid won’t get anything but a lump of coal (you say that was just my parents?) Anyway, the kids find the packages, but are afraid to invasively tamper with them. Therefore, they feel the heft of them, they shake them, and they listen to said shakes. From that limited investigation, they develop a theory. The theory may be spot on, it may be completely wrong, or over several gifts it’s probably a combination of wrong and right. However, the question of whether the present does what it’s supposed to (i.e. bring joy) is not closely connected to the child’s theory, because it’s based on the parent’s observation of what the kid likes. That, my friends, is why systems of healing that are based on notions that are empirically wrong sometimes produce good results.

Second, while I’m a believer in science, I don’t always believe that Western medicine (rooted in science as it may be) consistently does a good job. Part of this is the fault of economists, policy types, as well as lazy patients who’ve created a system in which medicine only pays off if it can cut one open or give one an expensive medication. This leaves room for alternative systems of medicine that may not be so scientific, but that allow for the fact that changing patient behavior is often key to improving health.

I’ve taken a long time to get to the actual review, but I thought the reader should know from whence this reviewer was coming. The book is a little under 200 pages long. Its 11 chapters are logically oriented, and it’s easy to navigate the book. The author writes in a readable style, and jargon and foreign terminology aren’t a problem. It doesn’t have an index, but each chapter is broken up into many smaller subunits–so finding what one is after shouldn’t be hard.

The chapters cover the history of Tibetan Medicine, the nature of gso-ba rig-pa, the theory of Tibetan Medicine, causes of illness, human anatomy and physiology (not of the physical body as we know it), common diseases and illnesses, treatment techniques involving changing diet and behavior, medicinal treatment, representative case histories, and the nature of the Tibetan Medicine physician.

It’s not clear who the target audience for this book is. It’s not a self-help book as the implication is that the patient should see a doctor of Tibetan Medicine and not self-prescribe. Furthermore, while the book provides a good overview of Tibetan Medicine, it’s not an all-inclusive description by any means. The book seems to have been written primarily to make individuals aware of Tibetan Medicine and to give enough insight into the system that readers can differentiate it from Traditional Chinese Medicine or Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, both of which display similarities and differences.

I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in alternative approaches to healing, or if you’re interested in Tibetan culture in detail.

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Rewiring the Brain about Pain: All That Isn’t Pleasure Isn’t Pain


I see people staring at the railing on which they will stretch their hamstrings just like they would look at a side-by-side refrigerator unit that they have to move down a flight of stairs, psyching themselves up for the stretch. Or maybe they are weighing the question of whether they really need to stretch as one might ponder whether it would be better to get an engine overhaul or replace a car altogether. The point is that there seems to be an element of anxiety or dread associated with actions like stretching that aren’t necessarily pleasurable.


I have a theory about why this is the case.

First, people falsely equate discomfort with pain.

Second, the entire point of true pain is to tell one how not to move so as to avoid exacerbating an injury.

Third, this results in a desire to avoid pursuits that cause such physical discomfort.

Fourth, people create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they tense muscles in the area of the stretch to counteract the aching stretch, but this just increases the discomfort level.


Your body has a clever little device called the myotatic reflex arc (MRA.) That’s when a muscle tenses to avoid injury because the muscle seems to be stretching too fast for comfort. However, that reflex is only relevant to dynamic movement and the fact that it’s a reflex arc means that the signals don’t go through the brain–thus–aren’t consciously controlled. The MRA is different from the tension one holds in a slow and controlled stretch. It’s fun to see people who’ve been encouraged to breath and relax into the stretch realizing that the stretch isn’t as bad as it seems.


Of course, many intense physical activities that cause discomfort may also result in a sufficient endorphin (natural painkillers) inflow and adrenaline / cortisol (stress hormones) outflow to result in net feelings of pleasure. While stretching results in endorphin release, the action of holding the muscle stretched may be too much for our natural painkillers to counteract, particularly when one is breathing easily and thus the body is not under the level of whole-body stress that might encourage the big endorphin dumps desired.


The problem is that one can’t achieve flexibility without pressing against one’s limits any more than one can make strength gains without lifting more or by employing more repetitions. If one just goes to the point at which one is no longer comfortable, you may be able to prevent losing flexibility, but you’re not going to make gains.


Another part of the problem is that people often go into stretching cold, and thus maximize their discomfort. Doing warm-ups and joint articulations before any kind of intense stretching is a good practice. These warm-ups should not test the fullest range of motion, but should move with sufficient quickness to get the muscles and the synovial fluid in the joints warmed up.


The problem with seeing stretching as painful is that it discourages it. Some individuals fail to stretch altogether, and others focus only on the major muscle groups (hamstrings and quads) and miss muscles that adduct, abduct, rotate, and generally stabilize and support the primary agonist or antagonist muscle pairing. The most common injury in the Japanese martial art that I study is a knee injury attributable in part to insufficiently flexible external rotators and abductors and the inability to keep the knee in line with the toes–thus putting too much torque on the joint and too much load on the ligaments.


Wrong: knee is not pointing over toes

Wrong: knee is not pointing over toes


Martial artists, in particular, need to avoid equating discomfort with pain. When discomfort becomes pain, pain becomes agony, and agony become intolerable. There are many factors that can determine the outcome of a combative event, including technical proficiency, physical fitness, and the ability to persevere. The last one may mean the ability to take a licking and keep on ticking as the Timex people used to say.


The good news is that it’s possible to rewire one’s brain to avoid equating the discomfort of stretching with pain.

Step 1: Get a yoga face. In the martial arts, we talk about having a warrior face, which is an expression that conveys one’s intensity and seriousness. For yoga and stretching one should ditch the agony face and replace it with a serene face. My personal recommendation is that you aim to emulate the faces on the Bayon at Angkor.

Yoga face as seen on the Bayon at Angkor

Yoga face as seen on the Bayon at Angkor


Step 2: Keep your mind on your breath, and away from the sensation of the stretch. There’s a reason yoga teachers harp on breath, it will help one reduce one’s overall tension.


Step 3: Stop using the word pain (in your own mind or when speaking out loud) to refer to the feeling of a stretched muscle. You may not be able to replace the word “pain” with something as euphemistic as “stretch bliss,” but try to avoid giving it a name with a negative connotation. It’s simply the sensation of a stretched muscle


Step 4: When you find yourself wearing an agony face and squeezing out the protective muscular tension, ease off the stretch until it’s comfortable. Then ease back into the stretch, keeping the surrounding muscles relaxed and the breath even and deep.  You can visualize expelling the tension with one’s exhalation if that helps.


Step 5: When you experience real pain, have no guilt about heeding it and giving that part of the body time to heal. Of course, this requires an ability to differentiate stretch sensation from true pain.


Now I’ll segue into a discussion of actual pain. When I was having a lot of problems with my lower back–eventually diagnosed as arthritis–I had a bizarro interaction with my healthcare provider. When I first went to the doctor, I faced this unsubtle wall of suspicion because back injuries are a common fraud device for persons addicted to painkillers. That’s because there are many forms of back injury that are hard to witness externally. However, when they x-rayed my back they could see clear indication that something was wrong. Then they were surprised when they tried to foist painkillers on me, and I wasn’t interested.


Here is how I look at painkillers. Imagine the “check-engine” light came on in your car, and you took the vehicle to the mechanic. The mechanic has your car for a brief time and comes back to you with a nominal bill. At first you are thrilled, and then you ask the inevitable question, “So what was the problem?” Your mechanic then says, “Oh, I have no idea, I just disconnected the light. That light won’t be giving you any more trouble.” Needless to say, you are decidedly less thrilled. You wanted the underlying problem fixed.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s no place for pain-killing medication. If one has pain that is so severe that one cannot rest, one’s body won’t be able to heal itself properly.


However, if you pop painkillers to do away with bodily aches, you should reconsider. Those aches are what being alive feels like, and if they come from exercise or labor they should be welcomed and not be framed in a negative light. If they are an indication of a postural misalignment or some sort of systemic problem, you should look into fixing the underlying problem.


[To be fair to my aforementioned doctor, I think people aren’t conditioned to the notion that they are the key participant in their own healthcare and that fixing problems will often require hard work on their part. So a part of the problem in some places–most notably America–is that healthcare isn’t profitable unless they are pushing surgery or expensive medications. However, another part of the problem is that people just want to go to the doctor and have the expert fix them without requiring the personal effort of fixing postural deficiencies or cutting weight. I can understand why doctors are a bit fed up with suggesting people do the work only to get no response. I saw a statistic recently that only 1 in 8 people threatened with a lethal illness would make a behavioral change recommended by a doctor to reduce the threat of the ailment–e.g. stop smoking, stop drinking, cut weight, etc.]






BOOK REVIEW: Yogic Management of Common Diseases by Dr. Swami Karmananda

Yogic Management Of Common DiseasesYogic Management Of Common Diseases by Satyananda Saraswati

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title of this book gives one a nutshell description. It’s a book that discusses what yoga practices are beneficial for various common ailments. These practices include not only asana (postures), but also pranayama (breathing exercises), shatkarma (cleansing practices), yoganidra (a relaxation technique), meditational practices, and dietary and other yogic lifestyle practices. The book also discusses both the medical and yogic explanations of various diseases, and provides enough background on the relevant anatomy and physiology to give a layperson an understanding of the basic causes of each disease (if known.)

The book covers about 37 classes of disease, and is arranged into seven parts by bodily system (head and neck, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, gastro-intestinal tract, joints and musculo-skeletal system, urogenital system, and a miscellaneous ailments section that deals with skin diseases and varicose veins.) Some chapters deal specifically with one disease, while others cover two or more related ailments (e.g. Bronchitis and Eosinophilia, Sinusitis and Hay Fever, or skin diseases.)

This book has a number of strengths. First, it’s grounded in a scientific view of these ailments and isn’t selling yoga as a panacea. As suggested above, the title was carefully chosen. It’s “Yogic Management of Common Diseases.” The word “Management” is a critical one. If you’re looking for a book about how yoga can single-handedly cure your Stage IV lung cancer, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a book on how yoga can help you live a better life if you have arthritis, diabetes, or are hernia prone—possibly in conjunction with medication or other medical treatments—this may be the book for you.

Second, the diseases covered seem to have been carefully chosen. The selection of common ailments is not just to appeal to a broad audience. Many of these ailments are caused by common lifestyle problems that offer relatively easy fixes. Other diseases may not offer any fix per se, and, therefore, the ability to live a high quality of life with the affliction may be valuable. Also, I know a number of the diseases covered are particularly promising candidates for a yogic solution / mitigation.

Having given the strong points, I will say there are a couple of weaknesses to the book as well. First, it’s not illustrated in any way. Given that there is a lot of discussion of biology and anatomy, there are places where a picture might be worth a thousand words. I will note that this isn’t a book for a yoga newbie. It uses Sanskrit names for practices without so much as a glossary. That said, yoga teachers and intermediate/advanced students will probably not find this much of a problem because they will have built an appropriate vocabulary or have the necessary reference close at hand. I didn’t deduct for the lack of explanation, because the book is clearly intended for established practitioners (the Introduction warns as much.)

The second weakness is that there’s no explanation of why the listed practices should work particularly well for the given disease. I think the book does a great job of explaining the nature of the disease for a non-expert reader. However, then it just lists practices by type (asana, pranayama, relaxation, diet, etc.) In some cases, the reader can easily make the connection, but in others it’s not so clear why one should do practice “X” for disease “Y.” I do realize that drawing these connections could be space-intensive and technical. The book is a nice slim 245 pages, and it could rapidly grow to an untenable length. However, I’m concerned that some of the recommendations might not be rooted in experience and observation.

I would recommend this book for yoga teachers and intermediate / advanced practitioners who are interested in yoga as a component of building a healthy body. If you are new to yoga, you will probably want to first familiarize yourself with many of the classic asana, pranayama, and shatkarma practices of yoga—otherwise you’ll have to look up terminology constantly.

It should be noted that this book is put out by the Bihar School (of Swami Satyananda Saraswati fame), and the same publisher has put out a number of books that delve much more deeply into specific ailments. (At least some of these are written by the same author, Dr. Swami Karmananda.) Also, let me say that while the school self-publishes through its Yoga Publications Trust, it puts out books on a large-scale, of high-quality, and they appear to be available globally through Amazon and the like. (Swami Satyananda Saraswati alone was extremely prolific and wrote the APMB, which is one of the seminal reference works on yoga.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Your Brain on Yoga by Sat Bir Khalsa

Your Brain on YogaYour Brain on Yoga by Sat Bir Khalsa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This Harvard Medical School Guide presents the findings of many scientific studies on the benefits of yoga, and it does so in a manner suitable for the layman. The book is written by Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa, a long time practitioner of Kundalini Yoga and a neuroscience researcher at Harvard, and is co-authored by a science writer trained in journalism.

I became aware of Khalsa’s work when reading William Broad’s The Science of Yoga, a book that is complimentary of Dr. Khalsa and his studies—a favor which Khalsa doesn’t return as he rejects Broad’s work as being overly sensationalist. The book does talk about Khalsa’s research, such as a study with young musicians at Tanglewood that examined how the practice of yoga increased their equanimity. That said, this isn’t merely a summation of Dr. Khalsa’s work. It’s what in academia would be called a literature review, but “literature review” implies a far more dismal reading experience than one gets from this book. It does present anecdotes in a way that is useful for a layman’s book, but would not be well-respected in an academic setting. This work isn’t designed for medical colleagues but rather to be of benefit to run-of-the-mill yoga students and teachers.

This is a very short book at only about 50 pages. The book consists of five chapters after an introduction which sets the stage and gives some relevant background on Dr. Khalsa. Chapter one delves into the effect of stress on the body and mind, and how yoga (and meditation more generally) has been shown to help counter the effects of bad stress (not all stress is inherently bad, as is addressed in the chapter.) Chapter two examines the effect of yoga on the body and in countering a number of common ailments. The third chapter considers how yoga might actually help one to be smarter and more creative. Chapter four presents the results of studies of how yoga can counter depression and improve one’s mood. Chapter five is in a different vein, and might well have been included as an appendix. The last chapter gives an overview of the various types of yoga to assist readers new to yoga on what style might best meet their needs and disposition. This is a nice feature for those new to yoga, but also for veteran practitioners who’ve practiced one style and might not be aware of the wide range of styles out there. (A few of the styles mentioned are popular in India, but I don’t think are as well-known in the West.)

For such a thin book, this work covers a wide range of topics including–but not limited to–the effects of yoga on sleep, the immune system, neural plasticity, memory, math skills, and mood. A nice feature of the book is a series of brief exercises that one can practice to help reduce stress or achieve a desired goal. These practices are generally located at the end of chapters. Finally, while this book isn’t written primarily for doctors and other scientists, it’s endnoted so those interested in tracking down the studies the book references can readily do so.

I’m a big fan of applying a scientific approach to the study of ancient methods such as yoga. I would, therefore, recommend this book for yoga teachers and students who are interested how precisely these practices can assist them. It’s extremely short and easily digested. It’s in no way overbearing with medical jargon and is readily understood by anyone with a basic education in biological science.

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BOOK REVIEW: Warrior Pose by Brad Willis / Bhava Ram

Warrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved My LifeWarrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved My Life by Brad Willis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It may strike one as hokey that this book has one author, but two names on the byline. But, it’s apropos of an autobiography describing the fundamental transformation of a man.

Part I is the story of Brad Willis, a journalist on the rise. Willis goes from stumbling into a reporter job at one of the smallest markets in the country to being the Asia bureau foreign correspondent for NBC (National Broadcasting Corporation, one of the largest American television networks.) There’s no mention of yoga in this part of the book. It’s the story of a driven journalist covering major world events. Willis made a name for himself reporting from Soviet occupied Afghanistan in the 80’s. He tells harrowing tales of covering the drug war in Latin America, the Desert Storm Gulf War, and human trafficking in Thailand. He was also one of the few American journalists to visit North Korea. There was nowhere he wouldn’t go for the story, and he took serious risks along the way. His highly driven nature is the one point of consistency throughout the book. Willis is not a man to do anything half-assed, be it following a story or pursuing the yogic path.

Then Willis’s world was torn asunder by health problems, and this is the subject of the second part of the autobiography. First, a fall caused a hairline fracture in one his vertebrae that became crippling when Willis refused to take time off from work or to do anything for it. He couldn’t be diverted from his on-the-go foreign correspondent’s pace. Considering the dangerous places Willis traveled, it’s ironic that he initially broke his back on vacation at a Caribbean resort while closing a window during a storm. When the deterioration of his vertebrae made work untenable, he underwent a surgery that failed and left him “permanently disabled.”

Then Willis was diagnosed with a cancer in his throat that spread from his tonsils into lymph nodes. On top of the ailments themselves, Willis’s health rapidly declined because he became dependent on painkillers and other prescribed medications, and—against advisement—he began to drink alcohol in conjunction with these meds. Not only did he become hooked on the medications and alcohol, he became dependent on a back brace, a cane, and a lethargic lifestyle that kept the body from healing itself. Yoga is only briefly mentioned in passing in this part of the autobiography.

The third part is about Willis’s transformation into the yogi Bhava Ram, and his successful battle against cancer. After an intervention that resulted in drug rehab, he was referred to a pain center at Scripps that employed alternative therapies. (As an aside, the book is in part an indictment of a healthcare system in which this Pain Center both helped many people and was completely unsustainable because insurance companies could reject claims on the basis of the treatments being unconventional—but because it was staffed by medical professionals it was too expensive for most people to afford without insurance. Willis points out that there was never a rejection of any claim for any of the expensive medications or surgery that failed to helped him, but the Pain Center that put him on the road to good health went under due to failure to pay.) The Pain Center was the key to his turn around. After progressing with physical therapy, biofeedback, and—most uninsurable of all—Jin Shin Jyutsu, Willis is introduced to Yoga.

The final part charts Willis’s pursuit of yoga both through a series of teachers as well as any books that he can get his hands on. He voraciously reads up on the subject, and begins a sadhana (personal practice) that is marked by all the drive he had earlier given to his journalism career. The practice starts out rough. His muscles have atrophied, his spine curved, and he gained a tremendous amount of weight on a steak, potato, and beer diet mixed with a sedentary lifestyle. However, over the period of a couple of years, well beyond when he had been told he would be dead, he transforms his body and his mind through an intense daily practice and an adjustment of his world view.

I’d recommend this book for anyone. It will definitely be of interest to yoga practitioners—though don’t be surprised that yoga doesn’t come into play until the final quarter of the book. It could also benefit individuals with serious health problems as a way to reconsider how they approach health and treatment. Willis points out that falling into the role of victim was one of the main killers. He inherited a bad situation through an accidental fall and a case of cancer that he believed was attributable to his experience in Iraq (i.e. related to depleted uranium shells.) However, it was only when he stopped gorging on food, alcohol, and self-pity that he made a turnaround.

Even if I wasn’t interested in yoga and alternative approaches to healing, I would’ve found this to be an intensely engaging read. Willis’s journalism career gave him a unique insight into some of the major world events of the 1980s and 90’s. Willis builds lines of tension and sustains them. One wonders what will happen to his marriage to a woman who married one man (a confident and successful foreign correspondent in Hong Kong) and found herself in a marriage with another—first a lethargic addict and then a man who sunk himself hook-line-and-sinker into to the yogic lifestyle. One wonders whether his cancer remission will hold. One wonders whether he can keep clear of the pain meds and stick to the life of a yogi. I haven’t read a book that caught me this much by surprise in some time. I hadn’t heard of this book before I bought it, and didn’t have particularly high expectations (it was on sale on Kindle or I probably never would have picked it up), but I quickly became hooked.

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Tok Sen: Massage by Mallet

Me receiving Tok Sen on the shoulder

Me receiving Tok Sen on the shoulder

I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing says relaxation like a massage delivered via a mallet and chisel. Actually, you probably wouldn’t agree with that at all, but I intend to convince you otherwise.


In the beginning of May, I attended a two-day workshop on Tok Sen, which is an age-old Thai system of bodywork that is delivered with a khone (a wooden mallet) and limb (a wooden wedge.) The name “tok sen” can be divided into the onomatopoeia tapping sound “tok” and the word for energy lines “sen.” In the past this method largely found favor with Thai farmers and others who had sinewy bodies. However, today it’s often combined with Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB) to deliver treatment to people without steel band like muscles.


This art is not particularly well-known. I can guess why. As in the practice of a martial art, when one inserts a tool (weapon) between giver (attacker) and receiver, the comfort level on both sides initially drops a bit. In the martial arts, the armed practitioner becomes concerned about the increased ease with which he might inadvertently injure his training partner.  This isn’t only because weapons are designed to compound damage, but because the feedback through the tool is less. Of course, the receiver has good reason to be more concerned as well. This is one reason why many martial arts don’t introduce students to weaponry until they’ve developed considerable skill in unarmed practice. I’m sure it’s why a much longer course in Thai Yoga Bodywork is generally a prerequisite for learning Tok Sen.


Khone and Limb

Khone and Limb

So the natural question is, why add an element of risk—even if it’s a minimal or imagined risk? Tok Sen adds versatility to one’s practice. One can save one’s thumbs in a way that doesn’t sacrifice precision. The usual way to avoid “thumb fatigue” is to use hands-free methods that use elbows, knees, heels, etc. Those other implements can be ideal. However, none of them hit as narrow a target as does one’s thumbs. With Tok Sen, one can opt for the chisel edge or the round end depending upon the target area, and when one is using the chisel edge one can orient it for best effect.


Also, believe it or not, the “tok” sound of the tamarind or teak wood has a bit of a relaxing timber when done with a practiced rhythm.


For massage recipients, not only is Tok Sen pleasant, but it makes a great story that will impress one’s friends. I mean, let’s face it, a cool story is a part of the reason why some people get moxibustion and acupuncture. And cool stories are all of the reason anybody gets “fish massages” and “snake massages”—neither of which offer therapeutic value beyond exfoliation and goosing the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. inducing temporary terror), respectively. So, cowboy up and give it a try. You can take a selfie and tell everybody how you toughed it out.


For masseuses and masseurs, it’s easier to control the pressure on the limb than one would think, and as long as one has the experience to know where and how the muscle lays it’s unlikely one will injure the recipient.


Here is a video that will show better what it’s like.

Paleo-Stressing: Acute v. Chronic Stress

"What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people--not lived in your cages?"

“What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people–not lived in your cages?”

Paleolithic dieting is all the rage these days. I’m no expert on the paleo-diet, but–as I understand it–this refers to the practice of eating the foods consumed by our pre-agrarian ancestors. The idea is that if one consumes the foods that our species is evolutionarily-optimized to eating, one will be healthier.  Whether one believes in the merits of the paleo-diet or not on the whole, it’s hard to argue that one wouldn’t be better off eating less highly-processed and highly-refined foods and more things that look like food at a glance.


Our diet isn’t all that has changed since the days of our pre-agrarian ancestors. Modernity has brought with it an entirely new way of experiencing stress. Eliminating or reducing stress is a common topic of discussion, but not all stress is created equal. There’s a necessary form of stress, a stress that makes one better, stronger, faster, and smarter. We don’t want to willy-nilly eliminate stress; we want to reduce the wrong type of stress.


Our ancestors—like animals–experienced brief periods of intense stress (e.g. saber-tooth tiger attacks), followed by longer periods in which they were free of deadlines, carpools, and after-school activities. Now, no one likes to have a saber-tooth tiger stalking them. It’s unpleasant. Modern humanity has gone to great lengths to eliminate those short bursts of terror, but not without cost. (If you don’t believe me read Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)


Whether or not you believe that eliminating acute instances of terrifying stress is bad for mankind, it’s hard to argue that modernity’s leveling process didn’t eliminate stress, but instead resulted in a chronic stress on a smaller scale. People today have impossibly long daily to-do lists, and they have to accept trade-offs between work, family, and personal development.


It’s true that you don’t get eaten by a giant cat when you drop the ball, but life is so packed diverse events that one may feel like one is dropping some ball constantly. If your boss thinks you’re a model employee, then your kids are probably going to need therapy. If you have a contented home life, your boss may have his or her eyes open for someone who can give the firm consistently 70+ hour work weeks. If you feel you’re doing alright on both the work and family front, your body and / or mind is probably a train wreck.


Chronic [mini] stress may feel better than acute [catastrophic] stress, but it takes its tolls in various ways. First, with our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight reaction) constantly engaged our body’s power to heal itself is reduced. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the body devotes resources to long-term goals like getting healthier, but in stress mode activities not relevant to immediate survival shut down. This is a great system if you have periodic life and death stress, but is not so good if you’re under constant stress.


Second, chronic stress reduces sleep, and sleep is essential to one’s mental and physical well-being. There are a wide variety of symptoms associated with sleep deprivation such as forgetfulness, decreased concentration, decreased alertness, reduced reasoning ability, diminished problem-solving capacity, and depression—all of which can diminish our physical health through accidents, ailments, suicide attempts, and lack of energy for exercise.


Third, chronic stress can make one fat, with all the health issues that result. Some people use food as a coping mechanism. Other people eat too fast or choose their food poorly because of time constraints or because they are not mindful of eating as their monkey minds churn at a mile a minute. Then there is the more convoluted and complex issue of cortisol–a hormone released under stress that is linked to weight gain in at least some cases. Even if you don’t have a problem on the calorie intake side, the stressed individual may not do so well on the calorie burning side—either because of a lack of time to exercise or a lack of energy.


Modern humans are uniquely suited to chronic stress because we are the only species that achieves the same physiological stress response by remembering and obsessing about a stressful event as experiencing it. Abandoning the modern approach to living isn’t an option most are willing to entertain; but there are ways to combat chronic stress.


Move – Meditate – Mindfully Breath: The bad news is you’ve got to shoehorn these activities into your schedule daily (or at least several times a week.) The good news is that they don’t need to take up a lot of your day. There are a number of systems that address all three components in one handy package such as Qi Gong, Yoga, and some martial arts. I don’t think it matters so much which one chooses as how one goes about one’s practice.


Movement strengthens and strategically stresses the body, but it also increases one’s bodily awareness so that one becomes aware of how stress is manifesting itself in one’s body. Meditation teaches one how to live in the present moment, and it trains one to recognize the seeds of negative thought and emotion earlier so that one can counter-act them. Obviously, breathing is essential to life, but learning to be aware of one’s breathing patterns and to “manually override” the breath patterns associated with harmful emotional states is a beneficial skill.


Massage / Bodywork: Whether self-administered or other-administered (the latter allowing greater distressing–particularly if the masseuse is skilled) massage is an activity, like movement, that can help one become aware of where one is physically holding one’s stress. These physical manifestations of stress can exacerbate the whole experience of stress. One should take time periodically to have bodywork done. A day rarely goes by in which I don’t work on my own neck, shoulders, head, or face, and I occasionally get professional Thai Yoga Bodywork done.


The Places that Scare You: Force yourself to go someplace (not necessarily literally a “place”) that scares you once in a while. This needn’t be skydiving or hand-gliding—but it could be. It may be a martial arts class in which one has to put on the gloves occasionally and go at it. It may be joining Tostmasters and having to give a speech in front of a crowd. It may be traveling to some backwater where you don’t know the language, but you want to learn. This is a very personal issue. (i.e. A Type-A personality he-man may not find that skydiving is outside his comfort zone. If so, sorry, skydiving doesn’t count, he may need to learn ballroom dancing, or something else that truly takes him outside being comfortable.) KEY POINT: The problem with hiding from all stressors is that it doesn’t result in a stress-free life, what happens is that smaller and smaller stressors loom bigger and bigger in one’s mind. Which brings us to…


Perspective:  One must put life’s challenges in perspective. Each person’s problems are important to them, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s problems, but—come on—you’re not going to be eaten by a freaking saber-tooth tiger.