Tag Archives: psychology

I completed Yale’s “Science of Well-Being” course. Here’s what I learned:

About a month ago, Yale University offered a free online six week course open to the public that studies factors in happiness. As a mental health practitioner, this course taught by professor Laurie Santos was a boon not only to myself and my colleagues, but also helps in approaching people who have psychiatric symptoms in finding outside the box solutions for combating anxiety and depression.

Misconceptions about what make us happy. As she addressed the Yale freshmen class, Professor Santos asked what kind of job would make them happy. Most said that a high paying job would make them happiest. She dispelled this misconception with the statistic that after a household has an annual income of about $75,000, there is no more increase of happiness related to income. Albeit many out there may be far from attaining this figure, it shows that after a certain point money does not equate to happiness.

Also, for those who want what Santos calls “awesome stuff” like a new sports car or house, research shows that while people have a spike in happiness after acquiring these, shortly they return to their baseline level of happiness. That is because of hedonic adaptation, or getting used to something you are happy about. To counter the effect of hedonic adaptation, Santos suggest we need to seek experiences, rather than things, as experiences are terminating, so we never get “used” to being on vacation, or going to a special restaurant, or special yoga event.

There is overwhelming evidence that social media makes us unhappy. Citing numerous studies, Santos delineates that social comparison is a destroyer of self esteem. Often times on Facebook we see our friends and relatives on some exotic vacation or landing some great high paying job. Even though we may have just taken our own vacation, or are happy with our current job, this makes us compare. Even if you perceive your vacation or jobs as better, it still creates disconnection. There is a famous study about olympic medal winners where the gold medalist is the happiest about their achievement, the bronze medalist is almost as happy as the gold medalist, but the silver medalist is much less happy than the other two. This is a result of social comparison.

Kindness, gratitude, and social connection pay huge dividends. One of the studies that stuck out in my mind is a researcher gave someone either $5 or $20 to spend on themselves or someone else if they agreed to follow up with how happy the purchase made them. A large majority just bought themselves a Starbucks and didn’t have much fluctuation in their happiness. However, those who spent the money on others bumped up their feeling of well being by a large percentage. The study was replicated in an underdeveloped country where both of those amounts of money are worth far more. Same results happened which suggests that giving has the same effect cross culturally. People who are socially connected and feel gratitude are also far less susceptible to premature death and psychiatric symptoms.

Meditation works. Sage Patanjali defines yoga as: yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ” or yoga is the cessation of fluctuation of the consciousness. As it turns out, science backs the fact that a wandering mind is a unhappy mind. Professor Santos points out that humans have  the unique ability to think about the future and the past, but thinking too much about the future and the past shows that it makes us less happy according to studies. She cited numerous studies that show that mindful activity helps to offset mind wandering even after the subject was completed with the meditation exercise.

Set yourself up for success. Lastly, Santos taught that people who are trying to achieve a goal should visual attaining the goal and having realistic expectations that if he they don’t meet the goal, then have a secondary plan. She cited a study where people who wanted to lose weight had much more success if they put fruit on the table instead of cookies. Having cereal on the table correlated to the worst outcome as far as weight loss. This show that if we adapt our environment to our goals, they become easier to achieve according to to study.

Anything worth attaining takes patience

I have to admit I’ve been in a bit of a rut of late. After the election, the holidays, and the daily press after the inauguration, I have lost quite a bit of my inspiration. My yoga class this morning made me feel like my teaching has gone to pot, but I am wise enough to know that my critical voice is sometime irrationally loud.

After an unusual hot spell in Hawai’i, followed by a strong windy weekend, many plants in my garden were damaged, and birds ate a good number of my snap peas which were just about to ripen.

In mental health counseling, people who get in bad emotional shape tend to have several stressful events in a short period of time and somehow lump all of these events as coming from the same source. Like it is some kind of fate they had these things happen to them. I caught myself having this kind of thinking and am wrestling my way out of it.

Today I did a few positive things to set me in another direction. After the “bad teaching” yoga class, I gave myself a few minutes in a restorative pose to lengthen my spine which is something I haven’t done for a while. Afterwards, I came home and spent some time in my garden. I felt the soil and it was dry and sandy. The garden in its own way told me what it needed. When the day cooled off I gave it a good watering and pruned a few of the damaged parts of my snap pea plants that were ravaged by those horrible birds.

I realized that I will not have a bountiful harvest after just a few months of gardening with no prior experience, but also saw that it is a process which will encompass many years. Just as I have been teaching yoga for many years and still have a long way to go to have any sense of mastery. This is the way of all things in life that are worth attaining. You may never attain them, but the process is satisfyingly challenging.

Featured image Buddha with a mango

Book Review: I Am That, by Nisargadatta Maharaj

I just finished all 531 pages of I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman. I started reading it in late May and just finished now in mid-September. Why did it take me so long? It certainly wasn’t that he used complicated words. Any high school student could understand it if they have the patience to decipher some the Sanskrit terminology that can be found in the book’s appendix. It certainly wasn’t long drawn out chapters. The book contains 101 chapters which are two to four pages long. It took me so long because the concepts in the book, when thought about and considered, are among the deepest one may experience.

The book is in the the typical question and answer format one reads in most of the non-dualist genre. Nisargadatta Maharaj gave satsang, or spiritual teachings, based out his Bombay (Mumbai) apartment until his death in 1981. He wasn’t a typical yoga practitioner. He made a living making and selling cigarettes on the street and chain smoked them as he gave his teachings. He liked to argue with his disciples, and would kick them out if he felt they have overstayed their welcome after receiving the essence of his teachings. He only spoke in Marathi, and would employ translators for Westerners.

In all of his eccentricities, his teachings get to the heart of the matter: we are not what we take ourselves to be, we are the very universe itself. He foremost rejects that he is his body which is repeated ad nauseum in this text. He rejects that he is his mind, which he says belongs to the body. “As long as one is burdened with a personality, one is exposed to its idiosyncrasies and habits.” He says he is that which does not change: the purusha. Purusha can be translated as “soul” but Maharaj gives it a much more nuanced and textured meaning throughout his book.

His basic teaching is summed up in this dialogue:

Maharaj: How can an unsteady mind make itself steady? Of course it cannot. It is the nature of the mind to roam about. All you can do is to shift the focus of consciousness beyond the mind.

Questioner: How is it done?

Maharaj: Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought ‘I am’. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally without any interference on your part. (page 17)

This may sound a lot like the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Maharaj’s teachings are very similar with the exception that Maharaj was not silent the way Ramana Maharshi was (Maharshi said very few words to his devotees). But by using his preferred format of argument, the teachings of Nisargadatta yield more concrete “instructions” that are well suited for the Western mind.

I would recommend this book after one is familiarized with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, as many of the concepts draw from that classic text. In fact if you struggle with the Sutra-s in terms of how prakriti and purusha interplay, I Am That offers elegant explanations and possible solutions. To read this book properly, I wouldn’t advise taking on more than a chapter a day (3-4 pages), and really think about the words. You won’t be the same after reading it.

Linked below is a pdf of the book, and also a video which can be viewed as a primer to the teachings.

Click to access 1-I-Am-That-Nisargadatta-Maharaj-Resumo.pdf

 

Carl Rogers: transmitting shakti

When I was getting my masters in counseling psychology, we had to study all the great personality theorists: Sigumud Freud, Carl Jung, Fritz Perls, Karen Horney, and Albert Ellis just to name a few. But the one theorist I have gravitated toward and still utilize to this day is Carl Rogers.

Rogers was in psychology during an interesting time. It was all “behavioral” psychology of B.F. Skinner et al. Every thing had to be “observed” and proven very much like it is in a scientific study. That works well for some things. Namely stopping an identifiable problem like smoking cigarettes or gambling too much. However, I have found it doesn’t work well for human beings in their natural state. We are very nuanced and complex creatures.

Rogers was pretty much outcasted from the psychology community at the time because his theory was simply to “listen and reflect” (with a few conditions). His feelings had to match his actions with his client (congruence), he had to have unconditional positive regard for his client, and he had to have tremendous empathy. That trilogy of factors create the conditions for self actualization according to Rogers.

As you can see in this video of a therapy session back in the 1960s. A nervous client is uncomfortable at first. After only a few minutes, she is completely calm. Note how Rogers beautifully and deeply listens and reflects her feelings. He wonderfully demonstrates the effectiveness of his theory here.

Another thing about this session is that the client (Gloria) desperately wants Rogers to give her a hard sure fire “answer.” He just reflects back to her that she needs to accept herself in her natural state. That ultimately is the “answer” although unsatisfactory to the client who isn’t ready to hear that truth yet.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the teachings or Ramana Maharshi who had a very similar technique. Maharshi barely said anything to his devotees. I would simply gaze at them and somehow their dilemmas of self concept would evaporate. His gaze was full of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence between his inner feelings and outward appearance.

Sri_Ramana_Maharshi_-_Portrait_-_G._G_Welling_-_1948

Both are examples of transmitting shakti. Shakti is not definable in words, but it can be described. There is a electrical quality about it, but a soft electrical quality unlike the property of true electricity. It is subtler and more refined. Some translate it as “magic” but that has a gimmicky and subtly “Western” bent to the definition that brings up thoughts of “good and bad.” Shakti is said to have a primarily “feminine” component, but is only at full potency when it corresponds with the “masculine” component. One beautiful definition of hathayoga from Srivatsa Ramaswami, one of Krishnamacharya’s students, is the merging with the Shiva (masculine) with the Shakti (feminine). To fully understand the concept, don’t look at the definition, but look at the result.

One of Maharshi’s students, Poonjaji (Papaji), is seen here transmitting shakti to a disciple in a brief transaction.  If you look through Papaji’s videos, you see this many times. He is talking directly to the disciple and appears to be uttering nonsense, then suddenly the disciple makes a dramatic shift in emotion and breaks down with a combination of laughter and tears. There is always a tremendous sense of relief on their faces. Scholar David Godman has a brief piece about his teachings here.

This realization has tremendous healing and self actualizing power. I often refer back to Bill W. (Co-author of Alcoholics Anonymous) who describes an experience of powerful shakti that not only cured his alcoholism, but showed the blueprint to help all others in stopping drinking. He had the realization when he was locked up in a hospital after a major drinking spell:

My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit …. All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!”

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, “So this is the God the preachers!” A great peace stole over me and I thought, “No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and His world.”

Bill W. never drank again…

 

200th post. Holy cow!

I suppose I have been busy for the past two-and-a-half years. This is my 200th blog entry. When I step back and think that each post is roughly 400 words which is a page-and-a-half, I have easily written the equivalent of a novel (although a very disjointed novel). Like any writer worth his salt, every now and then I go back and re-read my entries. I have to admit there are some posts that make me cringe, but most make me feel satisfied.

There I times when I feel I write about the same thing over and over again. In one of Kofi Busia’s talks, he reflected on his days with BKS Iyengar. He told Guruji “after all your teaching I have concluded that your system can all be boiled down to ‘legs straight, arms straight, spine straight.’ He then granted me with an advanced certificate.” As any good Iyengar practitioner knows, that is the general rule, but it is far more nuanced in how you get your arms, legs and spine straight. In a way, that is how I feel about my writing and this blog.

One other aspect about my blog I have noticed: I am radically changing with this practice. Earlier in my  blog, I wrote heavily on asana and biomechanics. At some point the spiritual side of my practice kicked in and wove its way into my writings. As I am also a mental health counselor, my background and practice with psychology has also found its way into my writing. Also having a recent death in the family has also influenced me quite a bit. I don’t consider myself an activist, but some of my posts are downright militant! I do notice I am passionate about defending yoga and the Iyengar style. I do see commercialism as a great obstacle to the evolution of the practice and write at length about that.

In some ways I feel I am a bit of a renegade in the Iyengar community as this is an unsanctioned blog. This is an Iyengar teacher’s perspective and not the Iyengar teachers’ perspective. But my fan base hasn’t complained yet and I have been reposted on the IYNAUS Facebook page many times over, as well as other countries’ Iyengar associations. And I continually get positive feedback from senior teachers all over the globe. So I must be doing something right.

I think we are all born with a siddhi, or spiritual power. As I peel away the layers, I think one of my siddhi-s is my ability to write. I never plan to write these posts, they just come to me at whatever time. After 15 minutes the words just get vomited out of my fingers without any real sense of doership on my part. I wonder if others have the same experience.

I am almost afraid to admit that I have other writing projects. One of them is the Sutra Discussion on reddit. As I am hopefully going to be ready to go up for my Junior Intermediate I certification next year, I feel I need to know the concepts in the first two pada-s on an in depth level. I read sutras daily and think about them. I feel this has been another catalyst in how my practice has transformed me. I like how reddit allows others regardless of their level of experience to discuss the sutras. I feel they are accessible for anyone who wants to go a little deeper and not as esoteric and unaccessible to the modern practitioner as some theorists purport.

As I have written before, I don’t have any great ambitions to be a writer and don’t plan on teaching yoga as a living any time soon. My work as a mental health counselor provides me a sufficient income, and jives nicely with my teaching schedule. Thank you for reading my rants, and may you stick around for my next 200 posts.

Just the three of us…the new normal is very normalizing

It has been a tough week of mourning in our household. The quiet is deafening and on the verge of upsetting. We were so used to hearing Luke pacing up and down, using his nebulizer, and then bellowing for a car ride. Now silence. In this silence we all came to a realization: we are now bonded as three people instead of two couples.

Now that my mother-in-law isn’t keeping constant vigil at Luke’s side, it has opened her up to new experiences. We all went for a walk around the block. She talked to neighbors she hasn’t seen for years. All knew Luke and she shared the news of his passing. I can see her brighten up more as she shared more. Then a surprising twist: I asked her if she wanted to come with me to teach my yoga class on Saturday, and she agreed!

So this morning I packed my props in Luke’s old car and put her wheelchair in the back seat. We drove to town were I teach at the base of Diamond Head to Unity Church of Hawaii. She had been here only one other time when my wife and I got married 8 years ago on the grounds.

My wife sat with her while I taught class facing the road leading to the church grounds. My mother-in-law used to run a jewelry shop in Waikiki and was surprised on how much it has changed. The constant stream of tourists, runners, tour buses shaped like Whales, homeless, and the whole other gamut of Waikiki’s humanity passed by.

Some of my students knew about Luke’s passing and word quickly spread in class. After class, my longtime students rushed down stairs to pay their condolences to Toshiko. One of my students, Miho, speaks Japanese which brought great comfort to my mother-in-law.

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As my blogger friend Sonia said, every day gets easier. We took Toshiko on our Saturday “routine” and went shopping at Costco after class. I am realizing that we are consuming 1/4 less and not having to buy as much. That is again simultaneously comforting and upsetting. We all wound up eating lunch at a Korean restaurant. Toshiko dug into the spicy house made Kim Chee with relish. After living on Luke’s unhealthy diet for the longest time, Toshiko is now in a position to make better changes in her diet and health. I am starting to see with a little bit of her cooperation with my wife and I, there is nothing we cannot do together.

 

Working through my grief

I have to say its very difficult to go through the grieving process fresh after a tragic event. There are five stages of grief according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. As a licensed mental health counselor,  I have guided many of my clients through these steps and saw them go on to healing. For some strange reason, I feel like I am leapfrogging back and forth between the “anger” and  “depression” stages.

I have to admit I’m a bit pissed off at my father-in-law. Not because of all of his aforementioned shenanigans, but because I allowed him to matter so much to me. I actually allowed myself to become attached to his constant neediness. As much as I hated having to take him to the ER in the hospital way across the island every week for the past few months (he refused to go the hospital up the block because of a legal skirmish many years ago), I actually enjoyed some of my quiet moments sitting with him by his bedside. During his past few hospital admits, I took some strange comfort in sitting on the floor and playing bija mantras directed at healing him from my laptop, or saying the Gayatri Mantra and Ganapathy japas to remove his karmic barriers. I know Luke had some heavy karma from his war days. In my power I worked to rid him of it in the best of my limited ability.

The past few days I haven’t even gotten off the couch. I prefer to just sit with my family. Sometimes my wife will spontaneously cry. Sometimes my mother in law will say “I can’t believe it.” Occasionally there will be a phone call or Facebook message from a loved one. As I said before, Luke didn’t have many friends. In some ways I am grateful for that. I can barely be strong enough for my own family now. My mother and stepfather thankfully brought us a home cooked meal last night after we have been living on take out pizza and Chinese food since Sunday.

My mentoring teacher Ray Madigan was good enough to take over my classes for today and possibly Thursday. Ray has many qualities of my father-in-law. He is a no-nonsense tough as nails Aussie who also happened to be a labor and delivery nurse (I see a weird comical cosmic pattern here). He texted me this morning:

Just finished teaching your class. 8 students and a good group. Easy to teach them because they are well trained!

I’m not sure why, but I started sobbing after this text. They were tears of joy. Ray is a tough teacher and does not dispense compliments so readily. He also doesn’t sub, so I take it as a great honor he was able to take care of my students. In Ray’s toughness, he is also infinitely kind in his own unique way that would appear invisible to others who were not initiated. Very much like my father-in-law.

Tomorrow, we have the grim task of deciding what we are going to do with Luke’s remains.  Many miles away from the “acceptance” stage at this point…

Lost in translation: the Eastern ego versus the Western ego

ego

When we use the word “ego” in the West, we automatically think of the quality of a boorish person who muscles his/her way around without much regard to others. We also attribute the ego as having a size like “he has a HUGE ego.” Some even value this quality in people and want to have a large and “healthy” ego. This is only one definition of the word.

While studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it becomes evident that the ancient writer’s definition of the ego is very different than the one we use in the West. To clear up the definitions of this word, I will give both the definitions used in psychology and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis, used the term das ich which is translated to “ego” to describe the mind’s attempt to balance the superego and the id.

According to Freud, the “superego” is our moral blueprint that says “thou shall and thou shan’t.” When you say to yourself, “I would like that diamond, but it would be illegal to steal it,” that is an example of your superego guiding your behavior.

The “id” is the impulse that wants you to have the diamond no matter what the consequences. From this definition, it would be incorrect to label the obnoxious person as having a big ego, but rather an “unchecked id.”

The “ego” is the mind’s ability to meet the demands of the id, while adhering to the superego’s integrity. A healthy egoic resolution to the diamond scenario would be to purchase it on a payment plan, or justify not buying it because it is outside one’s budget.

freud ego

Patanjali’s definition of “ego” is very different than that of Freud. In Sanskrit, ego is translated from the word ahamkara which roughly translates to “the I maker.” This “ego” definition refers to one’s sense of self. For example “I am Hispanic, I am male, I have a Ph.D in Astrophysics.” It is how we identify ourselves to make sense to others. It is part of the three aspects of the citta (mind-stuffs) which are manas (mind) and buddhi (intelligence) in addition to ahamkara.

The wrinkle in the plot is that this ahamkara or “I maker” confuses us into strongly identifying ourselves into something we are not. It is listed as a vrtti in Pantajali’s text which means it is something that modifies our mind into thinking it is something that is not part of our true essence. Our “ego” in the Eastern terminology likes to attach itself to things. We want to have good fame and good fortune and have people recognize us for those things. A good way to see your ahamkara is to feel slighted at something and then see what it is that makes you feel so important. “You can’t do that to me, I am the president of the PTA!”

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Who we identify with

Through the correct practice of yoga, we learn to psychologically shave off those parts of us that our “I maker” attaches to until we are shaved down to nothing. It is a sobering thought to be nothing, but according to Patanjali, it is the point where true liberation begins. That is why yoga is an extremely non-Western practice. Most everything about the West in modern times is about ego attainment and attachment. Just watch 10 minutes of commercial television to see this clearly.

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Who we really are

This is just one word of many that does not translate well into English from Sanskrit. The other aspect of Sanskrit is the language’s vibrational qualities that do not have any translation, but add to the “feel” of the language on a superficial level, and add greater effects for the seasoned practitioner on deeper levels.

Study: Many would rather shock themselves than to sit in silence

sittting in pain

Here is some disturbing news from the Western front: many people can barely tolerate to be alone with themselves. At least those were the findings in a series of research studies done by Harvard and the University of Virginia. In one case, subjects had preferred to give themselves an electric shock break to tolerate the silence of having to sit for 15 minutes without any form of stimulation.

Should this be alarming? Some may argue that this is the consequence of the electronic age. Even I have a hard time not checking my WordPress stats a few free moments in the day. But on a deeper level, this means that many people are going the exact opposite direction to knowing their true selves, which is the lofty aspiration set out in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras.

First we must ask what the value is in sitting alone without interruption. Most of my regular readers would gasp at that question, but for the lay person in the Western world, this is a perplexing question. As a yoga teacher, I have to “sell” the idea that sitting for prolonged periods is the only way one can get to “know” themselves truly.

Yoga practice cultivates not only the ability to be alone with yourself for prolonged periods, it makes it so you have a hard time tolerating that which keeps you away from that silence, then transcends that “intolerance” into being peaceful and silent inside no matter what the world throws at you.

My mentoring teacher took this picture during her last trip to India. She said this man sits here daily for hours on end and “disappears” into the bench. This man has not only embraced his silence, he may have even attained the Siddhi of turning himself invisible!

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Yoga vs. Psychology or Yoga as a Psychology?

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Today I passed my National Counselors Exam, the last step I needed to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. That process took a good part of a year after receiving hundreds of hours of supervision. This test required me to know all the major psychology theories from psychologists like Freud, Perls, Rogers, Skinner, and Ellis. It required me to know statistics and testing design. It also required me to know about group counseling dynamics, career and lifespan developmental theory. There was a nice dosage of ethics questions in there too.

Just about six months ago, I passed my Introductory II certification for Iyengar yoga. Because I was dumb enough to work on both certifications simultaneously, it made me reflect many times on which one is more difficult. Both certifications require one to be current in their field and adapt to constantly evolving changes. Both certifications require a code of ethics that require one to give beyond what is asked of them.

To reframe the question of which one is harder, what would happen if I just stopped studying for my psychology test? I would probably still be a good mental health counselor and may require an occasional refresher course to get my CE credits. What would happen if I stopped doing or teaching yoga? I would get jettisoned back to square one in no time fast! So yoga is, gulp, much harder than Psychology.

About 10 years ago, I was accepted into a Psy.D. program. After careful evaluation, I opted out of the program as I had my Masters in Psychology and could focus more on my ultimate goal of using yoga as an adjunct therapy for anxiety and depression instead of spending another 5 years in school. Ten years later, I have conducted many groups with clients using yoga as a means to decrease anxiety. In one Psycho-Social-Rehabilitation (PSR) group with clients who had severe mental illness to the point where they were hearing voices, doing standing poses greatly relieved their symptoms.

In graduate school, I wrote many papers on yoga as an legitimate theoretical orientation (like psychoanalysis or behaviorism). The more I practice, the more I believe that yoga transcends many of the contemporary psychologies. The path of yoga directs the practitioner upwards toward self actualization (much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model). Many contemporary psychologies focus on client pathology. Freud pretty much reduced humans to a spring loaded sexual impulse just ready to pounce on whatever got in the ego’s way. He has many great points, but yoga seems to easily trump them with practice and detachment. I anticipate much rebuttal from practicing psychologists who will have valid points refuting my claim. Before they pounce, I just ask them to practice yoga daily 2 hours daily for one month.