Sunday, September 19, 2010

Walking and the Brain

"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it . . . if one keeps on walking, everything will be all right." Soren Kierkegaard

Despite the many anxieties and crises of our time, we are also living in era of revolutionary developments in the fields of science, particularly in the study of the human brain. Every month we are learning more about how the brain functions, and consequently, beliefs about learning, memory, the imagination, emotion, and a whole host of other brain functions now must be re-evaluated. We now know, for example, that the brain evolves and changes as we age, countering long held beliefs that past a certain age in childhood the largely remained unchanged. We do in fact lose brain cells or neurons as we age but the brain’s ability to make new pathways or synaptic connections between neurons is virtually limitless. No, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Environment, experience, exercise, attitude, social engagement, and intellectual challenges are profoundly important for the on-going development of the bran and it’s health.

Recently, several studies have caught my attention that relate to walking and spending time in nature. Last week, in fact, a major study done at the University of Illinois by Kramer and Moss who study the role of how exercise affects the brain, they found that regular walking (forty minutes 3 days a week) dramatically affected brain connectivity and thus enhancing cognition. This was true as well with older adults, a helpful sign for people suffering from memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer's.



Another study at the University of Michigan looked at how where we walk affects brain function and concentration. In the study, one group of graduate students walked in urban an area—along busy commercial streets with traffic and little natural buffering, and another group walked along paths in more natural environments of parks with trees, grass, lakes, etc. Afterward the two groups were given basic cognitive tests, recalling lists, etc. And the difference in cognitive function was clear: those who walked in natural environments were much better in their scores. A similar study at Michigan also tested three groups for the role of nature on brain function. In this study, one group was wired as they watched a video screen of a natural environment, another group simply looked at a wall, and a third actually sat in the same natural area viewed on the screen of the first group. The result? The levels of brain activity i.e. the stimulation of various parts of the brain was most pronounced in the group sitting outside viewing the natural environment. But most interesting to me was that the levels of those looking at a wall and at the video image of nature was virtually the same.

Walking in nature seems so benign. But walking is actually much more of a complex physiological activity than we think; it involves multiple areas of the brain, which is why it is so beneficial. In nature, we must also negotiate pathways and environments that are unpredictable and highly stimulating. Motor function and perception are profoundly linked and being aware of this relationship enhances not only the pleasure but also the long-term health of our brain. Our brain is pattern maker and a pattern decoder. Every day we create new patterns by what we do, think, feel, and experience. And one pattern to weave into our lives is very simple: walking.

Where Am I?

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw

Or heard or felt came not but from myself;

And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Wallace Stevens from “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”

A bird, blackish brown in the intense summer afternoon light, is walking on water. Well, not on the actual water but on golden green lily pads, skillfully hop-flying, then step, step, step, moving just fast enough not to sink. Pin oaks, I see, and white birch, young sycamore. Water stretches into a thick woods and appears to curve as if it might be a river but it isn’t, it’s a marsh, a very old one, one that somehow survived over hundred years of American industrialization. Sedge, that ancient plant of prehistoric times, grows out of the rubble I’m walking on, limestone and slag and railroad spikes.



A marsh hawk startles the heavy afternoon heat, its white and brown belly, as it sweeps down over the marsh. A white egret lopes over the water and disappears into the darkness of the tall stand of sycamore shielding the marsh from the highway beyond. Moments later a heron labors to pick up speed to rise over the trees. Two goldfinch, blurs in the sunlight yet identifiable with their undulating speed, trigger the memory of other summers and other places where I have stood stock still and felt that strange sensation deep in the belly of my body wanting to lift and follow what I was seeing.

Where am I?*

Where am I? That’s a good question. But is it a question of place? Or is it a state of mind that I’m in as I walk through this marsh? A reciprocal experience of the land imprinting itself in me as I walk through it.

Like many people, I could tell the story of my life by describing the places where walking somehow figured in my education and experience. I’ve hiked since I was a teenager, along highways, up mountains, through deserts, along borders, through savannahs, along lakes and rivers, down streets of cities, and into and out of my wayward emotions and imagination. Your legs turn out to be allies, and as Nietzsche, a walker himself, would say, they often can offer infinitely more wisdom than our best thinking.

My recent interest in walking began as a way to combat serious bouts of depression that not even years of study and practice of yoga seemed able to help me handle. I hiked as a way to counter spells that sunk me every winter. As I began to hike more and more, in places of profound beauty and in places familiar and local, I began to notice how the simple act of walking offered more than benefits to my physical and mental health. Walking began to make me see or feel so much more of what was going on inside and around me. Walking I’m learning has so much to do with developing the body/mind’s ability to perceive and read the rhythms and relationships that bind us to the elemental world: to rock and water, wind and weather, sky and space. And perhaps most important of all, walking alerts us to how our health depends on the health of the land in which we live and work and walk.



*These observations about walking were inspired by a walk down an abandoned railroad track through the Clark and Pine Nature Preserve in Lake County, Indiana a few miles from Gary. It is a remnant of the vast marsh and interdunal ecology that once covered the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Surprisingly, the marsh flourishes, teeming with life and birds, though it is next to an abandoned steel processing factory, a gypsum plant a mile to the east along Lake Michigan, Gary’s Sanitation Works and acres and acres of wastelands that is a Federal Superfund Site.

Walking To The Indiana Dunes




People usually consider walking
on water or thin air a miracle,
but I think the real miracle
is not to walk either on water or in thin air,
but to walk on earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh

This week I made a pilgrimage of sorts. One that began at my own door step in Rogers Park, then 19 miles along the Chicago Lakefront, through the industrial cities along the shore of Lake Michigan, Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Gary and finally to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, some 50 plus miles in total. I did this in two days.

I tried to stay along the lake as much as possible, but when you leave the southern neighborhood of Jackson Park in Chicago, the lake disappears from view. Once in East Chicago by the Majestic Star Casino, I illegally slipped through a fence and touched the water. But I had to wait some 24 miles until I got to West Beach in the National Lakeshore until I could finally feel the cool water on my tired hot body.

Why do such a thing?

I wanted to walk this route to ask the question: why isn’t there a walking route linking Chicago’s magnificent lake front park to the patchwork of wetlands, prairies, woodlands and towering sand dunes that make up one of the few urban National Parks, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?




There are plans for a green way called the Marquette Plan to do such a thing, but the momentum, money and will to do it seems more wishful than real. I stayed in a Casino my first night, the Majestic Star, which along with the other casinos in the area are supposedly aimed at redeveloping the region by making an entertainment and recreation zone. Slot machines stretch the idea of entertainment, not to mention recreation or redevelopment. And of course, in a casino the brownfields and industrial wastelands that surround them are conveniently out of sight.

But I also took this walk to prove something I’ve been wondering about for the last few years as I’ve walked in all kinds of more traditional so-called ‘natural’ landscapes—deserts, mountains, forests, sea shores. Would my body and mind respond in similar ways, feeling revitalized and awakened from nature and exercise, if I walked through my own neighborhood and the city lakefront and then into one of the most industrialized and polluted landscapes of America? And further, would walking to the dunes make me appreciate the fragile beauty and ecological miracle of this landscape more than by driving there and taking a little walk through the park?




The body and the legs do more than just hold us up and carry us about back and forth to work. Like the antennae of insects, they read the landscapes and negotiate through them learning where to go and where to find nourishment and safety. The body isn't a machine we turn off on and on. Walking all those steps made me consider my connection to this landscape where I've lived for three decades. And despite the harshness of the highways and disfigurement of the landscape, I sensed it's grandeur, its timeless presence, enduring no matter what we puny humans think we can do with it. From the ground, I felt so many emotions, from rage to awe, from joy to sadness, from humiliation to wonder. We think we know where we live like we think we know our own body, but take a little walk or rather a long walk in the land where you live. And I guarantee you'll discover something about the very ground you drive and walk over and it will be your body, your feet, that will teach you.


I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw

Or heard or felt came not but from myself;

And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Wallace Stevens from “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”

A bird, blackish brown in the intense summer afternoon light, is walking on water. Well, not on the actual water but on golden green lily pads, skillfully hop-flying, then step, step, step, moving just fast enough not to sink. Pin oaks, I see, and white birch, young sycamore. Water stretches into a thick woods and appears to curve as if it might be a river but it isn’t, it’s a marsh, a very old one, one that somehow survived over hundred years of American industrialization. Sedge, that ancient plant of prehistoric times, grows out of the rubble I’m walking on, limestone and slag and railroad spikes.

A marsh hawk startles the heavy afternoon heat, its white and brown belly, as it sweeps down over the marsh. A white egret lopes over the water and disappears into the darkness of the tall stand of sycamore shielding the marsh from the highway beyond. Moments later a heron labors to pick up speed to rise over the trees. Two goldfinch, blurs in the sunlight yet identifiable with their undulating speed, trigger the memory of other summers and other places where I have stood stock still and felt that strange sensation deep in the belly of my body wanting to lift and follow what I was seeing.

Where am I?*

Where am I? That’s a good question. But is it a question of place? Or is it a state of mind that I’m in as I walk through this marsh? A reciprocal experience of the land imprinting itself in me as I walk through it.

Like many people, I could tell the story of my life by describing the places where walking somehow figured in my education and experience. I’ve hiked since I was a teenager, along highways, up mountains, through deserts, along borders, through savannahs, along lakes and rivers, down streets of cities, and into and out of my wayward emotions and imagination. Your legs turn out to be allies, and as Nietzsche, a walker himself, would say, they often can offer infinitely more wisdom than our best thinking.

My recent interest in walking began as a way to combat serious bouts of depression that not even years of study and practice of yoga seemed able to help me handle. I hiked as a way to counter spells that sunk me every winter. As I began to hike more and more, in places of profound beauty and in places familiar and local, I began to notice how the simple act of walking offered more than benefits to my physical and mental health. Walking began to make me see or feel so much more of what was going on inside and around me. Walking I’m learning has so much to do with developing the body/mind’s ability to perceive and read the rhythms and relationships that bind us to the elemental world: to rock and water, wind and weather, sky and space. And perhaps most important of all, walking alerts us to how our health depends on the health of the land in which we live and work and walk.

*These observations about walking were inspired by a walk down an abandoned railroad track through the Clark and Pine Nature Preserve in Lake County, Indiana a few miles from Gary. It is a remnant of the vast marsh and interdunal ecology that once covered the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Surprisingly, the marsh flourishes, teeming with life and birds, though it is next to an abandoned steel processing factory, a gypsum plant a mile to the east along Lake Michigan, Gary’s Sanitation Works and acres and acres of wastelands that is a Federal Superfund Site.


Walking To The Indiana Dunes





People usually consider walking
on water or thin air a miracle,
but I think the real miracle
is not to walk either on water or in thin air,
but to walk on earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh

This week I made a pilgrimage of sorts. One that began at my own door step in Rogers Park, then 19 miles along the Chicago Lakefront, through the industrial cities along the shore of Lake Michigan, Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Gary and finally to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, some 50 plus miles in total. I did this in two days.


I tried to stay along the lake as much as possible, but when you leave the southern neighborhood of Jackson Park in Chicago, the lake disappears from view. Once in East Chicago by the Majestic Star Casino, I illegally slipped through a fence and touched the water. But I had to wait some 24 miles until I got to West Beach in the National Lakeshore until I could finally feel the cool water on my tired hot body.


Why do such a thing?


I wanted to walk this route to ask the question: why isn’t there a walking route linking Chicago’s magnificent lake front park to the patchwork of wetlands, prairies, woodlands and towering sand dunes that make up one of the few urban National Parks, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?


There are plans for a green way called the Marquette Plan to do such a thing, but the momentum, money and will to do it seems more wishful than real. I stayed in a Casino my first night, the Majestic Star, which along with the other casinos in the area are supposedly aimed at redeveloping the region by making an entertainment and recreation zone. Slot machines stretch the idea of entertainment, not to mention recreation or redevelopment. And of course, in a casino the brownfields and industrial wastelands that surround them are conveniently out of sight.


But I also took this walk to prove something I’ve been wondering about for the last few years as I’ve walked in all kinds of more traditional so-called ‘natural’ landscapes—deserts, mountains, forests, sea shores. Would my body and mind respond in similar ways, feeling revitalized and awakened from nature and exercise, if I walked through my own neighborhood and the city lakefront and then into one of the most industrialized and polluted landscapes of America? And further, would walking to the dunes make me appreciate the fragile beauty and ecological miracle of this landscape more than by driving there and taking a little walk through the park?


The body and the legs do more than just hold us up and carry us about back and forth to work. Like the antennae of insects, they read the landscapes and negotiate through them learning where to go and where to find nourishment and safety. The body isn't a machine we turn off on and on. Walking all those steps made me consider my connection to this landscape where I've lived for three decades. And despite the harshness of the highways and disfigurement of the landscape, I sensed it's grandeur, its timeless presence, enduring no matter what we puny humans think we can do with it. From the ground, I felt so many emotions, from rage to awe, from joy to sadness, from humiliation to wonder. We think we know where we live like we think we know our own body, but take a little walk or rather a long walk in the land where you live. And I guarantee you'll discover something about the very ground you drive and walk over and it will be your body, your feet, that will teach you.

"The Brain -- is wider than the Sky"

The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --
For -- put them side by side --
The one the other will contain
With ease -- and You -- beside --
Emily Dickenson

The age of neuroscience has arrived. Go to a bookstore, turn on TV, open a magazine, and you’ll find evidence of America’s new fascination: the human brain. How we think, remember, perceive, feel, and imagine are no longer the subjects of philosophers and poets alone, but under the eyes of an ever-growing number of scientists in a wide array of fields related to the study of the biology and evolution of the central nervous system and the brain. Advances in imaging technology, neurobiology, computer science and host of converging fields have brought us even to the brink of unlocking the very biological basis of consciousness itself.

Though we are only just beginning to understand the complexities of the brain, discoveries in these fields are already throwing out long-held theories in both the physical and social sciences, and what they might mean for the rest of us has yet to be fully understood. But the remarkable discovery of brain plasticity has presented us with evidence that we can no longer ignore the wisdom of those like Patanjali and Aristotle who long ago understood that the human brain was the frontier that would in the end determine the fate of humankind.

Once you begin to understand a bit of what’s going on in neuroscience, it’s clear that practices such as yoga and meditation stand to benefit from an ever-growing body of evidence that suggest that they are perfect tools to develop an alert and healthy brain. Similarly, yoga, too, can use the language of neuroscience to help students better understand what is happening in their brain when they are practicing yoga. Many of our best teachers have been on to brain science for years. Listen to a talk by Richard Freeman and you’ll hear how well he’s incorporated the insights of this exploding field into his teachings.

Here are a few key concepts that I am using in my classes and workshops that might be useful.


Human_brain_major_internal_parts

Agency, Attitude and Information

Attitude is everything. Framing the mind with a positive intention and staying focused on it is not just a cliché you hear in sports and New Age self-help books; it’s how the brain works most effectively. The brain needs direction or it will flit from subject to subject. I always begin my class with breathwork and a short mediation, before I do, I ask students to think of an intention for their practice. This helps them to focus and engage emotionally. The brain follows patterns and grooves supported by memory and emotion. If the pattern is negative or positive, makes no difference, the brain will fall into it.

Researchers at the University of Michigan gave an experimental group of middle school students in Detroit a special tutorial on how their brain worked, reinforcing the basic idea that it was their own work habits and ability to learn not their income or parent’s educational background that determined how their brain worked. Testing showed that the students given the tutorial not only outperformed other students in their school but they also exceeded national averages for their age.

Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is exploring the same basic techniques used on students but on psychotherapists and psychiatrists. And Siegel is trying something else—mindfulness and simple breathing exercises. Siegel advises therapists to use actual models of the brain in therapy sessions to help patients visualize and understand what is happening in their brains when they are depressed or emotionally troubled. This can be of great relief to a patient to see that their frustrations are a brain processing problem rather than a lack of will or emotional strength. After giving this demonstration, the therapist teaches the patient an easy mindfulness exercise to calm them down when these frustrations and emotions emerge. In both cases, giving people a sense of how their brain works and offering them tools to change attitudes makes a difference. Why? Because they are actively involved in changing the actual wiring of neural pathways in their brains.

Awareness and Perception

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, is another scientist interested in how meditation affects brain function. He wired up several Tibetan monks to see what was going on in their brains as they meditated as well as some novice practitioners for comparative purposes. What he discovered was not only could these monks reach unprecedented levels of brain activity, but they could reach these alpha and theta frequencies within minutes of their sitting.

What the monks revealed so beautifully was the limitless potential we have of training the mind to affect states of consciousness and well-being. But their skill came from a long series of learning experiences in which neural maps or interconnecting groups of neurons bonded as they were used over and over again. The first step in learning to meditate is to actually calm the mind down so that it can actually focus on the sensation of what it feels like to affect our brains. When we are focused we enable the brain to do its primary function: process or integrate information into the various centers in the brain necessary to learn. The stronger the signals, the stronger the memory for the next time we practice. Awareness is registered in both the conscious and unconscious mind. As we practice yoga, we begin to cultivate deeper and deeper levels of sense perception. B.K.S. Iyengar speaks of involution as he describes the learning process of yoga; in other words, we develop our practice by working from the outside of the body, learning from our five senses, particularly touch and balance, and progressively move deeper inside the bodies to muscles, organs, energy centers in the core and so on. When we practice we use four layers of perception: the exteroceptors (the five senses and balance), the interoceptors the feeling of the organs as they function, and proprioceptors or some may say the kinesthetic sense, which regulate effort and the feeling of muscles and joints as we move or hold a pose. Perception is a feedback mechanism, as the brain processes experience to create more elaborate sets of maps in the brain.

This same process occurs in meditation. As we sit, we are not only psychologically challenged as we observe countless patterns of repetitive thoughts and emotions, but we are also learning to pay very close attention to sensations coming from the body. In particular, when we are first learning, we are focusing on the feeling of our lungs and the muscles associated with breath. But as we develop the skill and stamina to sit for longer periods, we can begin to notice our awareness dropping from the buzzing in the mind downward to the core and energetic centers. It’s important then in a class to remind people that what they are learning is not just how to perform a pose but how to feel it.

Imagination, Visualization and Metaphor

As a writer and teacher of writing one of the most compelling findings of neuroscience has been in the area of imagination and language. I’ve long suspected that the creative work of an artist—writer, painter, musician—provides pleasure in a profound way, not because it simply inspires us emotionally and intellectually but because the work engages our imaginations deep within the unconscious, as Jung and others have suggested. And this is exactly the case, as many brain researchers are discovering. The modernist painters such as Cezanne and Van Gogh arrested our minds because they mimicked the process the brain goes through as it imagines and perceives. The same is true of poets and writers. Imagery and metaphors trigger a very complex process in the brain as memory, emotion, cognition and the imagination collectively recreate what we read from our own experience. When a reader remarks that they were so involved with a book that it felt as if it were happening to them, then the writer has does her job, because that’s exactly what is happening it is happening to them. Art primes the imagination and expands it.

Imagination has become one of the areas I have begun to explore in my practice and teaching. I used to enjoy listening to a teacher’s use of metaphors as ways to help guide me in a pose. Richard Freeman often used metaphors I enjoyed, such as flowering, rooting, and other metaphors of classic poetry that refer to nature. But as I’ve come to understand, metaphors aren’t just figurative language to please us, but actually they sever as symbols that help focus the mind and engage the imagination as a mandala does so that we can more entrain the mind and cultivate deeper states of awareness. Telling a student to imagine the bottoms of their feet spreading and setting down roots into the earth, we are initiating sensors in the bottom of the feet to feel, connect, and balance.

Empathy and Mirror Neurons

Finally, one of the more fascinating discoveries over the past few years is the neurobiological explanation for how we are affected by the movement and sensations of other bodies around us. The classic example is unconsciously yawning or smiling once we witness someone doing the same. Why do humans do this mimicking behavior? Neuroscientists have found that animals and humans are equipped with an adaptive mechanism in our nervous system called mirror neurons. These highly sensitive neurons are triggered in the body unconsciously as we witness the actions, emotion, or behaviors of another. Think of a flock of birds instantaneously setting off in flight because of one bird’s detection of a predator. It has always been interesting to me what happens in a yoga class as students miraculously attune to one another’s focus and physical awareness of their bodies, and thereby heightening the therapeutic effect for everyone in the class. Of course, this phenomenon occurs in a variety of group interactions where there is a collective focus on a goal or shared purpose. As social animals we have evolved to be highly sensitive to the needs and emotions of others in our group. Researchers are beginning to understand the profound capabilities we have to feel empathy and how important interpersonal skills are to our health and survival. Daniel Siegel in his study of interpersonal neurobiology recognizes that humans often cannot access deep emotional patterns alone but require the presence of another witnessing and actively feeling the emotion along with them. He trains therapists to develop a keen awareness of both the body of their patients as well as their own as they listen and offer feedback. Siegel believes that therapeutic skill is both a verbal and nonverbal art. By teaching therapists to use mindfulness and breathing techniques, Siegel hopes therapists can in turn help patients to trust their own bodily sensations as they relate narratives or speak about difficult emotional issues in their lives.

It’s not surprising that we are seeing a renewed interest in the benefits of mindfulness, and yoga, and other practices that involve integrating the mind and body. Our times are fraught with anxieties that we feel we have little control over, be they the world economy, war and terrorism, global warming, or the fecklessness of government. The exploration into the mysteries of how the brain function by science comes at a crucial time, as we cannot continue to act as if our brains and bodies can increasingly absorb or process empty bits of information without thinking they have no effect on our health or that of the earth’s. Mind/body practices are real pragmatic applications as they always have been for cultivating the potential’s of all of the body’s many forms of intelligence. The excitement and newfound interest scientific fields have in the mind will mean little if the billions of dollars given to research institutes don’t also go towards educating people about how they can learn for themselves to explore and cultivate the wisdom they already possess.

ACT Or REACT

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, as life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes with saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's life, accept these injustices as commonplace, but must fight them with all one's strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart . . . James Baldwin, from Notes Of A Native Son


Like many people, I have watched the so-called health care debate with disappointment and at times despair. I was there in Grant Park nearly a year ago, hoping that now finally we could put politics aside and end the injustice of letting millions of working people live with the cruel choice of health or financial ruin.
Despair is a strong word. It means a lack of hope, which is in itself a harbinger of illness. But it’s a real feeling that comes from what lies beneath it, anger and bitterness.
My story is just another story of how easy it is to fall into the ranks of the uninsured. An illness, a changed job, part-time life between three employers, and a pre-condition. I have taught for ten years at an elite private university, and augment it with other teaching gigs at other schools, even yoga in my neighborhood.
My illness? Well, some might say, it’s my stubborn belief in myself as a writer. But I wish that were all it was: I live with HIV and have for 13 years.
When I tell people that I have no insurance, a panicked look comes over them. They assume the worst. I did too when I left a very bad teaching job to finish writing a book on AIDS activism, and then after two years of looking couldn’t find a full time work with benefits. Cobra ran out and I was I faced with insurance for the first time along with a mounting debt from traveling, researching, and promoting my book. However, I was an effective speaker for students that year, standing before med students at Penn State or Princeton’s elite and representing in flesh and blood the realities and absurdities of America’s health care’s failings.
I remember thinking boldly and stupidly that I’d just have to cash in my meager retirement and was about to do so despite pleas from my friends. But what was one to do? A friend, who also lived with HIV, a yoga teacher, told me that his health insurance cost him something like $1400 a month. My bitterness was so intense the only thing I could do to cool down was swim for miles in Lake Michigan. If I didn’t have the money, then I’d just stop taking medications. I hated taking them anyway. But then another friend of mine, a promising journalist in New York, in anger with living a life of spending days crisscrossing Manhattan cobbling together health care from different special clinics and programs, just quit taking meds and seeing a doctor and months later he died. 30 years old. He died of a broken heart, literally, because it was bitterness that killed him.
Fortunately for me, Illinois with the aid of the Federal government provides funds for people who have no health insurance and can’t afford to pay $2000 dollars a month for medications, so I enrolled. And for the last two years have gotten my meds for free, though my days are numbered because I’m starting to make too much money to qualify. Next year, I can lie on my taxes, quit teaching yoga, try not to publish anything, or face paying twenty some thousand on medications.
With a diminished immune system, I can’t risk the stress of bitterness. I can’t lose sleep over the ways of Washington or the fear-mongering of pundits. I’ve protested and written articles, and that helps some. But I’m slowly learning that no matter how unfair things are I have to maintain my health with what I have: my family, my friends, my teaching, my writing, my yoga practice, and my retreats into nature.


White Mountains, New Hampshire and Maine

When I first became infected with HIV, I began a rigorous, devoted yoga practice and exercise program. When people asked me how yoga helped, I remember struggling with an answer, trying to find some biological basis or some philosophical truth, all I could say was that it made me feel as if I were taking action rather than feeling dependent on an abstraction called “the health care system.” Agency is no New Age theme for a weekend workshop; neurobiology has shown a profound relationship between what we believe and do with how we feel and heal.
I struggle, though, like everyone else with emotions of fear, anger and depression. We can’t escape the way we feel or the world’s injustices. But the truths of the ancients, be they from the west or east are the same: We can’t do much about the circumstances of life; we can however do something about how we respond to them.
I understand all too well how the injustices of the world can wound the heart so deeply that it refuses all hope. I know that no matter how strong my will or body is, I must also depend on others for my health. We are social creatures. This is why teaching is such a healthy activity. Being before a group of people who look to you for guidance demands an expansion of your thinking about yourself and how the world works. You must believe in patience and in the potency of small actions. You must learn to listen and feel your way by holding out your hands to others.
I’d hoped, perhaps naively, that this debate might not separate people over politics and money, but bring us together to discuss how to better take care of our bodies and the world that supports them. I hope we still can. Our country, despite its flaws, was founded on the enduring ideal of reason and justice. But they have no power unless we practice them.

Is Hiking a Yoga Practice?

“In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me. . . . I was there, listening. . . . I think the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it. . . . I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.” Paul Klee


In the past few years I’ve begun to rediscover walking. I hiked a lot in high school and college. But then somewhere in my thirties, it just felt too tedious, up-down, down-up, staring at shoes and dirt. It just wasn’t enough for me I thought. Part of that had to do with living in the Midwest, and as an adrenaline junky, I needed more space and challenge to subdue a torturous inner life. I gravitated to running, long-distance swimming, and ashtanga yoga. I even did some triathlons. All I did was exhaust myself a bit more quickly, but my mind was no less calm, if anything it was just that much more wound up.
Then in my forties, friends moved to the southwest and I found myself hiking in the mountains and deserts, returning again and again. Something felt different. Often I went alone and it was as if I could walk for days and not get enough of the feeling of just being surrounded by the openness and endless primal rocks and sand. I felt absorbed and my chronic depressive moods and discursive inner voices seemed to disappear. Of course, it would take two long hard days of hiking, but I was purged and even happy.


Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona

Perhaps my return to hiking is simply age or the beauty of the Arizona deserts and Colorado mountains, but I think more is going on. I’ve begun to think quite a bit about how the mind works, reading what I can about neuroscience and cognitive science, but also paying a lot more attention to my body as I practice yoga, particularly felt sensations and energies arising in it from emotions. I’ve also returned to many of the great nature poets and writers to listen how they describe the relationship between the mind and nature.
Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what we half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In Nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. William Wordsworth,

My sense is that the deep calm that can come over the mind and body while hiking has a lot to do with the body both absorbing and being absorbed by nature, or as Klee states above, being penetrated by it. For perception to tranquilize and affect the mind and body though, we have to feel what is happening to us as we walk, in other words we have to be consciously aware.


Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona

Brain waves have a lot to do with it, too. While hiking the brain goes through several states. First, beta waves dominate as you begin to hike and you body heats up and buzzes with all the new stimulation and oxygen. But eventually, the rhythm calms you down and you can enter into alpha or even theta waves.
Your pace, in fact, has a lot to do with why walking can be so therapeutic. Your conscious feeling of your pace, I should say. Feeling the feet, the muscles, and the bones in sync with each breath, you discover that your pace depends not only on your abilities but also on your body’s interaction with an environment. We don’t walk in space, we walk on earth. And often, those with us, they, too, affect our pace and experience. (See my last post about hiking with my mother.)
Hiking has begun to feel a lot like practicing yoga. And why wouldn’t it? In Hatha yoga you learn to observe and adjust your body in response to every action, feeling, movement, thought, memory, and emotion both consciously and unconsciously.
Many yoga practitioners will tell you that after several years of dedicated practice they find themselves moving differently, feeling more inside their body, aware of places and their feel. Once you learn to observe and explore sensations in your body suddenly everything gets a bit brighter and more intense. Now as I hike or even walk in the city, I find myself making adjustments in my posture, pulling in on my core, and lifting my chest. I observe and experiment: checking effort and breathe, focusing on the trail ahead and the feeling of my foot pushing off and my legs following through. Focus is not easy to maintain. But what a difference it makes to use your whole body instead of plodding along making certain muscles do all the work. How much lighter one feels when focused.
Of course, hikers, swimmers, climbers and all those who recreate in nature will say it’s not yoga necessarily that has opened my body, but simply the joy that comes with exercise out of doors. I agree. The language is the same as in yoga: focus, body awareness, breath, rhythm, and gratitude. It doesn’t matter how you find your body, the point is to be in it wherever it takes you. And if it wants to go into the desert or up a mountain, I suggest you follow it.


Appalachian Trail, Cherokee Nat. Forest, Georgia

A Walk in the Mountains with My Mother

A couple of weeks ago, I took my parents to the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Tennessee. I have been writing about hiking and the lore and mythology that surrounds America’s great natural past time, walking the Appalachian Trail. I’d wanted to do some research and hike as well as spend some time with my parents at a cabin I’d found on Lake Watauga. And it was my birthday. My parents are aging and have struggled with the onset of my mother’s loss of memory, due to early stage Alzheimer’s.
It didn’t take long to realize that my plans to take a long hike alone weren’t realistic. The second day there my mother wandered down the road while my father and I were collecting firewood near the cabin. We found her after a panicked search up and down country roads, standing next to a bridge, looking at wildflowers by the road.
I got out and handled her some water. “Have you been looking for me? my mother asked innocently. My father, sitting rigid and ready to explode, literally bit down on his false teeth. “Yes, we wondered where you went, Mom,” I told her, reaching for her hand, and helping her into the back seat.
“I just need to walk sometimes. Things pull me in and I get to looking a them and then, sometimes, I lose what time it is and forget where I am.” She explained as we drove back to our cabin. “I’m sorry.”
The next day everything was back to normal, and I suggested we all take a short hike to an overlook on top of Roan MT. When we get there, my father begs out and says he'll hang around the parking lot, complaining of his hip and lungs; though in reality, as an old athlete, it’s just too frustrating for him to have to try to keep up. I don’t push. My father’s pride is something I feel in my own body, and, in a way, it’s up to me, to help him protect it. But my mother is out of the car and ready to go before me. "I'm ready."
Though my mother’s in very good physical health and loves walking when my parents go to Florida, she’s on unfamiliar ground. This isn’t a wide-open beach. It’s a dark over-grown forest of pine, fir, and tangles of rhododendron trees. The trail is flat but full of roots and rocks. I slow down, slow more, and finally stop and wait for her. It’s going to be a long walk, I think, as I watch her, concentrating on each step.
Then she stops. “I think I need a walking stick. They’re good to hike with don’t you think?”
“Sure, good idea, mom.” (I hate hiking sticks, though they are now de rigor for most hikers.) We find this rickety rhododendron branch and she looks like a character from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, but it helps her, though it doesn’t change our pace much.


My mother hiking the AT

I try to relax and enjoy being with my mother on the trail. I take some photos. It’s just a short walk, I tell myself. But coming up to the first trail marker, I can see we’ve gone barely a tenth of a mile. I take a breath and watch her as she takes her careful steps, each movement an act of concentration. But it’s not just her unsteadiness and unfamiliarity that slows her pace. It’s her fascination with the novelty of the landscape. She stoops and looks at the moss on some rocks. “I've got moss like this in my garden, isn’t it something, so green and thick. It’s everywhere.”


My mother's Garden

As I watch her, I think that it was probably not far from here, down the Appalachian Trail a hundred miles or so, where my parents took me and my sisters on our first nature hike, in the rainy summer of 1962 camping in the Great Smokey Mountains.
It finally occurs to me as we reach a rather rough spot that she needs to hold my hand. I wasn’t sure if she wanted my help. But when I put out my hand, she grabs it and pulls me toward her. We walk a long but now the pace seems somehow no longer to bother me.
Of course, I’ve held my mother’s hand before. The evening before, we went canoeing and I just about had to let her grab a hold of my body to stabilize us as she climbed in the canoe. But walking with her on the trail, something felt different to me. Her hand felt fragile and yet electric, making me feel and see a bit more intensely, as if I were being asked to look for both of us or perhaps it was the other way, she was looking for me, I don't know. I’ve never had children, but I had this thought that this is what it must feel like.
We got to the over look and it was really not much to look at. I’d seen some of the great sites hiking around the world, in Patagonia, Colorado, the Alps, South Africa, Asia. It was foggy, but she was happy and sat down and lit a cigarette. I cringed and then had to laugh. Fortunately nobody showed up.


Roan Mountain, Tennessee

My mother’s life as an independent woman, able to go out and take in the world by car or even by foot is nearing its end. Or is it? What are boundaries of our independence? And who sets them? Who is to say, when and where our freedom to explore the world begins and ends?
A few years ago I spent a week at a meditation retreat in Thailand. All day was devoted to meditation. Up at 5 and back to bed early by 9. We sat and we walked in the classic training for the Thai Buddhists who make their retreats in the mountains to learn the dharma and the ways of their ancestors. It was there I learned walking meditation, that patient art of slowing movement down so as to explore the very essence of each sensation of the body touching the earth.
I’d forgotten that until my mother’s hand had slowed me down and made me feel how easy it is to be tricked into thinking that time and movement are something we can control. Walking that short mile with my mother on the great Appalachian Trail, I was made to feel and see that each mile, each step offers a new landscape, a new sensation, a new possibility to see beyond where we think we are going.


My hiking guide with her stick

Flowers on My Mind

Flowers in the Mind

It’s July and contrary to popular belief, this is the season of flowers, not spring. They are everywhere, in our neighbor’s gardens, breaking through cracks in the sidewalks, decorating abandoned lots, and hanging from back porches.


Back Porch, Chicago

We speak of hallucinogenic drugs having a transformative affect on our mind but I would say that flowers are the most potent and universal. All one has to do is focus on them, no ingestion, preparation, no elaborate rituals or ceremonies and something physiological blooms in us.

But why do we find ourselves so transfixed and transformed by their presence? Emotionally, what happens when we fix our gaze and senses on them? Is there something in our evolutionary path that has married us to them in such deeply emotional and biological ways? Is it smell? Is it color? Is it the form? Is it that they are often symbols of the fruit to come? Are we really no different than our ancient relatives—insects and animals-- moving pollen and seeds about like drugged drones?

As a boy, I never quite understood the mystical effect flowers had over people (i.e. adults). What made them stand in the midst of a bed and stare? What made grown men kneel before beds of snapdragons as if before some alter? Or women meticulously care for a pot of geraniums as if they were secret children they’d as soon raise rather than you? What drug were they on? Much of what I knew of flowers was from forced labor in the back yard, weeding, transplanting, mowing around unruly rosebushes that out of frustration and adolescent rebellion, I gleefully trimmed, watching the plumes of pink exhaust spray across the lawn.

Both my grandmothers, having grown up on farms in Indiana, gardened as a matter of necessity and understated pleasure. And now my parents in their late 70’s seem to find their deepest joy among their flocks of flowers and rows of beans. Here, their hands and hearts are alive with growth and change unlike much of the world they watch and read about it.

My parents, in their own strange way, have separate gardens in a two-acre lot on the edge of Indianapolis. My father has a square plot of course that has grown exponentially since retirement, first, just a few vegetables, practical as always, but then I’ve noticed each year more flowers, four-o’clocks (seeded from his mother’s garden after her death) zinnias, marigolds, hollyhocks, what he calls “farmer’s flowers,” because of their use as borders in farmer’s gardens throughout the Midwest. My mother, however has the most interesting garden, an eclectic rambling of patches that organically blend with ground cover, and the existing trees, rocks and wild plants from when the lot was a woody lot on a farm. For over 35 years, she’s stuck in plants, here and there, creating a winding garden under a canopy of hardwoods. Now suffering from early stages of Alzheimer’s she can’t recall names or how certain plants got there, but she marvels at the blooms and color, bending and weeding wherever she is drawn.

Neuroscientists are beginning to provide some very interesting research on why humans are so hypnotized by the floral universe. Apparently, several things are going on in the brain when we are in the presence of flowers. In fact, even the image or idea of a flower that we call upon from the depth of our unconscious triggers a complex response across several sectors of the brain almost simultaneously. Color, contrast, shape, and movement all figure into to why flowers are such potent sensual subjects for perception. Flowers are ingeniously designed through millions of years of evolution to attract living, moving, eating creatures, like us. Indeed, they mesmerize us, because we’ve evolved with them. Color is a key factor in their success as well as smell and shape. Researchers have discovered that the attraction of flowers in the work of poets and artists is not due to romantic sentiment or nature worship. No, the artist intuitively understands that flowers attract and awaken the imagination and thus simulate in the mind the experience of seeing a real flower. Amazingly, the artist gives pleasure to us because she is inviting our brain to recall, re-see, re-imagine and thus feel the sensation of “flower” or the complex neural patterns of colors we connect with the image or idea of flowers. Poets don’t even use visual color, they substitute words, but still they can have the same effect. Flowers assist the writer depict a landscape or give a feeling of a scene and not by completely describing it but by suggesting it for a reader, who will with pleasure fill in the rest.

Is it a surprise then that the mandala, the complex patterns of color and symbols in the shape of a circle, has been used in sacred rituals and to decorate homes, shrines, and temples across the earth throughout human culture? Is it any wonder that we surround ourselves with flowers as we move through this world, sustaining, inspiring, and making the trip with us even when we depart?

The Science of Mind: Sensation and the Imagination

“Buddhist teachings are not a religion, they are a science of mind.
-- The Dalai Lama

I’ve been meditating ever since I followed my high school girl friend into a Transcendental Mediation seminar when I was 17. I was a convert in the worst way, meditating rebelliously even before football games in the locker room, determined to prove its value, even while my teammates snickered at the drool that came out of my mouth. I’ve dropped the practice and picked it up at least a dozen times. I’ve dabbled in an embarrassing number of meditation and spiritual practices, studied scores of sacred texts and sat with an opened notebook before religious scholars, charlatans, poets, and gurus. I’ve hiked through empty deserts, up to sacred mountains, and across the globe to holy shrines hoping to stumble upon some formula to concentrate my mind and ground my spirit. I’ve been determined but stubborn in my belief that science could not give me any help on my path to understand this ancient practice. I was wrong.
Meditation or the practice of mindfulness, which to me transcends religious doctrines, cultures, and historical periods, is a practice as old as our ancestors staring at fire. It’s a technique to study the very source of what's going on inside our mind and body. I’ve come to learn mindfulness or meditation is essentially an on-going experiment in observing our mind in action. Like scientists, when we sit and close our eyes, we learn to use the tool of observation on our own mind, feeling and observing sensations, thoughts, ideas, emotions. These responses of our body are real living phenomena and by studying them we cultivate a respect for and appreciation of not only the infinite potential that exists inside us but also in all life itself. Heady stuff, but there it is, going on right inside and all you have to do is sit there and close your eyes and watch and explore.
But, mindfulness is not so simple, either. Or it’s so simple that we have a hard time trusting it. Boredom tricks us into believing that nothing really is going on worth the time it takes and the pain that comes from facing our narrow and juvenile obsessions and fears. (I once tried to meditate at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, hoping I could stay for a month. But I could only last 8 days, as all I wanted to do was break the rules and argue with the monks over why they smoked and didn't recycle!, like some spoiled American not-it-all fifteen year old, which of course I once was.) I’ve experienced emotions of deep sorrow, humiliation and terror, making me long for any form of escape from what I'd felt or witnessed. Only recently have I realized that mindfulness practice is really not a discovery of ideas and values but a way to develop a mature mind by using and exploring how it works, particularly via the imagination.
Sometimes I wonder if what really is at work in science and in any cultivated study is not the actual information or understanding that is achieved, but the very skill or awareness that comes from years of exploring sensation, emotion, curiosity and the imagination. Indeed, this is the guiding principle in the Bhagavad Gita:
“With no desire for success,
no anxiety about failure,
indifferent to results, he burns up
his actions in the fire of wisdom.”

For some time, I have taken this attitude of scientific observation to another step. As a writer and teacher of writing, I’ve experimented with recording what happens in my meditations in a journal. It only takes a few minutes. It’s similar to recording dreams, in that I’ve noticed that by recording my observations, my ability to hold my focus and observe more keenly actually increases.
I’ve asked my writing and yoga students to experiment with this as well. I tell them to simply record as best they can, sensations in their body, the quality and feeling of their breath, the emotions that come, and of course, the thoughts. The point is not to philosophize or explain or use the exercise to ramble about ideas about meditation or feelings, but simply note down as descriptively as possible what they experience. (This becomes the interesting challenge: how to describe a sensation or an emotion or thought as a real living thing?)
One of the things I’ve noticed in my experiments and writing down my observations is that the very act of focusing and the purposeful effort at observing the responses of my body naturally calms and quiets the mind. This is of course nothing new and neurobiologists understood and proved this years ago; it’s called biofeedback. (It’s interesting how much was going on in the 70’s and then dropped and now is being picked up again, isn’t it?)
Another thing I’ve noticed is that focusing on a sensation I begin to sense a feeling of heat in this part of my body. I also sense the feeling widening or deepening, beginning with the surface or some interior place and then moving outward or sinking into the inner body. I feel very subtle sensations where I did not know I could actually consciously feel or reach. It’s similar to the way memory works, one surface memory opens out or connects another more subtle memory, and memory by memory, suddenly a whole new landscape of the past opens up you've completely uncovered from your unconscious. A key to both, I believe, is the imagination.
Neuroscientists call the use of the imagination part of the brain’s organic process of integration as it coordinates various activities and processes related to a given action. Whatever is happening, I’m struck by the way my mind leaps to a symbolic image or idea as I try to stay focused on a sensation or observe my body as an emotion arises or a thought spins out. What is so interesting to me is that as I try to hold on to a feeling sensation of these phenomena (instead analyzing them and placing some meaning for they are), my imagination is energized and engaged with an intensity I seldom experience outside of meditation. Perhaps it’s there working all the time, but I’m just not aware of it. But this is just the point: being aware of how the mind works, including the imagination, enhances our use of it as well as its flexibility and its health.
You may say, so what? Well, consider this. The real revolutionary idea we are just beginning to swallow from the rapid advances in neurobiology is that, unlike what we thought before, we DO have a great deal of influence over the development and health of our brain. And, guess what? like our third grade art teacher told us, using the imagination is not just playing but opening our minds.

Panic Attack!

Panic—a sudden overpowering terror, often affecting many
people at once. Originating from the Greek God Pan, the god of shepherds of the
mountain wilds of Arkadia, who often amused himself by coming upon a lonely
traveler and causing fear in his half man half goat appearance.
American Heritage College Dictionary

Many people are feeling a sense of real panic and anxiety
these days because of the economy, global terrorism, and the health of our
environment. It doesn’t help either to have a fearmongering media mindlessly
posting updates every half hour with little context.
Stress is part of our life and a very good part of our life,
as it produces challenge and demands us to think, feel, change behavior, act
and evolve. (And, believe me, crises can be a great teacher.) But if we do not
know how stress works or how to regulate our responses to it, it can begin to
overwhelm us. Anxiety and panic are actual signals that tell us that our
body/brain is struggling with the stress levels and demanding some action.
But if stress is not released and we live in a constant
state of low level fear and anxiety, our bodies begin to break down. They can’t
stay in a state of hyper readiness to act 24 hours a day. Our bodies need to
act on perceived or felt fears and then recover.

Panic attacks often develop out of chronic anxiety. These
attacks seemingly come out of nowhere and produce psychological states of
heightened fear, dread, and a sense of feeling out of control. Our body first
gives us signals of dis-ease: nausea, cold sweats, heart palpitations, headaches, andmost of all shortness of breath. It feels we are in a nightmare; only it’s in the middle of the day and we’re not dreaming.
I used to dismiss the despair and terror people said they
experienced when suffering a panic attack. When they expressed their irrational
fears, I’d say to myself: don’t they realize this is only in their
head?
All it takes is one episode and it becomes very clear why
panic can strike us with such dread. Of course, it is in our minds, and that is
precisely why anxiety and panic, left misunderstood or not treated, can affect
our long-term health as well as the health of our families and society as well.
I’ve had mild panic attacks while traveling alone for some
time. But it wasn’t until I nearly drowned nine years ago that I really
understood how deadly a panic attack can be. Most drowning deaths are of course
set off by panic. On land, the shortness of breath may not harm us for long,
but in the water, it can kill us.
For me, a long distance swimmer, the experience was more
than a lesson in how panic shuts down the body/brain’s ability to respond to
stress, it also gave me insight into how not understanding how the emotion and
ego work can ironically prevent our organic survival instincts from working.
Here’s what happened. I’d just returned from a long flight
from South Africa, exhausted, emotionally overwhelmed, and struggling with a
nasal infection. But, eager to enjoy a beautiful lake swim and live up to my
athletic reputation, I joined two friends for a swim across a mile long lake in
New Hampshire on a chilly, dreary summer afternoon. (Mistake one.)
On the leg back across the lake I began to experience
shortness of breath and chills. I let my pals swim on but these conditions
worsened and I couldn’t get enough breath to keep any pace at all. Angry with
myself, my jock ego and trained athlete-self tried to push on. It worsened. I
looked around and my friends were too far away for me to call out for some
help, (actually, ashamed of my weakness, I told myself there was no way I was
going to call out for help). (Mistake two.) I dog-paddled trying to get some
air, but could only feel waves of fatigue beginning to pull the life out of my
arms and legs. Could I be drowning, I thought, incredulously? Me?! A
swimmer? My rational mind was furious
trying to understand the logic and the injustice of what was happening. But
I can swim two miles in Lake Michigan alone in 68 degree water? Was this some
divine joke, some Job-like test? (Mistake
three—ego feeling it as an affront rather than a crisis.)




What saved me?
It certainly wasn’t my rational mind.




In the moment following my outburst of rage, I began to
experience what many who have come close to death describe as the miraculous
sensation of psychological surrender. You’re dying and instead of going down
screaming and kicking, as I was, a profound shift occurs. How it happens or why,
is the subject of mystical poetry and now neuroscience. I have no answer. But to my surprise, I felt a profound relief. My life was over and it was perfectly fine.
And just as I had that feeling of joy and relief, the image came to me of floating in a lake in front of my grandparent’s cottage; it was a warm sunny day, the water soft and , my sister was floating next to me and my mother was standing with her hands under hands under my spine as well as under my sister’s as she whispered, “just
relax, relax, and breath and when you feel yourself sinking, just gently move
your arms and legs.” My mother’s lessons when I was five on how to float.

Where did this memory come from? My muscles? My frontal
cortex? My unconscious? Or was it a combination of them all integrating to find
the best response?

The point of course is that it came just in time to save me.
Immediately, then, I turned over, and began to do what my mother had taught me
44 years before: to focus on my breath.
Breath is of course the key to dealing with panic. It
naturally focuses the mind on the sensations of the body as it takes in oxygen
and nourishes the blood. The longer one can stay focused on the breath, the
quicker the mind will let go of the escalating feelings of fear. Ten seconds
and it can be over. In subsequent attacks I’ve had, on planes and other places,
I simply close my eyes and follow my breath all the way to its completion, fill
up again, and repeat. I keep telling myself, “breathe, just breathe.”
What’s key, is to not only breathe but to feel yourself breathing, that’s what shifts the mind off the fear. The panic subsides because the brain is now focused another
pattern: the sensations of the lungs, the diaphragm dropping, the tingling of energy and oxygen moving through the flesh. The yoga of survival, I call it.

The Real Stimulus Package: Education, Health, Science, and the Arts

"In the long history of humankind (and animal kind too) those who who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." Charles Darwin

* Scroll down for information on my Yoga and Creativity workshop in Chicago (Feb. 22 at Yoga Now) and my retreat in Mexico (March 21-28.)

Despite the fears and worries of our time that dominate the news with war, the economic collapse, and global warming, we are experiencing an unprecedented explosion in the fields of science and in the fields of neurobiology and neuroscience in particular. Also, many fields of science and social sciences are overlapping to bring us amazing insights into how we understand the world both within our bodies and the natural world around us. It’s a heady time. And yet, it seems underreported or plainly misunderstood by the media. Why? Because it is too complicated? Yes, to some degree but that’s because it takes a little connecting of the dots. (The press doesn’t have time or the money, if you haven’t noticed, to do a decent job on anything.) No, the real reason is because what neuroscientists are revealing is how the human brain works and this is threatening the very foundations of our society, from education, to law and government, religion and the arts, business, health care, and the sciences themselves.

I know this sounds dramatic because, frankly, it is. We are learning more and more how the brain works, and that means how we think, feel, behave, process, create, move, learn and evolve are no longer mysteries of a person’s inner life but verifiable brain activities that can be studied, observed, recorded, and most revolutionary of all—changed. You say, so what? We always have had the ability to alter and change how we see and think and act. This is freedom. This is the foundation of education, this is what the enlightenment brought us, this is reason, this is the essence of every major religion. Yes, but now, it’s not a theory or a grand idea or a belief, it’s a fact. Less than a few years ago, scientists and educators did not believe that you could create new brain cells or neurons, and from that, the prevailing idea was that an aging brain, a damaged brain, or (though this was not explicitly discussed) a chronically under-stimulated brain (i.e. a person with little education or opportunity for enrichment) was likely never to regenerate but continue to atrophy. Not so, according to how we understand the brain now. The brain is much more resilient and adaptive than we understood.

And what is most exciting to me as a writer, teacher of creative writer and yoga instructor is that scientists, developmental psychologists, and cognitive scientists are studying everything now: how the imagination and memory work, how the emotions work, and how the brain integrates information, perception, and memory shaping how we think and learn. The very nature of consciousness is under the lamp and on the lab table. What the sage and poet have always known is now come to pass: knowledge is not so much what we know, it is rather how we know it that brings wisdom.

My careers as a yoga teacher, nonfiction writer/journalist and writing professor have challenged me to understand this very shift neuroscience has validated in its study of brain plasticity and the adaptive and creative potential of the mind. For example, Hatha yoga is basically a working theory, a pragmatic discipline to learn how the body and mind work and can evolve as we practice, observe, and develop our awareness of its inherent intelligence. Writing, as I’ve painstakingly learned, is an art form that opens us, again as our scientists are suggesting, to examine the story behind the story of what it means to be alive as a species in an ever-evolving universe. Human nature is as an infinitely fascinating and dramatic story, and the best writers, it seems to me, look at it with a god-like eye, asking us to do the same even while are entranced in the artistry of the story-telling. Teachers, too, the best ones I’ve had, inspired me to question everything, break assumptions and ideas down into their smallest parts, and then begin to find the connections and relationships common to what we discovered.

I hope we are now in a true age of reason, where rationality and, yes, hope, can sustain us and reward those who are doing the work to liberate the creative energy and intelligence locked away in so many people who have been numbed and dumbed down by both their own hopelessness and sadly business, government, and institutions that have benefited on this old way of thinking. The revelation in neurobiology is suggesting that though genetic factors affect our health and potential, our agency and our environment are so much more important and can be altered by a healthy, stimulated, and confident body and mind.

Just as neuroscience gives us hope about how we can learn more how to better understand our amazing creative minds, it also starkly points out just what happens to the brain when it does not get stimulated, when it becomes stuck, attached to repetitive cycles of thinking, acting, believing. The brain is a pattern maker and a healthy brain actually seeks stimulation and challenge so that it can maintain its flexibility to integrate, feel, perceive, imagine, think, and act. But if it is not stimulated, it atrophies, and falls victim to patterns that stifle its natural ability to learn, evolve and seek challenge.

This is why, I believe, education, the sciences, the arts, and the cultivation of physical and emotional health are such critical areas to support and FUND for our future both here in the US and abroad. We can make such a difference if we merge these areas and provide opportunities for people to access education, their creative potential and their health. This is not a romantic notion any longer, it’s a factual assessment of how the world works, how biology operates. Limiting knowledge, creativity, and health will be the death of us. Or we can begin to work and act so that as many people as possible can benefit from the liberating knowledge that is within our very own bodies.

My future blogs will discuss these themes:

• Creativity and the imagination and how yoga and other body awareness disciplines can help us understand and use them more consciously in our lives.

• How meditation works and how to use a meditation log to help cultivate more awareness of what’s going on physically, emotionally and mentally as you practice.

• Anxiety, panic, and the breath and how simple breathing techniques can affect our health, decrease stress, and even be a life saver.

• How learning basic physiology and how the mind and brain work affects our physical and emotional health, our ability to learn and take action.

• Hiking, yoga asana and how exercise can affect and alleviate depression.

• The physiology of creative writing: the importance of studying how the body/brain/mind works for the writer and the reader.


Yoga and Writing Workshop
Spring Break in Sayulita, Mexico
March 21 - 28, 2009
The Creative Body: Using Writing and Yoga to Discover the Authentic Voice
Writer Michael McColly will lead morning and afternoon yoga sessions to nurture the mind
and creative spirit along with journaling and writing exercises.
Journalist Teresa Puente will introduce writers to Mexican literature
and culture through afternoon classes. This is a retreat for writers,
students and teachers to work on an individual level with an
opportunity to discuss their goals and challenges with fellow writers
and the instructors.
Sayulita, Mexico is located about 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta
on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It is a colorful beach town with an
array of restaurants and shops. There also are opportunities to go horseback riding, take
surfing lessons and go snorkeling.
The cost of the not-for-credit class does not include these activities, but organizers can
provide you with information. Airfare and transportation not included. It is possible to take
a taxi or a bus from the Puerto Vallarta airport to Sayulita.

Cost: $1,200 for workshop and a shared room and $1,500 for workshop and a single room.
This includes the cost of the workshop, lodging for a week, breakfast and lunch.
Send up to 10 pages of your work and a one page statement on why you want to take the
workshop to tpuente777@hotmail.com
For more information, go to http://toltecatlwritingworkshops.vox.com/

Barack: Our Student President

"We judge of a man's wisdom by his hope, knowing that the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth." Emerson

In the throes of our soaring infatuation with our new president, it might be helpful to consider what it is that many of us are attracted to in Barack Obama. Listening and watching him at his inauguration, as a yoga teacher and writer, I noticed first his body, how he stood, how he smiled, how he projected confidence, intelligence and joy, and even fear. He understood his role in the ritual like an actor in a Greek Play. He is comfortable in his body, but not as celebrities are, but with a kind of generosity of spirit, inviting you, too, to feel comfort in your own body. He is someone who loves words and realizes they are bigger than he is. I noticed, too, that his voice sounded much more rooted than in the past, none of that Black preacher voice he has fallen in to before, he’s not a Black preacher, Reverend Lowry is a Black preacher (and what a moving poet he is, too). But that’s okay, because our president, for me, embodies another skill that is perhaps much more important for us, that of how to be a student.

For anyone who has read or heard about his past, you know that this is someone who has learned how to observe, study, and listen. This is not a talent, but a skill learned from his life, from his mother and grandmother and grandfather, from teachers, friends, from his peers, books, colleagues, and from Michele and his daughters. Learning to be a student doesn’t end when we leave formal school, it becomes a philosophy, a way to live, work and act in the world.

In my roles as a writer, teacher, yoga practitioner, and yoga instructor—being a student is perhaps the most important skill I try to practice and teach my students. In Hatha yoga as well as in my work as nonfiction essayist, the foundation of these two arts is the ability to unify as much as humanly possible the observing self with the object being observed.

In Hatha Yoga, one begins by studying one’s physical body: how it works, how it moves, how it breathes, how it releases waste, how energy and chemistry animate it, how it evolves and changes and most of all, how it is a microcosm of nature. A student refines her awareness by focusing on the subtle aspects of our body, specifically our emotions, our organs of perception, our memory, our dreams, our patterns of thinking and feeling, the stories we tell ourselves, and most intriguing of all--our imagination. Step by step, a practitioner becomes a student of their own body and from that knowledge everything follows.

Both yogi and writer are fascinated with not just the subject itself but with the art of how to explore and understand that subject. The yogi like the artist is a pragmatic scientist who wants to learn the best techniques to examine a phenomenon, a process, or a situation. Every perspective, every means of knowing is of value--empirical facts, intuition, perception, and the imagination. The student, like our president, loves the very act of learning, of discovering new ideas and perspectives, and of learning from his errors of perception and judgment. Ironically, for our time of hyping genius, perfection, athletic prowess, wealth, and stardom, a true student relishes failure and difficult challenges, as these become the greatest teachers. We know he has great challenges before him, but I hope we know that we have to let him fail, too, as this will only be to his and our benefit.

Back to the Future: Neuroscience and Kindergarden

“ . . . habit is a great deadener.” Samuel Beckett


Out of the labs and medical schools across the globe neuroscientists are making some startling discoveries. Startling to the health sciences perhaps but not to those of us in the arts and those who have experienced the benefits of mind/body practices such as Hatha Yoga.

If you’ve been under a rock, it’s been impossible not to notice the explosion in the media stemming from these almost weekly reports from halls of science. Why? Aging baby boomers? Hardly. It has come from a long chain of research as is usually the case in the sciences, but also from the use of new technology like MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) that gives precise pictures of brain activity. Physics and molecular biology in particular has been involved as well. Neurons. Brain Cells. Get used to hearing about them. What is revolutionary about what neuroscience is uncovering is not just interesting facts for scientists to argue about in journals like Nature, but these studies are asking questions and providing valuable insights about the very way in which we think, perceive, feel, remember, and imagine. Consciousness itself is being examined in the laboratory.

One of the discoveries which has received a lot of attention is rather obvious but nevertheless critical for how we understand the way in which neurons work and regenerate. In the past, researchers thought that as people aged or if they suffered severe trauma or injury they lost neural function in parts of the brain for good. Not so. The brain is “plastic,” to use the new term used by neuroscientists. The brain evolves, grows, heals, adapts like other parts of the body. And how? Through what artists, philosophers, and any wise observer of human life could have predicted: through stimulating experience, exercise, enhancing sensual perception, and cultivating self-awareness. The brain needs challenges and that doesn’t mean doing more crossword puzzles, it means moving the body, trying new things, breaking old patterns of thinking and acting.

Knowing is one thing, but changing behavior is quite another. Neuroscience has opened the door and provided the strongest evidence yet that not only the health of our brains but the health of our bodies, families, workplaces, and communities depends on applying this knowledge.

Where to start? Everywhere!

For years people pooh poohed what we did in kindergarden as a gentle and enjoyable way to slowly indoctrinate five year olds into the next phase of their lives: education. And then we learned in touchy/feely 60’s and 70’s that play, meaningful creative expression, singing, and exercise were in fact very important for developing children’s mental and kinetic agility, socialization, etc. Well, what neuroscientists are saying is that, hey, we need to be going to kindergarten our whole lives. As adults, we need to play, meaningfully, several hours a week. And not play so as to sharper and feed our addiction to competing, either. We need to practice being aware of our bodies; yes, practice, moving, tasting, seeing, touching, hearing, and thinking in novel and pleasurable ways. I am going bird watching again and painting, something my first grade teacher introduced us how to do!

I teach creative writing as well as yoga. And even in these disciplines, I have to remind students that their attitudes toward their body is critical. And that every day they need to practice at being alive: by experimenting with perception, seeing the world from different perspectives, exploring how concentration works, exercising their body, exploring the world, feeling pleasure not to escape but to absorb and savor life. Cultivating the mind begins with knowing how the soma or the body works. We can’t know how to use the imagination unless we understand what feeds it and what enhances it. Octavio Paz said, “Every act of perception is an act of creativity.” And this is exactly what neuroscience has underscored.
Perhaps this New Year you can begin to try a few new habits of life . . . and mind. My advice, think small, and make it enjoyable. Surprise yourself as much as you can.

The Art of Concentration

What goes on when we concentrate? And why is it that sometimes we can easily slip into a state of concentration and at other times we struggle?

As a teacher of writing and of Hatha yoga, I am in the business of trying to help people in this skill crucial to cognition. The cultivation of awareness and perception rests in our ability to sustain focus on some object or sensation. It’s common to hear students complain that they have a hard time focusing. Actually, it’s not focusing that is the problem, it’s sustaining their focus so that they explore and savor the experience before them. They have a hard time, because the brain only stays focused on one thing for about ten seconds.

The derivation of the words focus and concentrate come from the word—heart. The focal point in a home is the what? The hearth. The place of fire, food, story, conversation, and community. To concentrate means to direct or draw towards a common center. In chemistry it means to make a mixture less dilute. And so it is with our mind. We have thousands of competing sensations, ideas, distractions to keep us from maintaining our focus. Neurons are firing all over our complex brain: “Pay attention to me. Pay attention to me!

This is where the arts of meditation are so helpful. People see it as some special esoteric art or prayer like activity imbued with mysterious or religious powers, but meditation is simply a technique to train the mind to maintain focus. And, I like to tell students that there are many ways and experiences where we can train our minds how to focus. The reason meditation is so helpful is that it teaches you how to observe your mind as a way to understand how concentration works. You don’t just watch the object, you watch your mind watching the object. This is the key. You are essentially watch the flux of the mind and not attaching your mind onto whatever new thought it brings. Life is flux. To think we can hold our attention is a mistake. We can’t. Our brain like other organs operates without our conscious effort. What we can train ourselves to do is learn how to concentrate the mind by slowing it down and feeling the sensation of the body under the spell of deep attentiveness.

Meditation is not exact. It’s uneven and imperfect. But in my experience, what the body and mind seem to be doing is not so much as learning how to grip the mind, but rather how to feel a certain sensation or rhythm of feeling. And this is what entrains and quiets the mind; it’s not some physical fete of prowess, it’s learning to feel a vibration or sensation and falling into sync. Actually, it’s our own body’s deep rhythm we are tapping into.

In Hatha yoga, one technique is listening to or feeling the sensation of the breath. It is so simple that it’s difficult because all you are doing is sitting quietly and feeling the body as air (energy or prana) passes in and back out. In a way, it’s an act of intimacy, like sitting next to a child or a friend or a lover or an animal or whatever living thing and completely devoting yourself to seeing and feeling their presence? There are other techniques--chanting, visualizing a sacred image (a mandala) in the mind’s eye, or focusing on an icon or lit candle.

The artist is one who can see relationships and connections in experience, and also see deeply into the heart of an experience, tracing it, layer upon layer, to its source. When we concentrate, we actually frame an experience and make it sacred. And to do this, we naturally turn to our imagination.

Are You Hip?

“Hip” and the Metaphysical Mysteries of the Origins of Modern Words

Every year the world not only loses words but whole languages. That’s right, entire vocabularies, poetic expressions, mystical ideas, medicinal knowledge, songs, and legends. Modernity keeps marching on, and so, does language. Evolution takes its course.

Writers, however, are wordsmiths. We love words, we love how they sound and feel in the mouth, we love the way they look on the page, we love to discover new ones and use them. Like musicians who love to hear new songs or old songs or learn from other instruments or other cultures, we writers live for poetry of words.

I’ve been reading the back of my dictionary lately, the place that gives the roots of English and it’s Indo-European origins. Their etymology or their stories fascinate me. It’s like archaeology. You look there at the end of the definition, see the root, look it up, and a whole history opens out. Like the word, focus, which means a point where light or radiation converge or where they appear to converge. And you can go down and read that it means many things, in optics, disease, geology, etc, but at the bottom, my eyes “focus” in on the derivation from Latin “hearth.” In other words, this word comes from people seeing light in a fireplace in their homes or huts or wherever it first came from. Your poetic mind can go a lot of places with this.

Here’s another, in our era of terrorism (something we think is new, maybe to us in America, although guess what the Apaches were called or any number of Indian people? Terrorizers, villains, assassins, barbarians, etc.) What were the Apache doing? Protecting their land. But look at the word assassin, for example, this comes from a group of Arabic people who followed a certain mystical Sheik in ancient Persia who promoted the use of hashish to excite and empower warriors to kill enemies (Christian Crusaders or other enemies) in name of their mystical leader. The assassin is the word for hashish user in Arabic. Hmm. Does this help us understand anything of our times?

Finally, my favorite—“Hip” or as it’s been spelled “hep.” We all think we know what this means, right? Where did it come from, though? Hip-pies? Hepcats? Cool dudes? Well, it comes originally from Senegal, West Africa.

I remember seeing it first in a Wolof dictionary while in the Peace Corps, and thinking Is this word the word I think it is? I’d already learned about “dig” (to understand or comprehend) from the Wolof I lived with. “Mangi deg ko.” (I understand it.) But “hip” or “hepkat”? Yes. Here’s what clued me in. In Wolof, a farmer is a “mbaykat” (one who farms), a teacher,”janglekat” (one who teaches). You see the suffix is added to the verb to indicate one who is an expert at something. So . . . a “hepkat” is what? Those wise Wolofs, whose language shares roots with the Ancient Egyptians, released into the world of words an expression that doesn’t have to do with how one acts or appears (the common connotation) but it goes deeper than that, for them, “hep” is “to see clearly,” and thus the “hepkat” is “one who sees the world clearly.”

Projections

Projections


When I lived in Senegal and worked in the Peace Corps, I was always struck by the emphasis people there put on dress. I saw some of the most fantastic displays of style, jewelry, headwear, shoes and scarves (on women and men) that I have ever seen. And color! These people had an amazing sense of color. Vibrant, bold, wild, creative. Designs that would stun you, knock you over and make you smile. Every day in a place like Dakar was like a style show. But, even poor—very poor people—if and when they could, would dress with care and style, especially at a ceremony, marriage or funeral. But for me, being a young guy and a so-called ‘free spirit American, I didn’t think it really mattered what I wore. I wore what I felt like, what other Peace Corps volunteers wore: tie dye or plain white t-shirts, jeans, 50 cent sandals, and baggy pajama like pants. We dressed for comfort and political solidarity, trying to say, hey poor Africans we’re with you. Women dressed a bit better than we guys. But nothing like the Senegalese women.


One day this Senegalese friend of mine who was my French teacher asked me a surprising question. “Why do you Americans dress the way you do? I don’t understand it. You have the money to wear nicer clothes that you have made for you, but you wear the same raggedy things all the time. Why?” I laughed nervously, and try to tell him in my bad French and Wolof that in America young people dress to show how they feel about themselves and not to conform to authority or convention. But he didn’t buy it. “But you live here now. And you’re an authority here. Everybody sees you as a person with money and power. You should dress like that.”


“I don’t care what other people think. I dress for myself.”

“No,” he said. And I’ll never forget the reason he gave. “No, you have to understand we don’t dress for just ourselves, we dress for the people who will see us. We dress to please them.”


I just stood there with a dumb look on my face. It wasn’t the first time, the Senegalese turned my ideas about life completely upside down.


For the Senegalese dressing was not only an act of self-expression, it was also an act of respect and awareness that who we are and what we project affects other people. It also was an act of respect for the family and village people came from.


I tried to dress a bit better but never quite could wear purple and green design ensembles. But when I did dress with more care and color. I always got a lot of compliments as well as jokes about what I used to wear.


I still don’t dress that well. But last week I, too, changed my appearance to write about the effect on others I met and the effect on myself. I wore a very conservative black suit, tie and black shoes. I rode my bike to a café where I go often and people did a doubletake. Women especially seemed to notice me, much more than normal. One woman leaned over and kissed me as a greeting like we were in Europe or something. I’m older so I guess it seemed normal. But the most interesting thing was how I felt. Yes, uncomfortable and hot. But I did like the whole process of dressing. It changed my walk. It changed how I sat. I think I even worked differently at the café.


In Hatha Yoga, there is a lot of emphasis as there is in all Hindu traditions in karma or your actions and their affects on both your future and on others. “What goes around comes around,” as we say here in the west. “You reap what you sew,” as the Bible says. Being conscious of how you project your ideas, feelings, and thoughts are a big deal in India. Karma matters. In the spiritual practice of yoga, when you live in ignorance of how your actions are affecting your future and other people’s futures, you will eventually feel their effect. There is a symbol of this in Hindu mythology: it’s a snake eating its tail. And that’s precisely what you have to do—eat all of your projections you throw out there in the world, swallow every small-minded act, every hateful statement, every greedy deed, every ugly display, every destructive thought.


In a time where it’s going to get very ugly with the election and the economic disaster ahead of us, it might be worth considering what our projections on the world are. We live in a world where actions, thoughts, deeds, and words matter.