physiological effects of meditation and yoga

Meditation, Health, and Love

When I speak about health, I speak about connection. I speak about love.

There is a now-famous story told by Dr. Dean Ornish, the integrative medicine pioneer, in which he asked an Indian spiritual master what the difference was between illness and wellness. The sage wrote both words up on a blackboard, circled the “I” in illness and the “we” in wellness, and answered, “This is the difference.”

The root of the word health is “whole.” Yet how often in the course of our daily lives do we feel separate from one another and from ourselves? How often do we search for something outside of
us to complete us, to make us happy, to fill that subtle sense that there is something missing, that we need more?

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, “What is that thing within me that needs more? What does it want? Does it ever get any more than momentary satisfaction before it wants something else? What is it looking for?” When we look carefully, this feeling of “not-enough-ness” points to a deeper truth. Something within us recognizes that there is indeed something missing.

What is missing is our awareness that we are already connected to and supported by all of Life. Look into the eyes of an infant, and you see that they know this. It is only the chatter in our minds – that voice in our heads that compares and judges and criticizes – that obscures this reality. When we discipline our minds through meditation and yoga, we free ourselves from the prison of the tiny individual worlds our thoughts have created.

Feelings of isolation are epidemic in our culture now, and they have physiological effects: increased stress hormone levels, decreased immunity, increased addictive behavior, and slow healing, among many others. However, the primary reason that isolation feels so bad is because it is not true, and deep down we know this.

The truth is that we are unfathomably interconnected. Imagine the vast universe of interdependence that is allowing you to read these words right now: the light that has been provided for you from the sun or electricity; the education that taught you to read; all that has gone into your health such that you have eyes that can see and a brain that can understand; the circumstances that brought you to pick up this magazine – an infinite number of people and conditions have come to together simply so that you can read this sentence.

The good news is that we are never actually in separate worlds of our own except within our minds. When the mind begins to quiet down through the practice of meditation and yoga, a cascade of physiological effects follows: decreases in blood pressure, stress, and heart rate; increases in immune function, mood, and vitality. Why? Because when the mind is quiet, we feel connected.

And when we feel connected, we feel loved and loving. This love and connection is true health.

Be well,
Laura Elizabeth Dorsett

one minute yoga

One Minute Yoga Practice To Do Anywhere/Anytime

At this moment, do you notice accumulated stress in your body? That slight clenching in your jaw, furrow in your brow, tension in your shoulders, tightness in your belly?
The tools of Yoga Therapy are so powerful because they are accessible and meet us right where we are. The following exercise can help to release tension in 1-2 minutes.

One Minute Yoga to the Rescue:

  1. Sit comfortably, hands palms down on your lap, close your eyes, and feel your feet on the floor.
  2. Honor the intention of taking 1-2 minutes to relax your body and mind.
  3. Inhale through the nose, shrugging your shoulders up toward your ears.
  4. Exhale through the mouth with a sigh (if a sigh feels conspicuous, you can just exhale through the mouth), dropping your shoulders, imagining any buildup of stress falling off your shoulders.
  5. Repeat 3 times.
  6. Next, inhale through the nose, filling your belly.
  7. Exhale through your mouth as if you are exhaling out through a straw (lips pursed together creating a little opening between them as if you were holding a straw in your mouth).

This breath technique effortlessly extends the length of your exhale, stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system to release a cascade of stress-reducing hormones that calm and restore your system.
Repeat 3-5 times, inhaling through your nose and exhaling out through the ‘straw’.
Close by repeating the affirmation silently 3 times: “I am relaxed and at ease.” If you have a spiritual life/practice, take a moment to honor its presence in your life. Notice the effects of this simple practice in your body – does your body feel more relaxed? How about your mental state – do you feel more expansive?

Why Meditation Is One Of The Most Important Things You Can Do For Heart Health: A Doctor Explains

Despite medical advances, heart disease remains the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States. This is a startling reality, especially given how preventable the condition is for those of us that are not genetically predisposed. Stress, along with smoking, sedentary habits, and a poor diet are some of the main lifestyle-related risk factors that increase one’s chance of developing the condition.
This article looks specifically at stress as a risk factor for heart disease, and meditation as a natural and proven method to mitigate its effects.

How The Stress-Response System Works

Whether it’s related to work, health, money, relationships, or some other life event or situation, stress eventually finds its way into our lives. Thankfully, our bodies are well equipped to handle stressful situations thanks to the autonomic nervous system, which is dedicated to regulating the often subconscious processes, such as increased heart rate and shallow breathing, that kick in when stress or anxiety is present. The stress-reaction process is truly an amazing and efficient one: when the body is under stress the amygdala in the brain fires up and sends an alert that there is a stressor, then the sympathetic nervous system is activated and prepares the body to “fight or take flight.” The adrenals then go to work, supplying the body with cortisol and adrenaline, completing the trifecta of the stress-response process.
Typically the stress-response system is self-limiting, and when the stressor is gone, cortisol and adrenaline levels subside, and allostasis or stability is restored to the body. However, when the stress-reaction process is repeated multiple times over a relatively short period, stress becomes chronic and the system breaks down. This is called “allostatic load,” which often results in an increase in physiological issues that compromise the immune system, inducing illness, and even accelerating disease processes such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

Why Meditation for Stress Relief Can Help Your Heart

In recent years the practice of meditation for stress relief has become more widely accepted as a complementary treatment to conventional medicine. As research continues to affirm its positive psychological and physiological effects on the body, the attitude of “it can’t hurt” has slowly shifted to “it can help.” According to an NIH survey done in 2012, next to yoga and osteopathic manipulation, meditation is third most used mind-body therapy with over 18 million people in the U.S. engaging in some type of practice.

How Lowering Stress Promotes Heart Health

A regular meditation practice can play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease by:

  1. It lowers blood pressure.When left untreated high blood pressure can lead to stroke and heart disease. This 2013 study shows how a regular Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program was able to reduce both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure of participants over a period of 8 weeks.
  2. It releases feelings of stress and tension. Meditating quietly even for just a few minutes a day can restore feelings of calm and peacefulness. In a study on nursing students, researchers reported significant reduction of anxiety and stress after engaging in mind-body techniques such as meditation and biofeedback over a period of time.
  3. It improves sleep. Increasing evidence shows that mindfulness meditation, delivered either via MBSR or MBTI, can be successfully used for the treatment of insomnia with good patient acceptance and durable results.
  4. It boosts the immune system. After an 8-week period, the researchers in this study in Psychosomatic Medicine reported “demonstrable effects on brain and immune function.”
  5. It reduces inflammation. Inflammation plays a major role in heart disease. Chronic inflammation is involved in all stages of atherosclerosis, the process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries. Practicing a mind-body therapy such as meditation, in adjunct with dietary and exercise programs, can help reduce underlying inflammatory processes.

The bottom line: Meditation is a practice that can be done anywhere at any time, alone in the privacy of your own home, or in the company of others. As with many things in life, getting started is the hardest step. Private consultations with a trained practitioner can be a wonderful way to take that first step or to enhance an existing practice.
Below you’ll find some additional studies that demonstrate the positive effects of meditation, and also yoga (which incorporates many of the wonderful elements of meditation,) on cardiovascular health.

In the battle against stress and even heart disease there is a lot you can do! By being proactive now, you can bring about changes that can make a significant difference in how you feel, both physically and emotionally, in the very near future.
This article first appeared in Dr. Kaplan’s column on

Managing Chronic Pain With Mind-Body Therapies

If you have chronic pain, there is now an important reason to add a regular yoga or mindfulness practice to your daily routine.
Chronic pain causes inflammation in the brain and can lead to a loss of gray matter. The areas of the brain that control self-awareness, emotions, memory and learning can all suffer when prolonged pain is present. Given our new understanding of how the brain can regenerate, we now know that this process can be reversed.
Research shows that mind-body techniques such as meditation and yoga have proven to be highly beneficial in calming the inflammatory process caused by pain, which in turn helps the brain to repair. There is a growing body of medical research proving that these therapies can actually reverse the loss of gray matter and even change the way we experience physical pain.
Here are some examples that illustrate this research:

  • A 2010 study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness meditation, over the short period of only 8 weeks, increased the amount of gray matter in the regions of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulation of emotion, and self-awareness.
  • The results of a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that “meditation-related pain relief was directly related to brain regions associated with the cognitive modulation of pain” and provided further insight into the manner by which meditation alters the subjective experience of pain. Patients experienced a reduction in “pain intensity” of about 40 percent and a reduction in “pain unpleasantness” of 57 percent. According to the lead author of the study, Fadel Zeidan, “Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.”
  • A 2014 study published in Cerebral Cortex found “that regular and long-term yoga practice improves pain tolerance in typical North Americans by teaching different ways to deal with sensory inputs and the potential emotional reactions attached to those inputs leading to a change in insular brain anatomy and connectivity.”

The studies above confirm what we have seen clinically in our own patients for many years, and meditation and yoga therapy continue to be an integral part of our treatment plans here at the Kaplan Center.
The bottom line? While meditation and yoga therapy may not be the entire solution, there is enough evidence to show that these therapies, when part of an individual’s comprehensive treatment plan, will help to alleviate pain, lessen anxiety and depression, and leave one with a greater sense of well-being.
If you would like to learn the principles of meditation or if you are ready to explore yoga therapy for your chronic pain, Laura Dorsett, MTS, offers group classes as well as private one-on-one consultations, here at the Kaplan Center.

The Science of Breathing (Pranayama) and Its Positive Effects on Health

Life is stressful, especially in the hustle and bustle of an East Coast metropolitan area. Stress is an inevitable part of life and will always be there, so our response to stress is a key factor in maintaining good health. I plan to explore healthy ways to live with stress, by focusing on breathing techniques called Pranayama that can help to change our negative response to stress.

What is Allostatic Load?

We have physiological responses to stress that are important for survival. It is only when these responses become chronic that we suffer what is termed allostatic load, leading to an increase in diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Consider the following process:

  1. When crises or urgent situations occur, the amygdala, a structure in the brain with an influential role in fear and aggression at the sense of danger, fires to alert the brain to do something;
  2. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated; breathing picks up, the heart beats faster, blood rushes away from organs like the digestive tract into the muscles, and we “fight or take flight;”
  3. If the sense of danger persists then structures in the middle part of the brain (called the Limbic System) such as the hypothalamus & pituitary stimulate the adrenals to pour out cortisol and adrenaline (HPA Axis).

If this system is fired up repeatedly, over time this allostatic load will take a toll on the body.

Our modern-day stressors are different than our ancestors’ stressors. There is no saber-toothed tiger around the bend, but we consistently react as if there were. Someone could cut you off on the beltway, or worse, you could get into a car accident (which is the number one cause of post-traumatic stress syndrome in the US). More subtle stresses may be an upcoming deadline at work, a job at risk due to layoffs, or worries about the health of an ailing parent who lives out of town, and so on. These are common stressors in life that need to be addressed in some way, but not by constant worry and sleeplessness. Since we all can’t be on a beach in Hawaii drinking piña coladas when we feel overly stressed, we need to explore ways to mitigate the effects of the amygdala and HPA axis, which is involved in the neurobiology of mood disorders and functional illnesses

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) consists of the sympathetic nervous system (sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight system”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which returns us to a relaxed resting state. The PNS is under the control of the vagus nerve. Nerve fibers from the central nervous system go to the organs in the abdomen, thorax, throat area, and to the heart; and fibers from the organs go back into the central nervous system to convey what is going on internally. Nerve fibers send branches into the limbic system of the brain, which stimulate or inhibit the stress response. All these structures control internal perceptions, threats and affective states.

The most advanced part of the vagus nerve is the myelinated vagus, found only in mammals. The myelinated vagus enhances the calming PNS, which slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and repairs, restores, and promotes feelings of safety. The variability of the heart rate is a reflection of PNS activity and can be measured as an indication that the vagus nerve is firing, leading to a calming, resting, restorative state.

Breathing & Respiration

Breathing involves the movement of air in and out of the lungs, and respiration involves a gas exchange between the lungs and the blood. As the diaphragm and the chest muscles contract on inspiration, the diaphragm moves down, the ribs expand and oxygen moves into the lungs. On expiration, the diaphragm and chest muscles relax and carbon dioxide moves out of the body, into the atmosphere.

For the most part, control of the breath is automatic and involuntary. The respiratory center in the brain stem is responsible for breath rate control, and there are receptors in the aorta that detect changes in the blood to regulate the respiratory rate. For example, with exercise, carbon dioxide levels go up, and the receptors in the aorta stimulate the respiratory center to increase the respiratory rate, decrease carbon dioxide and increase oxygenation. However, if breathing is shallow and fast, as is common in the stress response, hyperventilation occurs, which lowers carbon dioxide too much, leading to dizziness, unease, and anxiety.

There are aspects of breathing that we control in a voluntary and conscious manner via the cortex of the brain. Speaking, singing, and playing wind instruments are good examples. Also, stress and emotional stimuli may induce accommodation of breathing as mentioned previously.


Pranayama (yogic breathing) involves the voluntary control of the breath, and is practiced widely in yoga and meditation, but is something that anyone can do. Slow Pranayama appears to shift the autonomic nervous system from the fight or flight sympathetic to the calming parasympathetic state and has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, and stress-induced psychological disorders. Examples of Pranayama include:

  • Ujayi breath – Used during yoga poses, inhaling and exhaling through the nose while creating a slight constriction in the throat;
  • 3 part breath (Dirgha) – Inhaling and expanding the belly, then the lower rib cage, then upper rib cage;
  • Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) – Exhaling then inhaling starting with the left side then exhaling and inhaling on the right;
  • Bellows Breath (Bhastrika) – Quick thrusts of the belly in on exhalation, which really works the diaphragm. The emphasis on the diaphragmatic breath is important because most people over-utilize chest muscles and don’t get adequate breath, thereby creating shallow breath and inadequate oxygenation.

Medical benefits of Pranayama

There are several studies that show the medical benefits of Pranayama. One study showed improvement in pulmonary function tests in patients with asthma and emphysema after practicing yoga and Pranayama for 45 min a day over the course of two months. Several studies have supported Bhastrika Pranayama in enhancing “parasympathetic tone.” Another study showed the benefits of Alternate Nostril Breathing in increasing parasympathetic tone by measuring heart rate variability and expiration-inhalation ratios. A pilot study with chemotherapy patients showed improvement in mood and sleep after Pranayama, and numerous other studies support the benefits of Pranayama in depression and anxiety.

In sum, Pranayama is accessible to all and can be used with meditation, or on its own, to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is something we all could use more of, leading us toward greater health and sense of well-being.


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man sitting outside meditating

Meditation: Can It Help Reduce Your Pain?

Meditation, which can be practiced in many different forms, has been used for thousands of years to benefit the mind, body, and soul. Now there is a growing body of medical research proving that meditation not only modifies brain function, but it can also actually change the way we experience physical pain.

A study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that patients who had received only a little more than 60 minutes of meditation training were able to dramatically reduce their experience of pain. Patients experienced a reduction in “pain intensity” of about 40 percent and a reduction in “pain unpleasantness” of 57 percent. According to the lead author of the study, Fadel Zeidan, “Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.”

These results are exciting, and they confirm what we have seen clinically in our own patients at the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine. In fact, in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to serve on an NIH Consensus Panel that confirmed the effectiveness of relaxation and behavioral approaches in the treatment of chronic pain and insomnia. Meditation training has been part of the Clinic’s comprehensive treatment program for over 20 years.

In the meantime, medical research has demonstrated that many difficult to treat chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome, are mediated by central nervous system sensitization. It is only logical that meditation, which improves nervous system functioning, would help to alleviate chronic pain.
This is not to say that meditation is the entire answer; but can be a powerful part of an individual’s comprehensive treatment, along with physical exercise, dietary changes, nutritional supplementation, physical therapy, and appropriate medications.

The following are some practical resources on meditation and working with physical pain, offered by experienced meditators:

My hope is that these tools and the encouraging research results listed below will inspire you to commit to your own meditation practice.

  • A recent study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness meditation, over the short period of only 8 weeks, increased the amount of gray matter in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulation of one’s emotions, and self-awareness. This new study is very exciting because it suggests that meditation may be able to help heal the brains of people who suffer from chronic pain, depression, and anxiety disorders.
  • Other studies have shown that regular meditation helps improve immune function and reduce individuals’ feelings of anxiety and fear and enhance their natural creativity and problem-solving abilities.
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase our empathy for others allowing for improved communication and relations with colleagues, family and friends.
  • Research indicates that a regular practice of meditation, by facilitating relaxation of the body and mind, also can help improve sleep, lessen the sensation of pain, and lower blood pressure.
  • There is also clinical evidence that meditating can help improve depression and increase one’s overall sense of well being by providing a method of letting go of fearful thoughts and decreasing emotional reactivity.