Decoding the science of breath for modern times
We breathe without giving it a second thought and take this particular bodily function for granted. Yet, scientists are now telling us that giving each breath a thought might actually lead us to deep and lasting happiness and health. According to neuroscience, the act of breathing consciously paves the way to enhanced immunity, inhibits fight-or-flight response to stress, induces a state of relaxation, creates emotional stability, improves cardiovascular and respiratory health, is the perfect antidote to depression even when drugs have not worked out entirely and helps in the drug-free management of pain. This list of effects is by no means comprehensive; it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Pranayama is a technique in yoga that puts control over breathing back into your hands. Literally, the word means ‘extension of life force’, and the practice engages you with the nuances of breathing. This special and ancient yogic technique switches the light back in the dark spaces—the places in your body and mind that may have otherwise remained inaccessible. Pranayama vastly improves the mechanics of the nervous system because it affects what we always thought was beyond our influence.
Conscious breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve which runs from the base of the brain all the way to the abdomen. This nerve is responsible for managing the nervous system responses and reducing the heart rate, to name only two of its most important functions. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is released by the vagus nerve and plays a pivotal role in increasing calmness and focus.
Therefore, the more you stimulate the vagus nerve, the more acetylcholine it releases, directly lowering anxiety levels.
Adults who experience higher levels of vagal tone (activity in the vagal nerve), also experience enhanced feelings of connectedness and positive emotions which further amplifies the vagal tone. Consistent practice of conscious breathing can reduce blood pressure and calm the heart. This, in turn, scientists say, increases the life span of the blood vessels. Regular and long-term practice of pranayama can, therefore, prevent diseases of the nervous system such as stroke, migraines and Parkinson’s.
Another benefit of pranayama is that it stops grey cells from diminishing with age; your ability to perform at your best remains relatively intact as you grow older. Your memory and focus also improve in the process. An interesting scientific finding on the benefits of pranayama is that the expression of genes involved in stress response can be changed in a way that can potentially slow down the body-mind’s reactivity to stress.
This improves immune functions, metabolic activity and insulin secretion.
Pranayama is a great example of how matter can be influenced through the subtle act of awareness or objective observation. Your entire biology can be influenced by simply becoming aware of your breath and then manipulating it to move the controls from the primitive brain to the pre-frontal cortex—a direct effect of infusing the breath with your conscious attention. For example, emotions come under the authority of the pre-frontal cortex, as do many other mental and emotional aspects of being. Therefore, when you focus your consciousness around your breath, your consciousness is able to alter your body-mind for optimum wellness.
Meditation has been shown to sustain the health of our telomeres, the caps on the ends of chromosomes which determine longevity, to a certain extent. “Telomeres sit on the end of chromosomes (like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces), stopping them from fraying and scrambling the genetic codes they contain. In healthy people, telomeres shorten progressively throughout life, more than halving in length from infancy to adulthood, and halving again in the very elderly,” writes the BMJ editorial. Latest research in the field of ‘epigenetics’ seems to suggest that genes have the capacity for both, normal and abnormal, responses to an environment. If one wants to derive maximum benefit from these practices, one has to be consistent and practise these with dedication and sincerity.
As in all such practices, what matters most are lifestyle changes in keeping with the eight core principles of Patanjali’s yoga.
(Professor Dr BM Hegde, a Padma Bhushan awardee in 2010, is an MD, PhD, FRCP (London, Edinburgh, Glasgow & Dublin), FACC and FAMS.)
Strapline: Political parties defying summons by CIC, a headless information commission and much more meant a low year for this otherwise strong transparency law in 2014.
If 2014 was the triumph of the BJP which brought it to power with a thumping majority, it was also the year when this new government used its power to strangulate the Right To Information Act (RTI), as much as it could. Here are some of the milestones for RTI in 2014.
No Central Chief Information Commissioner
BJP government's clear allergy to transparency came in the form of procrastination in appointing the Chief Central Information Commissioner, the vacancy which continues since 23 August 2014. First, the government tried to give an excuse that it cannot take a decision in the absence of an opposition leader, despite the fact that the RTI Act clearly states that the leader of the biggest political group should be considered to be a part of this appointment committee. When media and RTI activists raised a hue and cry, it decided to call for entries from the public. Now that 200 citizens including all the seven central information commissioners applied, we still await the verdict of the government, which will hopefully come quickly and in early 2015. In the meanwhile, over 35,000 second appeals are pending due to the vacancy of Chief Central Information Commissioner, but the government clearly does not care.
All major political parties unite to be out of RTI purview
In June 2013, the CIC ordered that all political parties come under the RTI Act and declared them as public authorities. This was a result of tenacious pursuance by RTI activist Subhaschandra Agrawal and the NGO, Association of Democratic Reform through the RTI route. Ever since, the CIC has been sending summons to all the six major political parties to attend the hearing in order to hear their side, before making them public authorities. Earlier, it had directed them to appoint public information officers, but it fell on deaf ears. For the fourth time in November, CIC summoned them but all the major political parties – Indian National Congress (Congress), Communist Party of India (Marxist)-CPI(M), Communist Party of India (CPI), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), including the ruling BJP boycotted the hearing, reflecting their united stand to keep their funds, 75% of which comes from unknown donors.
Maharashtra government tries to keep ACB out of RTI
In a move suspected to have been triggered off by the scandalous irrigation scams involving prominent political leaders like Ajit Pawar, and financial irregularities and amassing of illegal properties by Pune’s divisional commissioner, all brought out by RTI activists, the Congress-NCP alliance government surreptitiously removed the Anti Corruption Bureau from the RTI Act. The notification issued by the then state government was in total violation of the RTI Act. It was RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar who sent an official complaint to the Governor, Vidyasagar Rao. By then, the BJP government had been established at the centre. The press release by the Governor’s office states, “The Governor took the decision to withdraw the notification issued by the State Government on 6thSeptember 2014 after considering representations from various RTI activists and taking cognizance of newspaper reports which reflected the view that the notification was in violation of the RTI Act. The Governor also got the issue legally examined before taking the decision to withdraw the notification.”
BJP comes to power; closes Satish Shetty murder case
After the BJP government came to power at the Centre, in August the unthinkable happened, allegedly due to pressure from a senior BJP leader of Maharashtra. In a suspicious and strange turn of events, after four years of investigations the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), suddenly filed a closure report in the Satish Shetty murder case on 11th August. CBI investigations led to a 10,000 page report; several trips abroad by the investigative agencies and almost zeroing on 13 culprits, which gave a hope that the murder case of the Right to Information (RTI) activist would be solved. Suddenly the CBI informed the media about the closure of this sensational murder case, as it named the high profile owner of Ideal Road Builders (IRB), Virendra Mhaiskar, who is close to several top notch politicians of Maharashtra. A sub-registrar and others were also among the accused. The prominent one among the accused is allegedly known to be close to this political leader and hence the shocking turnaround. RTI activists suffered a deep blow in the loss of Satish Shetty and the eventual closure of his murder case.
Pratibha Patil continued to influence sensitive RTI decisions
Former President of India, Pratibha Patil who was compelled to return the expansive 2,60,000 sq ft of premier Defence Land in Pune, which she was turning into a post-retirement luxurious mansion, allegedly played her role in interfering with Information commission appointments. Her former secretary, Rajendra Jadhav, received the plum post of Amravati’s Information Commissioner, which incidentally is Pratibha Patil’s home town. If that was not enough, Jadhav got additional charge as Pune’s Information Commissioner, despite the fact that it takes nine hours of travel from Amravati to Pune, making it unpractical to give him the additional charge. This was after Pune’s Information Commissioner M B Shah fell ill. In fact, information commissioners of Mumbai and Konkan, who can travel to and fro within three hours were ignored. Like icing on the cake for Jadhav, he was promptly provided an official residence within a short time, despite the fact that several senior officers were in queue for accommodation. The biggest violation though, was courtesy SCIC Ratnakar Gaikwad, who over-stepped norms of appointment as only the Governor can appoint information commissioners, but there has been no action by the government on Gaikwad’s move.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
A toughening of Catholic medical directives could include enforcing a ban on tubal ligations.
The Vatican has an absolute prohibition on sterilization for the purposes of birth control.
The U.S. Catholic bishops consider the procedure "intrinsically immoral," on par with abortion. Yet for years, Genesys Health System, a Catholic medical center near Flint, Mich., allowed doctors delivering babies there to tie the tubes of new mothers who wanted to ensure they never got pregnant again.
Genesys's policy wasn't hard to fathom: Performing a tubal ligation immediately after childbirth is the long-established standard of care, especially if a woman is having a cesarean section. "She's already cut open — her tubes are right there," said Sarah Ward Prager, an associate professor in obstetrics and gynecology and director of family planning at the University of Washington Medical School. Subjecting a new mother to a second surgery carries "unnecessary risk," Prager said. "It is simply unethical to say, 'I'm going to make you come back to a different hospital to have another surgery in six weeks because the bishop says I can't tie your tubes right now."
Then, seemingly out of the blue, Genesys reversed course. Starting November 1, sterilization with the "direct" aim of preventing pregnancy — as opposed to for some other medical ("indirect") reason — was banned. Patients who had planned to have the procedure after childbirth were left scrambling; their irate doctors were, too.
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