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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Yoga Meets Science: Focus

While reading the September 2013 issue of Yoga Journal, the title of the month's wisdom section, "On the right track: When questions arise in your meditation practice, expert advice can help you go deeper," immediately caught my attention ( Asana, or yoga poses, are fun and challenging in an exciting and easily accessible way for me. The more subtle aspects of yoga, like meditation, are much more difficult for me, and I struggle with sitting still for even a couple minutes. I read on with the hope of learning some new insight that may help me enjoy meditation more or attain greater benefits from the practice. Unfortunately, I was just one paragraph into the article when it  stirred up a fair bit of vritti (distracting thoughts) for me that stole my attention from the rest of the article.

I could paraphrase, but I think it would be easier to just quote the paragraph here:
"Why meditation works is something of a mystery. But it's no longer a secret that meditation is good for us. Neuroscience can now show us what happens in the brain when we meditate. (Among other things, brain areas associated with stress slow down, and parts of the brain associated with feelings like joy, peace, and compassion become active.) The evidence that meditation triggers positive changes is overwhelming. In addition, we are beginning to recognize that meditation is a natural state, a current of awareness that wants to open up to us if only we'll let it."

My issue with this paragraph is that it is so vague. It basically says that it is hard to understand how meditation helps us, but science says it is true, never mind what science. This paragraph, despite citing that proof exists, gives me the same feeling that other meditation articles have: that meditation is good for you in a spiritual way. This leaves me wanting more. Having a scientific mind, I can't help but question these types of proclamations. I have been in so many yoga classes where a teacher will claim some magical power of a pose that I can't help but analyze and consider whether it is biologically possible. This steals my mind away from my practice and both annoys and frustrates me. Yoga does have scientifically proven benefits and when teachers spout seemingly magical, unsupported benefits it makes yoga seem less legitimate.

This frustration led me to research the scientific benefits of meditation. In the Yoga Sutras, there are eight parts or "limbs" of yoga: Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. The practices do not need to be practiced one at a time in this order, but in order to fully accomplish the 8th limb, Samadhi or understanding, it is rather important to have practiced the first 7 pretty extensively. The Yamas and Niyamas are guidelines for living a virtuous life. Asana is the physical practice of yoga poses and Pranayama is the control of the breath. Together, Asana and Pranayama prepare the physical body to support the mental work of practicing Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Pratyahara is the first step in yogic meditation and involves sensing the world around us without attaching thoughts and feelings to our perceptions. This practice can help eliminate external distractions in further meditation. Dharana, or concentration is the meditation that I practice and also for which the most scientific studies have been conducted. Dharana is meant to train the mind to focus on one thing at a time and to allow the practitioner to decide what the mind focuses on. This is a skill I certainly have not perfected, but that seems more than worthwhile. Imagine a life without succumbing to distraction and procrastination? Dhyana, or contemplation, and Samadhi, understanding, do not necessarily require perfect concentration, but it would probably help. Understanding the science behind Dharana makes the practice even more attractive to me.

Dharana, the 6th limb of the 8 limbs of Raja Yoga, is introduced in Sutra 3.1 of The Yoga Sutras. Patanjali defines Dharana as the “binding of the mind to one place, object, or idea.” In practice, Dharana is often described as concentration on a single thought, object, experience, or emotion. When the mind inevitably wanders, the practitioner gently redirects the mind back to what it is focusing on (Carrera, 383, 371). Especially in the modern world, the mind is constantly distracted and rarely gives its full attention to any one thing. The mind is distracted by birds flying by, cars honking on the street, cell phones ringing, emails dinging, our memories, concerns, worries, and anxieties; the mind is constantly giving attention to a multitude of distractions. In order to fully understand something or truly complete a task in a quality manner, it is necessary to focus and give undivided attention. The more distracted one is, the more difficult it is to learn and produce. Dharana trains the mind to be able to focus amid a plethora of distractions. It is like exercise for the mind (Jerard). The chronicle of anecdotal evidence of practicing Dharana having a positive effect on the mind and life of the practitioner is available from 2400 years ago and probably beyond. As evidence, consider this excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita (6.6): “As you gain control of your mind with the help of your higher Self, then your mind and ego become your allies. But the uncontrolled mind behaves as an enemy.” In modernity, scientific method has been applied to try to explain and better understand the benefits of Dharana and other meditative practices. The brain is so complex, however, that the benefits of Dharana and other types of meditation are not yet completely illuminated. But, scientists are learning more about the brain everyday and eventually even the tiniest subtleties of meditation will be scientifically understandable.

There have been upwards of hundreds of scientific studies investigating whether meditation truly improves focus and attention, and not particularly surprisingly, the majority of the studies have found that it does (Williams 2009). In peer reviewed psychological and medical journals, studies have found decreased heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen intake during meditation, showing that meditation produces a state of calmness and decreased metabolic rate (Corby 1978). Cognitive studies have shown that practitioners of concentration meditation, such as Dharana, perform better on attention based tasks and are not as easily distracted by external stimuli (Chan & Wolcott 2007). Practitioners of concentration meditation are also able to detect and observe fast moving stimuli that non-practitioners do not perceive (Lutz et al. 2008). Additionally, concentration meditation has been found to provide supplementary benefits in the treatment of stress, mood, and anxiety symptoms, as well as epilepsy (Chiesa & Seretti 2009). Rigorous scientific study has shown that the anecdotal evidence of the benefits concentration meditation are real, but how they manifest is a much tougher question.

There are several techniques used to analyze the brain and brain function. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI measures the amount of oxygen in the brain as a result of cerebral blood flow. It is assumed that the region that is most active at a given time is the most oxygenated at that time. Researchers are able to estimate the amount of neural activity in a location in the brain during a specific activity and therefore can determine which regions are functionally associated with different behaviors. fMRI is one tool that has been used to try to understand what is happening in the brain during meditation. For example, fMRI was used to analyze the brains of practitioners of concentration meditation while they silently repeated a two-phrase mantra in time with their breath. As a control, the same participants' brains were also analyzed while they sat quietly and thought up lists of different types of animals. Compared to the control scenario, more mental activity was seen in the anterior cingulated cortex during meditation. In later stages of meditation, more activity was also seen in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes than in the control state. These results suggest meditation activates locations in the brain that are commonly associated with attention and control of the autonomic nervous system (Williams 2009).

Electroencephalograms or EEGs measure brain activity by recording brain waves which are a result of electrical activity in the brain. There are five types of brainwaves categorized by their frequency measured in Hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. Delta waves (1-3Hz) are the slowest waves and are characteristic of a very deep sleep. Theta waves ( 4-7Hz) are seen during a light sleep or when we are feeling drowsy. Alpha waves (8-10Hz) are present during relaxed awareness, when we are not involved in deep thought. Beta waves (13-29Hz) are present when we are actively thinking, alert, and attentive. Gamma waves (30-80Hz) are present when we are mentally integrating and processing complex sensory information (Williams 2009). Changes in brain wave activity associated with different types of meditation has been actively studied since the 1970’s. One early study (Corby et al. 1978), found that when concentration meditation practitioners sat in lotus pose (cross-legged with the tops of the feet placed on top of the thighs) and focused on a mantra, there was an increase in alpha and theta waves along the central midline of the brain. Control participants relaxed to the point of falling asleep, but the pattern in brain wave activity observed in the meditation practitioners was not observed in the control participants. Those that were meditating maintained a state just on the cusp of waking and sleeping. Additionally, the change in brain wave activity lingered after meditation was discontinued, which was not the case for control participants. This study suggests that meditation is accompanied by a decrease in distracted thinking that is carried with the practitioner after ceasing to meditate. 

Increased theta and alpha activity along the central midline of the brain and the frontal lobe explains the sense of calmness felt when meditating, but these regions are also associated with attention and mental concentration. When advanced meditation practitioners are compared to novice practitioners, those that are advanced are more able to produce and maintain alpha and theta rhythms in the midline and frontal cortex of the brain. This suggests that advanced practitioners of concentration meditation have refined their brain processes to such a point that they are capable of controlling brain processes in a coherent and voluntary manner (Williams 2007). Furthermore, in a study published in Nature by Draganski et al. (2004), results were shared that suggest regular practice induces training related changes in the grey matter of the cerebral cortex. These changes are similar to when someone learns a new complex skill, like juggling. The changes observed in the cerebral cortex grey matter suggests there is a level of flexibility in how the brain is structured and that it can actually be restructured through persistent practice (Draganski et al 2004). This plasticity of brain matter and the reshaping and restructuring of our brains through conscious effort is a hot topic that is currently being investigated in regards to many different illnesses. Since meditation can tap into our brains natural ability to restructure itself, meditation may be used in treating brain disorders in the future.

According to scientific literature that has been published thus far, Dharana, or concentration on a single object, experience, or feeling increases attention and focus through practice. Dharana activates parts of the brain associated with attention and creates low frequency brainwaves associated with relaxation. Perhaps most importantly, advanced practitioners are more able to create and maintain these brainwave patterns. Dharana is essentially training for the brain to cultivate an ability to maintain focus and resist distractions and the science clearly supports this claim.

So, sit down and try it! Find a quiet space with minimal distractions. Sit in a way that will allow you to stay seated with a long, virtuous spine for a period of time without being physically uncomfortable. Some suggestions are kneeling with a pillow between your butt and heels, kneeling on a pillow, sitting cross-legged on a cushion or with the sit bones on a folded blanket and the legs on the floor. Anyway that you feel supported and comfortable is the right way to sit; it is absolutely not necessary to sit in lotus to meditate. Choose one thing to focus on. I usually choose a simple word like "Om" or "Shanti" and repeat it over and over in my mind. You can focus on the one thing in whatever way you like, as long as you keep that one thing in mind. Whenever your mind wanders, notice the transgression, and bring your attention back to your object of meditation. It helps to set a timer so that you are not wondering how long it has been. Start with 1 minute a day. You will likely be surprised how hard it is to focus for just one minute! This is why Dharana is a practice. Keep at it and you will likely notice the benefits discussed in this post. 

Works Sited

Carrere, Jaganath. “Inside the Yoga Sutras. ” Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham, Virginia; 2006.

Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15, 593 – 600.

Chan, D., & Woollacott, M. (2007). Effects of level of meditation experience on attentional focus: Is the efficiency of executive or orientation networks improved? Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13, 651 – 657.

Corby, J. C., Roth, W. T., Zarcone, V. P., Jr., & Kopell, B. S. (1978). Psychophysiological correlates of the practice of Tantric Yoga meditation. Archives of General Psychiatry, 35, 571 – 577.

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427, 311 – 312.

Jerard, Paul “Yogic Insights- The Significance of Dharana” August 4th, 2009 4/15/2012.

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 163 – 169.

Williams, Bryan (2007) ”A Glimpse Into the Meditating Brain” 4/16/2012.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vegan Kitchari How To

I fell in love with kitchari the first time I tasted it at Anapurna's Vegetarian Cafe in Albuquerque. The cafe doubles as an ayurvedic cooking school and every item on the menu is assigned a dosha. Kitchari is balancing and nourishing no matter your dosha and is therefore tridoshic. Upon tasting the kitchari, I could honestly tell that this was a food that was healthful and easy to digest. You can taste the goodness. Your gut says "thank you" even as you are consuming it. Naturally, I wanted to make my own.

My first attempt at preparing this magical food was almost catastrophic. I couldn't find the split yellow mung beans the recipe calls for, so I bought whole green mung beans, but this was not close to being my biggest problem. The pot that I used was not quite big enough for all the beans, quinoa, and vegetables that I filled it with. In honesty, the pot was filled to the brim before I added the last ingredient. When I did finally add the last ingredient (hot coconut oil with spices), the pot overflowed and the hot oil spilled onto the electric stovetop and immediately combusted. The flames were tall and angry. Being that I was basically squatting in a friend's apartment when this happened, I panicked. I poured water on the fire: apparently not what you are supposed to do to an oil fire, turned off all the fire alarms, opened the doors and windows, and turned the fans on high. The fire burned out and the apartment building did not end up a pile of ashes, but the bottom of the pot of kitchari was burned and I had a serious mess to clean up. I tried to eat the kitchari anyways, but it had a faint burnt flavor and really wasn't particularly pleasant. It certainly did not provide the culinary experience I was hoping for.

When I decided to try to prepare kitchari a second time, I was understandably nervous. I figured fate might be on my side this time, however, as I had procured split yellow mung beans from an Asian food store in Northern Virginia. Having just finished a bowl of leftovers, I can tell you that my kitchen is still standing and my second attempt brought forth some delicious kitchari.


1 cup split yellow mung beans
1 cup white jasmine rice
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
2 cups chopped kale
2 table spoons coconut oil
powdered ginger
salt & pepper


1. Pour the split yellow mung beans and jasmine rice into separate bowls and rinse repeatedly until water runs off clear.

2. Add the cleaned beans and rice to a LARGE cooking pot with six cups of purified water. Since this is meant to be a detoxifying meal, it is worthwhile to use clean water. Bring water to a boil and then lower to a simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Thoroughly wash carrots, celery, and kale before chopping into bite sized pieces. Again, as a detox food, spend extra time making sure vegetables are extra clean.

 4. When the mung beans and rice are soft (after 20 minutes), add the vegetables to the pot and stir them into the mixture. Continue stirring occasionally as they cook for 10 minutes.

5. While the vegetables are cooking, add the coconut oil and spices to a small saucepan over high heat. Stir occasionally, and remove the pot from the heat source when the spices become slightly browned and very fragrant. It is important to let the hot oil cool for a couple minutes before adding it the large cooking pot.


6. After the vegetables have cooked for 10 minutes, stir in the coconut oil and spices. Let the kitchari cool, and then serve (season to taste with salt and pepper) and enjoy!

Kitchari is commonly used for detoxing and is often served at yoga and meditation retreats. However, it is not meant to replace all meals for a long period of time. 

For more information on Ayurvedic cooking and Ayurveda, visit the website of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, NM:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do and See in Albuquerque

Up until May, I had been happily living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico for two years. Before that, I had not lived anywhere for that long other than my home, Long Island, NY. I feel very connected to eastern Long Island, and had trouble staying away for very long. When my now husband moved to Albuquerque for a two year training program, we decided to get married and live there together. At that time, the city was no more than a strange name on a map to me. I had no idea what to expect in moving there, and was more than a little skeptical. Being a marine biologist, I was worried about finding work and never having been associated with the military before, I was nervous about living on base and finding friends. The first time I visited, it for for less than 24 hours. Jamie and I drove my car there from the San Juan Islands in Washington and I flew to the Bahamas for a summer teaching position the morning after I arrived. While I was there, we went shopping at Trader Joe's and ate dinner on the patio of a large restaurant and brewery called Kelly's in one of the trendier parts of town. The city seemed eccentric and interesting and throughout my summer in The Bahamas, I continued to took forward to exploring Albuquerque further.

Albuquerque turned out to be an amazing place to live. Throughout my two years there, I taught middle school science at a private Muslim school, became a yoga teacher, raised a puppy, hiked a lot, and went  rock climbing, snowboarding and skydiving. I learned about organic farming, brewing beer, brewing wine, and raising goats. I visited museums and worked in a lab at UNM. I trained for a marathon and participated in local races. I ate at locally owned restaurants and sampled small breweries. I made the most of my time in such a wonderful place, but this probably makes me miss it even more.

In May, I packed up our life into a moving truck and moved with my dog to meet my husband in Valdosta, GA. When I arrived, we stayed on an air mattress on the floor of a friend's apartment. Two weeks later, I went to North Carolina for a week, then stayed in our new house for just two weeks before heading off to Thailand to teach for the summer. Back in the U.S., I spent a couple days in North Carolina, a week in the D. C. area, a week at home in Long Island, a week in the DC area again, then a week upstate NY. Now I have finally made my way back south to GA. For the duration of this summer, I have felt very ungrounded. Almost even a sensation of floating. I've felt disconnected and it has been rather strange and uncomfortable. When I have dreams about being home or am feeling a bit homesick, I still see visions of Albuquerque. When I close my eyes, I see wide open blue skies and the Sandia Mountains.  

In my recent consideration of life in Albuquerque and moving quite frequently, I decided to write up all of my favorite things about Albuquerque. A kind of homage to the city that might allow me to feel some closure and move on into the next phase of my life in Georgia. Honestly, I wish I had read something like this when I was moving to Albuquerque. Knowing how much another new and scared military wife learned to love the city might have made me feel more comfortable and excited about the move.  Military people have a tendency to talk a lot of trash about wherever they are stationed. I think it is because they did not choose to live there and it is often very different from wherever they call home. So many people that I met at Kirtland Air Force Base said they couldn't wait to get out of Albuquerque. If someone had instead told me how much they loved it there, it might not have taken long to settle in. I could surely use someone telling me some good things about my new town in GA.

A Perfect Albuquerque Weekend:

Friday Night:

Dinner at Il Vicino in Nob Hill. Order a beer from their brewery and one of their amazing personal pizzas. If your feeling hungry, share a spinach salad with your date to start the meal. 

Walk a couple storefronts over and see a documentary or indie film at The Guild Cinema. Enjoy fresh popped pop corn with a variety of fixings available, including nutritional yeast! 

After the movie, walk across the street and check out Tractor Brewing Co.. The beer is not the best in Albuquerque, but there is some high quality people watching to be had, outside seating, and puppies are welcome. There is usually a food truck at the curb, but recently it has only been BBQ (I enjoyed the vegan truck that used to frequent this stretch of curb).


Get up nice and early and grab a hearty breakfast and some delicious coffee at Flying Star. This is a local chain and there are many locations throughout the city. The tofu scramble is my favorite breakfast, but sometimes I order lunch for breakfast and have a Buddha Bowl (brown rice with steamed veggies and crunchy wontons). The soy chai latte is very nice. If you just want coffee, try their sister chain Satellite, which is more of a traditional coffee shop. 

If you went to Flying Star in Nob Hill, which is not the nicest location, but the most convenient, walk over to La Montanita Co-op and pick up some good nutritious snacks. They have great energy cubes in every variety you can think of and local produce that is as fresh as it gets. 

Armed with snacks from La Montanita, and plenty of water, you are ready to hike the famous La Luz trail. It is about 8 miles to the Sandia Crest from the tram parking lot. Along the way you will pass through several ecoclines and enjoy breathtaking views of the city and surrounding area. At the peak, enjoy refreshments at High Finance Restaurant and then take "The World's Longest Tram" back down. It is not the world's longest anymore, but it is the longest in the U.S. and it is probably too much work for them to change all the signs. Just remember, if it is too windy, the tram can stop operating. Don't get stuck at the top and then have to walk all the way back down!

After that nice long hike, head to Marble Brewery. They have amazing beer and a great outdoor space. On Saturday nights, they have a band outside. Get there early if you want to have a place to sit. Dogs are allowed on the patio, but not inside because they do serve food. Treat yourself to some delectable southern cooking when "The Supper Truck" pulls up. 


Start Sunday perfectly with a trip to The Grove in downtown Albuquerque. This place is popular (for good reason), so it is important to get here at opening (8am on Sundays). They are famous for the Croque Madam, but I enjoy the poached eggs, the breakfast burrito, the vegetable sandwich, and the salads. Definitely have a cappuccino. 

It is hard not to, but try not to linger too long. Drive South on 25 to Belen and get in a jump or two at Skydive New Mexico. They offer Tandems and do courses to to learn how to solo jump. Even just The ride in the small airplane to altitude is worth it; there are amazing views of the surrounding landscape that are harder to see after you jump. The air is clear and cool up high and the whole experience is very exhilarating and refreshing. The instructors here are some of the nicest, funnest people around. 

If the weather is not preferred for sky diving (gusty winds will shut down the drop zone), you can keep driving south and go rock climbing in Socorro. There are some easy beginner routes as well as more challenging climbs, but you will need your own equipment. 

Drop in for a Sunday evening yoga class at Grassroots yoga. They have a beautiful, vast studio with hard wood floors and mirrors. The teachers are all great and offer a challenging and fun class. Once a day there is a $5 1 hour class, and last time I checked, Sunday evening was one of those classes! The studio is conveniently located and easy to find with a storefront right on Central. 

For dinner, cozy up at India Kitchen: the best Indian food in town by a long shot. This restaurant is owned by an Indian couple and they provide authentic Indian food with excellent service. Their popadan is amazing. And, they will actually make your food spicy for you if you ask! 


Here are a couple more of my favorite things. Not everything could fit in one weekend!

Los Poblanos Inn & Restaurant: If you need a place to stay consider this, although it can be pricy and is often booked for weddings. The farm provides the food used in the restaurant, making the place beautiful, sustainable, and tasty. If you have a special event, this is the place to eat, but call ahead for reservations. 

Anapurna's Vegetarian Cafe: This Ayurvedic restaurant has the best vegetarian food. I always enjoy the South Indian Sampler, but really everything is good (especially vegan biscotti). Try their kitchari, the most basic of Ayurvedic dishes and don't forget a soy chai (and use your one free refill)!

The Nuclear Museum: A great place to spend the day when it is too cold or windy to do anything else. So much of New Mexico's history is wrapped up in the atomic bomb, it is worthwhile to investigate. 

Obviously there is much more to do and see in Albuquerque, but these are some of my very, very favorites. I hope this is useful to somebody new to the area or awaiting an upcoming move to Kirtland!