The Science of Meditation

Encouraging Medical Meditation


Mindfulness and mediation are increasingly popular buzzwords.  Historically, most cultural traditions have long promoted quiet contemplation, prayer, seclusion or meditation for peace of mind and clarity.    Until recently, evidence for the benefits of mediation was limited to subjective self-reported improvements in mood.  Indeed, practices and results vary and are highly individual.  Because of the individual nature of meditative experience, the benefits of Yoga and meditation have been considered a “soft science.”   However, some new scientific studies are using modern technology to gather concrete evidence.

Scientists are finding mindfulness and meditation practices cause profound changes in the brain.  One recent Harvard Medical School affiliated study found; “Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”  In addition, “Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.”[i]

Recent and ongoing research has also found that mindfulness and mediation have profound effects on neurochemistry.  Meditators enjoy inhibited cortisol levels[ii], increased DHEA[iii] and Melatonin[iv]:  The cumulative effects of which can regulate sleep, and decrease the effects of stress and aging. [v]

One of the most exciting applications of mindfulness utilization is in healthcare itself.  Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson, is the pioneer in connecting the effects of stress related illness.  He has published studies noting that more than one third of medical residents experience burnout.  “They exhibit lower levels of mindfulness and coping skills and higher levels of depression symptoms, fatigue, worry, and stress.”  His assertion is that, “These preliminary findings should encourage programs to initiate and study curricula that combine mindfulness and self-awareness coping strategies to enhance or protect against burnout as well as cognitive behavioral coaching strategies to offset symptoms of burnout when present.”[vi]

In a subsequent study, the same group confirmed that mindfulness and self-compassion was inversely correlated with burnout in pediatric residents. [vii]

The question then becomes how do we implement mindfulness in the high stress environment, such as healthcare?  For now, the first step is to learn more about the daily routine of our target audience to identify opportunities to implement mindfulness techniques that are workable in their busy lives.


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Acro Yoga w/Toni

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Why I love Yoga…

Why I love yoga… Did I mention I’m a nerd?

I was supposed to be mediating on sending my students enlightenment in Savasana.  Instead, my mind presented a thought to me that made my heart sing…  Yoga is like chess.  That is why I love it.  It appears finite.  But it is infinite because each of us is infinite in our experiences.

A chess board has a finite number of  squares.  (The practical answer is 64 for those of you who may care.)  The pieces are constrained to their own movement patterns.  And yet, the expression of possible outcomes exceeds the greatest of minds.  The interactions of the sequencing of the moves are charged with character and mood.  Truly they are an artistic expression of the player.

On any given evening if you join me at the Barnes and Noble, you will find an assortment of gentlemen.  They are mostly from intriguing foreign lands. They, like their countries of origin, seem to hold the secrets of this refined art but seemingly lack any understanding of fashion.  Maybe the universe is in balance this way.   My presence is always a disruption as I watch the movement of simulated war unfolding on the board in front of me.  I love to watch how each player has his own flavor.  One will line all pieces up cleanly.  Dominating the board with an impenetrable precision.  His counterpart may seem haphazard and disorganized; confusing his opponent with surprises and disorder.  How they interact creates a dance of unpredictable out comes.

So, how is yoga like chess?  In the same way, the body is finite.  We are constrained somewhat by a series of postures who each have their own alignment.  And on our mat, as we express them in varying sequences, they play with our bodies and minds.  We become unfolding movements that are also charged with character and mood.  Each game, each dance is new unto the unfolding of the day and moment of the game.

Even more, if the practice is guided by a teacher… The interaction between the teacher’s guidance and the student’s movements becomes like a sculptured expression of the chess player.  The teacher must respond to the student’s own movement.  Planning a counter to the students interpretation of the posture. The teacher through his actions always gesturing the student’s bodies, minds and spirits through a game of release, empowerment, relaxation and self-discovery.

In chess there are moments of surprise where one player sees in the board what his counterpart cannot understand.  Through concentration and movement they teach each other to come to understanding and realization.  This is the student teacher relationship.  Just like chess; who is the master and who is the student shifts between counterparts as the game goes on.  So it is between the participants of yoga.  The student and teacher enhance each other’s understanding through the infinite possibilities of countless practices.  Each moment carries the surprise of discovery, through unending moves each time the players approach the mat… or board.


Did I mention I’m a nerd?

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Can I still sell mats? The ethics of direct product sales by Yoga Teachers. What do you think?

What an adventure! Yoga Tree Plano registered yoga school has met its one year anniversary. What a wild and exciting time. It is unbelievable that somehow students from all over are contributing to make the practice of yoga available for themselves and others. It was such a leap of faith to start doing this full time.
One of the first efforts I made was to work on a statement of ethics for yoga teachers. Each teacher in the training program is required to sign it. We study the ones for Yoga Tree, Yoga Alliance and The California Yoga Teacher’s Association.
Our discussion was interesting. Somehow, for teacher training students that haven’t yet started teaching, it is so hard to grasp what relevance ethical standards have. The comment I hear most is, “I already act ethically.” As a seasoned teacher, I can tell you I have blundered into some ethical missteps along my path. Not intentionally, and not always innocently either. (Just keepin it real)
Ethics is about when you think you are doing the right thing, or an ok thing, or a thing everyone else does… and it causes harm. Harm could be a violation of any of the Yamas or Niyamas.
For those of you not familiar with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; The Yamas are suggestions for our treatment of others. In a nutshell they are non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, non-greed. The Niyamas are the suggestions for the practice of self-restraint; they are purity, contentment, discipline, spiritual study and devotion. These seem pretty easy, but the more you practice yoga, the more complex they get.
So here it goes. The Yoga Alliance has an ethical guideline to adhere to the Yamas and Niyamas. It is easy to be pleased with this statement. They have about covered it right? The issue is: That guideline isn’t very useful.
I have been approached by no end of direct sales “health and wellness” companies who would love for me to sell directly to my yoga students. Most direct sale companies emphasize trust and relationship for the basis of developing a sales relationship. Students already have this relationship with their instructor.
I need guideline to help Yoga Teachers understand that even though they may really help people through their sales of vitamins… selling to students after Savasana is unethical.
Here is why:
1) Yoga students are in a non-ordinary state when they practice Savasana. They are more suggestible in this state. Taking advantage of this state is a type of harm.
2) A yoga teacher is not the same as a savvy neighbor. As a teacher, students will attribute all manner of authority to a teacher whether deserved or not. Generally, unless a yoga teacher happens to be a nutritionist, he/she is not qualified to recommend nutritional products. Accepting this authority outside of the yoga field is non-truthful.
3) The new dual relationship could cause anxiety and ruin the yoga experience for the student. I.e. what happens if/when they no longer wish to buy from the teacher? The student will become uncomfortable. Students want to please their teacher. It is part of the student teacher dynamic. Students could continue to buy items they don’t want to keep the teacher happy. (This is stealing from the student.) The student may stop coming to class. (This is stealing from the studio) They may not enjoy class the same way. (This is stealing from the student’s right to an emotionally simple yoga environment.)
4) You would probably not make the same actions if you were not selling the vitamins. I think probiotics are awesome. They work great for me. I love Suzie. I think they would work great for her. I don’t provide probiotics at cost to save her the trip just because I love them. Therefore, it is untrue that a direct salesperson is “only helping people get what is good for them.” The motivation of money can quickly turn to greed. What if the student shouldn’t do yoga anymore because of an injury? But the teacher knows that student will not reorder if they stop yoga?
I vote we need an ethic that guides teachers away from direct sales to yoga students.

Oh no! Can I still sell mats in the studio?

What do you all think?

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Toni laughingIt was important to me to create opportunities for yoga to happen.  The yoga tree is that place.  It is part of my vision that yoga students and teachers find a place to express their own understanding of this rich and ancient tradition.  Please enjoy  the work of one of our students, Ann Nauwelaers as she explores the concept of Brahmacharya or moderation….


Yoga Sutra II.38 Vitality appears in one who is firmly set in moderation.

~ Patanjali as translated by Bouanchaud

Although usually thought of as celibacy (state of not having sex). Brahmacharya entails a lot more. It really means self-restraint and self-discipline on all levels. Therefore it is vital to everyone seeking higher consciousness or spirituality, whether monastic, married, or unmarried.

1. “Is moderation valid if it appears only in certain spheres, for example in the sensual, but not in the emotional?

As Yogis we strive to harness the energy which creates the universe (Brahma = God of creation) and to direct this flow of energy through our being. We need to do this moderately because our life force is both limited and precious. So instead of an endless pursuit of fleeting pleasures we need to use this power to find and express our inner selves. If we use our energy wisely we possess the resources to live a fulfilling life.

(Source: Teaching the Yamas in Asana Class by Aadil Palkhivala)

2. “Can one person in a couple live in moderation without his or her partner agreeing to it or sharing it?”

One person, after having deeply pondered the whole basis of life, can say: “I want to achieve something great, something mighty. Therefore I cannot afford to deplete the energies that I have. The more I conserve, the more I can divert into that achievement and the greater the chance of succeeding.” So thinking and having understood the rationale of it and fully appreciating the ultimate achievement it would lead to, one can voluntarily and willingly attempt to enter into a life that is the life of God.

However, if brahmacharya is forced upon an individual against his will, abnormal conditions naturally may result, because the person is being compelled to do something that deep within himself he does not want to do. This can happen if he feels pressured by  others, by social restraints or by taking up vows that he should not have taken before having well considered the implications.   (Source: The Role of Celibacy in Spiritual Life by Swami Chidananda)

Ann Nauwelaers

Swami Chidananda on CELIBACY

Brahmacharya is neither repressing sexuality nor avoiding sexuality. It is just bypassing sexuality in order to attain something a hundred times greater. Therefore, the question of repression and suppression is a misnomer. It is due to a lack of proper understanding of what the real spiritual quest is. We are not just human beings; we are more than human beings. Our human status is only a pale reflection of what we really are. What appears to be a sort of denial is actually giving full self-expression to a higher dimension of your being. So, far from denying self-expression, it is giving full expression to yourself because you are no longer identified with the lesser aspect of your total personality. You are identified with the higher aspect. That is the whole purpose of human existence. Human life has been given to us as a passageway to Divinity, as a passageway to everlasting life.

Among all the bodily processes, most have become mechanical and automatic: eating, drinking, sleeping, voiding. The one process  most  people purposefully engage in, with great desire for it–wanting it, thinking about it, planning for it and going after it–is sex enjoyment. This means sex is a process that directs your entire attention, mind and consciousness upon the physical, and upon that part of your physical nature that you share in common with the entire animal kingdom. (1) Is this going to be in any way helpful for attaining Cosmic Consciousness? If you are a spiritual seeker, can you not see that you are working against yourself? You have to liberate your consciousness from the lesser levels in order to lift it to progressively higher state of consciousness.

If you want to understand the practice of celibacy through an analogy, consider an athlete whose great ambition is to win a gold medal at the Olympics. He will willingly put himself into the hands of a trainer, and if the trainer says, “No more late night revelry, no more sex, no more junk food, no more alcohol,” the athlete readily agrees.  Why? Because he wants the gold medal. And no one raises an eyebrow, no one is outraged. Why?  Because the gold medal justifies all these so-called “inhibitions.” You cannot say that he’s doing violence to or repressing himself, because he is not looking at it that way. He is willing to do anything that the trainer demands of him. It is not imposed upon him by other people. We understand why he is doing it.

  1. Man is a mixture of three ingredients: first, an animal with all the physical propensities and sense urges that one shares in common with animals; second, the rational, logical human level; and third, the dormant Divinity, the sleeping God within.

Ann Nauwelaers

MORE vs MODERATION (Brahmacharya)


The answer for our restlessness, our boredom, our anxiousness and unhappiness?

More stimulation. more sex, more movies, more music, more drinking, more money, more freedom, more food.

More of anything as the cure for everything?

We seek extremes (extreme sports, extreme deodorant, extreme energy drinks, even an Extreme Teen Bible Study) because we erroneously believe that the more intense an experience is, the more pleasurable it will be.

Yet paradoxically, the more stimulation we receive, the less joy and enjoyment we get out of it.


The key to experiencing greater fulfillment and pleasure.

“Hara Hachi Bu”

Japanese Saying: Eat until eighty percent full.

Can we apply this to other areas of our life?

Many references in The Bible:

Ephesians 5: 18, Proverbs 23: 29-35, Titus 2:7, …

Proverbs 23:20-21 Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.

“Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance” Epicurus (Greek philosopher 340 BC)

Seeking greater enjoyment and pleasure in things you are already doing now.

  • Reconnect with your senses
  • Get reacquainted with your attention span
  • Take a fast from stimulation versus Overstimulation
  • Delay your gratification – Patience

What do you think of the idea: “Moderation in all things, including moderation

Can moderation be taken to excess?

How Moderation Can Increase Our Pleasure

When we feel unhappy and bored there are two ways to revive our feelings of enjoyment and pleasure.

One is to seek new things and more stimulation. You can start going out more, having sex more, and buying more new things and experiences. But the pleasure you get from ratcheting up the intensity of these experiences will eventually end in a plateau.

The alternative is to cultivate the virtue of moderation by seeking greater enjoyment and pleasure in things you are already doing now. HOW?

Reconnect with Your Senses. We live in a society saturated by stimulation. We have become numbed to nuance. You don’t need new stimulation; you need to rediscover the hidden layers of ordinary experiences. Stop wolfing down your food. Start tasting the unique flavors and textures of each mouthful. Instead of doing a keg stand and chugging cheap beer, learn to savor and appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a quality brew. Start allowing yourself to feel some awe when you look at the night sky. Start actually thinking about how touching your girlfriend’s skin feels. We’re usually walking through life like zombies. Wake up and start delving into the wonder of the world.

Get Reacquainted with Your Attention Span. Whenever I rent movies from several decades ago, I am struck by how much slower the pacing of the action is. Things seem to happen in real time. I can feel myself get slightly antsy during these parts. But the problem is my attention span, not the movie. Similarly, sometimes when my computer is going a little slowly, I get very frustrated. But then I think, “man, it was only a few years ago that I had dial-up.” Our expectations for speed and stimuli have gotten unreasonable. Start stretching your attention span by watching old movies, reading the newspaper, and reading a good, long book. And when you get restless, try to put things in perspective. Cultivate patience: no tapping your foot impatiently while standing in front of the microwave, or expecting the elevator door to open immediately after pushing the button?

Stop multitasking and be present in the moment. If you’re like me, you’re always doing two things at once: talking on the phone and surfing the net, surfing the net and watching TV, watching TV and reading a magazine, ect. But this craving only cultivates the need for more stimulation. Try to do one task at a time. Quit mindlessly distracting yourself every moment. Concentrate your senses and focus on whatever it is you are doing.

Take a fast from stimulation. Too much stimulation overloads our sensory circuits. It is thus essential to unplug and get away. The best thing to do is to get out into the outdoors. Leave your phone and computer behind. If you don’t have the opportunity to do this, at least try a phone and/or internet “fast.” Pick one day a week where you don’t check either. Especially our audio and visual senses are over stimulated. We expect to be entertained every waking moment.

Delay your Gratification. The more you hold out for something, the greater the pleasure you’ll experience when you finally attain it. If you eat ice cream everyday, it’s not going to taste as good as it would if you ate it only once a month. The more you hold out for that new car, the more pleasure you will feel when you finally get it. Have you ever noticed that the anticipation of a holiday can be just as good and sometimes better than the actual holiday itself?

Source: Wanting More: the challenge of enjoyment in the age of addiction” by Mark D Chamberlain


Ann Nauwelaers, 200RYT candidate Yoga Tree Plano

Gratitude:  By Toni Farris

Gratitude is transformative.  Everyone says it, but somehow it hadn’t really hit me until I started the studio.  Somehow, every part of my life was under construction all at once.   We were struggling to complete the studio; negotiations on the lease, working to build out the space, setting the schedule.  Of course, it was time to leave the security of working for LifeTime Fitness after 5 formative years to build a new way of teaching those who need Yoga.  At home, two leaks under the slab of my home required a full bathroom, kitchen, living, hallway and boys bathroom remodel.  During the 5 weeks it took to redo the house, all aspects of my life were in obvious reconstruction.  (I’ll spare you the personal relationship details, but romantic, family and friend relationships all took a good overhaul as well.)

You would think each day would be a festival of self-pity and complaining.  But really, I had total faith that all was well and for the best.  Each element of my experience was a gift.  The destruction around me made space for renewal.  Somehow through the practice of yoga, my mind was able to stay in a place that could recognize all the gifts the universe was bestowing on me.  Each day, the bare foundation of my house was just dirt under my feet to keep me grounded in what a beautiful house I’m blessed to live in with my healthy children.  Each insurance check was evidence of the abundance in the universe.  The help from my family was evidence of the love I am blessed with.

I came to better understand the discussion Manorama gave on the Bhagavad Gita;  “Guruji said pray for more problems.”  What does that mean?   Manorama explained, “Problems bring suffering and suffering makes us reach out to become more aware… because we don’t want to suffer.  Therefore problems bring awareness. And awareness is the tool to reduce suffering.”  It seems simple.  But really, the awareness of all that we have to be grateful for is the key to being happy in each given moment.  That gratitude in the midst of our problems is the key to happiness.  So this Thanksgiving, go for something a bit less obvious when it is your turn to say what you are grateful for.  This year I’m going for slab leaks and difficult bosses…  I wish you many fruitful problems this holiday season.

Toni Farris

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