Can yoga influence the gene expression of your DNA?

I believe so as I personally dove into all of the mind-body interventions yoga had to offer to prevent one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of mortality. Both of my parents were diagnosed with hypertension, with my mother getting the diagnosis in her 30s, and both went on to develop cardiovascular disease that is managed by multiple prescription medications.  When I turned 40, my physician informed me that I was pre-hypertensive, which sent me on a journey that not only reversed this diagnosis, but changed my life in so many other ways!  Different life experiences can influence your genes and cause subconscious behavioral patterns that are passed on over generations, including trauma.  And now we might be discovering how yoga and all of its contemplative practices can change and perhaps undo the damage of such life experiences.

There is a newer focus of research that is digging deeper into how the contemplative, mind-body practices of yoga impact our genes, especially in relation to the stress response and inflammation.  This body of research is looking at the autonomic nervous system’s response to stressful events, specifically the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern.  The human body’s autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.  When presented with signals and sensations, the autonomic nervous system responds and takes one of three pathways through these two main branches to keep us safe.  The oldest route from an evolutionary development perspective leads to immobilization (think freeze/faint) through the parasympathetic dorsal vagal nerve branch.  The next pathway to develop led to the mobilization response (think fight/flight) through the sympathetic nervous system branch.  The final one to evolve led to social engagement (think safe and social) through the parasympathetic ventral vagal nerve branch, which is unique to mammals.

When danger is sensed, the human body’s autonomic nervous system travels backwards through the sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response and then perhaps, if we feel trapped, to the parasympathetic dorsal vagal nervous system’s freeze/faint response.  When the body arrives in the space of immobilization for survival, it can be a long and painful journey back to the space of feeling safe and social.  So anything that might make this journey shorter and less painful is welcome!  That is where understanding how yoga can support such intentions is vital.

Without going too deep into the science (click on the button below to read more if interested in a deeper dive), when the human body encounters stress and triggers the sympathetic nervous system, it increases production of chemicals that regulate how genes are expressed, activating genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation.  When these higher levels of cytokines persist over time, the human body is put at a higher risk of a whole range of diseases, including cancer and psychiatric disorders.  This newer research is finding that people who practice mind-body interventions such as mindfulness meditations, yoga or Tai Chi, actually reflect the opposite effect, namely a decrease in the production of cytokines, leading to a reversal of the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern.  One of the more recent studies considered one of these mind-body interventions, specifically meditation, an emotional and attentional regulatory activity that supports a state of inner quiet.  From this inner quiet grows increased self-awareness which has the power to reduce stress-related symptoms.

To read more about the growing evidence that stress can cause changes in gene expression and how intentionally engaging in mind-body practices can transform the genetic effects of stress, click below:

Can yoga change your brain?

What if we could see inside of our brains when we are practicing our deep breathing, sun salutations, and savasana?  Would you want to see/know what parts of your brain are being turned on and off or growing and shrinking?  Well, this might not quite be reality yet, however, with neuroimaging technology what it is today, it is pretty close!  When I started my yoga practice almost 20 years ago, I didn’t know what the practice did to my brain if anything, I just felt relief each time I left class.  Now, all these years later, it excites me to know that it supported my brain’s own natural ability to heal.

Before discovering yoga, I was a workaholic that was in a constant state of flight or fight with the world around me.  I figured I had inherited my mother’s anxiety and there was nothing I could really do about it.  Boy was I wrong!  My first yoga class spoke to me in a way that I had never experienced before, calling me back to the mat that first year 5 to 6 times a week.  I thought it had become my new addiction, yet it changed me so profoundly that I was finally able to find the long sought after balance I craved in my life.

I believed yoga was a huge contributor to my healing journey, although at the time I might not have fully understood how it worked.  Today, with the integration of neuroimaging and neurophysiological techniques into the study of yoga, research has begun to reveal consistent structural and functional changes in the brain.  With the benefit of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and/or single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanning, the benefits of yoga are lighting up our brains!

Although the various research studies have looked at different aspects of yoga, such as movement versus meditation as well as styles of yoga, these studies reflect relatively consistent cerebral structural and functional changes.  What this tells me is that you can’t do it wrong!  It doesn’t matter if you practice Iyengar, Yin, Hatha and/or Kundalini yoga, it will help your brain.  It doesn’t matter if you practice movement, breathing techniques, meditation or chant, it will help your brain.  And with all of the different approaches, including Kids and Chair yoga, yoga is available to help our brains throughout the entire life cycle.

Fast forward with the increasing popularity of yoga worldwide, research is still scarce in yogis yet it is expanding with the assistance of neuroimaging.  And this research is showing that yoga effects the brain both structurally and functionally, specifically in areas involving interoception, posture, motivation, and higher executive functions.  Moving forward, more research is needed to reflect the changes in the brain through neuroimaging when the brain is suffering from the effects of anxiety, depression, PTSD and other stress-induced mental health challenges.  I would have loved to see what my brain looked like before discovering yoga and after integrating my practice into my everyday life.  I think the results would have been very validating!

Can yoga – and all of its contemplative practices – contribute to a healthier cognitive aging process?

My husband and I try to remember to laugh when we walk into a room and then have to stand there for a few minutes because we realize we forgot why we were heading there in the first place.  And I think a sense of humor is critical in many circumstances, so applying it to myself as I age is putting a value into action!  However, instead of accepting the gradual decline in the neural circuitry of the brain as we age, what if you were to learn that there was a simple way to preserve the connectivity in our brains that contributes to overall health?  Would you be willing to try it?

Well, with the assistance of brain imaging, research studies can see the impact of contemplative – or attentional – practices on very specific areas of the brain, which opens the door to more rigorous studies that shed light on how such practices can support a healthier cognitive aging process.  These brain imaging techniques have shown that there are changes in the functional connectivity of our neural networks as we age.  Now the idea of ‘before and after’ imaging can be applied more broadly in research, beyond the studies that focus on prescription medications.

My experience when I am able to give something my full attention is one in which the memory of the moment is so much richer and stronger, whether it is a conversation with someone or simply sitting outside in nature.  I find that I can more easily recall the details of the experience when reflecting on it, almost as though I am experiencing it again in all of its colors and textures.  So if there is something I can do to help support the health of my ability to maintain my attention, I say ‘sign me up!’

Recent data from studies looking specifically at yoga and other contemplative practices such as meditation suggest that such practices may revert, at least in some part, the effects of aging on the functional connectivity in the brain.  The intention of the research is to look at how using the body and breath as the focus of contemplation helps to preserve cognition and the neural connectivity of those brain areas that typically decline with age.  When we hold the body in one of the shapes of a yoga practice, and bring the mind’s awareness to focus on the experience of the breath in that shape, it supports the parts of the brain that support cognition and brain connectivity.  Sounds pretty good to me for simply moving the body and breathing with intention and attention!

If you are so inclined to read more about the details of a recent research study looking how yoga and other contemplative practices impact specific parts of the brain involved in maintaining a healthier cognitive aging process, click the link below:

Can meditation support your immune system, especially in light of the effects of COVID-19?

As someone that suffered with anxiety for most of my life, I am personally so grateful for my yoga practice, which includes various contemplative practices such as meditation.  (Click here for a great image that reflects the many different types of contemplative practices.)  What I found through the ongoing use of these tools is a consistent way to navigate stress to maintain my body, mind, and soul health.  Stress is still present – and I no longer have any expectations of living a stress-free life – yet it no longer accumulates into an expression of anxiety.

Meditation is a very personal experience.  It is the personal nature of the practice that can make it difficult to try and especially hard to maintain.  There are also many different forms of meditation, so it definitely is not one-size-fits-all.  Yet the intention behind meditation – to slow down the mind and help us detach from our thoughts – creates space.  It is this space that can be scary.  When we encounter stress, one of the most common tools humans go to in order to deal with the freeze/fight/flight response is distraction.  We might distract ourselves by watching shows, eating, drinking, shopping, or one of the many other forms of impulsive behaviors that bring feelings of guilt and remorse along with them.

And yet more and more research is demonstrating the benefits of meditation, including how it can support our immune system functioning, which is vital right now in light of the pandemic.  Meditation, whatever form of it that works best for you, helps to regulate the normal, natural human stress response, reducing the inevitable inflammation effects of that response.  If we can find a form of meditation that we enjoy, then this tool can become the sharpest one in our toolkit and the one we consistently turn to when we feel anxiety building.

One of the more creative methods of meditations I utilize is journaling.  This expressive writing tool has also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.  Relax Like A Boss, a website dedicated to wellbeing and stress, put together an ultimate guide to meditation journals.  If you might consider this form of meditation, you can link to the guide here for tips on how to get started.

Contemplative practices do not have to be done for long periods of time, unless that works for you.  Another one of my favorites is conscious deep breathing, and I do this several times a day for just a few minutes.  It acts like a reset button for my nervous system.  You might count how long you inhale and how long you exhale or you can include visualizations, such as colored light.  You might add affirmations, such as inhaling peace and exhaling stress, if that helps give the thoughts in the mind the necessary mini vacation.  Simply keep in mind that you cannot do it wrong!

I think what is most exciting is how research is looking at the body-mind connection more and more and not approaching the body and mind separately when working towards health.  One recent review of the research literature focused on the interconnected physiological processes in the body that supports the continued inclusion – and expansion – of meditation in the treatment of diverse medical conditions.  What they looked at more closely is the impact of stress on the gut microbiota and how meditation supports the health of our gut, leading to a healthier mind through the regulation of neurotransmitters.  The research team recommended the integration of meditation into conventional health care and wellness models.  If you would like to read more about this review, click the button below:

Does including music in a yoga class add to the healing benefits?

When I first started taking yoga classes years ago back in New Jersey, the teachers did not play music in the background.  There might have been some chanting, as I do remember learning about chanting “Om” and “Shanti” to start and end classes.  However, it wasn’t until I attended a class where the teacher played the quartz crystal singing bowls while we stayed in comfortable, supported shapes that sound caught my attention!  I left that class sensing that something deep inside of me had shifted, although I could not put it in to words at that time.  After moving to California, I noticed that most yoga teachers included music in their classes, whether it was simply nature sounds or straight up rock and roll!  So once I became a yoga teacher, I began to include music in my classes while setting the intention to manifest a set of those singling bowls so I too one day would be able to offer that deeper experience to others.

After a few years, I acquired a set of Tibetan singing bowls which were made out of metal and generated different sound frequencies depending upon their size and thickness.  The belief was that the frequency of each bowl was tuned to the seven major chakras, or energy centers, in the body, causing the human body to begin to vibrate at the same frequency as the bowls, referred to as entrainment.  The process of entrainment of the body’s frequencies to the sound frequencies of the singing bowls was thought to help the body recover and align with its natural, dominant vibration of wellness (versus illness).  At the time, I didn’t have any evidenced-based research to prove such claims, I only had my own personal anecdotal experiences.  Although I think most of us would not argue how music impacts us, research is now starting to show how these specific vibrations from the singing bowls impact mood and Heart Rate Variability, a physiological measure of health.

Now, you have to understand, that although I love music, I do not have any musical talent.  I sing, but not well and only when I am alone and I have no musical instrument training.  I also avoided group exercise classes (before yoga) because I always felt I was a step behind everyone else – yes, I believed I had no rhythm or coordination, instead of knowing I simply vibrate at a different frequency!  It wasn’t until my yoga practice expanded my awareness to the fact that sound, vibration, rhythm, resonance and dissonance permeate the universe.  Those sounds start for us in the womb, where we hear our mother’s heartbeat, pulse and breathing (and entrain with these vibrations) and we remain rhythmic beings until we take our very last breath.  And not only are we rhythmic beings, but all sentient beings vibrate, especially when we allow ourselves to tune into nature.  In fact, if you would like to experiment with some healing sounds of nature, click here to listen to the sounds of birds and sense how stress and anxiety simply melt away!

The intention behind the physical movement and shapes of a yoga practice on the mat is to soften the mind’s activity, by helping it to focus on the body and breath and releasing the tight grip of the thoughts that keep us distracted.  As we practice yoga, the brain waves of the mind change.  The higher frequency brain waves (i.e., Gamma and Beta) begin to slow down.  These higher frequency brain waves are associated with stress, anxiety, and fear.  When the singing bowls are included in the physical practice of yoga, in addition to the physically felt vibrations, the bowls emit measurable waveforms that sound pleasant and soothe the mind and emotions by promoting the slower, more meditative alpha and theta brain wave states.  So, over 15 years later, I couldn’t be happier that I have manifested a beautiful colored set of quartz crystal singing bowls to include in my yoga and meditation classes!

And I’m also excited to learn that therapeutic sound and music is permeating other healing spaces too.  The recent increase in research on the use of music in healing has shown a strong effect on the brain, including rebuilding neural connections, increasing neuroplasticity, balancing brain activity in the emotional centers such as the amygdala and hippocampus, and enhancing reward (e.g., release of dopamine) circuitry, which helps to regulate mental and emotional responses.  The research is compelling enough that music therapy is being integrated in military treatment facilities, such as the Walter Reed Medical Center, to treat combat-related traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.  So, the next time you are in a movement class and sense the enjoyment of the music, know that the sounds and vibrations are working at a deeper, subconscious level to invite the body to entrain to its natural vibration of health.  Nothing for you to do, simply enjoy!

If you would like to read more about how music is being integrated into military treatment facilities for trauma-induced mind-body dysregulation, click on the link below:

Will physicians start prescribing yoga for hypertension soon?

Both of my parents have a diagnosis of hypertension and were put on antihypertensive prescription medication to control it.  I think my mother received the diagnosis in her 30s.  I was turning 40 when I first heard my physician say my blood pressure was “elevated” and wanted it monitored in order to determine if I too would need to be put on some medication.  Boy, am I glad that shortly after that I discovered yoga!

I found yoga while celebrating my 40th birthday in Neversink, NY at the New Age Health Spa.  I recently learned that this place closed down a couple of years ago, which made me a little sad to think that it truly launched me on a path toward holistic health and wasn’t able to sustain itself, unlike the riches the pharmaceutical companies rake it.  The first things I noticed after practicing yoga initially were that my low back pain (from bulging/herniated discs) went away and the chronic tension in my body began to lessen.  The best news though was when I went back to the doctor’s office and was told my blood pressure was back to “normal”.  Now, after many years of practice, my blood pressure is actually considered “low”!

This dramatic change in one of the leading causes of morbidity in my own experience – and one in which prevented the need for a life-long attachment to a prescription medication – was all the motivation I needed to continue to explore the benefits of a yoga practice, eventually leading me to becoming a teacher to offer such healing benefits to others.  Unfortunately, my individual story doesn’t equal proof of a connection, so it has taken many years for the research to show that yoga does have a positive effect on your blood pressure.

In a recent systematic research article review that included 49 clinical trials, the data now show that yoga, when breathing and meditation practices are included, is a viable antihypertensive lifestyle therapy.  It is in moments like these that I would like to say “I told you so”!

If you would like to read more on this recent research, please click the button below:

Might integrating trauma-informed yoga into group psychotherapy be helpful in healing and health?

As a trauma-informed yoga teacher and holistic psychotherapist, I’m always on the outlook for new ways to integrate these two (East meets West) healing modalities, better supporting the alignment of the body, mind and soul (think spirituality).  Research continues to emerge in support of integrating both with positive effects.  As we continue to expand our understanding, we are learning that treating the mind (psychotherapy) separately from the body (yoga) limits the healing benefits.  Just as we are learning that treating the body (medical health) without considering the mind (mental, emotional health) limits healing.  Yet, as I have written about in a previous Blog, there are many yoga style options.

What makes trauma-informed yoga different?  A central tenet of such an approach is choice.  As such, the language used to guide students is specific to creating a choice-based environment and reminds them that they are always in control of their practice.  Certain words are used to empower participants to make choices that feel comfortable and invite a more gentle compassionate approach.  The teacher’s role is to be a supportive and non-judgmental presence.  They are aware of how their own movements and interactions are perceived, demonstrating predictability and consistency to create and maintain safety.  In maintaining such healthy boundaries, they model those boundaries, which includes no physical assisting as such assisting may be triggering to someone recovering from trauma.  Trauma-informed teachers ‘invite’ participants to draw their awareness to the sensations in their bodies to guide them in their choices of shapes and timing of their movements, not ‘tell’ them what to do and when.  Even the guidance around how to breathe in such a class is a suggestion to find a supportive breath that invites comfort.  So no focus on holding the breath is offered.  If you are interested in reading more about trauma-informed yoga, I would suggest checking out Zabie Yamasaki’s website here.

Trauma-informed yoga is new.  In fact, in 2017 the Trauma Center’s trauma sensitive yoga (TCTSY) became the first dedicated yoga program in the world to be listed as an evidence-based program/practice of psychological trauma.  So how excited was I to read the emerging research on integrating trauma-sensitive yoga into group psychotherapy for at-risk groups, such as survivors of intimate partner violence.

What this research suggests is that it may not only have positive effects for clients in Group Therapy, but also for the care providers!  If you would like to read more about this research, click the box below:

Can practicing Yoga Nidra improve academic performance?

When I was in college way back when, I remember hearing about the research that suggested when students nap during studying, they remember more about what they were studying or in other words, students improved their memory retention.  This research flew in the face of what I observed most students doing instead – pulling all-nighters before exams.  However, I always thought about it when I found myself napping on the weekends while reading my textbooks or writing papers as it made me feel less guilty about nodding off.  Flash forward thirty years and now the research is showing that practicing Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep or sleep of the yogis) can improve academic achievement.

Yoga Nidra has been referred to or described as deep relaxation, sacred rest, nirvana, an altered state of consciousness, psychic sleep, a meditation practice, and/or resting in awareness.  No matter how it is referred to, Yoga Nidra is a guided awareness practice that has the effect of supporting the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of our autonomic nervous system responsible for rest and digestion.  When practiced, the physical body is positioned in a comfortable, supine position, supported by blankets and pillows to provide comfort and the awareness of the mind is directed away from thoughts and guided to focus on the body, breath, senses, emotions and even imagery.

By supporting the parasympathetic nervous system, balance is invited into the body and mind with the effect of creating greater access to all parts of the brain and, thus, facilitating the digestion of our external experiences, such a learning something new.  Although the research findings indicate that practicing Yoga Nidra reduces stress levels and improves academic achievement, it is not clear if these findings are a result of increasing cognitive functioning, including attention, learning and memory, or as a result of increasing emotional regulation, or a combination of both.  Regardless of the mechanism, this research offers a powerful tool to not only students, but to teachers, the educational system and its entire support structures.

For more information on the beneficial impacts of Yoga Nidra on academic performance, click on the links below:

What type of yoga is best?

As a Hatha yoga trained teacher under the umbrella of the Raja type of yoga, I am often asked if one style of yoga is better than another.  It has always been my belief that all yoga has mind-body-soul benefits and recent research appears to support such a belief.  However, what I think is important to understand is that yoga does not just include the physical poses or shapes that most of us first think of when asked ‘What is yoga all about?’.

Sacred yogic texts offer that there are four types of – or paths to – yoga, which is often defined as the union of body, mind, soul and spirit.  Raja yoga is the type of yoga that includes techniques, such as movement, meditation, and mudras, and is what is most often practiced here in our Western world.  Bhakti yoga is the type of yoga focused on devotion, also referred to as the path of love.  Jnana yoga is the type of yoga focused on the attainment of knowledge or wisdom through study and self-inquiry.  Karma yoga is the type of yoga focused on action without attaching to the outcome of your efforts, also referred to as the path of selfless service.

With this basic understanding of the four types of yoga then, when we think of yoga practices we start to realize it is all yoga.  When we focus on the yoga most practiced here in the US, Raja yoga, then we can begin to broaden our perspective as to what is included in this particular type, beyond the physical movement we do on our mats in a yoga class.  Yoga practices or techniques can include breath (pranayama), intention setting (Sankalpa), visualization (Bhavana), mudra (body/hand positions), mantra (chanting/sound), meditation (all kinds!), and how we interact with others and ourselves.

When we do take a moment to focus on the physical movement on the yoga mat, within the Hatha yoga style of Raja yoga, multiple yoga styles have emerged, which makes this type of yoga available to everyone.  Options run the gamut from Vinyasa flow, which is a faster-paced, sweaty practice to Restorative, where bodies are supported by blankets, bolsters, and other props to find comfort and held for at least 10 minutes.  Other classes might simply focus on breath practices or sound healing through musical instruments or chanting/singing.  Even others might offer guided visualization meditations.  Yoga class descriptions might represent the offering as a Beginner’s class or a Level 1 class.  Newer trainings include Yoga of 12 Step Recovery and Trauma-informed Yoga.

Therefore, my answer to the question is ‘Whatever works for you!”.  Not all yoga is equal.  Yoga is not the vanilla flavor of union and instead has evolved into a more ‘flavor of the month’ approach to broaden its reach and appeal.  And, the more we learn about the roots of the ancient tradition, we come to realize that it was originally taught in a one-on-one format, passing the knowledge of the guru to student, most likely taking into consideration that student’s individual needs.  So, in reality, yoga (with all of its techniques or ingredients) is meant to be a personal practice, customized to what is needed in the moment.  With this understanding then, my answer might include a response such as “You are your best guru, so listen to your body and allow it to join the mind in making the decision as to what feels best in the moment”.

If you still believe just one type or style of yoga is best, I encourage you to click on the link below to read more about the research that concluded that the choice of yoga style can be based on personal preferences and availability:

Can 8 weeks of listening to a 13-minute daily guided meditation change your life?

The second most frequent question I get asked – after how many times a week should I do yoga (Click here to read my reflection on this question) – is how long should I meditate each day in order to reap the benefits?  Well, it appears that brief daily meditations can have a positive effect and it can be as simple as picking your favorite meditation to listen to each day for just 8 weeks!

When I was first introduced to the idea of meditation on my yoga mat, I was still struggling with giving myself permission to include taking care of myself on my “To Do” list and was in the process of embracing the idea of that in order to take care of another, I must take care of myself first.  So, the idea of creating time to sit still and empty my mind of my thoughts did not seem realistic.  And, at the time, we didn’t have “smart” phones we carried around with us all day!

As I continued my yoga practice on my mat, I learned that meditation can take many forms, not just one.  In fact, the very last pose of all yoga practices – savasana – is a very powerful meditation opportunity.  When I initially found myself in savasana, I used the time to organize my “To Do” list for the following day, leaving my mat feeling uplifted by the clarity this time created for me to get even more organized.  It took me awhile to release my attachment to the need to be productive even in the quiet, still moments of life and fully appreciate those moments to simply BE.

As I slowly began to embrace the concept of less is more and challenge society’s demand for multi-tasking, I opened up to the idea that creating more opportunities for “being” brought balance to all of the “doing”, which, I personally discovered reduced my anxiety and allowed space for a response instead of a reaction.  I found myself in yoga classes 5, 6, 7 times a week as my body was motivating my mind to get through the “doing” to settle into the “being” that savasana supported.  The challenge then became how to learn how to meditate off of my mat, without a teacher guiding me in a group class.

And that is one of the exciting offerings that advances in technology bring to us today – you can access meditations online without ever leaving your own place of comfort!  So, the question then becomes, is this sort of meditation effective, where you are listening to someone guiding you through the practice or is it required that you sit in silence trying to quiet your mind on your own to gain the benefits?  Well, recent research conducted with non-experienced meditators suggests that such a daily practice can enhance attention and memory and improve mood and emotional regulation.  The research had participants listen to a 13-minute recorded, guided meditation for 8 weeks and found that such a short, practical meditation practice affected cognitive functioning in these ways with non-experienced meditators!

So now might be the perfect time to find that guided meditation that you find comforting and soothing to download and start listening.  This research also found that only 4 weeks was not enough time to experience the beneficial impact, so don’t give up!

To read more about this research study, click on the button below: