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The Social and Political Implications of Downward-Facing Dog

Posted: 09/03/2012 6:10 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One convention down, one to go. To borrow from a more successful Clint Eastwood appearance: it's halftime in America. It was certainly an amazing week in Tampa, and I'm not talking about empty chairs -- or empty suits or empty speeches.

At HuffPost, our convention efforts have four parts. First, our coverage of the conventions themselves, led by our amazing D.C. team. Second, our initiative to help make a dent in the jobs crisis by focusing on what is working, which includes a bipartisan panel discussion on jobs at both conventions, an entrepreneurship expo, and a HuffPost section dedicated to our job creation initiative. Third, the Shadow Conventions, spearheaded by HuffPost Live, which aim to put the spotlight on three important issues that are largely ignored by our two major parties: the influence of money on our political system, entrenched poverty in America and the disastrous war on drugs. And fourth, the HuffPost Oasis. All of these efforts are deeply intertwined.

E. M. Forster famously urged us in Howards End to "only connect," but it's not always easy to see what the connections are, and you might be wondering what the connection is between the HuffPost Oasis -- which offers yoga, massages, healthy food, meditation, sleep consultations through the Harvard Medical School and demonstrations of our GPS for the Soul app -- and critical issues like poverty and the jobs crisis.

The first and most obvious connection is that the better people are able to take care of themselves, the more effective they'll be in taking care of others, including their families, their co-workers and their communities. In some contexts, the truth of this is more obvious than in others. For instance, when you're on an airplane you are told to "secure your own mask first before helping others," even your own child. In other words, it's not easy to help somebody else breathe easier, literally or figuratively, if you're fighting for air yourself. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked in The First Circle: "If you wanted to put the world to rights, who should you begin with: yourself or others?"

This is the guiding philosophy of one of our Oasis partners, the yoga non-profit Off The Mat, whose slogan is "Off The Mat, Into The World." The organization uses "the power of yoga to inspire conscious, sustainable activism and ignite grassroots social change." So what we're doing at the Oasis isn't meant to be an end in and of itself. I'm not saying the solution to intractable problems is having everyone move into the Oasis -- though it is, I want to note, open to the public -- or for everybody to become proficient at Downward-Facing Dog. But I do believe that people are more effective at doing their jobs and bringing about change in their communities when they're not burning the candle at both ends.

The second connection is in the benefits of stress reduction itself, which, as science increasingly shows, does have society-wide implications. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon recently found that over the last 30 years, self-reported stress levels have gone up from 10 to 30 percent. The worst-affected are women, young people and the poor. And higher levels of stress lead to higher instances of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure.

Then there is the way that chronic stress becomes the mechanism by which poverty can actually cause destructive changes in brain development. According to Cornell University's Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg, chronic stress can impair a child's capacity for working memory, which is crucial for learning and development. "The greater proportion of your childhood that your family spent in poverty, the poorer your working memory," said Evans, "and that link is largely explained by this chronic physiologic stress." And if your working memory is poor, "you can't do things like hold a phone number in your head or develop a vocabulary."

What this means is that government efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty on children, as well as looking at things like smaller classrooms and good teachers (though these are certainly important, too), should, says Evans, "take into account that chronic stress takes a toll not only on [children's] health, but it may take a toll on their cognitive functioning."

Even more troubling are the findings by Rockefeller University's Bruce McEwen that, as Wired put it, "the effects of stress produce changes in genes that are then passed from parent to child." In other words, "poverty's effects could be hereditary." Stress is a vicious cycle, and intervention at any and every point will have multiplying benefits.

The effects of stress of any kind on children -- even in utero -- were emphasized earlier this year by the American Academy of Pediatrics. As Nicholas Kristof put it:

Cues of a hostile or indifferent environment flood an infant, or even a fetus, with stress hormones like cortisol in ways that can disrupt the body's metabolism or the architecture of the brain. The upshot is that children are sometimes permanently undermined. Even many years later, as adults, they are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments. They are also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.

And the conclusion by the American Academy of Pediatrics makes it clear that stress reduction is no trivial matter:

Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health.

And more and more in the business world are recognizing the importance of reducing stress. Last week, David Gelles wrote in the Financial Times about the mindfulness program at General Mills, which has a meditation room in each building of its Minneapolis campus. The effort, which incorporates meditation, yoga and mindfulness exercises, was started seven years ago by Janice Marturano, General Mills's deputy general counsel.

"It's about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected," she says. "That compassion to ourselves, to everyone around us -- our colleagues, customers -- that's what the training of mindfulness is really about."

According to the company's research, the program has been a huge success. Over 80 percent of senior executives who took part in the seven-week course reported increased ability to make better decisions, while almost 90 percent said they're now better listeners.

Similar programs are popping up all over the corporate world, with one-quarter of large companies offering some sort of stress reduction services to their employees. Google's is called "Search Inside Yourself," and was started by Chade-Meng Tan, who authored a book with the same title. "For a long time practitioners knew, but the science wasn't there," says Tan of the beneficial effects of reducing the stress hormone cortisol. "Now the science has caught up."

Aetna began offering mindfulness and yoga classes two years ago and recently found that doing yoga one hour each week reduced stress for its employees by one-third and saved $2,000 per year in health care spending.

Steve Jobs talked with Walter Isaacson about the advantages of mindfulness for creativity:

If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things -- that's when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.

Listening better, seeing things more clearly -- both incredibly important qualities for anybody, including leaders at both conventions hoping to bring about change through politics.

Dr. James R. Doty, a professor of neurosurgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine, wrote on HuffPost that while mindfulness has many benefits in itself, for its true power to be realized it needs to be paired with compassion: "The recognition of another's suffering and the desire to alleviate such suffering."

Doty writes about studies showing that the effect on the pleasure centers of the brain of giving money to charity is the same as when receiving money. "There is ever-increasing data that show that when we care for others and feel close to them, we improve our own health and even our longevity," he writes. "We are designed to care and to connect. By helping others we help ourselves."

In the '90s I wrote a book called The Fourth Instinct, which focused on the instinct that takes us beyond our drives for survival, sex and power. It's the instinct that compels us to care not just about ourselves, but about our communities and the world around us.

So the thinking behind the HuffPost Oasis is to help people to better deal with the destructive effects of stress in their lives and to help them be their best selves so they can go out in the world and make a difference in the lives of others. Many of our Oasis volunteers are already deeply engaged in their own communities, offering free yoga to at-risk youth, returning veterans, victims of foreclosure -- anybody who needs it.

The public health benefits of stress reduction are so obvious that it is a shame prevention was not a more significant part of health care reform.

And as for the quest for the ever-elusive goal of bipartisanship, it has to begin with seeing the humanity of the other side. And it's hard to see another's humanity if we don't feel connected to our own.

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