Your brain on psychedelics and meditation

This one’s from a couple issues ago in The New Yorker, which mainly goes to show how far behind on my reading.

Journalist Michael Pollan explores the resurgence of medical/psychological investigation into psychedelic drugs — for decades now a difficult, if not verboten, area of research. In particular, researchers are looking at how carefully guided trips can help terminally ill patients better cope with death. We’ve mentioned Pollan before, mainly related to his investigations into food and diets.

One section in particular caught my attention:

He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.

If the default-mode network functions as the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, we might expect its temporary disappearance from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as appears to happen during the psychedelic journey. Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.”

What that says is that both psychedelics and meditation act on the same part of the brain, the area that scientists closely identify with our ego — our “I” that is doing all our looking and categorizing of our world. Also the one that has those fluctuations of the mind we are trying to slow via yoga.

It’s not a perfect fit, as obviously with the ego put on a brief holiday, other parts of the mind spin of their own accord. But … well, it was something. And the whole article is worth a look.

Posted by Steve

All your sitting is doing you lots of harm

We’ve already highlighted the dangers of sitting too long and too much. And now there’s even more. From the Los Angeles Times:

New research that distills the findings of 47 studies concludes that those of us who sit for long hours raise our average risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and early death.

Even for those of us who meet recommended daily levels of exercise, sitting for long periods of time boosts our likelihood of declining health.


But even those who punctuate a long day of sitting with a vigorous workout were estimated to be 16% more likely to die of any cause in a given time than were those who do not sit for long.

The studies that formed the basis for such aggregations defined prolonged sitting, as well as high levels of physical activity, quite differently. While one study included participants who spent as little as an hour a day seated, the rest defined prolonged sitting as those who watched television for at least five hours a day on up to those who had more than six and, in one study, more than 11 hours of “sitting time” a day.

And the thing is, is that an hour or so of exercise every day doesn’t seem to make up for this very much. It obviously is healthy and helpful, but the studies suggest that a whole lot of sitting — between a commute, work, watching TV — is a major factor in shortening life and upping the risk of contracting diseases.

Here’s a question to put into this: What about seated meditation? I wonder how that would factor in?

Easiest thing to do, according to researchers, is to get up for a minute to three every half an hour.

Posted by Steve

The latest Lululemon fiasco is just funny

You can check all of Lululemon’s previous PR disasters right here.

Let’s be thankful the latest one is just funny — no sexism or racism involved. Well, maybe anti-Buffaloism, if there is such a thing. So this may not be funny if you are a Buffalo Bills or Sabres fan.

Check it out:

Lululemon Athletica Inc. (LULU) apologized to sports fans in Buffalo, New York, after it drew ire for the phrase “Wide Right / No Goal” spelled out in tile on the floor of a local store, a reference to painful losses that the city suffered in football and hockey.

“We want the Buffalo community to know that we have heard them and we are sorry,” Paul Zaengle, senior vice president of U.S. retail, said in an e-mailed statement. “We get that this didn’t land well, and we want to make it right. We have covered up the mosaic and are having it removed.”

“Wide Right” alludes to kicker Scott Norwood’s missed field goal attempt that ended the Buffalo Bills’ hopes for a Super Bowl win against the New York Giants in 1991. “No Goal,” meanwhile, evokes the Buffalo Sabres’ 1999 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Dallas Stars on a questionable goal.

Apparently there was a firestorm on the Twitter in response; it all began when a fan posted a photo of the tile/mosaic mentioned above.

Has Lululemon fired its ad agency yet?

Posted by Steve

For once, America’s craziest fitness craze does not include yoga

This coming weekend, the New York Times will be out with its latest dive into its latest fascination: CrossFit. (I’m assuming the piece will hit print this weekend, although it is dated today.) The spin this time is wondering why Americans are so fascinated with extreme fitness.

I think this is a good time for a musical interlude:

OK, back to the Times. I’m happy, and just a little surprised, to report that yoga (and Ashtanga as a subset) don’t get mentioned once in the paper’s Sunday magazine article. (Early, hippie-esque jogging does.)

Here’s the key takeaway that I thought might resonate here:

The whole notion of pushing your physical limits — popularized by early Nike ads, Navy SEAL mythos and Lance Armstrong’s cult of personality — has attained a religiosity that’s as passionate as it is pervasive. The “extreme” version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it. And as with most of sports culture, there is no gray area. You win or you lose. You leave it all on the floor or you shamefully skulk off the floor with extra gas in your tank.

But our new religion has more than a little in common with the religions that brought our ancestors to America in the first place. Like the idealists and extremists who founded this country, the modern zealots of exercise turn their backs on the indulgences of our culture, seeking solace in self-abnegation and suffering. “This is the route to a better life,” they tell us, gesturing at their sledgehammers and their kettlebells, their military drills and their dramatic re-enactments of hard labor. And in these uncertain times, it doesn’t sound so bad to be prepared for some coming disaster — or even for an actual job doing hard labor, if our empire ever falls.

I’ll make a wild prediction and say this story may signal that the media have moved on from their focus on yoga — though I’m sure the next acro-doggie-SUP-tantra variety will do its best to get attention.

There’s a good side to this, of course. Perhaps if this growing religiosity continues (note: This being a NYT trend story, it assuredly won’t and probably isn’t even a trend to begin with), future focus in public schools will be on Burpees instead of Bhakti.

Posted by Steve

The ‘mindful’ New York Knicks

If you follow professional basketball here in the U.S., a little league known as the NBA, you may know that the New York Knicks have been pretty lousy for pretty long. (Being in LA, I may be overemphasizing their suckiness, but they haven’t been the NBA finals in this century and haven’t won it all since before Pattabhi Jois ever came to the U.S.)

Earlier this year, in an expensive effort to turn things around, the team’s owner hired Phil Jackson, arguably one of the best coaches ever, inarguably the best since the early ’90s with the possible exception of Gregg Popovich.

He’s also the one known as the Zen Master.

As he revamps and rejiggers the Knicks, he’s putting his usual mindfulness approach to work, again. As ESPN is reporting:

Jackson revealed on Sunday that he has hired someone to put the team through “mindfulness training” this season.

“This is one of the things that they have to go through if they’re going to be part of the Knick organization,” Jackson said at the New Yorker Festival in Manhattan.


“There’s a mindfulness training program that’s very logical and very calm, quiet and we’ve started the process with this team and [first-year head coach] Derek [Fisher is] all for it. He’s a proponent of it,” Jackson said on Sunday. “And yet I think that it’s kind of what I am inserting in here as part of what I think has to happen because I know what effect it [has]. I think it’s very difficult sometimes for a coach to do this because it’s so anti what we are as athletes.

“We’re about action; we’re about this intense activity that we’ve got to get after. And this mindfulness is about sitting still and being quiet and controlling your breath and allowing you to be in the moment and yet it’s so vital for a team to have this skill or players to have this skill. To be able to divorce themselves from what just happened that’s inherent to them — a referee’s bad call, or an issue that goes on individually or against your opponent. You’ve got to be able to come back to your center and center yourself again.”

His description of the “why do this” and what it might do caught my attention: movement and intensity versus stillness and quiet.

It may be worth noting that the new coach mentioned there, Derek Fisher, played for Jackson on the Los Angeles Lakers, so he’s familiar with the drill.

If you see some really tall guys start appearing at your NY-area yoga studio, you may be able to guess that it’s working. (Although check first to make sure those aren’t Nets.)

Posted by Steve

Are you ready to check a crazy lunar eclipse tonight?

With our focus on Moon Days, turning our attention toward a rare celestial occurrence tonight seems fair.

Here’s the deal per

On Oct. 8, Interested skywatchers should attempt to see the total eclipse of the moon and the rising sun simultaneously. The little-used name for this effect is called a “selenelion,” a phenomenon that celestial geometry says cannot happen.


As a consequence of this atmospheric trick, for many localities east of the Mississippi River, watchers will have a chance to observe this unusual sight firsthand. Weather permitting, you could have a short window of roughly 2 to 9 minutes (depending on your location) with the possibility of simultaneously seeing the sun rising in the east while the eclipsed full moon is setting in the west.

That link has plenty more details to help you plan your viewing. And this NPR link has a nice graphic of when the moon will be eclipsing.

Posted by Steve

Kobe, Arianna and the power of meditation

As this New York Times semi-Q&A suggests, a strange pairing over an unexpected topic:

PG: Speaking of breaking things down, I noticed, reading “Thrive,” that the pillars of wellness must be second nature to athletes, who are all about peak performance. You meditate?

AH: Every day.

KB: [N.B.A. coach] Phil Jackson introduced me to it. When I was 18, Michael Jackson tried to get me to meditate. He could sit in meditation for seven hours. But I couldn’t sit still for 20 minutes.

PG: Michael Jackson?

KB: Yeah. “Thriller” Michael Jackson.

PG: When did Phil Jackson come along?

KB: His first season with the Lakers was when I was 21. And I dived right into meditation. I always knew the game carried a deeper meaning, more than X’s and O’s and strategy.

AH: Phil Jackson was a pioneer bringing this into sports. He helped give meditation, and other ways to renew ourselves, a legitimacy for businesspeople and macho guys, who tended to identify it with New Age-y, flaky stuff. Suddenly, meditation became performance enhancement, as well as part of the journey of discovery.

KB: It’s crazy to me that meditation is viewed as hokey. Just look at the people who’ve done phenomenal things. Do they meditate? Absolutely.

PG: What happens to the “obnoxious roommate” when you don’t meditate?

AH: I’m still a work in progress. But the “obnoxious roommate” now only makes guest appearances, and that’s a pretty big achievement for me. I try not to judge myself if I miss a meditation. Judgment creates the vicious cycle.

KB: When my “obnoxious roommate” knocks on the door in my head, I’ve found it’s better just to let him in. If you try to tune him out, he just bangs louder. If you let him in, he sits down, watches TV and shuts up. Know what I mean?

There are plenty of other topics touched on, too. And a reminder that the NBA season is just around the corner.

Posted by Steve