Healing Breath

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Healing Breath

Source: Yoga Journal • Kate Holcombe • August 2012

Try these three simple practices to reduce stress, quiet your mind, and connect to your inner Self.

By Kate Holcombe

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A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old son, Hayes, told me he was having trouble falling asleep. He said that he was having “many thoughts” at night and couldn’t stop his mind from thinking. I told him about a breathing practice that I had taught his older brother, Calder, a few years earlier, and I suggested that Hayes could try it while lying in bed at night to help him relax and fall asleep. The practice was simple: a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing followed by a few minutes of consciously and gently extending each exhalation.

“Maybe you’d like to try it?” I said to Hayes. “I think it was helpful for your brother sometimes, and maybe it will help you, too.” Just then, Calder, who had been passing through the room, announced: “You’re wrong, Mom.” I held my breath, wondering if he’d tell Hayes that my advice wasn’t going to work. “It doesn’t help me sometimes,” he said matter-of-factly. “It helps me all the time.”

I was pleasantly stunned. I hadn’t realized that Calder was still using the practice I had taught him three years earlier. As I knelt on the living room floor to teach Hayes the same practice, I was reminded that pPranayama, the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, does not have to be complicated.

Pranayama, which literally means “to extend the vital life force,” or prana, is an incredibly rich practice made up of many breathing techniques that vary in complexity from ones simple enough for a child to do to those appropriate only for advanced practitioners. While the best way to practice pranayama is under the guidance of an experienced teacher, there are simple techniques—such as gentle diaphragmatic breathing and comfortably lengthening the exhalation—that can be used at any time to transform not only your breath but also your state of mind.

In my work as a yoga therapist, I treat people struggling with a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, chronic pain, and even life-threatening illness. Time and time again, I’ve seen simple pranayama practices reduce stress and anxiety; promote restful sleep; ease pain; increase attention and focus; and, on a more subtle level, help people connect to a calm, quiet place within so that they experience greater clarity and well-being on every level.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes pranayama as a process by which you can break your unconscious breathing pattern and make the breath long, easeful, and smooth. Most people’s unconscious breathing patterns are anything but easeful and smooth; they tend to be tense, shallow, and erratic. When we are afraid or hear bad news, we often gasp—inhaling and then holding the breath. These breathing patterns can activate the sympathetic nervous system (often referred to as the “fight or flight response”).

One of the primary reasons that pranayama techniques that foster a long, smooth exhale (like the ones presented here) are so beneficial is because, when practiced correctly, they can support the parasympathetic nervous system and activate what is commonly known as the “relaxation response,” reducing stress and its effects on your body and mind. As a result, your resilience in the face of challenge or adversity increases, and your mind becomes more focused and still.

A Quiet Mind

The eight limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutra are a path to help you reach a state of Yoga, or focused concentration. But this focused concentration is not the end goal. As Patanjali tells us, the result of reaching this state of attention is that you experience clearer perception and a greater connection with your true Self.

When you’re connected with your true Self, it becomes easier to see what is not your true Self—your mind, body, thoughts, feelings, job, and essentially all of the changing circumstances around you. This discernment allows you to act from a place of the Self, and when you do that, you experience less suffering.

Pranayama is an important tool to get you to this state of more focused concentration, leading you to clearer perception, a greater connection with the Self, and ultimately a happier life. In Yoga Sutra 2.52, Patanjali writes, “As a result [of pranayama], the covering that blocks our own inner light is reduced.” In other words, through the practice of pranayama, you can reduce all of the mental noise—the agitation, distractions, and self-doubt—that prevents you from connecting with your own inner light, your true Self. In this way, pranayama can have a profound effect on your life.

The Practice

Though practice of pranayama is safest and most effective when guided by an experienced teacher who knows your needs and capabilities, there are several simple techniques you can try at home as long as you’re in good health and you don’t push beyond your capacity.

The three breathing practices that follow—relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing; Sitali (or Sitkari) Pranayama; and gentle “extended exhale” breathing—are a good introduction to pranayama. Each supports the parasympathetic nervous system, quiets the mind, and helps to bring about a state of more focused attention. As you continue to practice these techniques over time, you may start to notice when you are unintentionally holding your breath or breathing shallowly. You also may begin to associate patterns of the breath with your moods or states of mind. This self awareness is the first step toward using the practices of pranayama to help shift your patterns and, through regular practice, create positive change in your life.

Try each practice daily for a week and observe how it affects your body, breath, and mind in order to figure out which is best for you. You can do them at just about any time of day, though preferably not immediately following a large meal.

Basic Breath Awareness

This gentle introduction to diaphragmatic breathing teaches you how to breathe more fully and consciously.

Benefits: Quiets and calms the entire nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety and improving self-awareness.

Try it: At least once a day, at any time.

How to: Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip-distance apart. Place a palm on your abdomen and breathe comfortably for a few moments, noticing the quality of your breath. Does the breath feel tense? strained? uneven? shallow? Simply observe the breath without any judgment. Then gradually begin to make your breathing as relaxed and smooth as possible, introducing a slight pause after each inbreath and outbreath.

Once the breath feels relaxed and comfortable, notice the movement of the body. As you inhale, the abdomen naturally expands; as you exhale, feel the slight contraction of the abdomen. In a gentle way, try to actively expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of the diaphragm and experience the pleasure of giving yourself a full, relaxed breath. Continue the practice for 6 to 12 breaths.

The Cooling Breath

Sitali Pranayama is often translated as “the cooling breath” because the act of drawing the air across the tongue and into the mouth is said to have a cooling and calming effect on the nervous system. To practice Sitali, you need to be able to curl the sides of your tongue inward so that it looks like a straw. The ability to curl the tongue is a genetic trait. If you can’t, try an alternative technique called Sitkari Pranayama, which offers the same effects.

Benefits: Can improve focus; reduce agitation, anger, and anxiety; and pacify excess heat in the system.

Try it: Twice a day, or as needed during stressful times. Sitali and Sitkari Pranayama are particularly supportive when you’re feeling drowsy in the morning or during an afternoon slump when you need to improve your focus.

How to: Sitali Pranayama: Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor, with your shoulders relaxed and your spine naturally erect. Slightly lower the chin, curl the tongue lengthwise, and project it out of the mouth to a comfortable distance. Inhale gently through the “straw” formed by your curled tongue as you slowly lift your chin toward the ceiling, lifting only as far as the neck is comfortable. At the end of the inhalation, with your chin comfortably raised, retract the tongue and close the mouth. Exhale slowly through the nostrils as you gently lower your chin back to a neutral position. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.

Sitkari Pranayama: Open the mouth slightly with your tongue just behind the teeth. Inhale slowly through the space between the upper and lower teeth, letting the air wash over your tongue as you raise your chin toward the ceiling. At the end of the inhalation, close the mouth and exhale through the nostrils as you slowly lower your chin back to neutral. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.

The Long Exhale

This 1:2 breathing practice, which involves gradually increasing your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation, relaxes the nervous system.

Benefits: Can reduce insomnia, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.

Try it: Before bedtime to help support sleep, in the middle of the night when you’re struggling with insomnia, or at any time of the day to calm stress or anxiety. (In general, it’s best to avoid practicing 1:2 breathing first thing in the morning unless you’re experiencing anxiety. The relaxing effects of the practice tend to make it more difficult to get up and go on with your day.)

How to: Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place a palm on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the abdomen expand on the inhalation and gently contract on the exhalation. With your palm on your abdomen, mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several more breaths. If the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, you can begin to make them the same length over the next few breaths.

Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds by gently contracting the abdomen. As long as the breath feels smooth and relaxed, continue to gradually increase the exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds once every few breaths. Make sure you experience no strain as the exhalation increases and keep going until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation, but not beyond. For example, if your inhalation is comfortably 4 seconds, do not increase the length of your exhalation to more than 8 seconds.

Keep in mind that even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce a calming effect, so take care that you don’t push yourself beyond your capacity. (If you do, you’ll likely activate the sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, and feel agitated rather than calm.)

If your breath feels uncomfortable or short, or if you’re gasping on the next inhalation, back off to a ratio that is more comfortable for 8 to 12 breaths. Then finish your practice with 6 to 8 natural, relaxed breaths.

Kate Holcombe is the founder and president of the nonprofit Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco

School Adds Yoga to Physical Education Curriculum

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School Adds Yoga to Physical Education Curriculum
Source: The Bismark Tribune • Associated Press • December 12, 2012

School adds yoga to physical education curriculum

ENCINITAS, Calif. — Public school yoga instructor Katie Campbell proudly looks out at 23 first-graders as they contain their squirming in a kid-friendly version of the lotus position.

In a voice barely above a whisper, she says into her microphone: “Why look at everyone showing me they’re ready for yoga. A-plus, plus, plus.”

Then the lesson begins with deep breathing and stretches common to many yoga classes.

But there is no chanting of “om,” no words spoken in the Indian language of Sanskrit nor talk of “mindfulness” or clasping hands in the prayer position.

Campbell avoids those potential pitfalls for the Encinitas Union School District, which is facing the threat of a lawsuit as it launches what is believed to be the country’s most comprehensive yoga program for a public school system.

Parents opposed to the program say the classes will indoctrinate their children in Eastern religion and are not just for exercise.

It’s a debate public schools across the country are increasingly facing with the rising popularity of the practice and the recent dispute over school prayer.

‘21st century P.E.’

Yoga is now taught at public schools from the rural mountains of West Virginia to the bustling streets of Brooklyn as a way to ease stress in today’s pressure-packed world where even kindergartners say they feel tense about keeping up with their busy schedules. But most classes are part of an after-school program, or are offered only at a few schools or by some teachers in a district.

Encinitas is believed to be the only public school system that will have yoga instructors teach full-time at its nine schools as part of an overall wellness curriculum that includes nutrition and a school garden program, among other things.

“This is 21st century P.E. for our schools,” said Encinitas Superintendent Timothy B. Baird. “It’s physical. It’s strength-building. It increases flexibility, but it also deals with stress reduction and focusing, which kickball doesn’t do.”

The program is expected to teach a 30-minute yoga lesson to roughly 5,000 students twice a week at the district’s schools, which run kindergarten through sixth grade. It is funded with a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group whose board of directors includes the son of the late Indian instructor Krishna Pattabhi Jois, whose teachings are said to have popularized Ashtanga yoga in the Western world and were followed by Madonna and Sting.

Jois Foundation’s program director Russell Case said Encinitas is building a national yoga model for public schools.

“Kids are under a lot of stress. There are a lot of mandates on them to perform. We think it would be extremely helpful to have 10 to 15 minutes possible to sit and be reflective instead of go, go, go,” he said.

Researchers at the University of Virginia and University of San Diego will study the program, including analyzing data on students’ resting heart rates.

They want to know if public schools can impact not only children’s learning, but instill in them good eating habits and skills to help their well-being.

Protests

The program started in several schools in September but will go district-wide in January after months of protests by a group of parents.

Mary Eady pulled her first-grade son out of the classes.

Eady said she observed a kindergarten class in which the children did the motions referred to in yoga practices as a sun salutation. The folded over children, stood upright, sweeping up their arms toward the sky.

She said while the teacher called it an “opening sequence” the connotation was the same in her mind: Students were learning to worship the sun, which went against her Christian beliefs that only God should be worshipped.

“It will change the way you think,” she said. “What they are teaching is inherently spiritual, it’s just inappropriate therefore in our public schools.”

Their attorney, Dean Broyles, said they are considering suing to halt the program.

Despite the long debate over prayer in school, constitutional law experts say the courts still have not clearly defined what constitutes religion.

“You might get litigation on a program like this because it’s not totally settled what the boundaries of religion are,” said New York University law professor Adam Samaha.

He points to the 1979 ruling by a federal court that blocked transcendental meditation classes from being taught in New Jersey public schools, deeming those particular lessons to be religious.

But the court did not go so far as to rule that meditation in general is, and Samaha thinks courts would not deem yoga a religious practice. If they did, it would open the door to scrutinizing a host of activities.

“It’s practiced by enough people, who probably don’t believe they are engaging in a religious practice,” he said.

Avoiding risk

Still, Encinitas Assistant Superintendent David Miyashiro said administrators are not taking any risks.

“In light of all the attention, it’s not enough to remove things with cultural references but also anything that can be perceived by onlookers as a concern,” he said. “We think it’s important to keep this program in our schools and we’re going to do what we can to protect it.”

At Flora Vista Elementary School, those precautions were apparent.

“Spread out, we’re getting ready for some airplane,” Campbell said as the children laid on their mats face down and spread their arms, arching their back and then flopping back down. Later she said: “now push back to downward dog.”

At the end, the children sprawled on their backs to relax like a “pancake” as the lights went off. There were soft giggles. Some wiggled in the dark or fiddled with their socks.

“We’re like melting cheese,” Campbell reminded the students.

Principal Stephanie Casperson said fewer children now come to her office for acting out.

“I have teachers who say before a test now students do yoga to calm themselves so they’re transferring it into the classroom, into their lives,” she said.

During a recent fire drill, 6-year-old Sylvia Lawrence said she folded over into a yoga position under her desk.

“It made the fire drill more fun,” she said.

Maria Walsh, 11, said she was never into other sports.

“It’s just a fun way for me to exercise,” said the freckled, blond-haired girl with a big smile.

In Brooklyn, Using Yoga To Help Locked Up Youth Escape A Life Of Crime

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In Brooklyn, Using Yoga To Help Locked Up Youth Escape A Life Of Crime

By Luis Lema • LE TEMPS/Worldcrunch
September 14, 2011

Brooklyn’s Brownsville, one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York, is also home to one of the city’s three juvenile detention centers. There, a social worker and a choreographer are using yoga and meditation to help rehabilitate the center’s troubled youth.

Participants in NYC's Lineage ProjectParticipants in NYC’s Lineage Project

By Luis Lema
LE TEMPS/Worldcrunch

BROOKLYN – Welcome to Brownsville in Brooklyn, one of the poorest districts in the Big Apple. It’s also one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods: this is the place where, almost traditionally, the first murder of the New Year is committed, every Jan. 1 at around 2 a.m. Dozens of murders follow, while nearly everywhere else in New York City, crime rates are dropping.

Brownsville is also home to Crossroads, one of New York City’s three juvenile detention centers. For Beth Navon, the “white lady” who works with the facility’s detainees through a yoga and meditation program called the Lineage Project, the location makes sense. Many of the 200 teenagers permanently incarcerated in Crossroads hail from the area, as do a lot of the guards keeping watch over them.

Technically speaking, Crossroads isn’t a prison, since it doesn’t house convicts. The detainees are instead youths awaiting trial. But it certainly looks like a prison: windowless walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, highly secure doors and security checks that are so strict that visitors would never be able to smuggle in even a pen or a notebook.

Like other detention facilities in the state, it also has a reputation for violence. The state of New York has come under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of abuse and the death of one teenage inmate. Critics say the state’s penal system routinely tramples on detainees fundamental human rights. Which is where Beth Navon comes in. The Lineage Project, she acknowledges, was chosen over many others to try to humanize a system that had clearly proven to be a failure.

Beth works with Jeremy. Together they walk through the last security gate towards the girls’ block, where 20 cells surround a common room, several tables and chairs, a TV set and an old video game console. The young girls, dressed in white T-shirts and blue uniforms, are all aged between 13 and 15. Some of them look twice their age, with their arm and neck tattoos and their overly unbuttoned outfits. Others look half their age and seem to be under the control of the tattooed group. All of them are black or latino.

Jeremy is a choreographer. She is seven months pregnant and the guards have allowed her, for this one time, to bring a bottle of water to help her fight the stifling heat. Like Beth, Jeremy loves meditation and yoga. For many years, both women have been trying to reach out to the children at Crossroads. Careful not to offer unrealistic illusions, the women try nevertheless to establish links between the world of these juvenile inmates and the daily world outside the detention center.

Today’s lesson will last an hour – and will end when the guards come in to clear the room. The exercises function as a rehabilitation program. It is in fact the only rehabilitation program available to the Crossroads detainees. For the girls, this funny lesson is not only an unusual way of changing their daily routines, but also an opportunity to show who is the roughest and toughest.

“What happens in your body when you’re feeling angry?” Jeremy asks them. From experience, the girls know the answer well: tightening muscles, heightened breathing, sped up heart beat. “Well, let’s try to feel differently,” Jeremy suggests. She wants the girls to be self-aware, to forget about their hostile and stressful environment and to relax physically. The teenagers try the lotus position. They seem to be enjoying themselves, and then begin to laugh when asked to move their pelvis back and forth for a yoga exercise.

Later, when they are alone in their cells, will these young girls close their eyes and try to forget their living conditions by focusing on their inner selves?

The Lineage Project’s files are full of promising stories about young people – even if difficulties still lie ahead for them right now. Meditation and yoga have proved useful and brought about spectacular changes in adult prisons. Programs have even been introduced for death row prisoners. Backers of the approach say that through mediation, prisoners can free their minds and thus in some sense transcend their physical incarceration. Yet the people running the Lineage Project are actually struggling to drop the “meditation” label. Apparently it scares off potential donors, even if Jeremy the choreographer and Beth the social worker are hardly new age guru types.

During the hour-long exercise sessions, the young girls have learned to open up their hearts as if they have known Beth and Jeremy their whole lives. The lessons offer a real contrast to the cold interactions they normally experience at Crossroads. “Here, people treat us like animals,” Samantha says, sounding very upset. “No one can get out; we even need permission to go to the bathroom.”

Before beginning a session in the boys’ block, Beth Navon enjoys a quiet 20-minute break. “People will cross to the other side of the street on passing these teenagers when they get out of here,” she reflects. Even more discouraging is the fact that many will end up back at Crossroads – sometimes just a few weeks after their release. “We’ll see those same faces again,” she says, “because some of them will have committed other offences.”

In the common room, the boys are as tired and badly-behaved as the girls before them. But for a while, at least, the normal tensions of life at Crossroads dissipate. At the end of the lesson, guards search the boys from head to foot. All of the anger and pent-up violence returns. The inmates seem ready to explode.

But the lesson has triggered something for Sergio, the most rebellious boy in the group. Focusing on meditation and internal energy, he is reminded of a Mexican god with universal strength and the power to launch fireballs. Without realizing it, Sergio is referring to Tezcatlipoca, the most terrifying of the Aztec gods. God of the night sky, Tezcatlipoca tempted men in order to lead them to their own destruction. But he could also absolve them of any wrong-doing and sometimes help them change their own fates.

Read the original article in French

Photo – Lineage Project

All rights reserved ©Worldcrunch – in partnership with Le Temps

Focusing on A.D.D

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Focusing on A.D.D.

By Fernando Pagés Ruiz • Yoga Journal
September 7, 2011

Adults and children living with Attention Deficit Disorder know the daily struggles of hyperactivity, social isolation, and drug side effects. But yoga may help control these symptoms as well as reduce long-term dependency on medication.

When 8-year-old Clayton Petersen began taking yoga, he had a hard time staying focused. He would assume a posture and then get distracted. His teacher, Kathleen Randolph, had to recapture his attention about once every minute, guiding him back to the center of the room and then into the next asana. She recalls these first lessons, staged within the confines of her small basement studio, were “like being inside a pinball machine.” Clayton bounced from wall to wall, scattering his considerable energies throughout the studio in a way any parent of a hyperactive child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) would immediately recognize.

The clinical label ADD describes one of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral impairments of childhood, affecting an estimated 3 to 9 percent of the school-age population and 2 percent of adults. While most outgrow their hyperactivity in adolescence, about two-thirds carry other symptoms like distractibility into adulthood.

ADD’s core symptoms include inattention, difficulty following directions, poor control over impulses, excessive motor activity in many but not all cases, and difficulty conforming to social norms. But low intelligence is not among these, despite the fact that ADD can hamper learning. On the contrary, a great majority of those diagnosed enjoy above-average intelligence. Bonnie Cramond, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Georgia, authored a provocative paper comparing the symptoms of ADD with creativity. She found that children diagnosed with ADD share traits with such innovators as Robert Frost, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Leonardo DaVinci.

Since the 1940s, psychiatrists have used various labels to describe children who seem inordinately hyperactive, inattentive, and impulsive. These labels have included “minimal brain dysfunction,” “hyperkinetic reaction of childhood,” and, since the 1970s, “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD). But it turns out that certain children are inattentive and easily distracted without being hyperactive. These quiet, spaced-out kids don’t disrupt class and often go unnoticed.Today the simpler label Attention Deficit Disorder has gained favor to acknowledge attention deficits that come with or without hyperactivity.

For decades, doctors blamed ADD on bad parenting, character weakness, refined sugar, and a host of other causes. Recent research, however, using sophisticated brain-scanning technology suggests a subtle neurological impairment. Studies report that several brain regions in ADD appear underdeveloped, most notably the right prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with inhibition. It turns out that inhibition acts as a precursor to concentration.

One’s ability to concentrate emerges from restraining mental distractions in a process neurologists call “neural inhibition”—a description that squares with Patanjali’s definition of concentration as “quieting the mind of its compulsions.” Here’s how it works: As you read this sentence, your brain intensifies the neural circuits related to language by suppressing competing stimuli like ambient sounds, peripheral vision, and extraneous thoughts. The contrast created between the circuits highlighted and those inhibited allows you to focus your concentration. In the ADD brain, the inhibiting portion of the system malfunctions. ADD brains get flooded with competing stimuli and lack the means to sort them out; each internal voice shouts as loudly as the others.

Looking for a New Drug

Understanding what causes ADD is child’s play compared with knowing how to treat it. There is no cure, so learning how to control the condition is the focus of treatment. And when it comes to ADD treatment, medication has long been accepted as the best medicine.

Stimulant drug use for hyperactivity dates to 1937, when Charles Bradley, M.D., discovered the therapeutic effects of the amphetamine Benzedrine on behaviorally disturbed children. In 1948, Dexedrine was introduced and shown to be just as effective, without such high dosages. This was followed by Ritalin in 1954. Ritalin had fewer side effects and, since it’s not an amphetamine, less potential for abuse. It soon became the best-known and most prescribed psychoactive drug for ADD children—as well as the most scrutinized: By now hundreds of studies have backed its safety and effectiveness.

But nowadays, Ritalin has taken a back seat to generic versions of methylphenidate—Ritalin’s active ingredient—and ADDerall. A “cocktail” drug of amphetamines, ADDerall offers greater dosage flexibility, works more gradually and on a broad spectrum of symptoms, and eliminates the peaks and valleys of methylphenidate.

Still, these drugs are what continue to make ADD treatment controversial. The greatest fallouts with any stimulant medication are lifelong dependency and possible side effects from such long-term use. General use of ADD drugs can trigger some immediate reactions, such as loss of appetite, insomnia, weight loss, delayed puberty, irritability, and the unmasking of latent tics.

Yet these symptoms are said to be manageable with dosage modifications or by discontinuing the use of medication. And although several studies have shown most side effects are mild and short-term, many researchers add that there are insufficient long-term studies to confirm the safety of these drugs over an extended period.

Then there is the ongoing debate regarding the effectiveness of ADD medication beyond a certain time frame. Enid Haller, Ph.D., a specialist in ADD and director of Behavioral Arts in New York City, considers psychopharmaceuticals a short-term intervention at best. “These drugs stop working after six months to a year, and you have to switch medications or change the dosage,” she says. “Unless the individual with ADD learns to compensate for their deficiencies and exploit their mental strengths, medication alone won’t help in the long term.”

Today, more health-care professionals recommend a multidisciplinary, multimodal approach to the treatment of ADD, which includes medication but also therapy and dietary changes as well as a host of mind-body approaches, such as biofeedback, neurofeedback, and yoga. These treatments work to help ADD sufferers learn how to control their symptoms and relieve both emotional and physical stress. But as is the case with most complementary treatments, lack of scientific evidence keeps them from being more accepted and widely used. They tend to get stuck in a gray area: Either they have strong testimonials but no clinical trials to support them, or they have encouraging preliminary research to back their claims but no follow-up studies.

Take EEG neurofeedback and EMG biofeedback, for example. EEG (electroencephalography) represents a computerized training that teaches children how to recognize and control their brain waves. Researchers have observed that those with ADD have higher rates of theta waves (associated with low stimulation, dreaming, and inattentiveness) and lower rates of beta waves (associated with concentration and attention). A computer game controlled by the production of beta waves teaches children the “feel” of a beta wave state until they can eventually reproduce it at will.

In one controlled open trial led by Michael Linden, Ph.D., in 1996, children with ADD showed a 9-point IQ increase over a 40-week period using EEG. EEG appears to work best for inattentive ADD children, but it involves undergoing many sessions and can be expensive, at a cost of about $50 per session. However, on the plus side, there are no adverse physical or psychological side effects.

EMG (electromyography) works similarly to EEG, except it trains deep muscle relaxation instead of brain waves. When muscles relax to a desired degree, a computer generates a tone. By learning to control this tone, subjects can learn deep relaxation. This treatment is not as popular as EEG, but substantial scientific literature supports its effectiveness. It also represents an important therapy because it works with the most troublesome group of ADD sufferers, hyperactive boys. A study published in Biofeedback and Self-Regulation (1984; 9:353–64) found junior high hyperactive boys attained significantly higher reading and language performance after just six 25-minute EMG-assisted relaxation sessions.

Another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (1982; 38:92–100), which focused on hyperactive boys aged 6 to 12, found significant improvement in behavior observations, parent ratings, and psychological tests after 10 relaxation training sessions. But this data also revealed something interesting: The effect of EMG biofeedback closely resembles the type of neural relaxation work that occurs in yoga. Why is this important? Some experts now believe a combination of physical and mental discipline may be the best approach in treating ADD safely and effectively for the long term.

According to John Ratey, M.D., coauthor of Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood (Simon & Schuster, 1995), exercise that integrates both the body and mind engages the attention system more readily than meditation alone. “[Many studies have shown that] the greatest yield of nerve growth factors happens when the body engages in complex movement patterns,” says Ratey.

The Yoga Connection

It’s important to realize, though, that while yoga may help those with ADD, it is not a miracle worker. It requires time and discipline—concepts that can be difficult for those with ADD to master. In many cases, it takes a year or more for the effects of yoga to make any difference, while medication works in minutes. But the benefits of medication wear off along with the prescription. The effects of yoga—which include suppleness, poise, and better concentration—are much longer lasting: They develop gradually through a type of learning that transforms the entire person. There is no learning or transformation involved in taking a pill.

Mary Alice Askew can relate to this. She learned she had ADD in high school, and like many girls, her symptoms did not include hyperactivity, which made the diagnosis less obvious but no less debilitating. A bright, capable student, her grades and social relations did not match her potential. Though she studied diligently enough to get straight A’s, she instead got C’s and D’s. During class, Askew reeled between two extremes, either “spaced-out or hyperfocused, with no happy medium,” she says.

With her attention system out of control, the transitions from one class to the next were especially hard. Unable to switch activities without getting “mentally disorganized,” she felt inadequate and confused. She knew she could perform as well as her peers, but something got in her way.

To determine what, her parents arranged for a battery of psychological tests that led to the diagnosis of ADD. Treatment began immediately, with stimulants for mental clarity and behavioral training to help her get organized. Her symptoms and grades improved, and she went on to college.

Askew thought she would remain dependent on psychopharmaceuticals for life, but a sudden twist of fate brought her to yoga—a breakthrough that redefined her personal therapy and eventually her career. She discovered yoga in her early 20s, after a car accident left her body wracked in pain. Her physical therapist recommended yoga as part of a comprehensive pain management program. She began to study with her physical therapist and also began to practice at home for up to 90 minutes every day.

The asanas helped reduce her pain and yielded a surprising side effect: Her symptoms of ADD improved too. “I noticed that standing postures put me into the perfect mental state for listening and learning,” she says. So Askew began standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the back of the classroom. “It gave me something to do with my energy, besides fidgeting,” says Askew. “It helped me stay in the academic moment.”

After graduating with a master’s degree in counseling, Askew began treating students with ADD at a public school in North Carolina. She taught them yoga and meditation to prepare for exams. Today, Askew works as a hypnotherapist and incorporates yoga into her work at Haller’s Behavioral Arts and Research Clinic in New York City. She says yoga provides several benefits for those with ADD:

  • SELF-AWARENESS. People with ADD lack it, notoriously underreporting their own symptoms. The ADD brain, struggling with an overload of sensory stimuli, lacks the mental space for introspection. By emphasizing physiological self-perception, yoga strengthens self-awareness, which can represent the first step in self-healing. “I used to feel hyper-aware of everything but myself,” says Askew. “But yoga helped me get comfortable within my own skin.”
  • STRUCTURE. Many with ADD leave considerable creative potential unfulfilled because they can’t seem to organize their creative energies. Therefore, positive, life-enhancing routines that establish order can be a very important part of ADD management. Systematic patterns of movement help organize the brain. A highly systematized approach, like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, for example, provides consistent, reliable patterning along with the progressive challenges that ADD people require to sustain long-term interest in an activity.
  • COORDINATION & PHYSICAL FITNESS. Children with ADD frequently miss out on physical education—not because of physiological limitations but because their inability to “play by the rules” makes them anathema to coaches and unpopular with their peers. Consequently, ADD kids don’t develop the same level of physical coordination as other children. Therapists often recommend martial arts for their ADD patients because it offers a disciplined, athletic outlet without the pressures of a team sport.
    Yoga, though, goes one step further, providing physical fitness without competition. The relative safety of yoga allowed Askew to explore her body and gain a sense of physical self-confidence, thus shedding the feeling of awkwardness she’d suffered most of her life. “Having my posture in alignment makes it easier to move in a fluid way, shifting attention without stress,” she says.
One Child’s Class

It takes a special yoga teacher to work with ADD kids. “The teacher must have access to a variety of specialized techniques for dealing with anger, distractibility, and impulsivity, as well as a solid foundation in yoga,” says Sonia Sumar, author of Yoga for the Special Child (Special Yoga Publications, 1998). Sumar trains and certifies yoga teachers, like Randolph, to work with developmentally challenged children. Randolph combines Sumar’s special education approach with 30 years of hatha yoga practice in her classes with Clayton.

She works patiently, often one-on-one for several months, before integrating a child with ADD into a group setting, which includes two or three kids at the most. “These kids can be very intense,” says Randolph. “A yoga teacher who works with children with ADD must develop patience, boundless energy, and a keen focus herself. These children need someone who can think faster and more creatively than they do; otherwise, they soon get bored.”

Every Thursday, Clayton steps into Randolph’s studio at The Yoga Center in Reno, Nevada. “Sometimes it’s a struggle to get him there,” says his mother, Nancy Petersen, “but in the end, he’s always glad he went.” Children with ADD struggle with transitions, so Randolph enlists a brief ritual, including candles and incense, to help Clayton shift into yoga mode. The structure of Clayton’s classes generally follows the same basic pattern every week, with a few alternating poses chosen for variety.

ADD children do best in a well-organized environment, as their internal sense of structure lacks coherence. The Yoga Center has a sunny room with large windows and mirrored walls, but Clayton’s classes take place in Randolph’s basement studio, where the ivory-yellow paint and sienna carpet keep distractions to a minimum. Since the ADD brain functions too slowly while processing sensory information, concentration comes more easily when the stimulation level remains low.

To encourage body awareness, Randolph begins by asking Clayton how tight his body feels and how much warm-up he needs. Depending on the answer, Randolph begins with Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation) in either a 12- or 28-posture sequence. This cycle challenges Clayton’s ability to focus and helps increase his attention span. Learning a complex series like Sun Salutation “recruits a lot of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex,” says Ratey. “The brain is like a muscle: When you strain it, you strengthen it.” But purely intellectual endeavors, like learning multiplication tables, don’t promote what Ratey jokingly calls “neurological Miracle-Gro” to the extent that complex movement patterns do.

Following Sun Salutation, Randolph leads Clayton through a succession of forward bends, lateral bends, triangle poses, and backbends. In addition to their psychological benefits, these yoga poses help children with ADD learn to coordinate their bodies in space, which is important since they tend to have higher injury rates than their peers. Similar to the work of a physical therapist, carefully performed asanas engage alignment, balance, and coordination to train a child’s sensory-motor system. Balancing poses like Vrksasana (Tree Pose) are Clayton’s favorites, and he frequently practices them outside of class. Says Randolph, “Kids gravitate toward play that involves balance,” such as skateboards, pogo sticks, swings, merry-go-rounds, and tumbling, because it excites what physiologists call the vestibular system. The inner ear’s vestibular system allows you to judge your position in space and informs the brain to keep you upright.

But beyond its role in physiological equilibrium, researchers are discovering that the vestibular system plays a vital role in behavioral and cognitive stability. “There’s a fundamental kind of coordination that patterns behavior so it makes sense and flows together, which is believed to be deficient in those with ADD,” says Eugene Arnold, M.Ed., M.D., an ADHD specialist at Ohio State University and formerly with the National Institute of Mental Health.

To this end, Randolph employs asanas like Tolasana (Scales Pose) and an exercise she’s dubbed Roll Asana, in which the student rocks back and forth on the floor like a teeter-totter. Each new position in yoga provides a different plane of stimulation for the neurological circuits of the vestibular system. Inverted positions, such as Sirsasana (Headstand) and Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) are especially beneficial because they also calm the nervous system and help curb hyperactivity while training the attention system. Near the end of class, Randolph guides Clayton through a series of relaxation poses to calm his breath, quiet his mind, and prepare for meditation. Meditation lasts approximately one minute—which can seem like a lifetime for ADD children.

After four months of yoga, Clayton can finally complete a half-hour yoga session, flowing from one posture to the next with minimum interruption. Though Clayton’s significant progress in yoga has not yet translated into better concentration at school, it’s difficult to imagine that the focus he has developed in yoga would be confined to the sticky mat. On at least one occasion, Clayton says he used techniques learned in meditation to train his attention during a mathematics exam. On another, his mother spotted him practicing Bakasana (Crane Pose) in the outfield during Little League—although, unfortunately, he wasn’t paying much attention to the game.

His yoga teacher accepts this gradual pace as a fact of life. “Quieting the mind is a long haul for any of us,” says Randolph. “It can be an epic journey for those with ADD, but they need it most.” Talking with Clayton about his yoga practice, one gets the sense that he’s found something important and personal at which he can excel—a refuge for his spirit and a tool for establishing harmony between his body and mind.

After several years of yoga, Askew knows it takes that kind of full-time commitment to manage the symptoms of ADD. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes yoga has helped Askew cope with her condition. It gives her confidence to know she can gain mental clarity on her own—without a pill. “Yoga,” says Askew, “involves learning how to manage attention and learning how to move fluidly from focusing on the details to the big picture.”

Contributing Editor Fernando Pagés Ruiz wrote “What Is Consciousness?” in the September/October 2001 issue of Yoga Journal. He lives and writes in Lincoln, Nebraska, and can be reached at [email protected].

Stretch Your Way Through the Back-to-School Transition

Aside

Stretch Your Way Through the Back-to-School Transition

September 6, 2011

Source: Karen Fabian • Beacon Hill Patch

Credit Karen Fabian

It’s that time of year again: back to school.

When I was young, yoga wasn’t part of my life at all, nor was it provided in my elementary or high school. Now it’s offered at many schools so children have a chance to try this wonderful practice to help them build physical strength, increase their ability to focus and manage the torrent of emotions that are part of their daily life.

Yoga, mindfulness and meditation too, can all be useful tools for helping children and parents manage the transition to back to school. The practice of yoga is about more than the poses, it’s also a practice that teaches discipline, developing good habits, taking deep breathing breaks, practicing gratitude and honoring and respecting yourself. My experience in providing these tips comes from my work with children and all the interactions I have with the extraordinary parents I meet every day:

Create a routine that includes yoga: Give your kids a tool they can access anywhere and anytime and offer an activity that you can do together. Buy your child their own yoga mat and if you have never tried yoga, guess what — now’s the perfect time. Pick up a children’s book on yoga or flashcards (“My Daddy is a Pretzel” is a great book by Baron Baptiste as are “Yoga Pretzel Yoga Cards” by Tara Guber- both available on Amazon). Make it an after-school activity for the two of you or a pre-dinner thing. Even 15 minutes can help you bond and share.

Help your kids understand the benefits of yoga and how yoga can help them with school:When I teach children yoga, I usually start with a question, “Does anyone know what yoga is?” or “When I say the word ‘yoga’ what do you think of?” Kids usually respond with, “stretching” or “relaxing” or “getting stronger.” They know the value, now it’s up to you to help them see how the benefits they get from yoga can help them in school. I try to bring into classes comments about how we can get stressed when doing homework or our backs can hurt from carrying heavy books and yoga can help us relax when we’re stressed or get stronger so we can carry heavy loads.

Think your kids are too young to meditate? Think again. Call it “meditation,” call it “visualization,” call it “sitting still.” It’s just a way of describing being still, breathing and acknowledging how you feel. Of course, this is harder for children the younger they are, but there’s a way you can encourage even children as young as 3 and 4 to be still. At the end of class, I ask even young children to lie flat and think of their favorite color and without speaking it, see if they can “see” it in their minds’ eye. When we’re done, I ask them to come up to seated and tell me what they saw. As children get older you can do some breathing exercises with them and get their feedback when they’re done as to how it felt in their body. In my work with student athletes, I ask them to visualize performing well as a way to “see” their success on the water, track or field. Meditation is a great way to build a habit of stillness and sensation for children and in a world where they are over-stimulated much of their day, this can be a tremendous relief. These times of stillness can help kids begin to process any feelings of anxiety they may feel around school, peer pressure or school performance.

Encourage expression and communication: Practicing yoga with a young child is more about expression and less about proper alignment. As kids get into the teen years and older and in my work with student athletes, I’m a bit more focused on alignment but in general, yoga is an expression of creativity and flow. It’s always interesting in family yoga classes when parents spend a lot of time correcting their young child in the pose. At a young age, we’re really just focusing more on the “doing” not the “execution.” And with children, yoga is a perfect lead in to having kids journal, or write down their feelings. Buy your child a nice notebook and pen and encourage them to do a little writing after they practice. If it’s a young child, ask them if they can draw a picture of their favorite pose. Anything that helps them express themselves is wonderful and will give them an outlet for their feelings about school, friends and grades.

When we build the practice of yoga into our children’s lives, we’re teaching them how to create a healthy habit, how to live in a way that makes health a priority and how to have discipline. These are all traits that will improve their school performance as well as build a solid foundation of health in their lives.