Thursday, April 29, 2010

Morning mysore in schools

"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." ~John Cage 

Roosevelt high school in Wyoming starts the day with a workout (and not just students… teachers join in as well). 15-20 minutes of sweat breaking exercise, then off to work (no time to shower).

Since starting this morning exercise routine, the school has seen reading performance improve dramatically.

This program was inspired by Dr. John Ratey and his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” where he talks about how exercise leads to the growth and remodeling of the brain.  

As one teacher said, “the culture at Roosevelt supports wellness and fitness… It’s not unusual now for a student to leave history class, run around the outside of the building and return to the classroom focused.”

We need more schools to follow their lead! 

How about morning mysore in schools? Everyone (teachers included) could grab a mat and pile into the gym for practice. I bet that would improve test scores!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another drink? Mind your telomeres!

Drinking a glass of red wine a day may help prevent aging, but this study (discussed on NPR here) finds that heavy alcohol drinking may "severely" shorten your telomeres. 

The reason? Alcohol (just as with smoking, obesity, chronic psychological stress, and others we have identified yet) causes oxidative stress and inflammation, damaging and shortening these important pieces of your chromosome.

Telomeres are the pieces of DNA at the ends of your chromosomes, and shortened telomeres means aged cells, chromosome instability, risk of cancer, heart disease, dementia, and more.

One reason I’m fascinated by telomeres is because we actually have some control over them! Their length is an indicator of our overall health and wellbeing - the amount of stress and inflammation our cells have battled over time.  

If you haven’t seen this yet, check out this study by Dean Ornish on how lifestyle changes of diet, exercise, and stress reduction increase telomerase (the enzyme that maintains the length of telomeres).

Based on what we know so far, here are 6 things you can do to keep your telomeres healthy: 
  1. Limit alcohol intake
  2. Reduce meat consumption while increasing fruits, vegetables & omega-3 fatty acids
  3. Stop smoking 
  4. Exercise 
  5. De-stress 
  6. Lose excess weight 
I would also add get enough sleep and replete Vitamin D (so many of us in northern latitudes are deficient)… but these last two are just my hypotheses, I haven’t seen any studies looking at those questions.  

Monday, April 26, 2010

The price of practice

Yoga classes, monthly passes, workshops, teacher trainings, yoga clothes… translates to a lot of $$$$.

Yoga is expensive. But one reason I am so drawn to the practice is because it has the potential to be accessible to everyone. It is simple, it requires minimal equipment, and it is something that can be practiced daily in one’s home.

I love the idea that yoga is meant to be for everyone, as David Garrigues talks about this in his recent blog post, quoting Pattabhi Jois saying “All can take practice.”

But unfortunately, not all can afford the practice. As discussed in this article in the NY Times over the weekend, there is a “brewing resistance to the expense, the cult of personality, the membership fees." The article features Yoga to the People, a studio offering a different approach with a “pay-what-you-can” fee structure. There is a donation box outside and students crowd into the room, lining up mat to mat (up to 60 students in the room!).

As they say on their site:
Yoga to the People is a unique yoga studio with the goal of recapturing what we consider to be the essence of yoga… simply put, yoga made available to everyone.
In a time where yoga as a business is getting a lot of attention, the fact that it is being priced out of many people’s reach is in direct conflict with what we consider to be the spirit of yoga itself. The question our studio seeks to answer is: Can a yoga studio maintain itself as a business while keeping the focus of its intention on providing yoga as a service first and foremost?
I hope they find the answer to be yes... seems like it's working for them so far!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Buying time

I went to a great talk last week with a physician-writer, Danielle Ofri. One take-away life lesson: buy myself time.

Early in her career, there were no full-time positions available so Dr. Ofri settled for a part-time job. When finally offered a full-time position and a much higher salary, she asked herself: what will I do with that extra money? The only thing she really wanted was what money could not buy – time. So she turned down the full-time job, buying herself priceless time and space for writing and other projects.

This reminded me of the idea that Stefan Sagmeister discusses in this TED talk. Every seven years, Sagmeister closes down his company for one year in order to “conduct a full year of experiments.” It is a time dedicated to creativity and new thinking.

He suggests that rather than the typical life model shown below:
25 years: learning 
40 years: working 
15 years: retirement

That instead we cut off 5 years of retirement and intersperse those years in between the working years: 

Could this work in the field of medicine? It would be very difficult for a primary care doctor with long-term relationships with patients...

But I’ve also been thinking about this idea in relation to Josh’s post, wondering if taking time off from yoga (during injury or for other reasons) is an important part of our overall practice… to take a step back, to break bad habits and routines, and to reinvigorate?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Guest Blogger, Josh Beisler: The Struggle to Practice

I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I did… written by friend and fellow Philly Ashtanga practictioner, Josh Beisler.

The Struggle to Practice
Josh Beisler

The Ashtanga practice is deliberately designed to remain perpetually challenging. The way that you respond to these obstacles will teach you a lot about yourself. It will mold you in ways that you never expected and which are often life-changing.

All of this is great. But, more mundanely, sometimes it’s really hard to get out of bed in the morning and go to practice. Or to miss hanging out with good friends so you can get to bed early enough to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. Or in general to be ever-vigilant about what you eat and what you do over the course of the day because of how it affects your practice.

It's difficult and unpleasant to practice Ashtanga casually because the practice is so physically demanding that anything less than a three times per week daily practice gets painful. You have to stick with it to keep your strength up and this can create stress when your resolve wavers because it can very quickly feel (whether it's true or not) like you're on the verge of losing your practice altogether, or at least risk losing the ability to do that new cherished asana that you finally twisted into last week after months or years of trying.

I felt my left hamstring pop in kurmasana a couple of weeks ago and slowly things have started to change. It's not a particularly bad injury but obviously I have had to take it easy and not push anything, especially forward folds, which is potentially dispiriting and tough on that ever-fragile ego that we're all trying to transcend. Right around the same time a wave of awesome concerts rolled through town and I missed a couple more classes. We've been having heat issues at one of the studios where I practice and it's made it harder to stay warm and so I've felt the injury more distinctly. All of these events have come together at more or less the same time and so recently I have skipped classes, slept in late, or showed up late and only practiced half primary. Which is very unusual for me.

The question is where to go next. Do I let go of my practice a bit by going to class more infrequently and by cutting my practices short so I can stay up late and be more social and do more of the things I've been missing, or do I redouble my resolve to maintain the status quo? I'm not sure but right now my gut is saying back off.

~Josh Beisler

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Our brain on stress

Chronic stress can actually reshape and shrink the brain.

Studies have shown that mice living under chronic stress (confined in a wire cage) have “retraction in the projections, or dendrites, of some of the neurons in the hippocampus” and the hippocampus (an area of the brain important for mood, memory, and cognition) shrinks in overall volume.

A specific protein, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), has been found to mediate the growth and adaptability of neurons. The less BDNF, the less neurons can adapt and grow, and the more the brain shrinks.

So why should we care about this BDNF business?! Because exercise increases BDNF release! As The Ratey Institute* points out, exercise-induced BDNF release may make the brain more resistant to stress.

This study showed that just three months of endurance training significantly increased the release of BDNF. Wow! What might yoga does to BDNF levels?! Maybe we can test this on our Philadelphia ashtangis at some point… :)


*The Ratey Institute is an organization dedicated to 1) the scientific study of the brain/body connection, and 2) improving educational and public policies to optimize physical and mental health… getting people moving and exercising. Dr. John Ratey, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, believes that: “The marriage of the brain and body bathed in the effects of exercise creates the essential environment for optimal mental and physical health.” 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Side effects of food

The daily practice of yoga helps us become more acutely aware of how the food we eat affects our body and mind. This recent study showed that yoga, but not other types of exercises, is associated with more mindful eating.

As yoga has become a bigger part of my life, I have definitely become more aware of how food affects me. I'm learning which foods give me energy and which do the opposite.

When doctors prescribe medication to patients, they talk about the possible side effects and toxicities. But who talks with us about the side effects of the food we eat every day? What if this were provided on nutrition labels: warning of short-term side effects such as lethargy, fatigue, headaches, poor concentration... and longer-term toxicities such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, death.

Food is so central to our health and wellbeing... I love when my yoga teachers talk about food and I think doctors should be talking about it more. (First step: medical schools need to teach future doctors how!)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Coloring the day

Hard mysore practice today… a cold room and a body recovering from a fun weekend away with amazing girlfriends (celebrating our darling Greta’s upcoming marriage!!!!)

On days like today, I am reminded that everything is connected. The way I treat my body during the day/over the weekend impacts how I feel in morning practice. And the way I feel during practice colors the rest of the day… my concentration, energy, productivity, creativity, and courage.

I’m feeling the heaviness of a long week ahead, so I’m trying to concentrate on the things I can actually control. I’ve noticed that the following habits (mostly related to what I put into my body) correlate with a better morning practice... and thus more fulfilled days: 
  • Sleeping at least 7 hours (of good, deep, dream-filled sleep)
  • Not eating after ~7pm 
  • Drinking herbal tea before bed (keeps me hydrated)
  • Eating whole foods (grains, salads, avocados, beans, beets, tomatoes, fruit)
  • Eating little to no sugar
  • Minimizing salt 
  • Minimizing dairy
  • Having an early morning pre-practice coffee with cinnamon… to wake up and warm up (and no, I’m not giving this up anytime soon!)
What am I missing? Anyone have any other good habits that help their yoga practice? I need all the help I can get!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

An evangelist for wellness

I learn a lot from people by seeing the way they live their lives… their habits and routines. That’s why I loved reading this article about Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Dr. Oz is a well-known cardiothoracic surgeon (who went to Penn med school!). He is also an author, TV show host, husband, and father.

The article describes him as “an evangelist for wellness” who practices what he preaches, “demanding as much of himself as of others.”

My favorite wellness habits that Dr. Oz practices:
  • Carries around bags, containers, and thermoses full of food: yogurt, fruits, nuts, fresh vegetable juices. “Roughly every 45 to 60 minutes, as if on cue, he would ingest something from his movable buffet, but only a bit, his portions assiduously regulated, like an intravenous drip of nutrition. It was the most efficient, joyless eating I have ever seen.” (That does not sound “joyless” to me!!)
  • Practices a morning exercise routine: this includes a minimum of 7 minutes of fast-moving yoga, pushups, and sit-ups (7 minutes is better than nothing!) 
  • Takes the stairs in the hospital (won’t wait for the elevator) 
  • Holds the Oz Family Olympics: this entails “tennis, wind sprints, competitive stair climbing: anything to push back against the forces of, and tropism toward, sedentary living.” (Wow I LOVE this idea! That’s going on the ‘things to do with future family’ list!) 
  • Creates spikes in his life-productivity curve: rather than living out the normal person’s life-productivity graph (which is an inverted U with peak productivity in late 30’s/early 40’s), Dr. Oz wants “to delay that summit by taking on new challenges at determined intervals, thus creating vertical spikes in his own productivity graph.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Eating Asparagus

I’ve started buying and eating more asparagus lately. One reason is because my friend has been self-prescribing asparagus to help fight her metastatic breast cancer (4 pureed tablespoons in the morning and evening).
Curious (and skeptical), I searched pubmed for some research… and found one study showing that asparanin A, extracted from asparagus, kills liver cancer cells. Another study found that asparagus root extract stimulates the immune system (upregulates T cells, increases antibody levels).

I plan to keep buying and eating asparagus… but seriously, where does that smell come from?! (I've heard that almost everyone's body makes that odor, but not everyone can smell it!)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Marriage & health

It may seem intuitive that people in a loving and supportive marriage will be physically healthier… but check out this article on some of the research behind it!

A happy marriage can strengthen the immune system, while an unhappy marriage can weaken it. In one experiment, researchers gave couples blisters on their arm and measured the length of time for the blisters to heal (a marker of immune function). For couples that argued, these blisters took a full day longer to heal when compared with couples that did not fight. And in couples that fought with hostility, the blisters took a full two days longer to heal!

In another experiment, researchers found significant changes in the brain from simple loving acts like handholding or backrubs. The article explains that these are ways of “outsourcing” negative emotions and stress... meaning that the brain gets less wear and tear over time.
When a husband held his wife’s hand, it “reduced the neural activity in areas of the woman’s brain associated with stress.” When the wife held her husband’s hand during electric shocks, it created “a calming of the brain regions associated with pain similar to the effect brought about by use of a pain-relieving drug.”

This makes me wonder - what is the more general effect of human touch? For example, what do the physical adjustments in our Mysore yoga practice do to our brains? For me, this simple touch can act like a pain-relieving drug (painful postures become easier, my respiratory rate slows).

I'm also wondering what marriage does to telomere length. My hypothesis: a happy marriage means longer telomeres.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Prescribing financial health

Another reason to eat right and exercise: Your financial health.

According to this article, “a growing number of advisors are encouraging clients to take better care of themselves because of the impact health has on insurance rates and retirement planning.”

This makes me feel a little bit better about all the money I spend on yoga… if only insurance companies could be convinced that paying for yoga now will save them money later!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Simplify simplify simplify

I love this sign that hangs over a desk in the hospital...

But why is this so hard to practice in real life?

I've been trying to simplify my yoga practice by moving away from using props (blocks, blankets, etc). Some days props are nice, but most days I want to just be me and my mat (even if that means messier poses or imperfect alignment).

Part of me also thinks that an uncluttered mat helps me keep an uncluttered mind (sort of like how I can't concentrate when sitting at a cluttered desk!)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons from Gandhi

“You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them.” ~Gandhi 

Really loved this Zen Habits blog post about lessons we can learn from Gandhi... I think these are also practiced through yoga.

They include the following:
  1. Accumulate little (Gandhi had fewer than 10 possessions when he died)
  2. Eat simple food (Gandhi ate vegetarian and local food out of a small wooden bowl)
  3. Dress simply (for comfort and purpose, not to impress) 
  4. Lead a simple, stress-free life (Gandhi meditated daily and kept his life simple while being a powerful world leader) 
  5. Let your life be your message (Gandhi spread his message by the way he lived his day-to-day life)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Moral inferiority

"The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot." 
~Mark Twain 

Photo credit Aaron Paul

Making a trip to the zoo has been on the "things to do in Philadelphia bucket list" and we finally went yesterday. It was amazing to see these animals... but I'm still not sure how I feel about zoos. Especially after seeing the gorillas. Gorillas should not live in cages.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Our garden is slowly growing!

Weekend project: make a compost bin.

It seems pretty easy (thanks to another useful wikiHow!):
  • Get a plastic bin with tight lid (to keep bugs out and soil moist)
  • Drill 8-10 small holes in the bottom and 8-10 small holes in lid (for aeration)
  • Put some shredded newspaper or dry leaves at the bottom, fill ~1/8-1/4 full
  • Place dirt on top of the newspaper/leaves until bin is 1/2 full
  • Keep compost bin in a shady area
  • Place food scraps/paper products in compost bin
  • Cover food scraps with dirt
  • Stir bin every other day (keep moist with water if needed)
  • Within 2-3 months, you can use compost to cover flower beds, pot soil, sprinkle on grass, etc!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Meatless Mondays

San Francisco recently declared Mondays as “meat-free!” This is a nonbinding resolution to urge schools and restaurants to offer “plant-based” food options every Monday.

Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative associated with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Their goal is to reduce meat consumption by 15% in order to improve the health of people and the planet.

I’d love to see our hospital get in on this! 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Asking the wrong questions

Great letter from Dr. Dean Ornish to the NY Times in response to the recent news that Crestor (a statin currently used to treat high cholesterol) has been FDA-approved for use as a preventive measure in healthy people with no cholesterol problems in order to reduce chronic inflammation (as measured by levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood).

 Ornish points out:
The wrong question is being asked. It’s not: “Should Crestor be given to reduce inflammation?” It should be: “What is the cause of chronic inflammation, and what can be done to address these causes?”
As he and others have found, the causes of chronic inflammation are related to lifestyle: poor diet, not enough exercise, emotional stress, and social isolation.

I agree that we should invest in preventing these underlying causes... rather than spend billions on statins (and their side effects).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Power in pomegranates

Seems that food can be an addictive drug… but it can also be a medicine.

This study recently showed that phytochemicals in the seeds of pomegranates may block aromatase, the enzyme that converts androgen to estrogen. This is the same function of aromatase inhibitor drugs (Aromasin, Femara, and Arimidex) which many breast cancer patients take in order to stop estrogen from feeding tumor growth.

Obviously, pomegranates are not going to be replacing aromatase inhibitors anytime soon... but this may eventually have some implications for other estrogen-related processes (such as menopausal symptoms, bone density, and cancer prevention). 

We already know pomegranates are chock-full of antioxidants, but now research suggests they may have properties similar to aromatase inhibitor drugs by blocking the synthesis of estrogen.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Food as cocaine

This study recently came out finding that the development of obesity in rats (by eating a diet of high sugar and fat) led to the same changes in the brain as in cocaine or heroin addiction.

Obese rats (but not lean rats) developed compulsive-like feeding behavior and the down-regulation of dopamine receptors. The rats were unconcerned about any negative consequences from their food consumption… even painful stimuli (electric shocks to their feet) did not stop them from eating!

Researcher Paul Kenney said, "People know intuitively that there's more to [overeating] than just will power… there's a system in the brain that's been turned on or overactivated, and that's driving it at some subconscious level."

Another scientist, Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, describes the food we eat as similar to cocaine: "We make our food very similar to cocaine now. We purify our food. Our ancestors ate whole grains, but we're eating white bread. American Indians ate corn; we eat corn syrup."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Idea generation

“If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” 
~Albert Einstein

I have heard it said that it is our 20’s and 30’s when we are most creative, when we come up with most of our ideas, when we ask the new questions. Later in life is when we refine them, write about them, teach them.

I like how 12-year-old (!) Adora Svitak says in this TED Talk that the world needs more “childish thinking”… more unburdened free thought, more creativity, and more dreams of perfection.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sin tax or bucks for broccoli

Interesting (and short ~3 minute) NPR news segment on structuring incentives to get people to eat better.

They talk about two methods to encourage healthier eating:
  1.  Pay people to eat healthy food (“bucks for broccoli”)
  2. Charge more for unhealthy food (“sin tax” on junk food)
Experiments have shown that with method #1, people buy more junk food (using money saved from the cheap healthy food). But when the junk food itself is more expensive (as in method #2), people actually buy less of it.

Why? Because people are more responsive to price increases than price decreases. It seems that charging more for junk food (i.e. tax on soda) will be more effective than subsidizing healthy food.

But then this article came out in the Wall Street Journal this week, reporting that there is no change in soda consumption in states with a soda tax compared to states without a soda tax. This could be explained by the fact that the soda tax was small and hidden... it might be a different story if the tax is large and noticeable.

This brings up some questions… should we pay people for their healthy habits and charge people for their unhealthy ones? Pay people to exercise? Subsidize yoga? Fine people for smoking? Charge people for unhealthy food choices? Apparently GE charges their employees who smoke an extra $625/year!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Learning to say no

I’ve been overcommitting to too many projects at work… my mentor’s advice:

“You have to learn to say no… if you are too cheap you’ll run around doing everyone else’s work for them. People will actually value you more if you are not always available to them.”

I think he’s right about that!

I’m not very good at saying no… is this a woman thing?