POEM: Eustress

 

I stress that eustress

is the best stress.

From time to time,

I must confess

I’ve made a mess

 doing more

succeeding less.

In a mad dash to impress,

badgered by self-duress,

taking matters to excess,

brewing up toxic distress.

Assess,

progress,

but don’t obsess.


[Poem 1: National Poetry Month]

The Good and Bad News About Yoga for Weight Loss

IMG_2643The good news is that yoga can help one lose weight. The bad news is that the mechanism by which this occurs isn’t what most people expect, and it involves the mind a great deal more than the muscles.

 

While many people hope for a secret to weight loss, there’s no secret. Weight loss is a function of calories eaten being less than calories burned.  This simple formula means that one can either eat less or exercise more. Both the diet and exercise matter for good health, but the eating part is more important to cutting weight. This statement may be controversial and seemingly gratuitous—particularly for people who think exercise is going to single-handedly shed excess pounds–and so I’ll take some time to try to make my point.

 

The first thing one should know is that our voluntary activity only accounts for about one-third of calories consumed. The other two-thirds are used whether we move a muscle or not. Between 20 and 25% of our energy consumption is devoted to our brain, and much of the rest is used to keep us at 37°C (98.6°F) because we are, after all, mammals. This means that increasing the intensity or amount of exercise—while it has tremendous health benefits—will achieve only a marginal increase in calories burned. From the Mayo Clinic website, I learned that a 109kg (240lb) individual will burn about 273 calories doing a typical hata yoga class or about 436 calories with Power Yoga. (Compare this to about 327 calories / hr. for tai chi or 654 calories / hr. for hiking.) So your hour of yoga has maybe knocked off a 32oz soft drink or one medium size French fries. Most people have trouble finding more than one hour of time and energy for exercise per day. And as someone who sometimes spends more than an hour a day exercising, I can attest that there is a point of diminishing marginal returns. So while exercise is an important part of weight loss, one can’t go hog-wild in eating just because one exercises.

 

[One should also note that many yoga practitioners experience a reduced basal metabolic rate (BMR) because of the calming aspect of the practice. A lower BMR means that you burn fewer calories just living and maintaining your metabolism. All things being equal, this makes cutting weight all the more challenging—though the effect is certainly counterweighted by the stress reduction aspect of the practice that will be discussed below.]

 

To summarize: unless you’re an elite athlete in training for something like the Olympics, the idea that you can eat whatever you please and cut / maintain a healthy weight is likely to result in disappointment.  A common piece of dietary advice for elite athletes is to daily eat one gram of protein for every pound of ideal bodyweight and eight fist-sized servings of vegetables. Beyond that, they can pretty much eat what they want. But with that much slowly digesting material, they’re probably not going to go overboard—even if they weren’t already, almost by definition, very disciplined people.

 

IMG_2737So if an hour of yoga a day doesn’t even make up for having a Mars bar, what good is it?  For one thing, the yoga student has the opportunity to become more attuned to his or her body and, in doing so, to learn to differentiate physiological hunger from the many other permutations of hunger that overtime merge into a multi-headed hydra of craving. What are these other hungers? First and foremost, there’s psychological hunger, or the use of food as therapy. People use food to reward themselves, to medicate themselves, to take their minds off of their woes. Secondly, there’s sensory hunger in which we have no real need to eat but the food looks or smells too good to avoid.

 

One of the forms of hunger that often remains hidden is social hunger. That is, one eats to be part of the in-group and to bond. For example, imagine you’ve just eaten, are not hungry, and someone offers you food. Depending upon who it is and what your relationship is that person, you may feel compelled to eat even if you don’t need it. The double whammy is that eating as socializing is so deeply engrained and that we humans—contrary to popular belief—are dismal at multitasking. We can’t converse and be aware of what we are eating, and thus one may overeat because one is so engrossed in the distraction of socializing. This isn’t to say that there is anything inherently wrong with social eating. We all have to do it to some degree or another. One just needs to recognize that if it becomes a habit to be distracted from one’s food, one may have problems.

 

Relating back to the idea of psychological hunger, yoga helps one destress.  Stress can be a perfectly healthy phenomenon, but when it’s prolonged it can have many adverse consequences. One such consequence is having cortisol levels remain too high, and this has the effect of ramping up the appetite. Your body has been pressed into fight or flight mode, it expects that you’re hauling ass away from a sabretooth tiger or an angry woolly mammoth mamma, and that you’ll soon need to replenish depleted energy stores. Your endocrine system doesn’t know that you’re curled up on the couch with a pint of ice cream… yeah, let’s call it a “pint.” As a form of exercise, yoga helps reduce this problem. However, beyond exercise, yoga offers many relaxation techniques such as yoga nidra, kaya sthairyam, restorative postures, and some forms of pranayama(breathing exercises) that can help you turn off the “fight or flight” and turn on the “rest and digest”—what Herbert Benson called the “relaxation response.” Sometimes you might delve into an intense practice like Ashtanga Vinyasa or Power Yoga, and other times restorative yoga might be just what the doctor ordered. [Disclaimer: “What the doctor ordered” is a figure of speech. I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t even played one on TV.]

 

IMG_2633There is yet another way in which yoga can help. Yoga helps one dispassionately observe one’s drives and this way one can slowly, over time, rewire one’s attitudes toward food.  One can begin to think of hunger pangs as a sensation, rather than projecting a negative connotation onto them. In this way, one can learn to begin to watch the sensation and learn from it rather than running for the food.

 

Finally, an important benefit of yoga is in teaching one to be contented with oneself, even if one isn’t content to live with one’s present health or physical capability. Santosa is one of the niyama, and it teaches one to be content with who one is–perhaps even while one is simultaneously practicing the austerities of tapas (another niyama) in pursuit of personal development. If one isn’t contented with oneself, one can fall into a shame spiral that may create the kind of persistent stress that I warned about above. Also, if one is at a healthy weight, but has some deep-seated drive toward “perfection,” the lessons of santosa can inform you as well.

 

Best of luck in the pursuit of good health.

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

Amazon page

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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7 Stress Fighting Tips with Relevant Monty Python Song Interludes and Book Recommendations

In writing this post, I realized that Monty Python provides the I-Ching of life wisdom. If they don’t say it, it may not need being said. So I’ve let them expound upon my points wherever possible.


1.) Always  Usually look on the bright side: Our brains are programmed to constantly be on the look for potential problems and ruminate over solutions. This isn’t without its advantages. However, as your brain takes flight with this problem anticipation mode, it can begin to taint how one sees the world.

My high school psychology teacher told us a story of what he called the “gestalt of expectations.” The story goes like this: One is driving across southwestern America and there’s a gas station coming up, but one still has half a tank. Being from the East, one doesn’t realize how rare service stations can be in the desert, so one passes it by. Of course one runs out of gas (it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.) As one is walking back toward the service station, one begins to obsess over how the service station attendant is going to screw one over. After all, the unknown individual knows one is in a desperate situation. The more one walks under a burning sun, the more one inflates the gas station attendant’s ill-intentions, and one suitably escalates one’s mentally rehearsed response. Finally, disheveled and weary, one reaches the service station. A concerned-looking attendant bursts out of the station to meet one, saying, “Geez, you look beat, what can I do for you?” And that’s when one punches him right in the nose.

BuddhaBrainThe good news is that one can gradually train one’s brain to take a more positive perspective. A neuroscientist, Rick Hanson, has written a few books on how one can go about this cognitive rewiring. Buddha’s Brain is probably the most well-known of these books. The book lays out the science behind the brain and negative thinking in particular, and then goes on to present suggestions as to how one can change this cycle and yield the benefits of a more positive outlook. While the title of this book makes it seems like a religious tract, it’s really secular and scientific. If you’re still concerned, you might check out the more secularly titled Hardwiring Happiness.


2.) Make rest part of the process–and an essential one at that: Duh?  Yeah, it sounds self-evident, but  too many people think of rest as the slacking off that one does between doing “useful stuff.” What isn’t valued is given short shrift. Don’t think of rest as a necessary evil. Equating rest with goofing off results in two problems. First, the obvious one, people don’t get as much rest as they should. Second, while one thinks he or she is resting, one may be under chronic stress (the bad kind) as one’s minds churns over what they should be doing and the adverse impacts of not doing it. Just as one should have rests built into one’s workout for maximal effect, one should have rest times built into the day, week, and year.


3.) Find your bliss, and just do “it”: You probably think that by “it” I’m referring to sex. Actually, sex isn’t a bad “it,”  as its go, but it’s not the only it. Exercise, work the heavy bag, do a vinyasa (yoga flow sequence), go to work solving the problem at hand, or practice your Silly Walk. This also sounds like a “duh!” kind of statement, but far too many people wallow when they feel overwhelmed. What do they wallow in? Negative feelings. They worry that they can’t possibly hit the deadline or find the perfect solution. They worry that they’ll let someone down. They get angry at other people, the world, or a god or gods for putting them in their present predicament. They bristle at the unfairness of the universe. All of this snowballs into a stress monster–to mix my metaphors up nicely. If one can’t meditate or keep one’s mind on one’s breath, one may find relaxation in exhaustion. It’s all about inertia. It’s hard to get moving when one thinks one’s world has gone to shit, but that movement will make one feel much better–even if it doesn’t seem it can solve the problem at hand. One might need to change one’s life’s course altogether and become a lumberjack.


4.) Don’t create false monsters:  Remember what Michel de Montaigne said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” As this is really just expanding on a point in item #1, instead of elaborating, I will offer you this Monty Python skit to consider.


5.) Exhale: Each exhalation trips the “rest & digest” circuit (i.e. the Parasympathetic Nervous System [PNS])  just a little. Granted, this subtle relaxation effect is easily overwhelmed by the countervailing forces of stressors and even the antagonistic effect of inhalation with its–also minute–fight or flight mode (of the Sympathetic Nervous System [SNS.]) Still, if you don’t know what to do, controlling your breath while elongating each exhalation is a good start. This will help in two regards. First, it helps the PNS gain a little ground. Second, it’ll break your conscious mind’s obsession with the problem (or potential problem) at hand. One’s mind will wander and one will lose track of the breath, but the more one practices quietly returning one’s attention to the breath the better off one will be. Becoming frustrated with these diversions only strengthens the stress monster–so don’t do it.

Relaxation ResponseThe bible of the rest and digest mode is Herbert Benson’s Relaxation ResponseThis book was first written over a quarter of a century ago, but it remains readily available. It’s telling that Walter B. Cannon’s work on “fight or flight” mode predates Benson’s work by such a long time. In other words, the medical and scientific community were researching the body under stress for decades before it ever occurred to anyone to think in terms of rest mode as a state that could be studied and advanced–as opposed to just being the normal state of affairs. This should give one an insight into how the human mind goes about considering problems.


6.) Recognize that stress is like cholesterol–there’s a good kind as well as the bad: Acute stress can serve one well during instances of danger. We have this response for good reason. The problem is chronic stress. When one’s body is in a stressed state, it’s not taking care of general maintenance tasks like healing itself. That’s fine in a short term, but problems compound over time. Chronic stress brings a high likelihood of illness because the body isn’t dealing with its run of the mill chores as it should be.

ZebrasUlcers_SapolskyThere are a number of books that expand upon this issue and which offer advice for keeping one’s stress of a healthy type. Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is among the best. It’s a long book and goes into great detail, but Sapolsky’s sense of humor helps to continue reading when the scientific minutiae might seem overwhelming. Another book on this topic that I found to be quite informative was Lissa Rankin’s Mind Over Medicine.  Rankin is a medical doctor, and so she offers a little different perspective from that of Sapolsky. (The latter is a biologist / neurologist.)


7.) Realize that you are a speck in a vast universe and, so, how big or long-lasting can your problem be?: Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword because it’s–in a way–a demoralizing thought as well as a comforting one. Therefore, one should first watch this bit of Monty Python wisdom:


But then one can keep things in perspective through the realization that one is not yet dead.

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

Amazon page

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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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.