Dangerous Breathwork?

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“It’s a deep double-inhale through the mouth, followed by a complete exhale through the mouth. Keep with the rhythm,” the guide encouraged, as the deep throbbing of buffalo drums ushered in the ceremony.  Within a couple minutes I felt a growing sense of intensity, and a tingling sensation around the edges of my fingers and lips.  Soon I felt light-headed and tranced out, my fingers and toes involuntary clutching at the air.

Entities floated around me giving me energetic adjustments. I was swirling between darkness and emptiness, euphoria and ego-loss, trance and lack of physical control.  When we came out, I was not ‘myself’ for hours, feeling disconnected to the world around me.

Months later I went to another session with a different guide.

Same sensations. Same level of intensity, if not more.

It goes by many names. “Shamanic Breathwork” “Holotropic Breathwork” and simply “Breathwork,” to name a few.

It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had with breath. I wanted to learn more, and maybe even teach this technique to my students. But first I had to look into its effects and find out what was actually happening in the body.

I researched the technique, which involved rapid deep mouth-breathing (hyperventilation) for sessions of up to 45 minutes.  I was shocked to find that long bouts of hyperventilation could be very damaging to the body, especially to the brain

In fact, the body’s response to this breathwork is the same as choking! ¹ (i.e. it starves the brain of oxygen)

But wait . . . I thought deep breathing was good for you? Deep breathing is good for you! But if done rapidly through the mouth (instead of slowly through the nose) then it’s not good for you—that’s hyperventilation.²


How could over-breathing deprive the brain of Oxygen??

Here’s how it works.

Our blood needs to contain a balanced ratio of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in order to stay healthy.  When we over-breathe, too much CO2 is released, a condition called Hypocapnia.³ Hypocapnia brings on an immediate cascade of effects:

• Involuntary muscle contractions, tingling, numbness, dizziness & euphoria
• The blood becomes dangerously alkaline.
• Blood flow is diverted away from brain to protect it from heightened alkalinity.
• Brain Oxygen levels decline due to reduced blood flow.
• Low Brain Oxygen levels can cause permanent brain damage.
• If enough time passes like this, you can black out. ²

The most dangerous part is losing consciousness in this condition.  Normally, breathing would continue automatically even when you’re unconscious.  With Hypocapnia, this is not the case—because too much CO2 has been released, the body does not get the signal to breathe (the presence of CO2 in the blood is what tells the body to breathe). If you’re passed out and there’s not enough CO2 in your blood, automatic breathing stops.  Unconscious and not breathing, brain Oxygen levels drop even lower, ramping up damage to the brain. ¹

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NOTE: I'd like to make it clear that not all breath work is dangerous! My purpose in writing this article is not to spread general fear about working with breath, but to educate people on the risks of these increasingly trendy hyperventilation ceremonies.

Even if you don’t pass out, you could still accidentally stop breathing, because you don’t feel the impulse or need to breathe due to low blood concentration of CO2.  At this point your awareness is so altered, you might not even notice that your natural breathing has stopped.  Some variations of the technique even include an intentional breath hold to intensify the experience when the brain is already starving of Oxygen.

Students: See My Important Note at the End of this Article on How to Safely Practice Breathing Techniques

So why do people even do this technique if it’s so bad for you? Wouldn’t there be emergencies or deaths if it’s so serious?

The damage is definitely real, but it may not be noticeable right away, because the brain is really good at making up for losses (more on that later). 

People do it because it gets you high. In fact, this breathing technique is widely used in prisons and drug rehabilitation centers as a way to get intoxicated without drugs.⁴  As blood flow is restricted to the brain, the areas responsible for perception & awareness are impaired, leading to altered consciousness and intense emotional arousal. ¹ This could result in an emotional breakthrough of some kind, but, the risks to the brain, in my opinion, are not worth it.

The technique was developed by Stanislav Grof, a psychologist who used it as part of a somatic psychological process for his patients. Even Grof claimed that the breathwork was “not appropriate for everyone.” He had a strict protocol to screen for physical and psychological contraindications before allowing patients to undergo the technique.⁵ Beyond the clearly negative effects this breathwork has on the body, the idea of publicly leading large groups of un-screened individuals into deep somatic work intended for psychotherapy seems irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

In my two personal experiences—one in a small class setting and the other at a large yoga festival—there was absolutely no awareness or disclosure of the risks behind this technique.  Students were not advised to take any precautions, which is extra scary for people who come in with pre-existing conditions.

Unfortunately, even if participants experience no apparent negative effects, they may still be accumulating insidious damage in the brain.  The brain is very effective at making up for damaged tissue, until the damage reaches a tipping point that can no longer be accommodated, at which point irreversible symptoms arise. ¹  This is why, for example, dementia patients do not show symptoms until their brain has degenerated for at least 10 years.  Regular breathwork practitioners may be unknowingly putting themselves at higher risk for developing dementia or other diseases, as they regularly accrue direct injury to the brain.

Despite the clear risks, some may hold onto the healing or transformation that they have experienced while practicing this breathwork.  While you may be able to get intense results from an intense and potentially health-threatening practice, the most profound results are those that we arrive at through regular, sustainable, long-term practice.

Practice becomes firmly rooted
when it is cultivated skillfully
and continuously for a long time
— Yoga Sutra 1.14

We must seek practices that transform us gently & gradually, rather than violently & abruptly.  Yoga offers us many wonderful breathing techniques that have stood the test of time as well as scientific scrutiny, and have been proven both safe and effective.  Pranayama (yogic breathing practices) can and must be tailored to fit individuals’ needs in a safe and sustainable way.  We need to share the knowledge of what works & is safe, as well as the knowledge of what can cause harm.

For the benefit of mankind.

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

May all beings everywhere be happy & free.



How to Safely Practice Breathwork:

Yogic breathwork—or “Pranayama”—can be profoundly healing if used appropriately; however, like any breathing technique, it still has risks, especially for people who have pre-existing conditions. It’s important for you to do the following in order to practice breathwork safely:

• Only practice under the guidance of a trusted, trained professional.
• Tell your teacher of any physical or psychological conditions.
• Ask your teacher if the breathwork poses any risks or has any contraindications
• Pay close attention to how you feel while practicing breathwork – avoid forcing, straining, or negative sensations.
• If you need to skip a technique or take a break to breath normally, do it even if you teacher doesn’t tell you to.
• Do your own research.  Find reliable sources to learn more about the techniques you’re practicing.

In the end, you are responsible for your own health and safety, and you must use your own judgment to find out what’s best for you.  Be cautious not to blindly trust a teacher, no matter how well intentioned, well known, or loved that teacher may be.  Remember that teachers are humans too, and we can make mistakes.  Follow your inner teacher first.

References

1.  Headway: The Brain Injury Association. Effects of hypoxic/anoxic brain injury
https://www.headway.org.uk/about-brain-injury/individuals/types-of-brain-injury/hypoxic-and-anoxic-brain-injury/anoxic-brain-injury-effects/

2.  Brandis, Kerry (30 Aug 2015). "6.2 Respiratory Alkalosis - Causes". Acid-base Physiology (Reviewed in 2006 by the American Thoracic Society).


3.  Laffey, J.G. and Kavanagh B.P. (2002). "Hypocapnia". New England Journal of Medicine. 347 (1): 43–53.

4.  Neal, Richard McKenzie. (2008) The Path to Addiction: And Other Troubles We are Born to Know. Bloomington, IN: Author House.

5.  Grof, S. and Grof, C. (2010). Holotropic Breathwork: A new approach to self - exploration and therapy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Stop Insomnia Now—Naturally

Whether you suffer from a chronic inability to fall or stay asleep, or you have occasional bouts of insomnia, the debilitating effects of sleeplessness can negatively impact every part of your life.  As someone who has struggled with and conquered this dilemma, I’d like to share with you some of the tools and practices that have helped me on my journey to satisfactory sleep.  Maybe you think you’ve tried everything, but I feel much of the info below is novel and unique, so hopefully it will provide some new options for you.

Let’s start with a quick cheat sheet for how to recover your Z’s, followed by an in depth discussion of each suggestion below.

Lifestyle Practices:
-Exercise at least once daily, preferably outdoors
-Use natural, dim orange/red hued lighting after sundown
-Avoid TV, computer, phone screens after sundown
-Do yoga and breathing practices before bed
-Use an eye pillow / mask

Natural Remedies:
-Chinese Cat’s Claw
-Spikenard
-Magnolia Bark
-Kratom


Let’s start with the lifestyle practices.  It’s absolutely vital for your general health and wellbeing to exercise in some form or another at least once daily.  This does not mean you have to sign up for a gym membership or even break a sweat (although both can be helpful).  Simple things like going for a walk, a bike ride, doing yoga or climbing stairs can be greatly beneficial to both your physical and mental health, but they also work out any restlessness that can keep you up at night.  Our bodies are built for movement throughout the day, but our society continues to trend toward more sedentary lifestyle, leading to pent up energy that can prevent a good night’s sleep.  If you can, try to exercise outdoors to give your body exposure to natural sunlight.  Being indoors a lot can mess with our body’s natural sleep-wake cycles called circadian rhythms, as we are no longer exposed to the physical cues of sunlight or darkness, which govern these rhythms.

Which brings me to my next point.  Be mindful of the light spectrum which you expose yourself to throughout the day, especially at night.  The sun naturally emits blue spectrum light (which is why the sky and ocean are blue), and this is also the same spectrum emitted by light bulbs (especially fluorescent) and TV / Computer / Phone screens.  Blue spectrum light (BSL) has been shown to suppress the natural production of Melatonin—a vital brain hormone for sleep and natural circadian rhythms.  When we continue to expose ourselves to BSL after the sun has gone down, we confuse the body and suppress our natural sleep cycles.  To counteract this suppression, try to use natural, dim orange/red spectrum light (the opposite of spectrum of BSL) such as candle light or Himalayan salt lamps.  You can also buy light bulbs that are colored orange / red that fit in normal fixtures. Lastly, if you have no choice but to be exposed to BSL after dark, you can wear blue-blocking glasses to protect your precious Melatonin stores, and turn down the brightness settings on any screens you may have to use.

Another great way to ease your mind and body into a good night’s sleep is yoga.  Try yin and restorative practices at night before you go to bed, as these slow meditative styles activate the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the relaxation response.  If you don’t have time to do a 30 to 60-minute practice every night (which would certainly be ideal), just do one or two poses for 5 to 15 minutes each.  One of the best restorative postures to induce parasympathetic dominance is Viparita Karani or Legs Up the Wall, as it reverses the blood flow back toward the vital organs, reducing heart rate and stress hormones.  Simply sit with your outer hip (left or right) directly against the wall, legs extended parallel to the wall, then lay your torso on the floor perpendicular to the wall as you swing your legs up it, so that the base of your pelvis is near or touching the wall.  You may like a folded blanket under the low back for support, a sandbag on top of the soles of your feet and an eye pillow for added relaxation.  If you’re still not tired after this, try Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing, a yogic breathing technique known to calm the mind and balance the energy channels along the spine.  Sit in a comfortable upright position, and use your dominant hand to alternately close and open each nostril while breathing through the nose. Use the pattern Exhale-Inhale-Switch, and try to do at least 12 inhalations and exhalations on each nostril.  When you lay down to sleep cover your eyes with an eye pillow (some have a calming lavender scent!) or eye mask.  I find that the gentle pressure against the eyes helps to fall asleep, and if you are trying to sleep past sunrise it will help prevent the light of the sun from waking you in the morning.

Now for some natural remedies that can help you fall or stay asleep without the negative side effects associated with sleeping pills.  If you are like me, most of the calming herbs like Lavender and Chamomile are nice but they don’t really help me when suffering from insomnia.  I need something potent! So I’ve researched some herbs that work with the body to rapidly induce deep relaxation and sleep. 

The first one is Chinese Cat’s Claw (Uncaria Rhyncophylla) a.k.a. Gambir Vine.  This herb is actually used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat agitation and psychosis in the elderly, but it has very calming properties as well as some very beneficial side effects.  Not to be confused with its Latin American cousin (often just called Cat’s Claw, latin name Uncaria Tomentosa) which has completely different effects, this herb works by inhibiting a neurotransmitter in the brain called NMDA to reduce excitement in the nervous system.  This mechanism of action is actually the same as Nitrous Oxide, used to reduce pain and anxiety during surgery and dental procedures, albeit to a much lesser degree.  This reduction in excitement in the brain (known as excitotoxicity) has been shown to protect the brain from damage that occurs by overstimulation.  Additionally, the herb has potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer and brain/memory boosting qualities that make it a useful supplement with beneficial side effects rather than negative ones.  My personal experience with this herb is an immediate and substantial sensation of calm and tranquility, perfect for falling directly asleep after use.  I would recommend half a dropper full of liquid extract to start—a little goes a long way and you can always add more if the first dose was not enough.  While this herb is not addicting, it may lose potency over time as the body builds tolerance to its active ingredients.  Because of this, it may be best utilized as infrequently as possible, however, no negative effects have been shown from prolonged use.  For more information on Chinese Cat’s Claw, check out this article 

Next we have Spikenard (Nardostachys Jatamansi) known as Jatamansi in Ayurveda (traditional Indian Medicine), where it has been used since ancient times as a brain-boosting herb with relaxing qualities.  Spikenard increases a neurotransmitter called GABA in the brain, associated with anxiety relief, relaxation, and sleep.  GABA is the same neurotransmitter that mediates the feeling of relaxation that alcohol produces, but with Spikenard you get the same effect without intoxication.  Instead, it has been shown to reduce stress and depression and improve cognitive functioning.  A close relative to Valerian Root, a common sleep aid, I prefer Spikenard due to its more reliable effects, pleasant aroma, and added brain benefits.  Its easiest and most powerful route of application is the essential oil, which can be put in an empty capsule and swallowed for nearly immediate relief of insomnia.  I’d recommend 2 to 3 drops of the oil, and set up a few pre-formulated capsules next to your bed in case you wake up in the night and can’t fall back asleep.  This oil is very powerful and makes me tired right away, without feeling groggy the next morning. You can even use a smaller amount (1 drop) during the day for anxiety or brain enhancement.  To learn more about Spikenard, click here

Magnolia Bark (Magnolia Officinalis) is another powerful herbal ally to help in the battle against insomnia.  Another herb from Traditional Chinese Medicine, the bark of this beautiful flowering tree has well-documented calming and brain boosting effects.  Additionally, it has been shown to prevent spikes in stress hormones like Cortisol, an imbalance of which often causes premature waking.  Another herb that can be taken safely every day, magical Magnolia also has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties.  This herb can be taken during the daytime as well for its antidepressant qualities, which can be boosted by combining with Ginger.  For more info on Magnolia see this article.

Lastly, Kratom (Mitragyna Specioca) is a potent herb in the coffee family, native to Southeast Asia.  This herb acts on the Opioid receptors to induce relaxation both physically and mentally.  Because of this action, it is also a powerful pain reliever and helps to reduce inflammation as well.  It is important to note that Kratom can be physically addicting if taken more than 3 times weekly (I would recommend a maximum use of 1x weekly), due to its interaction with Opioid receptors.  This is a potent medicine that will help you sleep if all else is failing, and yet it will not leave you groggy or hungover in the morning.  It may have negative side effects if you take too much, however—such as nausea, constipation, or disphoria.  Because of the potential for negative side effects and physical dependency this herb should be used with caution and as a last resort.  When used properly, it can be an extremely valuable asset to have at your disposal for those stubborn bouts of insomnia when you are desperate for sleep.  Start off with only half of a teaspoon, and wait at least an hour to fully feel the effects before deciding if you need more (as I said, if you take too much, you are in for a bad time).  If you have an addictive personality and feel it will be hard to exercise restraint when using this herb, I’d recommend against purchasing.  It is currently available through online retailers and is may be marketed as “Not for Human Consumption” despite much research showing it’s responsible use without major negative effects—this is likely due to its competition with big Pharmaceutical interests, and their desire to stay off industry lobbyists' hit list.  The worst things that can happen are throwing up, feeling like crap or getting addicted (withdrawal symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, depression, and physical discomfort).  In the end, this is a powerful herb to be respected and used minimally with discretion.  It is an excellent substitute for pharmaceutical opiates such as Valium, for those of you who would prefer an all natural, more accessible, less harmful, less expensive option.  This can also be a great herb to use when you are sick or suffering from an injury, to reduce pain and discomfort so you can sleep soundly.  I currently do not have a recommended source for this herb, so do your research carefully and read third party reviews before purchasing.

If you'd like my personal sources for these herbs check out the bullet point list "Natural Remedies" at the top of this post, with links to each product.  It is my sincere hope that these suggestions help you on you journey toward restful sleep and total wellness in your life. If you have any questions about the information here or would like to formulate a personalized plan for your wellness goals, please contact me!

Is Your Turmeric Helping or Harming?

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Turmeric is a fantastic golden spice from the orient that is getting a lot of attention for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  But is your Turmeric regimen doing more harm than good?

There are many ways to consume this excellent herb, but not all forms are created equal, and some have serious potential negative apsects to them.  Here’s a quick summary of the dos and don’ts of this magical and delicious remedy, followed by an in depth explanation of everything you need to know about how to use this herb and a recipe.

 

Don’ts

- Buy extracts without knowing the extraction method

- Use Turmeric that is not certified organic

- Spend lots of money on an herb that can be obtained relatively cheap

Dos

- Take Turmeric with food (preferably Lecithin-rich fats)

- Use Black Pepper, Ginger, and Turmeric Essential Oil to increase absorption

- Buy in bulk, dried powder to save money and avoid spoilage

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First of all, protect yourself from extracts that do not display their extraction method.  Extractions of any herb require a solvent to obtain the "active ingredient(s)" from the plant material, and some solvents approved for use in the supplement industry are classified as neurotoxins by the EPA (such as Hexane—a petrochemical—and Acetone a.k.a. nail polish remover)!  The FDA knowingly allows this to happen on the basis that much of the solvent is removed in processing (but not necessarily all—a small percentage is allowed to remain on the assumption that trace amounts are safe), but there is no actual oversight or regulation of this process.  Some solvents are natural and harmless (such as water, organic glycerin, alcohol, or carbon dioxide), but you can only be guaranteed that these are used if the company claims so, or if the supplement is certified 100% organic, which prohibits the use of chemical solvents (beware of supplements that contain organic ingredients but are not 100% certified, which may still be extracted with chemicals—e.g. the label may read “made with Organic Turmeric” that is then extracted with Hexane—when in doubt look for the USDA Organic Seal).

This brings me to my second point. Buy organic. Period.  Turmeric is a rhizome, which is technically a root-like stem.  This means it will soak up any water-soluble pesticides like a sponge, where they will be waiting until it finds its way into your body.  Which brings me to cost—just because it’s organic doesn’t mean you have to spend 15 bucks a pound on it at Whole Foods.  First of all, get the powder. It’s cheaper and is actually more concentrated due to the water being dehydrated out.  In addition to this it stores for much longer than the fresh roots, and the naturally high antioxidant content will support protection from spoilage—in fact the powder really won’t go bad even for years, but it will lose it’s antioxidant qualities over time so I’d recommend buying a pound of powder at a time—about a year's worth supply, depending on your use.  A good recommended dose is 1.5 teaspoons maximum of powder daily—keep reading for why you don’t want to take more than that.  Buy from an online bulk organic supplier like Mountain Rose Herbs (note: I’m in no way getting money from them to suggest their product, it’s just what I use and I’m sharing this knowledge with you for your benefit).

It’s important to know a couple things about how Turmeric absorbs in the body to maximize its effects.  If you take Turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties, you are aiming to absorb a class of chemical constituents called Curcumin.  It has a very low oral bioavailability, which means when you eat or drink Turmeric, very little Curcumin gets into the bloodstream (it does however exert its anti-inflammatory effect on the digestive tract, which can be great, but very little gets through to your muscles or joints).  There are several ways to enhance the bioavailability of Curcumin. 

First, take it with some form of fat, as Curcumin is fat-soluble and will absorb more readily through the digestive tract if it hitches a ride on some fats.  The best choice is a type of fat called Lecithin, which is actually found to some extent in all living things, but is more highly concentrated in certain foods such as egg yolks, soybeans, and sunflower seeds.  You can either pair your Turmeric with these whole foods, or you can purchase Lecithin that has been extracted (again watch out for non-organic Hexane extracted Lecithin—yup solvents are a problem across the food and supplement board!  A full blog post on how to avoid chemical solvents is to come soon).  Many Curcumin supplements add Lecithin (also known as Phospholipids) to their formulations and gouge the price, calling it “Phytosome—a more bioavailable form of Curcumin,” which is true, but you can get the same effect much more easily with less cost to your wallet, and likely in a more healthy way if you’re using whole foods, rather than their chemically extracted Phospholipids mixed with chemically extracted Curcumin.  Lecithin is also a great supplement in its own right, as it is a rich source of Choline, a building block for cell membranes and neurotransmitters in the brain associated with memory.  Again, check out Mountain Rose for Organic Lecithin—I love these guys!  Another thing to consider is using a gentle amount of heat to encourage the binding of the Curcumin to the fat molecules, whatever the fat you choose.  Another great option is Coconut oil, which does not have much Lecithin, but is a great source of easily metabolized fats.

Secondly some other herbs help to activate the absorbability of Curcumin.  One is Black Pepper, which increases the absorption rate up to 2,000 times according to some studies!  Because of this I always use it with my Turmeric. Always! Another is Turmeric’s close cousin Ginger, which not only increases the bioavailability of Curcumin, but is itself a source of this chemical constituent, albeit not as much as Turmeric.  Lastly, whole Turmeric potentiates itself! It has been found that Turmeric Essential Oil (EO) portion of this herb helps to improve the absorbability of Curcumin in the gut.  Keep in mind, the EO is steam distilled, so because Curcumin is fat-soluble and not water-soluble there is actually no Curcumin in the EO—which is a common misconception—but it does serve to potentiate the uptake of Curcumin found in the whole root.  This is another benefit of using whole powdered root over extracted supplements, which only aim at extracting the Curcumin, leaving the precious EO behind.  If you’re using whole powdered root already, throw in some EO to replace EOs lost in the drying process—only a few drops will be needed per serving.  Also, if you are cooking your Turmeric in any way, the essential oil will evaporate away with heat, so this is another reason to add it back in.  Eden Botanicals has a great affordable organic Turmeric EO (again I don’t get money or perks from these guys, just sharing my source).

One last consideration before I give you a quick Turmeric recipe utilizing all of these recommendations—avoid too much of a good thing! Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant—so powerful that if you take more than recommended it may have a pro-oxidant effect (meaning the exact opposite of antioxidant)!  Additionally, a smaller dose has been shown to be as effective as a larger one, so there seems to be a plateau effect that negates the need for more.  The Turmeric craze is strong right now and in our society we tend to think more of a good thing is better, but that’s not always the case.  Be careful and mindful of any side effects you may experience, as they are documented (digestive upset / rash) yet usually mild and rare.  Otherwise, enjoy the benefits and flavor of this medicinal spice from the orient!

Here’s an easy quick recipe to incorporate all the above recommendations into a daily routine:

3 Tablespoons Organic Turmeric Powder
3 Teaspoons Organic Black Pepper Powder
6 Cups Purified Water
3 Cups Organic Soy Milk (May Substitute Coconut Milk)
- Optional Additions -
1 Tablespoon Organic Liquid Soy Lecithin
1 Tablespoon Organic Ginger Powder, Juice or Freshly Grated Root
12 Drops Organic Turmeric Essential Oil (EO)
1 Tablespoon Organic Fair Trade Honey or Agave Nectar

- Mix all ingredients in a shaker bottle or blender
- Stir over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes (this step is optional, if doing so I highly recommend adding Turmeric EO after cooling)
- Refrigerate and take about 1½ Cups daily with breakfast
- Makes 6 servings

Bliss Out, Bond Deeply, and Boost Your Brain Without Drugs

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Cryptic incantations echoing through incense-tinged temples as crowds go into a trance—sounds like a cult right? Why would a logical person consider chanting in a language they don’t even understand? What if I told you that modern scientific research says it’s good for your brain, can get you high without drugs, and improve your relationships?

While chanting has been used in many religious and spiritual practices, it is actually a form of meditation that anyone can use, regardless of beliefs. Chanting is simply the repetition of a phrase—called "mantra"—to focus and calm the mind. Emerging scientific research on the benefits of chanting has shown surprising results.

According to clinical research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, chanting “can improve cognition and activate parts of the brain that are central to memory” in addition to reducing stress [1][3]. Two groups of adults with mild cognitive impairment underwent 12 weeks of study in the experiment. One group conducted a well-established brain-training program for an hour and 15 minutes every day, while the other group did one hour of yoga per week and 12 minutes of chanting daily [1].


We were a bit surprised by the magnitude of the brain effects

 Dr. Helen Lavretsky, Study Co-Author


Both groups showed improvement in neural connectivity (brain function) and cognitive testing, but the chanting group “performed much better on a test of visuospatial memory” and “also had developed more communication between parts of the brain that control attention, suggesting a greater ability to focus and multitask” [2]. Additionally, only the chanting group experienced improvement in their moods [2]. Scientists believe that the benefits are mediated by “the placement of the tongue on the roof of the mouth while making these sounds” stimulating acupuncture points on the upper palate related to beneficial biochemical transformation in the brain [2].

While you don’t have to be a talented singer, chanting is usually done in song, and when done in a group can foster a sense of deep connection and enjoyment, releasing feel-good chemicals like β-endorphin, Dopamine, and Serotonin, according to an article published by UC Berkley [4]. According to the article, research shows that singing in a group can break down social barriers more quickly and forge meaningful bonds [4] which can be important in our increasingly digital social environment.

Whether you use chanting to calm the mind and induce focus—like many other forms of meditation—or for spiritual practice, you may enjoy positive side effects extending to your brain, body and even relationships!

Cited Sources

[1] Journal of Alzheimers Disease. Lavretsky H., Khalsa DS, et al. 2016;52(2):673-84. Changes in Neural Connectivity and Memory Following a Yoga Intervention for Older Adults: A Pilot Study. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27060939

[2] New York Times. Yoga May Be Good for the Brain. Gretchen Reynolds. JUNE 1, 2016. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/yoga-may-be-good-for-the-brain/?smid=fb-share&_r=2

[3] Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation. Practice Kirtan Kriya Meditation. http://alzheimersprevention.org/research/kirtan-kriya-yoga-exercise/

[4] The New Science of Singing Together. Jacques Launay, Eiluned Pearce. December 4, 2015. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/science_of_singing

How Gongs, Chimes and Singing Bowls Induce Meditation

In my last post, “The Science Behind Sound Healing,” I explained how brainwaves readily synchronized with externally produced sound waves through a process called entrainment.  Using this principle, we can induce brainwaves that correlate to desirable states of consciousness such as Alpha, Theta and Delta wavelengths, which have been regularly observed in practitioners of deep meditation such as Yoga Nidra and Vedanta [1][2].

 

 

Alpha, Theta, and Delta wavelengths (0.5 Hz - 12 Hz), are inaudible to the human ear, but can be perceived in the brain using a process called binaural hearing.  When the brain is simultaneously exposed to two slightly different frequencies within a close range (for example 154 Hz and 150 Hz), a third frequency is perceived internally, expressing the difference between the two [3][4].

 

Binaural Hearing Example:

Externally Produced Audible Sound Frequencies

   154 Hz

– 150 Hz

________________________

       4 Hz

Internally Perceived Brain Frequency (Theta)

 

Ancient and traditional sound technologies such as gongs, chimes, and singing bowls were made to vibrate within a small range of frequencies, as if our ancestors were privy to the newly emerging sciences of binaural hearing and entrainment.  For example, studies on the frequencies emitted by Tibetan Buddhist chimes called Ting-Sha’s show expression of wavelengths between 4 and 8 Hz, “the range of brain waves that occurs during meditation” notes Mitchell L. Gaynor M.D., Oncologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University [5].

 

 

Gongs and singing bowls are no different.  If you listen closely to these traditional instruments, you will notice a throbbing or pulsation as they oscillate between fundamental and partial tones which have the uncanny ability to immediately clear the mind and induce a state of calm.  It’s not surprising that traditional cultures utilized these instruments to initiate meditation, observes Dr. Gaynor—“they signify the start of practice, and they can actually help to induce the state of profound relaxation that often accompanies meditation” [5].


Cited Sources

[1] Miller, Richard (February 10, 2010). Yoga Nidra (Pap/Com ed.). Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Incorporated. p. 104. ISBN 1591797586.

[2] Sharma Arvind: Sleep as a State of Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta; State University of New York Press, 2004

[3] Wahbeh, H., Calabrese, C., and Zwickey, H., Binaural beat technology in humans: a pilot study to assess psychologic and physiologic effects. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2007, pp25-32.

[4] Becher, A. K., Höhne, M., Axmacher, N., Chaieb, L., Elger, C. E., and Fell, J., Intracranial electroencephalography power and phase synchronization changes during monaural and binaural beat stimulation. European Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 41, No. 2, 2015, pp254-263.

[5] Gaynor, Mitchell L. (2002). The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music.  Shambhala: Boston & London. pp 74-75. ISBN 978-1-57062-955-6.

The Science Behind Sound Healing

You’ve felt it before.  The immediate shift in chemistry when a certain song comes on.  Music can melt away tension or elevate us into ecstasy in a matter of moments.  But how does the magic work? 

Brain signals are transmitted through frequencies, much like music through a radio.  Studies show that these signals, or “brain waves,” correlate to particular states of consciousness such as focus, relaxation, meditation, and sleep [1].  Generally speaking, slower brain waves are associated with more relaxed meditative states, while faster ones correlate to alert and active states.

Scientists are now discovering that brain waves can be modified by externally produced sound frequencies through a process called entrainment—when the frequency of one object synchronizes with the frequency of another [2].  This means sound can be used to tune brainwaves to specific frequencies and achieve desired states of mind [3].  Additionally, separate brain cells are often tuned to different frequencies resulting in chaotic and disharmonious thought patterns, but when subjected to one external frequency, such as the sound of a gong, they can synchronize to resonate in unity [4].

 

“As above, so below”

— Hermetic Axiom

 

Entrainment is actually a phenomenon that occurs throughout the universe and was first described by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in 1673 when he observed two pendulums operating at different tempos when placed in close proximity would spontaneously begin to pulse at the same rhythm [5].  With effects extending beyond the brain, numerous studies have shown that other biological processes such as speech patterns, physical gestures and heart rate are influenced by auditory entrainment [6].  For Example, slow wave sound vibrations have been shown to exert a tranquilizing effect with a reduction in blood flow rate when applied directly to the body of vibracoustic therapy patients [7].

The healing power of sound has long been known, if only intuitively, but the emerging principle of entrainment is a fascinating concept, the implications of which scientists are only just beginning to uncover. 

 

“These properties of sound medicine—entrainment, harmony, and homeostasis—represent the rational and spiritual foundation for a new movement in the healing arts and sciences.” — Mitchell L. Gaynor M.D., Oncologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University

 

Cited Sources

[1] Will, Berg E. Neuroscience Letters. 2007 Aug 31;424 (1):55-60. Epub 2007 Aug 6. Brain wave synchronization and entrainment to periodic acoustic stimuli. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17709189

[2] Niedermeyer E. and da Silva F.L., Electroencephalography: Basic Principles, Clinical Applications, and Related Fields. Lippincot Williams & Wilkins, 2004.

[3] Burkard, R., Don, M., and Eggermont, J. J., Auditory evoked potentials: Basic principles and clinical application. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007.

[4] Wang XJ (2010). "Neurophysiological and computational principles of cortical rhythms in cognition". Physiological Reviews 90 (3): 1195–1268. doi:10.1152/physrev.00035.2008. PMC 2923921. PMID 20664082. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20664082

[5] Matthews, Michael R. (2000). Time for science education: how teaching the history and philosophy of pendulum motion can contribute to science literacy. New York: Springer. pp. 124–126. ISBN 0-306-45880-2.

[6] Gaynor, Mitchell L. (2002). The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music.  Shambhala: Boston & London. pp 69-71. ISBN 978-1-57062-955-6.

[7] Hooper, Jeff. (Nov 2 2001) An introduction to vibroacoustic therapy and an examination of its place in music therapy practice. British Journal of Music Therapy, Vol 15, pp 69-77