Updated: Feb 18
I scheduled a meditation retreat on Saturday. No one signed up, so I gave myself the gift. My training is more rigorous and intense than what I offer beginners or intermediate students who register. I can be ruthless with myself and take my training to extremes. I know where my edges are. I approach my training with a warrior's spirit. These disciplines are expressions of self-respect, self-discovery, self-mastery, and ultimately, of freedom from the bondage of a self.
What I design for myself is more like Boot Camp. I have a strict inner drill sergeant who points out the way. I trust this inner voice. "Trust thyself," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Every heart vibrates to that iron string."
Unlike Boot Camp, my regimen is not standardized, nor am I as harsh with students. I started with a 3 day fast which began after my last meal Thursday evening. I worked on Friday. During other Boot Camps, I might fast up to 14 days, meditate 4 to 24 hours in one session, or undergo 5 or more days of sensory deprivation. I listen to what the heart says and design around that.
Saturday, January 21
0700 I woke up later than usual, but needed the rest. I do not compromise on sleep as it is the most impactful habit for promoting well-being. My sleep was optimal ( and this coming from a guy diagnosed with sleep apnea). Over the years, I found protocols that worked so well for me, I was able to ditch the CPAP machine.
I track my sleep with an Oura ring. I slept for 9.5 hours and spent 1 hour 22 minutes in deep sleep (14%) and 3 hours and 15 minutes in REM (35%). For healthy adults, 20-25% of your total time asleep should be REM sleep and about 13 to 23% in deep sleep. During REM and deep sleep, a variety of functions take place in the mind and body:
memories are consolidated
learning and emotions process
physical recovery occurs
blood sugar levels and metabolism balance out
the immune system is energized
the brain detoxifies
I took a CO2 measurement which indicates changes in metabolic fuel (carbohydrates vs fats). My liver glycogen stores were depleted. My body was burning fat, and I was running on ketones. Ketones are a more efficient fuel than glycogen. Ketones promote mental clarity. And clarity is what I need to go deep when I sit to meditate.
There are other benefits to fasting. Fasting promotes blood sugar control by reducing insulin resistance; improves blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol levels; reduces inflammation; protects brain health; boosts metabolism; increases growth hormone secretion; and slows the aging process. After 48 hours, stem cells are stimulated which promote healing and repair. After 72 hours, I experience greater immune functioning, improved autophagy/cellular repair, improved heart health, and increases in brain-derived neurotropic factor (which aids in the growth of new brain cells) contributing to brain health. Fasting enhances the activators, regulators, and transcription factors that mediate mitochondrial biogenesis and improve mitochondrial function. During this fasting period, the body is removing toxins, generating energy and resisting fatigue and stress. The body becomes more efficient at recycling proteins and uses them more efficiently when consumed. I am training metabolic flexibility. It all starts with a disciplined mind.
0720 I got out of bed, fed the cats, then sat in a cold bath for 4 minutes. Relaxing into an ice bath takes my meditation training to another level. It is easy to remain equanimous sitting on a comfortable cushion in a quiet room. It is more challenging to relax and remain centered when exposed to a stressor as primitive and primordial as cold. "The cold is my guru," Wim Hof said. It can teach you. The cold will teach you more about remaining equanimous than you can learn from attending talks on equanimity. I practice remaining calm in stressful environments and relaxing in discomfort. With practice, we learn to reset our baselines to stress (which is perceptual), training the mind to adapt to stressors.
We practice deep breathing exercises to change our biochemistry, increase our pain threshold, and tolerance to discomfort. We scan the body and use feedback to train the mind. We cut mental elaborations with ruthlessness, so that the mind can abide in its pristine state.
Sitting in cold is a stressor. As soon as you lower your body into cold water, the sympathetic nervous system switches on really fast. The body registers cold as a threat. The body releases acetylcholine and epinephrine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with focus and attention. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with alertness. You gasp for breath. Stress narrows our focus (lots of acetylcholine). Acetylcholine also triggers depolarisation and calcium ion release within the muscle fibers. The muscles contract and you tense up!
If I add dopamine to this neuromodulator blend, I can generate a high sense of well-being. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with pursuing goals, motivation & reward. If all three neuromodulators are present (i.e., acetylcholine+norepinephrine+dopamine), accelerated learning can occur. By relaxing into discomfort, I exercise a greater degree of control over my sympathetic response and can then direct the flow of mind the way an aqueduct channels water from a mighty river.
In Dopamine Nation, Dr. Lembke references a 2000 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Participants were submerged in cold water (57°F/14°C) for an hour. Plasma dopamine concentrations increased 250 percent (equivalent to a few lines of cocaine). Plasma norepinephrine concentrations increased 530%. The increase in dopamine, interestingly, was gradual and persisted over time, unlike drugs which not only cause a spike in dopamine, but subsequent crashes and tolerance over time.
In other words, I can enjoy a natural high. The heightened sense of focus, alertness, and motivation aids in concentration when I sit to meditate.
Meditators learn experientially that there are sensations and there are the stories we tell ourselves about these sensations. A signal from somewhere in the body travels to the brain. The raw data is one thing; perception is another. Our appraisals, attitudes, beliefs, past experiences, expectations, controllability, and context color our perceptions (Cameron, 2001; Craig, 2009; Mehling et al., 2012; Farb et al., 2015) and our perceptions provide a moment-by-moment commentary on the body’s internal state (Craig, 2009; Khalsa et al., 2018). Often, what we tell ourselves is false, but we don't question the inner narrative.
Like a scientist, I merely report what I experience without evaluating as "good" or "bad," "desirable" or "undesirable," "welcomed" or "unwelcomed." I'm simply observing. If I feel cold in a certain region, for example, I go deeper. How far does it extend? How deep does it go? What is its quality? What I discover when I settle into the bath is that the body is not uniformly cold. Most of the body remains warm. As I relax I can extend this warmness to a degree. I have not achieved themogenic regulation like Wim Hof or monks who practice g-Tummo, but I may get there with practice.
Disciplines like fasting, breath work, and ice bathing expose body and mind to stress which builds resilience. Exposure to hunger or cold triggers hormesis, a biological response to stressors that is both stimulating and beneficial. “The vagus nerve is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, and training it can help you face stressful situations more adequately,” says Nick Clayton, program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. In a recent study, researchers found that short, 5-minute bouts of stress can reverse the effects of chronic stress at the level of glucocorticoids, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
“The combination of breath work and cold plunges is very effective,” says Kevin Davison, a Maui naturopathic physician who specializes in regenerative medicine. “First you’re increasing lymphatic flow through the breathing. That recruits lymphocytes and natural killer cells into the bloodstream—they’re the cells that are out there looking for invading bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. Then the cold plunge kicks that in even more. So you’re getting your whole system jumped up to the next level of immune protection.”
While I sat in the cold bath, I practiced subharmonic singing and a Mongolian throat singing technique called Kargyraa. It's a form of polyphonic singing, or overtone singing, where the vocalist manipulates the vocal tract to create a fundamental tone and a second note. Subharmonics and Kargyraa are very primal sounds. Tuvan singer Alex Kuular likens the sound to a crow cawing, a bear growling, or thunder. The cold is primal and so is my song. Breathing slows to two and a half breaths per minute. I relax into the cold. The singing is diaphragmatic. I breathe from the core and maintain my heat.
There are other styles like Khoomei and Sygyt, each requiring concentration. This shifting away of attention takes the edge off the cold. While these styles of singing sound strange to Western ears, as a musician, I appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of these forms of polyphonics. Throat singing connects me to traditions from more remote corners of the world: the Xhosa of South Africa, the Tuvan of Mongolia, the Altai of Russia, the Inuit of the High Arctic. Our ears prefer the 12 tone chromatic scale. These styles of music- from polyphony to microtonal- extend what is possible.
I prepared a cup of tea then returned to my study to practice breath work exercises.
I use the breath to modulate my physical and mental state as countless meditators and yogis have done for millennia before me. Today, we have a better understanding of the biomechanics at play, but the practices remain unchanged. There are many variations from suizen to pranayama, polyphonic singing, chanting, the Wim Hof and Butyenko methods to name a few. These are preliminary practices designed to settle the mind prior to meditation.
Contrary to popular belief (especially amongst the uninitiated and beginner/intermediate students of meditation), we want the mind to be alert, focused, and resolved during meditation- not so calm and relaxed that we slip into sluggishness or mental torpor. With skill, I can use breath to settle the mind if it is agitated or too excited; and I can quicken the mind with breath if the mind is stagnant or flat.
Neurons in the brain stem mediate the link between breathing and emotions. The pre-Bötzinger complex controls a variety of breathing behaviors. Scientists uncovered a separate group of neurons in this area that regulate states of calm and arousal. These neurons form connections with the locus coeruleus, another area in the brain stem involved in modulating arousal and emotion.
A frequency of six exhalations a minute can be especially restorative, triggering a “relaxation response” in the brain and body. Whether those six exhalations are hummed, chanted, or channeled into a bamboo flute makes no difference. Hyperventilation, by contrast, can quicken the mind.
For about half an hour, I practice with instruments: a harmonica, a traditional Native American wood flute, and a shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. I'm not playing to make music, but to train the mind. I take about 5 breaths per minute, transforming breath into melody, bending notes, adding tone and color. This is suizen, or breathing meditation. Suizen was practiced by the Komuso, Zen Buddhist monks of ancient Japan.
Breathing is an autonomic process. You don't have to think about it. The amount of oxygen that we inhale through our breathing influences the amount of energy that is released into our cells. With skill, we can control and direct the breath like a Komuso monk, changing the chemical and physiological processes within the body to induce an overall sense of well-being and improved health. We can, for example, change the frequency (breaths per minute) and amplitude (depth) of the breath to stimulate the sympathetic and/or parasympathetic nervous system. Like this, we learn to modulate our response to stress, reducing anxiety and improving sleep.
These extensions provide additional benefits. When I play the shakuhachi, I am tied to tradition. Komuso means monk of nothingness, or emptiness of self. Instead of chanting sutras, they exhaled into a hollow instrument to produce beautiful melodies. The practice goes further. With breath work, the body becomes the instrument itself. With training comes mastery and we learn to produce notes of inner peace and tranquility.
After practice, I went to the piano, humming while I played. Meditators have been chanting and humming for millennia. Humming increases levels of nitric oxide 15-fold. Nitric oxide (NO) is a signaling molecule. NO is made by many types of cells throughout the body. Nitric oxide is naturally released in the respiratory tract. It's produced in the paranasal sinuses and airways. NO aids in proper ventilation. Proper ventilation is essential for maintaining the integrity of the sinuses. NO helps alleviate chronic inflammation or infection of the nose and sinuses. NO also improves pulmonary function in healthy individuals. It improves oxygen delivery into the lungs by causing bronchodilation, relaxing the smooth muscles in the trachea and widening of the bronchi and bronchioles in the lungs.
Nitric oxide regulates cardiovascular function. NO relaxes the smooth muscle cells around the arteries, widening them which results in a decrease in blood pressure and increased blood flow to the organs.
NO is known to be broadly antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial. When NO is produced in white blood cells (such as macrophages), the gas reacts chemically with molecules in invading bacteria, parasites, and viruses, altering their function, destroying or inhibiting their replication and spread. Interestingly, the American Lung Association recommended humming for people suffering acute respiratory issues due to COVID.
Humming slows the breath down to a frequency of 6 breaths or less per minute evoking the relaxation response. Humming slows the heart rate as well. As you exhale you expel the air in your lungs. the diaphragm moves up, the lungs get smaller. the heart has less space and shrinks. A signal is sent from the sinoatrial node in the heart to the brain which sends a message back to the heart through the vagus nerve signaling the heart to slow down.
Metabolism slows, the breath slows, heart rate slows. The mind settles.
0930 I used a biofeedback tool to measure heart rate variability. Heart rate variability, or hrv, is a measure of the beat to beat alterations of the heart. Clinicians use hrv to measure heart health. HRV is a biomarker for the health of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)- and the tone of the vagal nerve which mediates parasympathetic activation including the heartbeat. HRV is a key indicator of overall health, fitness level, and recovery status. HRV is also used as a marker for stress. Many variables affect HRV: diet, rest, and physical activity, for example. Psychological factors affect hrv as well like stress, fear, or anxiety. HRV offers an unparalleled window into our emotional well-being. The higher the hrv score, the more resilient and responsive the autonomic nervous system. We can use the breath to improve coherence, the orderly and harmonious synchronization of the cardiovascular and respiratory system and blood pressure rhythms.
I slowed my breath down to 4 beats per minute and did this for about 10 minutes. I used Heart Math's Inner Balance. Their algorithm gave me an average coherence score of 5.8 with peaks at 9.3- which was high. Note: this value is not the difference in time between the beats of your heart, measured in milliseconds, but a score determined by the Inner Balance algorithm.
0945 It occurred to me to share these protocols and record my training progress as it might be of some interest to fellow nerds and some readers. This is a somewhat daunting task, as most people don't get it. Sitting in front of a screen for 2 hours watching grown men kicking, throwing, bouncing, pitching, or putting balls isn't considered strange, but sitting for 20 minutes observing the mind and learning its plays and patterns is. Sitting for an extra hour washing down ultra-processed food with beer while watching pre and post game commentators in suits arguing vehemently over G.O.A.T.S and statistics is normal, but fasting for a day while deconstructing the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that limit us is weird.
Most don't understand the value in subjecting themselves to the rigors of extreme discipline. Many may find these protocols odd as they are not cultural norms here, but vaping, smoking, drinking, binge eating, dissipation, getting high, anti-intellectualism, and mindless consumption are... as is depression, anxiety, meaninglessness, fear, obesity, and poor health... as is lack of accountability, lack of self-respect, lack of self-efficacy, lack of self-love, lack of self-worth.
I was gifted with life and health and intelligence. I respect this gift and the Gift Giver. Training is my way of saying Thank you! I want to be a good custodian of this precious gift that is my life. As Leo Buscaglia bellowed to his audience, "The day you were born, you were given the world as your birthday present. It frightens me that so few people have even bothered to open up the ribbon! Rip it open! Tear off the top! It's just full of love and magic and joy and wonder and pain and tears and all of the things that are your gift for being human- not only the happy things... there's a lot of pain, a lot of tears. That's what it means. That's what life is!"
I train like I exercise. Just as exercises can be classified as aerobic or anaerobic, meditation techniques can be grouped by type: focused attention, open monitoring, body scanning, generative, and analytical. These meditations have different effects. Just as different exercises contribute to overall health and challenge the body in different ways, the type of meditation technique one chooses drives different cognitive-control states. Going further, as a trained athlete can target specific outcomes (e.g. 20 minutes of intense exercise at 80% of VO2 Max), a skilled meditator can strengthen the neural substrates underlying perception, perceptual decoupling, attention, interoceptive awareness, or affect by choosing the right technique, intensity, and/or time intervals. Training is targeted and specific, just as in athletics. For best results, practice is intentional and deliberate.
I also practice radical responsibility and accountability. This is uncomfortable and painful work. For many it is easier to settle into comfort, into complacency, into conformity. I have the car and house. I'm good. The pantry is stocked and my belly is full. I'm good. I have an advanced graduate degree. I'm good. My kids are gainfully employed. I have a loving family and true friends. I'm good. I have a vacation home. I'm good. I exercise regularly and my health is excellent. I'm good.
...until the challenges come and the bulwarks come crashing down and our assets, our health, our marriages, or our very lives are violently snatched away by seemingly indifferent and cruel forces beyond our power to control or propitiate with sacrifice, prayer, positive thinking, or moral conduct.
I train for death with a reverence for the sanctity of this breath, this moment, this light, this life. I don't train to reduce stress, to alleviate suffering, or to be 10% happier. My destruction is near. I train to live more fully, more intensely, more authentically, more fearlessly, for this journey ends in destruction and death.
Hoka Hey! Today is a good day to die.
1030 Tea break
Yoga, as a discipline, trains body and mind. Stretching statically involves stretching a muscle as far as it can go and relaxing into it. Stretching increases range of motion and flexibility.
When I get to the edge of a stretch and feel I cannot go further, sensory neurons, called intrafusal muscle fibers, send an electrical potential, or signal, from the muscle to the spinal cord. Another signal is sent from the motor neurons within the spinal cord back to the muscles to contract. This safety loop is designed to bring the muscle back into a prescribed range of motion- ensuring I do not overstretch, damage the connective tissue, or overload the muscles. This biological mechanism is protective and helps prevent injury, but also restricts range of motion.
I can redefine and extend those parameters, however, by relaxing into the stretch, breathing calmly into it. If I breathe and relax into the edge, not judging my performance, not comparing myself with others, a population of neurons (von economo neurons) within a brain structure called the insula, integrates information about my somatic (body) experience, evaluates it as "good" or "bad" then routes this information to other parts of the brain. If I lean into an uncomfortable stretch and interpret the discomfort and unpleasantness as "good," I can override the limits imposed by the brain to a degree and stretch further. This process allows me to lean into discomfort and reinterpret a seemingly unpleasant experience as positive. I am training both body and mind.
1100 I did 45 minutes of breath work- 7 rounds of hyperventilation for 2 minutes & breath holds from 1 minute to about 4 minutes. The chart below shows rounds in column 1, retention times in column 2, oxygen saturation in column 3 after hyperventilation and breath holds. With each round, my CO2 tolerance improves and I can extend the breath hold.
Short breath holds simulate the effects of high-altitude training by inducing both a hypoxic (lack of oxygen) and hypercapnic (high carbon dioxide) response. These two effects lower sensitivity to carbon dioxide, increase endurance, reduce the discomfort and fatigue from lactic acid build-up, increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, improve breathing economy, and improve VO2 max (McKeown, 2015).
I took a CO2 tolerance test. There are not only physical benefits to increasing CO2 tolerance; there is also a close correlation to anxiety and our ability to manage stress. To take the CO2 tolerance test, follow these steps:
1. four full nasal breaths
2. At the top of the 4th inhale, start a timer.
3. Exhale as slowly as possible from the nose.
4. Extend the exhalation for as long as possible.
5. Stop the timer when your air runs out or you feel the need to inhale.
My results: 124 seconds
Making sense of the numbers:
>80 seconds: Elite Advanced pulmonary adaptation, excellent breathing control, excellent stress control
60-80 seconds: Advanced A healthy pulmonary system, reasonable breathing control, relatively reasonable stress control
40-60 seconds: Intermediate Generally improves quickly with a focus on CO2 tolerance training 20-40 seconds: Average Moderate to high stress/anxiety state, breathing mechanics need improvement <20 seconds: Poor Very high anxiety and stress sensitivity, mechanical restriction possible, insufficient pulmonary capacity
With these protocols- breath work, heat/cold exposure, fasting, intense exercise- I am resetting my baselines to stress. I am not only building up CO2 tolerance, I am also building up my stress tolerance.
1200 I did thirty minutes of muscle relaxation/interoceptive training. Interoception is the sense that answers the question: "How am I feeling?" in any given moment. It is one of our lesser known senses. Interoception is the perception of bodily sensations- the tingling, throbbing, heat, coldness, pulsing, swelling, tickling, perspiration, contraction, expansion, numbness, or pain you may feel even now as you read this.
The body is performing millions of vital functions now without input from the seeming self or ego. Without thinking, the heart beats, food is digested, cells replicate, proteins are synthesized, toxins are released, bones grow, muscles are repaired, electrolytes are balanced, and you are breathed. These processes and the sensations that accompany them remain largely unconscious. You can feel this aliveness pulsing through you now.
Interoceptive awareness brings these processes to conscious awareness (Cameron, 2001). The ability to consciously monitor and feel certain physiological states (such as thirst and hunger), detect potential tissue damage or pain is essential for species survival- any species' survival.
In today's modern world, the ability to identify, access, understand, and respond skillfully to the body's signals helps us meet life's challenges and stressors (Craig, 2015). This is a useful skill to train in a world that manufactures so much unnecessary stress.
The term “stress,” originally introduced by Selye (1956), refers to a challenge or stimulus, psychological or physical in nature, that threatens (or that is perceived to threaten) the self. A stressor is anything that triggers a physiological response: increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, etc. Stressors can be “real” (e.g. a category 5 hurricane heading through your neighborhood), or "imagined" (e.g the body language of colleagues during your presentation). The intensity of our reaction to a stressor is highly individual and situationally dependent (Dewe, 1993; Peters et al., 1998). One person may be terrified of a garden snake, for example, another person may be fascinated by the same snake. Storylines, implicit or explicit neurocognitive appraisals, coping strategies, social support, and past experiences are variables that affect the physiological stress response in any given situation (Anshel et al., 1997; Anderson et al., 2002; Barbenko et al., 2015; Ambeskovic et al., 2017).
How the body responds to a stressor occurs largely outside conscious awareness. (Le Doux and Pine, 2016; Ginty et al., 2017). In response to a stressor, the brain coordinates a response. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated. The ANS is divided into sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) branches (Thayer and Sternberg, 2006). Although the relationship between the SNS and PNS is complex and should not be thought of as a binary “either/or” system, it is generally accepted that during a stress response, the SNS is activated and PNS, responsible for calming and stabilizing the body, is dialed down (Thayer and Sternberg, 2006). The degree of a SNS response is thought to be determined by one’s perception of how threatening the stimulus is, even if the perception is not within conscious awareness (Kalisch et al., 2015; LeDoux and Pine, 2016). Further, the physiological responses during stress can be enhanced or diminished by psychological factors, such as perceived control over the situation (McEwen, 2008).
Interoceptive training provides a degree of control over these responses when the stressor is mild to intense (depending on one's level of mastery). We begin by learning to observe sensations objectively as they arise.
The increase of adrenal glucocorticoids in the blood, such as cortisol, is the physiological correlate of stress (de Kloet et al., 1998). Blood circulates these stress hormones to reach any organ in the body. You can feel this as an adrenaline rush. With training, you can feel this flooding even whilst sitting still in meditation. If, for example, while I am sitting, I hear a sudden and unexpected noise, the startle response might trigger activation of the SNS. I'll feel a rush of adrenaline, my heart rate may accelerate, my muscles may tighten, my breath may quicken.
Muscles often become tense during stressful situations (Malmo et al., 1951). Lundberg et al., (1994) reported a link between trapezius myalgia (neck stiffness and pain) and increased stress. In a follow up 2002 study, he found that repetitive movements and mental stress may be related to the development of upper extremity disorders. Lundberg's study suggests that psychological stress, with or without physical load, may play a role in musculoskeletal disorders by increasing muscle tension through activation of low threshold motor units. This constant tension creates overload and degeneration over time.
The trapezius muscle runs from the back of the neck to the shoulders and down the middle of the back. Tension tends to nest here. This muscle is recruited in a fixed order. If you intentionally raise your shoulders to your ears, you are recruiting smaller and larger units. If you relax them somewhat, but not completely, smaller units may remain active. Over time, this can lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain.
It has been hypothesized that, in some cases, the pain is due to an overuse of low threshold muscle fibres- causing damage at the cellular level. Muscle fibres called low threshold motor units (MUs) are recruited at the onset of muscle activation. They fire continuously until the muscle is relaxed completely.
The Cinderella hypothesis (Hägg, 1991) postulates that if these smaller motor units remain active long enough, the strain can actually damage muscle fibers- leading to peripheral muscle pain in the neck, back, and shoulders. This can occur even during periods of "rest."
Lack of mental rest is an important risk factor for the development of muscular pain. (Lundberg, 2002) In some techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, we practice letting go and relaxing the smallest functional units fully and completely. Meditation techniques that focus on relaxation facilitate physical and mental rest.
Stress may contribute to keeping low threshold motor units active, even in the absence of physical demands. During meditation, you may feel these muscles contract. We visit and revisit certain sites where tension tends to build- the trapezius, the muscles of the jaw, the muscles around the mouth, the muscles around the eyes and eyebrows, and the arms and legs.
At the molecular level, an electrical signal called an action potential from a motor neuron triggers the release of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that triggers depolarisation and calcium ion release within the muscle fibers. One type of muscle fiber pulls on the filaments of another the way an oar propels a row boat. These filaments are anchored to Z lines. The row-like action pulls the Z lines closer together, shortening the muscle fibers and causing contraction.
This complex action is often triggered by subtle movements of thoughts. We don’t need to know the science to effect change at the molecular level. I imagine this is what the ancient yogis were referring to when they attempted to describe more subtle bodies like the energy body. Simply by letting go and relaxing fully, we can exert some control over the body at the subtlest cellular level.
As we scan, we find patterns. Tension does not nest everywhere. I don't pay attention to the back of my head or around the ears when scanning for tension. The muscles of the forehead, around the eyes, mouth, and jaw are more likely to be contracted. As I scan from head to toe again and again, I keep checking key areas and keep relaxing more and more, deeper and deeper, until the body is fully relaxed. It is easier to relax the mind, when the body is relaxed. Conversely, it is very difficult to still the torrent of thoughts when the mind is agitated. So, better to begin with the body.
Depending on the duration and severity of the stress, the response to glucocorticoids can promote or impede brain function and adaptive behaviors. Sitting still in meditation becomes difficult or near impossible for beginners when the mind is overwhelmed.
Reframing the experience as an opportunity to practice non-reactivity, as a kind of high-intensity training for the mind, is a strategy we can use. Adjusting our attitude and approaching the stressed and agitated mind with openness, curiosity, and kindness is yet another approach. We relax into the stress. Busyness is not the obstacle; identifying with thought is the obstacle. Resisting what is is the obstacle. The idea that the mind should be still, pliable or obedient agitates and stresses the mind. Under the weight of these "shoulds" or demands the mind becomes restless. Mental stress may express as a sensation or a flood of sensations, the greater the resistance and hostility to what is. So, we approaching meditation with the intention not to engage with arising thoughts - however compelling or emotional charged. We approach with no expectation and allow whatever arises to be.
1230-115 Thirty minute yoga nidra session. Attention and energy fluctuate as the day progresses. We experience peaks and troughs in cognitive performance. When depleted, we experience cognitive fatigue.
Cognitive fatigue has a neuro-metabolic correlate. Excessive thinking leads to high glutamate concentration and glutamate/glutamine diffusion in the lateral prefrontal cortex (Wiehler, 2022). At the experiential level, exerting cognitive control requires more effort and feels like exhaustion. At the molecular level, potentially toxins are recycled and circulate.
One of the techniques I use to recalibrate the mind is yoga nidra. Yoga nidra (or yoga sleep) is a state of deep, non-REM rest. The brain falls into a delta wave state (<4 hz), consistent with deep, non-REM sleep, yet the practitioner remains conscious. There are 4 levels to the practice (Parker, 2013). Level 1 represents a state of deep relaxation. The brain is in an alpha state (8-13 hz). It may drop to a theta state (4-8 hz), Level 2, during the deepener practice. In Level 3, we approach a state yogis call abhava-prataya; thought ceases, but awareness remains. We experience a deep state of rest, but remain aware of our surroundings. At Level 4, a practitioner remains in a simultaneous state of sleep and conscious awareness.
I wore the Muse 2 electroencephalogram headband and paired it with Mind Monitor to capture the data. Below is a real-time EEG graph of my brain's activity during a yoga nidra practice. I drop to an alpha state for about 20 minutes. All the while the delta band rises and becomes predominant. I remain at Level 4 for about 12 minutes until the practice ends. The screenshot below captures data from Saturday's session.
There are many benefits to this practice. Time-of-day modulations affect performance on a wide range of cognitive tasks measuring attentional capacities, executive functioning, and memory (Schmidt, et. al., 2007). My aim was to recharge body and mind. My readiness score- which the Oura ring also tracks- jumped from 78 to 83. Researchers are beginning to understand some of the mechanisms at play. A 2002 research paper ("Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness," Kjaer et. al) found increased endogenous dopamine release in the ventral striatum during yoga nidra meditation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that influences learning, attention, and motivation. Increases of as much as 65% were recorded after yoga nidra. It's like a mental reset. After yoga nidra, the brain is resourced for demanding cognitive tasks. We are more alert and calm.
2-3:45 Call with a dear friend and mentor. Love and connection are at the heart of all of these practices. Indeed, all paths lead to love- self-love and love of the whole of which we are a part.
Humming to Bill Evans' Peace Piece while I play and improvise in different keys.
Any action can be an excuse for the worship of the mundane. A chore, performed mindfully and with full presence and attention, can become as holy a ritual as any other. Within the space of each breath, we can celebrate movement, sound, touch, smells, sights. To be fully present is to be fully alive. When formal meditation training ends, informal mindfulness training begins. It is more challenging to remain focused and aware while preparing tea, washing dishes, changing cat litter, or folding laundry, but it can be done. There are many opportunities throughout the day to gladden the heart. But for most, those opportunities are ignored and the delights refused for some imagined "better."
The sky is blue. Flocks of white clouds float lazily across the sky. I can see and appreciate the beauty of this moment, the touch of the breeze on my face, the fluidity of my gait.
Sauna/Cold Bath + Meditation
I sat for 30 minutes in the sauna. Years ago, I created a meditation just for sitting in the heat. For the first few minutes, I focus on the breath. Once the body heats up, I turn attention to the body. I attend to the sensations. The goal is to feel that first bead of sweat form and follow it as it streams down, following the contours of the body. Then another one comes and another and another. Sitting still, I am aware of the rivulets now streaming off of me.
Like breath work and cold baths, heat training mimics many of the physiological benefits associated with exercise- increased body temperature and heart rate, sweating, etc. A 2015 study found an association between sauna bathing and reductions in sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality. In a 2017 study, researchers found that moderate to high frequency of sauna bathing was associated with lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. While the mechanisms are not completely understood, a type of stress response protein called heat shock protein appears to play a role. Heat shock proteins help other proteins maintain their structure and integrity. Cells degrade as we age. So anything that prevents cellular instability is welcome. When proteins no longer replicate faithfully, they form aggregates which form plaques in the vascular system (e.g. atherosclerosis) or in the brain (e.g. amyloid beta plaques). Elevated levels of heat shock proteins may delay or prevent this unraveling.
After sitting in the sauna, I took a cold bath.
Sunday January 22
Day 3 of a 3 day fast.
0430 Wake up. I took another CO2 measurement with the Lumen breathalyzer. I'm still in ketosis, still in fat-burn mode. Sleep was optimal, but not as restorative.
I started the day with a morning meeting. Executive and managers schedule meetings to strategize, plan, coordinate, brainstorm, review, etc. We build companies. Employees generate wealth for others. What if we invested the same effort building up ourselves?
So, with the same intentionality, I plan, I strategize, I brainstorm, I set goals, I hold myself accountable.
0445-0545 After feeding the cats, I did an hour of breath work. I started with the hrv sensor and the Inner Balance app. I achieved an average coherence score of 5.7. I drank a cup of beetroot juice before my second round of breath work exercises. Beetroot juice increases levels of nitric oxide (NO), which serves multiple functions related to increased blood flow, gas exchange, mitochondrial biogenesis and efficiency, and strengthening of muscle contraction (Dominguez et al., 2017). For 45 minutes, I did 8 rounds of deep breathing exercises and holds.
0600-0700 The mind felt sluggish, so I dialed the mind down to the delta state. I say this matter-of-factly, but it is a skill that took years to cultivate. I now have a degree of mastery over the mind and body that allows me to reset on command. I don't need coffee or energy drinks to achieve this state of alertness.
0700-0720 Light mobility exercises and stretching.
0720-0730 A five minute ice bath while practicing kargyraa.
0730-0800 Preparing to facilitate a meditation session.
0800-0820 1.5 mile hike to the center wearing a 25 pound weighted vest.
0830-0900 Engaging with members.
0900-0930 Meditation Session
0930-1015 I practiced listening meditation with a man who stayed to talk, offering the present of presence.
1015-1115 Tea. Writing. Moderate arm workout with weights.
1115-1135 1.5 mile return ruck home with weighted vest.
1140-1150 Another arm workout.
1155-1215 Labeling meditation. Below is a screenshot of that session. The alpha state is predominant. The alpha state is associated with a relaxed mental state. Alpha represents non-arousal. This EEG profile is typical of the meditative state.
1215-115 Yoga Nidra
After practice, a strong, lustful thought entered consciousness. I mention this because it is important to note that old, destructive habit patterns may still arise when the mind settles. Thoughts of anger, bitterness, sadness, lust, fear, etc. may surface. Past traumas or old triggers can disturb one's balance of mind. Beginners think this is a retrogression. It is progress.
Steel is forged from subjecting iron and carbon to extreme heat and extremely high pressure. Masses of solid impurities called dross float to the surface of molten metal. The highest grade steel is then pounded into shape.
When you train the mind and subject it to the fires of discipline, impurities float to the surface of conscious awareness- not to be agonized over, but to be discarded. In the past, I might have succumbed to my weakness, but have since used mindfulness techniques to observe without judging or reacting. The broken and exiled parts that hide in the shadows have a right to be. Drunken with confusion, unfulfillment, separation, they long for redemption, for compassion, for integration with the Self. So long as we remain fragmented, we cannot appreciate the beauty that makes up the mosaic.
An urge comes, I acknowledge it. To accept imperfection as part of our humanness is insight. Insisting on perfection arrests growth. Accepting what arises, we can release- not with rejection, but with gratitude for the lesson. As Pat Rodegast scribed: "To strive for light is a beautiful calling, but you can not find the light until you acknowledge the darkness... Who you are is a necessary step to being who you will be."
An urge comes. There is beauty in it. It points to a longing for connection, for love, for intimacy. I feel sensations, but do not engage what appears on the screen of mind. There is neither attachment nor resistance.
Once we realize that we are the screenwriter, director, producer, and star of the little drama that appears on the screen of mind, we can get creative, yell "Cut!" and rewrite the script.
115-2 Chores. Prepared miso soup.
2 Called a friend. Broke fast.
3-4 Sauna/Ice Bath
4-415 Second meal: homemade chana/bindhi masala (chickpeas & okra Indian style) with naan bread. Fed the cats.
4:15-5 Language practice (Portuguese, Italian, Spanish) with Tandem partners.
5-530 Groceries. Budgeting.
530-7:30 Write and publish.