Archive for the ‘Research and Complementary Therapies’ Category

The science on the mind-body approach to hypertension has been summed up in the February 18, 2018 newsletter by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

A 2010 review of 36 randomized trials on biofeedback as a treatment for hypertension found that there was no convincing evidence that it was a superior to medications, placebos, no intervention, or other behavioral therapies.

A 2013 review of studies on Transcendental Meditation (TM) indicates that it may have a modest reduction in hypertension. How does TM fare compared to other forms of meditations? There have been no head-to-head studies.

A 2014 review of studies: Compared with exercise, no evidence was found for effects of yoga on systolic or diastolic blood pressure. It cautioned that people with high blood pressure may need to modify or avoid certain (unspecified) yoga poses.


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As I see people strenuously doing crunches and sit-ups at the gym, alone and with trainers, here is the case made by Harvard Medical School’s Focus on Fitness e-newsletter: yoga planks are good for core fitness, sit-ups and crunches are not good for the back.

A decade ago, sit-ups and grunting crunches were the standard for tight abs and slim waistlines. But research has proven that they are not effective and may actually cause harm. The repeated sit-ups push the curved spine against the floor with pressure causing damage to the compressed discs in the small of the back. Dr. Stuart McGill’s (known for his expertise on the back) work suggests that in some people the crunches may cause herniated discs.

Sit-ups can tug on tight hip flexors that are engaged in the movement–hip flexors are muscles that run from the thighs to the lumbar vertebrae. This results in lower back pain and discomfort.

Abdominal muscles are just a small group of core muscles. So using just a small group means the rest of the muscles are not worked.

Planks do not wear and tear the vertebrae. They also engage many more muscles–on the front, sides, and back. So they strengthen the whole torso, not just the abs.

In BBC’s Future series article, The surprising downside of sit-ups, a 2011 Illinois study had one group do daily sit-ups for six weeks and the control group did none. The sit-ups  made no difference to waist size or the abdominal fat!

The BBC article states: “Research published in 2005 on soldiers stationed at the US military’s Fort Bragg attributed 56% of all the injuries sustained during the two-yearly Army Physical Fitness Test to sit-ups.”

One study suggests that it is not the wear and tear on the discs but genetics that predispose some people to back injury more than others.

Readers may also want to look at a previous post on this blog from November 7, 2011:


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The relaxation response triggered by yoga and meditation counters the stress response. When the mind-body has repeated experiences of stress, the stress response triggers faster as a survival mechanism and the stress hormones, over time, cause health problems. Stress may contribute to, or exacerbate, some of these familiar health problems:

anxiety * arthritis * constipation * depression * diabetes * headaches * heart problems * heartburn * infectious diseases such as colds and herpes * insomnia * irritable bowel syndrome * backaches, joint aches, abdominal pain * PMS * ulcers

This is now widely accepted knowledge as I am learning in the Mind-Body Medicine: The New Science of Optimal Health by Professor Jason M. Satterfield Ph.D (Great Courses from The Teaching Company).  The stress response is well-explained in the following excerpt from:

Now and Zen: How mindfulness can change your brain and improve your health Longwood Seminars, March 8, 2016 Content provided by Harvard Health Publications health.

Collectively, the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands make up the HPA axis, which plays a pivotal role in triggering the stress response. The hypothalamus sends a chemical messenger (corticotropinreleasing factor, or CRF) to the nearby pituitary gland, which then releases its own chemical messenger (adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH) into the bloodstream. ACTH travels to the adrenal glands, which respond by releasing a number of stress hormones into the bloodstream. At the same time, the sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones, too. The combined effects of these hormones are widespread…Senses become sharper, muscles tighten, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, and breathing quickens. All of this prepares you to fight or flee in the face of danger. Simultaneously, the hypothalamus fires up the autonomic nervous system.

Yoga and meditation activate the relaxation response through the parasympathetic nervous system which counteracts the overactive sympathetic nervous system. (This has finally become mainstream and is no longer “fringe medicine”!) Stress hormones such as cortisol are reduced. Blood pressure may drop, heart beat slows down, breathing is slower, the muscles relax.

Along with life style changes, cultivating positive behaviors, and improved diets, yoga and meditation offer very cost-effective ways to significantly improve health outcomes. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is also found to be effective, but it can be very expensive.

For a study at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (see the link above), two groups were studied: long-term practitioners of yoga, meditation, and repetitive prayers and a group with no prior experience of these techniques. The novice group was taught a 20-minutes sequence with diaphragmatic breathing, body scan, mantra repetition, and mindfulness. Blood samples were taken from both groups to examine gene activity–specifically on how the body deals with free radicals.

The long-term practitioners had the most significant positive change and the novice group saw some positive change after eight weeks of practice. However, this effect is not long-term, suggesting that like physical exercise, the relaxation response needs to be triggered regularly. Yoga, meditation, prayers, need to be part of a regular routine.

I have two links to free audio tracks (diaphragmatic breathing and body scan) for readers of this blog who may want to start a regular practice.



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Yoga Nidra is being taught at the Benson Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. These are Satyananda-based Yoga Nidras. The hospital is also a center for MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) programs established by Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn. As I am doing the Teaching Company’s Mind Body Medicine Guide by Dr. Jason Satterfield at the Unitarian Society, it has become yet another affirmation of the dovetail complement of the bio-pyscho-social model of medicine with the meditation philosophies/practices. Viewers can download free tracks from Mahasri Yoga that brings over 35 years of experience with Yoga Nidra and refer to the book review of Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda. Benson’s research started with Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Benson writes in his book [The Relaxation Response}, “We claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom”.[3]

The Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital teaches how to elicit the response in nine steps. Benson’s website and his book describe four steps.[5] Two of those steps are essential: a mental device (a simple word, phrase or activity to repeat to keep the mind from wandering) and a passive attitude.[5][6] The goal is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes humans to relax.

Benson developed the idea of the response, which counters the fight-or-flight response described during the 1920s by Walter Bradford Cannon at the Harvard Medical School.[7] According to Benson more than 60 percent of all visits to healthcare providers are related to stress. It causes the “fight or flight” hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, to secrete into the bloodstream. This incites or exacerbates a number of conditions. They include hypertension, headaches, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic low back pain, as well as heart disease, stroke and cancer.[8]

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Relaxation_Response

The core belief of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) – that teaching patients mind body approach like meditation and yoga can reduce their stress and improve overall physical health – was proven correct in a preliminary study published this fall in the journal PLOS ONE.  The study found that patients who participated in BHI programs reduced their medical visits on average by 43% in the year after taking part.

Source: http://www.bensonhenryinstitute.org/


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Compassion and empathy are popular concepts today and believed to contribute to personal happiness. How useful are they in clinical settings, end-of-life care? Is it worthwhile to have compassion training programs in schools, assuming it is possible to train compassion? What is the difference between empathy and compassion and what do each of those words mean? Can they be measured? Can the brain be transformed through mental training (something we looked at in some depth in the June happiness meditations)?

Compassion: Bridging Science and Practice, a free multimendia e-book attempts to answer these questions. It is authored by Professor Dr.Tania Singer and Matthias Bolz, both from the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. The book describes existing secular compassion training programs and empirical research, as well as the experiences of practitioners. The state-of-the-art layout of the e-book includes video clips and a selection of original sound collages by Nathalie Singer, and artistic images by Olafur Eliasson.

In the film Raising Compassion Tania Singer and Olafur Eliasson bring together workshop participants in an informative exchange between science, art, and contemplative practice.

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Happiness is a popular topic right now and there is another online Coursera course offered by the Indian School of Business, A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, by Professor Rajagopal Raghunathan. Here is the description from the online catalog; click on the above link to read more and register.

What are the determinants of a happy and fulfilling life?

This is surely one of life’s biggest questions, and a question that has interested many of our ancestors. Buddha famously gave up his kingdom in search of happiness. Several Greek philosophers (from Aristotle to Epicurus and Plato to Socrates) had their own views on what it takes to be happy. And of course, we all have our own theories about happiness too.

How valid are our theories?

Till recently, if you wished for an answer to this question, you would’ve been forced to base it on discussions with spiritual leaders. Or, if you were lucky, you could’ve based it on late-night (and perhaps intoxicant-fueled) conversations with friends and family. Happily, all that has changed now. Over the past decade-and-a-half, scientists have gotten into the act big time. We now have a pretty good idea of what it takes to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

This course, based on the award-winning class offered both at the Indian School of Business and at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, developed by Prof. Raj Raghunathan (aka “Dr. Happy-smarts”) draws content from a variety of fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral decision theory to offer a tested and practical recipe for leading a life of happiness and fulfillment.

The course will feature guest appearances by several well-known thought leaders, including:
– Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational and, soon to be released, Irrationally Yours),
– Ed Diener (“Dr. Happiness”),
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow),
– Barbara Fredrickson (author of Positivity and Love 2.0),
– Marshall Goldsmith (author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Triggers),
– Art Markman (author of Smart Thinking and Smart Change), and
– Srikumar Rao (author of Are You Ready to Succeed? and Happiness at Work)

By taking this course, you will discover the answers to questions such as:
– Why aren’t the smart-and-the-successful as happy as they could—or should—be
– What are the “7 Deadly Happiness Sins” that even the smart and the successful commit?, and
– What are the “7 Habits of the Highly Happy” and how can you implement them in your life?

By the end of the course, I expect students who have been diligent with the lectures and exercises to not just gain a deeper understanding of the science of happiness, but to also be significantly happier.

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In preparation for a series of three happiness meditations on June 12, 19, 26, I came across these two video clips from the Mind and Life Institute that are really enjoyable and engaging. Jud Brewer, now at Yale, was part of the Coursera course on Buddhism and modern psychology–so he was a familiar to me. The other is by Dr. Richard Davidson. Enjoy!

I have already reached out to people on my e-mail list about the happiness meditations. Anyone else who is interested can e-mail me or make contact via this blog.



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