Monday, May 22, 2017

Cultivating the Conditions of Productivity

Simple foods = the best foods for me. Steel cut oats, fruit,
ground flax seeds, salt and cinnamon. Plant Power!
Today feels like the first day of Summer break, and I'm alternately excited and apprehensive to behold the relatively unstructured days that are ahead. This past academic year, the days were carefully assembled to reduce interstitial-time inefficiencies, and I'm pleased to report that I largely kept up with schoolwork, maintained my commitment to practicing the Dharma, and stayed pretty physically fit. Whew! Now a new relationship to time is unfolding in front of me, and I'm eager to feel this new time-relationship in my body/mind

This morning felt like the first day of the new chapter, and it sure has gotten off to a great start. After a cup of quasi-Bulletproof coffee (espresso, chia seeds and coconut oil), I donned my FiveFingers for a run in the UW Arboretum. Today's training agenda was LSD (long, slow distance), though the first step was to set a compassionate motivation.

I strive to begin my workouts with the aspiration that my activity benefits me personally (as fitness activities assuredly do), and perhaps more importantly, to also include the wish that the workout helps me to be a kinder, more patient person - the wish that this morning's run be of benefit to others in addition to myself.

With the setting of compassionate motivation, I set off into the forested trails of the Arb. During the run I alternated among object meditations (sound and physical sensations, primarily), and resting my mind in objectless meditation. After 9+ miles, hunger was starting to become a motivating force (thanks to Systems Neuroscience, I now know that signals from my paraventricular hypothalamus and the nucleus accumbens were involved!)

Setting a course back home, I ran into my good friend Jonathan and The Mighty Taz in Vilas Park. What a nice surprise - to bump into a friend and his high-energy dog! After a brief visit, we went our separate ways to embark on our week's activities.

By now I was definitely feeling appetitive drive, and I walked into the house to find that the slow-cooked steel-cut oats were ready for consumption. I find that simple foods work the best for my system, and enjoyed a satisfying five-ingredient breakfast.

A quick shower, and now it's time to write. The academic paper that I'll work on this morning is a review of the current research on Joint Laxity, and I'm eager to buckle down and make some progress. I'm going to sign off, now, and head to campus.

Have a great start to the week, and hopefully our paths will cross sooner than later!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Running Yoga

Blue Mound State Park (BMSP) is an ideal
setting for Running Yoga
This morning I went out for a relatively low-intensity run in Training Zones 1-2 (50-70% of my 187 beats-per-minute maximum heart rate). After a few minutes of cruising along at this pace, I noticed my senses sharpening; the wind in the trees became more audible, the trail beneath my feet provided sensory feedback, and the in/out movement of breathing woke up my ribcage. For the next 50-minutes, I enjoyed a Running Yoga practice in the forest that's near the Blue Mounds Dharma Center.

The physical body can be a direct portal to experience the mind's true nature. Over the past few years, I've been exploring how running may offer the opportunity to pull back the curtain to reveal the state of Yoga.

In my experimenting, I've found that running at different intensities influences the mind in specific ways. For example, when I'm approaching aerobic threshold (when heart-rate is ~50% of maximum), my senses seem to be heightened. Sounds seem to be crisper, colors appear brighter, and I experience physical sensations in my body more keenly. This heightened perception helps me to rest my mind in Object Meditation.

While there is no direct substitute for seated meditation, I've found these moving meditations in BMSP to be highly nourishing.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Academic Year Reflections

This past academic year was highly satisfying. I learned more about the nervous system than I could have imagined, and felt like I grew in so many ways. While I have a few woulda/coulda/shoulda sentiments about this past year, I'm resting in the aftermath of this academic year with an overall feeling of quiet contentment.

That is not to say that this past academic year passed without incident. There were certainly periods that were trying, and some stretches that were downright stressful. The arc of growth seems inevitably to include a bit of messiness, and the Fall of 2016 was no exception. Sleep-time and study-time were often in direct conflict (sleep usually lost), and there were periods where my academic performances were a bit, ahem, suboptimal. In the interest if full-disclosure and truth in advertising, this blog posting describes one of my favorite lowlights of this past academic year.

Part of the challenge of this past academic year, the Fall semester in particular, was the loss of routine. I can ordinarily be a pretty functional human being, though I lean against routines and structures in order to project this facade of functionality to myself and others. In many respects, I'm actually very distractible and am really just a few degrees removed from needing adult supervision to pull off adulting.

The academic year tested my adulting skills.
In the absence of my familiar routines, some pretty basic activities fell by the wayside. For example, one morning I neglected to rinse the shampoo out of my hair.

Now, you may be thinking that shampooing is not rocket science... and I'm in full agreement that shampooing is not rocket science. The last that I checked, the instructions for hair-washing included all of three words:
  1. lather
  2. rinse
  3. repeat
Unfortunately, there was that one sleep-deprived morning when I made it thru step one, and then lost my focus. Thankfully, the outcome to missing steps two and beyond is not as bad as you may imagine - I did not go through the day with a mountain of suds atop my head. 

This is not the outcome of
not rinsing after lathering.
I did, however, end up with a mop of flat and greasy-looking hair. Virtually everyone that I met on that fateful day briefly made eye contact, then quickly directed their gaze to my hair. Many people would try to avert their gaze from my hair and resume eye contact, though more than a few people appeared to have their gaze magnetically transfixed by the greasy/stringy assemblage that covered my head. By about mid-morning I realized that step-two had gone missing. The rest of the day, I enjoyed watching how various people reacted.

Ironically, nobody said a word. Maybe people thought that I was under the weather? Or trying a different brand of product? Or thought that my liver was detoxing? Whatever went through people's minds, nobody said a thing. There were a few smiles, and I even thought that I detected a smirk or two, but no questions nor comments arose.

Thankfully the day passed without rain showers, and I made it home to enjoy one of the most satisfying showers that I can remember. As I stood in the shower, I felt like a weight had been removed from my scalp! The next day I rinsed after lathering, and the school year continued right along.

It's been a privilege to have the opportunity to embark on graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and I'm grateful that so many people have supported me in this endeavor. At risk of sounding like another Facebook post (here's my family vacationing in Hawaii... and a picture of our new Tesla... and all the other cool/perfect things that we do every day), I wanted to share one example of the ways that grad school has pushed me out of my comfort zone. Not to complain... but to share the human side of learning so much cool stuff in such a compressed time period.

Despite my distractibility, the past academic year ended up feeling like a success. I can hardly wait to share more of what I learned about the neural control of movement, and look forward to the lab work that I'll be beginning this Summer.  Thanks for reading this far, and I am committed to being a more regular blogger in the coming months!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Yesterday's Class

I've recently completed my Spring semester at the University of Wisconsin, and am excited to share more of the neuroscience that I have learned.

Within the next few days, I will begin a series (a bombardment?) of blog postings relating neurophysiology, yoga, exercise and meditation.

In the meantime, last night's class seemed to be well-received by many participants. For those that are interested in practicing at home, here is the sequence that we worked with:

Yoga Sequence
5/10/17 Class

Inhale – arms up, exhale – arms down
Exhale – arms up, inhale – arms down
Sumo series
¼ Sun Salutations x3
Warrior II
½ Sun Salutations x3
Psoas Walk
¾ Sun Salutations x3
Side Angle
Full Sun Salutations x3
“High” Lunge
Projected Lunge (Bend/Straighten)
Prone Mountain
Locust x2
Reclining Leg Stretches (I & II)
Deep Breathing
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Dhyana (objectless meditation)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stuff I Learned; staycation

This past week I reveled in the joy of the staycation. While the days were relatively full, I enjoyed longer workouts, time with family, and even a quick trip to Minneapolis. I am happy to report that I'm starting to feel ready to resume my UW coursework tomorrow morning. Yes, there are a few pages that I should read this afternoon, along with the omnipresent voice in my head that recommends working on my academic writing... though by and large, I'm feeling ready to bring it on in terms of the remainder of the Spring semester.

This semester has been dominated by Systems Neuroscience (Systems), which has been one of the most interesting courses that I've ever taken. This 4-credit course has required 20-25 hours per week of studying. Despite the significant time requirements, Systems has opened doors to the universe that's within our brains. I often feel like a little kid that's just starting to see the big-ness and wonder of the world when I learn more about the brain. I'm just scratching the surface in neuroscience, and already, I'm feeling drawn into the vastness of this field. While I feel self-conscious using the term universe within, I cannot think of a more apt term in describing the field of neuroscience.

Purkinje cells of the cerebellum by the great scientist/artist Cajal.

What did I learn? As I reflected on writing this blog posting, the material that I learned over the past nine weeks doesn't lend itself all that well to a descriptive treatment. For example, the class spent a good deal of time on neuroanatomy. If you give me a slice of a brainstem, there's a pretty good chance that I can identify the various parts and pieces. But try as I may, I could not arrive at a pithy (and yoga-related) discussion of the blobs, pyramids, olives, ambiguus nuclei or the calyx of Held. (yes, these are all real terms for real parts of the brain).

With the technical details of neuroanatomy as a foundation, it does seem as though Systems is going to pivot a direction that more directly lends itself to interesting discussions in this blog. The next two weeks will be spent studying brain structures that are related to movement (the basal ganglia and cerebellum), followed by one month studying learning, memory, motivation and emotion. I am very excited by the forthcoming material, and much of this afternoon's reading will involve getting a head-start on the coming week's discussion of movement. I look forward to sharing what I learn!

Sorry for the long gap since I last wrote - I hope to write more regularly over the remaining 6-weeks of Spring semester.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Stuff I Learned - 2nd Semester, Week #4

Initially I had returned to school to explore the interface of aerobic exercise and contemplative practices, though my personal interest in joint laxity quickly subsumed my other research questions. While I still hope to explore how aerobic exercise may (or may not) facilitate the recognition of Yoga (Union), I've found that the subject of joint laxity has fully drawn me in.
Hyperextended knees are common with joint laxity
(Image from

As a quick review of past blog postings, joint laxity is a trait that some people are born with. Loose joints are not something that you acquire through yoga practice... joint laxity is distributed via the birth-lottery. Interestingly, the yoga community does seem to be disproportionately populated by people with joint laxity. I'm guessing that this over-representation of hyper mobile people within yoga is based on a self-selection; yoga may be more interesting when loose joints allow you to move more deeply into poses, and for those without joint laxity - yoga may not be as interesting and/or rewarding.

Joint laxity has been shown to correlate with many conditions, such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and a greater incidence of autoimmune disease and anxiety. The latter, in particular, deeply interests me. Why is anxiety positively correlated to joint laxity? What are the mechanisms? What, if any, physical activities may help manage the challenges of joint laxity? And more relevant to my proposed research questions - what physical practices may offer the most relief for those that live with anxiety?

As part of my graduate studies, I've been reading a lot of academic papers about joint laxity, its incidence, and the various conditions that are related to joint laxity. Earlier this week I read a paper from France that I found interesting.

In this paper, the authors evaluated the joint laxity, affective state and body-awareness of a randomly selected group of undergraduates at a French university. There were several results from this study of join laxity concerning anxiety and internal body awareness, though I personally found one result the most interesting... the incidence of joint laxity within this cohort!

The prevailing view has been that joint laxity occurs in 10-15% of the population, with a greater incidence in females than in males. I've suspected that the incidence of joint laxity may be increasing, though I have not had much evidence to support this view.

While the rigor of this study left much to be desired, the authors found that joint laxity was present in almost 40% of the students that were tested! While I think it's premature to stand on the rooftops and shout that the incidence of joint laxity is increasing, I think that this study provides some initial evidence that the incidence of joint laxity may, indeed, be increasing.

And with the strong connection between joint laxity and anxiety, it seems like the reports of an increasing incidence of anxiety and the possibility of an increasing incidence of joint laxity may be related.

I look forward to delving more deeply into the neural mechanisms underlying joint laxity, and have recently submitted a proposal for funding my first experiments toward this end. I'll let you know what unfolds!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Stuff I Learned - 2nd Semester, Week #3

I've long been familiar with the vestibular system, though my depth of understanding was more that of a dilettante than a scientist. In the past week I've been learning about vestibulation in my Systems Neuroscience (Systems) course; and now I have an even greater appreciation of what I did not know that I didn't know (avidya, again!)

I used to believe that posture
should be perfectly upright.
The vestibular system is made up of ten sensing mechanisms - five on each side of your head. Deep within each one of your ears are three semi-circular canals, and two otoliths. The semi-circular canals are sensitive to rotational movements, while the otoliths are sensitive to movements in the front/back and up/down directions. Together, these ten sensing mechanisms provide the information that among many functions; help us maintain upright posture, and keep our eyes focused even when our bodies are in motion.

On the first day's lecture, I learned an interesting point about the vestibular system's placement in the skull - the entire system is oriented at an inclination of about 30-degrees upward. What does this upward orientation mean? This orientation of the vestibular organs means that the bony structures of the skull are optimized for our heads to face slightly downward.

I found it interesting that our body's bony structure is based on the head being held at a slight angle downward. In my years of practicing and teaching, I've found that many people carry a stiff and rigid view of optimal posture. I've worked with countless people that are suffering from neck soreness and overall stiffness that's related to their striving to maintain a postural ideal that's too rigid and at-odds with gravity.

Learning that the bony structures of the skull are actually designed to be slightly angled forward was further evidence that my old view of posture was at-odds with gravity and the body's relationship to this fundamental force. Now, please don't misinterpret what I'm getting at - I'm not suggesting that we all slouch and let our heads fall into our laps. Far from it! But I am suggesting that the strictest head-held-high posture that many of us have been striving for may not be all that it's cracked up to be.

The horizontal canal's orientation suggests that
our head's baseline position is slightly downward.
I have come to believe that good posture should be easier rather than harder, and that most of us are not so far removed from our optimal posture. Rather than revolutionizing how we sit and stand, I think it's more appropriate for many of us to evolve how we sit and stand. What is your model of good posture based upon? Do the people that model this ideal of posture look at-ease in their bodies, or stiff? Is your ideal ideal?