Monthly Archives: November 2013

Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof of Meditation Benefit

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Bloomberg News
November 22, 2013
By Makiko Kitamura

Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images
People take part in a meditation day for peace in Colombia at Bolivar Square in Bogota, on Sept. 28, 2013.

Scientists are getting close to proving what yogis have held to be true for centuries — yoga and meditation can ward off stress and disease.

A man practices yoga on the waterfront at Nariman Point in Mumbai. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

John Denninger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, is leading a five-year study on how the ancient practices affect genes and brain activity in the chronically stressed. His latest work follows a study he and others published earlier this year showing how so-called mind-body techniques can switch on and off some genes linked to stress and immune function.

While hundreds of studies have been conducted on the mental health benefits of yoga and meditation, they have tended to rely on blunt tools like participant questionnaires, as well as heart rate and blood pressure monitoring. Only recently have neuro-imaging and genomics technology used in Denninger’s latest studies allowed scientists to measure physiological changes in greater detail.

“There is a true biological effect,” said Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals. “The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain.”

The government-funded study may persuade more doctors to try an alternative route for tackling the source of a myriad of modern ailments. Stress-induced conditions can include everything from hypertension and infertility to depression and even the aging process. They account for 60 to 90 percent of doctor’s visits in the U.S., according to the Benson-Henry Institute. The World Health Organization estimates stress costs U.S. companies at least $300 billion a year through absenteeism, turn-over and low productivity.

Seinfeld, Murdoch

The science is advancing alongside a budding “mindfulness” movement, which includes meditation devotees such as Bill George, board member of Goldman Sachs Group and Exxon Mobil Corp., and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch recently revealed on Twitter that he is giving meditation a try.

As a psychiatrist specializing in depression, Denninger said he was attracted to mind-body medicine, pioneered in the late 1960s by Harvard professor Herbert Benson, as a possible way to prevent the onset of depression through stress reduction. While treatment with pharmaceuticals is still essential, he sees yoga and meditation as useful additions to his medical arsenal.

Exchange Program

It’s an interest that dates back to an exchange program he attended in China the summer before entering Harvard as an undergraduate student. At Hangzhou University he trained with a tai chi master every morning for three weeks.

“By the end of my time there, I had gotten through my thick teenage skull that there was something very important about the breath and about inhabiting the present moment,” he said. “I’ve carried that with me since then.”

His current study, to conclude in 2015 with about $3.3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, tracks 210 healthy subjects with high levels of reported chronic stress for six months. They are divided in three groups.

One group with 70 participants perform a form of yoga known as Kundalini, another 70 meditate and the rest listen to stress education audiobooks, all for 20 minutes a day at home. Kundalini is a form of yoga that incorporates meditation, breathing exercises and the singing of mantras in addition to postures. Denninger said it was chosen for the study because of its strong meditation component.

Participants come into the lab for weekly instruction for two months, followed by three sessions where they answer questionnaires, give blood samples used for genomic analysis and undergo neuro-imaging tests.

‘Immortality Enzyme’

Unlike earlier studies, this one is the first to focus on participants with high levels of stress. The study published in May in the medical journal PloS One showed that one session of relaxation-response practice was enough to enhance the expression of genes involved in energy metabolism and insulin secretion and reduce expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress. There was an effect even among novices who had never practiced before.

Harvard isn’t the only place where scientists have started examining the biology behind yoga.

In a study published last year, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn found that 12 minutes of daily yoga meditation for eight weeks increased telomerase activity by 43 percent, suggesting an improvement in stress-induced aging. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, shared the Nobel medicine prize in 2009 with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for research on the telomerase “immortality enzyme,” which slows the cellular aging process.

Build Resilience

Not all patients will be able to stick to a daily regimen of exercise and relaxation. Nor should they have to, according to Denninger and others. Simply knowing breath-management techniques and having a better understanding of stress can help build resilience.

“A certain amount of stress can be helpful,” said Sophia Dunn, a clinical psychotherapist who trained at King’s College London. “Yoga and meditation are tools for enabling us to swim in difficult waters.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Makiko Kitamura in London at mkitamura1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at pserafino@bloomberg.net

Man protesting yoga program outside of EUSD schools

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Coast News Group
By Jared Whitlock
November 14, 2013

Man protesting yoga program outside of EUSD schools

Craig Nordal holds signs reading, “Protect your children” and “Opt out of yoga” at Capri Elementary School to protest the Encinitas Union School District yoga program. Drawing concerns from parents, he’s been to at least five of the district’s campuses so far. Photo courtesy of EUSD parent

ENCINITAS — A local man has been staging protests at Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) campuses, holding signs that urge parents to opt their children out of the district’s yoga program.

Reports of Encinitas resident Craig Nordal picketing EUSD schools surfaced last week. Carrying signs with messages like “Protect your children,” he’s been to at least five of EUSD’s nine campuses so far.

When reached over the phone on Tuesday, Nordal declined to comment on the article.

On Oct. 28, Nordal sent an email addressed to three EUSD school board trustees stating, “Yoga is without any question anti-Christ.”

The email goes on to say: “I know that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be holding to account anyone who is held responsible for leading innocent children astray! It is certain that this yoga program is absolutely doing that!”

Soon after EUSD launched its yoga program last year, a group of parents took issue with it, arguing that yoga forwards Hinduism and is unconstitutional. A lawsuit followed, and a judge ruled this summer that EUSD yoga promotes fitness and mental wellness, not any kind of religious doctrine.

Dean Broyles, who brought the initial lawsuit, filed an appeal of the ruling two weeks ago. Broyles said that he isn’t “encouraging or discouraging” the protests.

“I am not involved in the protests, so I don’t really have much to say except that it appears that said gentleman is engaged in expressive activity explicitly protected by the First Amendment,” Broyles said. “While one may or may not agree with his message, he has the constitutional right to express it publicly and he appears to be doing so in a respectful and appropriate manner.”

EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird said that parents and principals at the schools have complained about Nordal’s protests.

The protests have been taking place in the mornings around the time parents are dropping their children off.

“He has his First Amendment right to be out there, but I’m not sure if he needs to be in front of the children,” Baird said.

Baird said he’s heard of “verbal exchanges” happening between Nordal and frustrated parents, including a dispute that briefly held up traffic. But at this time, Baird doesn’t believe Nordal poses any security risk.

Baird added he was told Nordal is a grandparent of a child in the district, though he couldn’t confirm that.

Dave Peck, who is representing EUSD families in the yoga lawsuit, noted a “couple dozen parents” have reached out to him to express their disapproval with the protests.

Peck said Nordal has a legal right to stand in front of the campuses, but called it “fanning the flames of controversy.” He added that it would be more appropriate for Nordal to make his dissatisfaction known at school board meetings.

He stated that those against school yoga had their day in court this summer, and the debate will continue to play out during the appeal process.

“The court system remains the appropriate venue for this debate,” Peck said. “To stir the pot at school campuses, in front of children, is the height of irresponsibility.”

Encinitas yoga appeal

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Dear YES! Families –

It’s now official…. last week attorney Dean Broyles filed a Notice of Appeal in the EUSD yoga case.  The appellate process will run well into 2014 and we will keep you updated along the way.  For a glimpse of the impassioned irrationality which has gripped the yoga opponents, I share with you this excerpt from an email sent to members of the EUSD school board by an anti-yoga parent:

“I just returned from the presentation by Dean Broyles and was absolutely convicted and astonished at how we as Christians are being blinded by Satan.

“Yoga is without any question anti-Christ and I was thinking of you during the entire presentation.

“We heard a mother who is at a school where yoga is now offered at recess to any child who wants it, and she described children on field trips, in buses and on the playground performing the yoga positions on their own. This is what I talked about…indoctrinating and opening an evil spiritual world that public schools are and should be prohibited from forcing on these innocent defenseless children!

“It is a blatant violation of their innocence to protect them from religious indoctrination and a blatant violation of our Constitution!

“. . . I earnestly pray that you [school board members] will discuss this e-mail together and pray about it!!!

“I honestly  fear for your salvation, and in no way am I placing myself as judge, but after learning what was just presented I know that the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob will be holding to account anyone who is held responsible for leading innocent children astray!

“It is certain that this yoga program is absolutely doing that!”

There’s truly no point  in arguing with these folks.  Many are so blinded by fear that they fail to see the irony in their position.  They view the U.S. Constitution as a Christian document and urge the school board to be guided by religious beliefs – so long as those beliefs align with their own.

Fortunately, most members of our community are not so closed-minded.  YES! families include people of all faiths, including many devout Christians who recognize that the EUSD yoga program is exercise – and nothing more.  Students stretching on busses and playgrounds should be viewed as a good thing…. not as evidence of an evil agenda at work.  No kids are being led astray.

We appreciate your ongoing support.

–          Dave

UPDATE November 6:

Dear YES! families –

Several of you have posed a very good question:  In order to end the yoga debate why doesn’t EUSD simply change the name of the fitness program from “yoga” to something else, like “stretching”?  That would seem to be a perfectly reasonable compromise…. but not to Mr. Broyles.

In fact, Broyles has argued that if EUSD were to change the name it would simply be an act of “camouflage” designed to conceal the true Hindu agenda at work.  Broyles believes such “camouflage” is the among the District’s most sinister tactics as it fools folks into believing that acts are innocuous when they actually have religious significance.  In support of such position, Broyles has pointed to the District’s reference to a sitting position known as “criss-cross applesauce”.  [We called it by the less politically-correct name “Indian style” when I was a kid.]  Broyles claims EUSD engages in “camouflage” when it uses such a kid-friendly term for what is actually yoga’s lotus position.

As mentioned in our last post, there’s no point arguing with these folks.  Logic and reason are no match for religious zealotry.

We’ll be in touch.

–          Dave

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