Thursday, 19 January 2017

How Meditation can Reshape your Brain

By Liss Caldwell on Monday January 16th, 2017

New Research Shows the Power of Mindfulness

There are many forms of meditation but all promote the quieting or calming of the mind. Meditation can be deeply personal and may be done whilst you are gardening, walking or going about your daily life. Likewise, there are many different practices that focus on different aspects of mediation. For example, yoga practises encourage focussing on the breath, guided meditation takes you through a step by step process verbally, creative visualisation takes you on a guided journey. Additionally, techniques from Buddhist monk’s meditation practices have been adapted to mindfulness meditation and are becoming widely accepted in today’s society.
Mindfulness meditation can be a way of life and more than a quiet moment each day. The surging popularity of mindfulness meditation in today’s global society has initiated a number of recent scientific investigations and reports, with the scientific benefits for holistic well-being now widely researched and publicised.
There are many forms of meditation but all promote the quieting or calming of the mind.There are many forms of meditation but all promote the quieting or calming of the mind.

How Meditation Changes Your Brain.

Studies show meditation can assist you in being less stressed, and increase clarity of mind and decision making. Regular practitioners say it is life changing and helps us to deal with challenging situations. The art of clearing one’s mind through meditation has been used to enhance performance with athletes, the military, and has been introduced within schools as a tool to centre and focus without distraction on the task at hand. Essentially, that’s what meditation is, aligning your attention completely to the present moment. Allowing yourself to become aware of your breath and of your physical reality in this moment.
Due to its surging popularity, mindfulness meditation has been at the centre of a number of recent studies focussed on investigating and recording the changes within the brain as a result of regular practise. Brain scans have confirmed increased activity involving self-control (left prefrontal cortex – LPFC) and focus, which allows internal centring on thoughts through the default-mode network – DMN.
Brain scans have confirmed increased activity involving self-control and focus.Brain scans have confirmed increased activity involving self-control and focus.

Meditation Changes You

Physical changes have been recorded with blood tests showing reduced blood levels of IL-6, which is a stress related substance associated with pain and inflammation and is often present prior to health problems developing. Emotional benefits recorded include increased empathy towards others without being overwhelmed. Improved focus despite distraction was a recorded benefit, with studies involving Buddhist monks showing the ability to comprehend new information and make decisions greatly improved.
Multiple studies have also shown emotional and mental health benefits, including reducing the symptoms of depression, anxiety and psychological stress. Mental, emotional, and physical benefits of a relaxed body result in overall improved wellbeing. Why not choose the mindful path?
Multiple studies have also shown emotional and mental health benefits.Multiple studies have also shown emotional and mental health benefits.

Decreased Gray Matter

Not all gray matter increases as a result of regular mindfulness meditation, there have been studies that show decreased gray matter. Lucky for us, it is decreased in the Amygdala region of the brain, which is a key stress response area. This area is known for inciting the primal, fight or flight response that is triggered by fear, emotion, and stress. This shrinking gray matter results in an increase in the prefrontal cortex, which heightens our awareness, concentration, and decision making. Adrienne Taren, from the University of Pittsburgh, believes the size of the changes in the brain directly relates to the amount of time spent meditating. The longer time invested meditating, the more consciously aware and thoughtful we become, replacing our primal reactions with more thoughtful balanced responses.
Dr Creswell, Associate Professor of Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University, led a study with a number of scientists from a broad spectrum of global universities to record and prove the changes in brain activity and physical health. Conclusions of the study included finding the first evidence that mindfulness meditation or being present in the moment “couples the DMN with a region known to be important in top-down executive control at rest (left diPFC), which, in turn, is associated with improvements in a marker of inflammatory disease risk. How much mindfulness Meditation is needed is unknown.”
A group of Harvard Neuroscientists, led by Sara Lazar, Ph.D., have reported the changes in gray matter structure of the brain following eight weeks of mindfulness meditation. Thirty minutes a day led to participants in the study being non-judgemental and more aware within their actions. MRI scans proved increased gray matter in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporal-parietal junction, and cerebellum. What does that mean? The gray matter affected areas of learning, recall, identity, perspective assessment, and emotional response. The participants reported feeling more relaxed, which is an added benefit within itself and a medically accepted effect of meditation.

Mindfulness Increases Pain to Decrease Pain

Mindfulness meditation pain relief involves multiple brain mechanisms which results in reducing pain. In mindfulness practice we pay more attention to the pain we are suffering, and bringing an intense focus to the painful sensations. As we do this, the pain reduces. The interesting result is that instead of decreasing activity in areas of the brain associated with pain, mindfulness increases it, with the result of decreased physical pain. Dr Joshua Grant, a Post Doc from Leipzig, Germany, who specialises in Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences continues to update his research on mindfulness and the benefits for chronic pain sufferers. His study recorded increased brain activity in the areas associated with pain in mindfulness practitioners but decreased physical pain. Our negative thoughts and judgements about the pain in fact increase the pain, yet mindfulness brings in a curiosity about the pain and we relate to it differently. For anyone with chronic pain, this is a huge break through.
Sara Lazar, from Harvard Medical School’s studies, observed increases in the insula, sensory regions, and auditory and sensory cortex. The increase in these regions resulted in enhancing senses, heightening the working memory and the executive decision making areas of the brain.
For anyone with chronic pain, this is a huge break through.For anyone with chronic pain, this is a huge break through.

Age No Barrier with Mindfulness

One of the standout performance factors from the numerous studies on mindfulness is the increase of the cortex despite age. It is well documented and medically accepted that our cortex shrinks as we age. Sara Lazar’s studies show 50 year old mindfulness meditators have the same size cortex as 25 year olds.
So with all these benefits why not start with the basics and if you reap the rewards grow your practise from there into a lifestyle choice?

Mindfulness Essentials

The Breath
Allow yourself to become aware of your breath and your breathing rhythm.
Your Senses
Allow yourself to become aware of your surroundings, the sounds, smells, what you can see, what you can feel, what you can taste.
Notice any thoughts within your consciousness, acknowledge them and let them go.
Scan through your body and hone in on any areas of pain or discomfort. Acknowledge the area. Know that it is ok and that it just is.
The Present Moment
Become completely aware of your surroundings, completely aware and accepting of your body and its current state of being, aware of your mind, aware of your breath and allowing yourself to become one in this moment, in this task you are doing and no other. There is nowhere else to go, nowhere else to be just right here, right now. Complete in your presence. Completely breathing to just be.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Homemade Paw Balm

  • 1/2 cup natural beeswax
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. shea butter
  • 10 drops vitamin E
Yield: Approx. two jars (250-mL each).
1. Fill a pot about one-third full with water and heat to medium-low.
2. Set a standard or large-sized mason jar inside of the pot. This creates a double boiler effect. (You could also just use a double boiler, but beware: my mason jar was impossible to get clean afterwards so I am glad I used something fairly disposable.)
3. Put the beeswax in the jar and heat, stirring often, until it’s melted. This took about ten minutes. (Tip: I used a wooden skewer to stir so I wouldn’t ruin a spoon.)
4. Add the coconut oil, olive oil and shea buetter. As you can see, I was pretty loose with my measurements. Heat until melted, stirring often.
5. Remove from heat and add the vitamin E drops. Stir.
6. Pour the mixture into storage containers. I used smaller mason jars. (Tip: I like the wide-mouth jar the best because I can put Dallas’s paw inside the jar and simply rub her paw on the balm to apply it.)
7. Let it sit for an hour or so until it hardens.
Voila! You now have an all-natural, yummy-smelling paw protector for your pooch! I hear this stuff also works well for dry human skin.
Dallas didn’t mind me putting it on her paws AND she didn’t try to lick it off. I’m calling this one a win.

Kozani chicken with prunes, saffron and paprika - Greek chicken

A warmly spiced chicken dish from Kozani, a part of Greece famous for its saffron. This simple stew of chicken thighs is brought to life with saffron, paprika and prunes.



The mighty Claerwen dam in the Elan Valley stands 184 ft (56 m) high and is 1167 ft (355 m) long.
Image by Adrian Richardson


Saturday, 14 January 2017

Legendary Love Stories

We’re a nation of wildly romantic souls. Welsh history and mythology are full of red-hot young lovers who are brimming with passion. Here are just a few of our favourites, with some suggestions for places you can create your own mini legends and stories to tell with your beau for many years to come (awwww!).  

Rhys and Meinir: when hide-and-seek goes wrong

Nant Gwrtheyrn
Nant Gwrtheyrn, Gwynedd
 by Nant Gwrtheyrn
When childhood sweethearts Rhys and Meinir decide to marry, it’s the custom in their little village of Nant Gwrtheyrn that the bride-to-be hides, and the groom’s friends find her and bring her to the church. But Meinir is nowhere to be found: heartbroken, Rhys wanders the hills for a year, trying to find his lost love. One stormy night, Rhys is sheltering under their favourite oak tree when a mighty bolt of lightning strikes, splitting the trunk in two. And inside is a skeleton… wearing a wedding dress.  Rhys dies of a broken heart. On a cheerier note, the village of Nant Gwrtheyrn is now a Welsh language learning centre, and (ironically) a popular wedding venue. 

Culhwch and Olwen: a giant love story

Cader Idris, Gwynedd
Cader Idris, Gwynedd
 by Wales On View
Culhwch’s wicked stepmother has put a curse on him: he can marry no one except the beautiful Olwen. The problem is, Olwen’s father is the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr – and he’s got a curse on him, too: he’ll die if his daughter ever marries. Culhwch’s cousin King Arthur sends six of his finest warriors to help find Olwen. The giant (understandably) won’t let them get hitched – unless Culhwch completes 40 impossible tasks. With the help of Arthur’s men, Culhwch finishes his to-do list, marries Olwen, and they live happily ever after. (But not Ysbaddaden the giant: he dies.) No one knows where in Wales these tales were based, but we would wager a bet that there are smoky hills and sweeping vistas like those in Gwynedd  involved. Cader Idris is a real mountain where the giant Idris sat (hence the name ‘Idris’ Chair’), expect lots of sweeping dramatic scenes and secrets to explore – just like those in the Culhwch ac Olen tale.

Geraint and Enid: a knight of passion

Capel Curig Snowdonia
Capel Curig, Snowdonia
 by Wales On View
Here’s another yarn from the Welsh folk tales known as the Mabinogion. Geraint is one of King Arthur’s best knights. But since he got married to the lovely Enid, the word around the campfire is that Geraint’s gone soft. Enid hears the rumours, and breaks down in tears, blaming herself for not being a true wife. Geraint misunderstands her: he thinks that she’s been unfaithful. So the couple go off on a series of gung-ho adventures, during which she proves her devotion, and he proves that he’s still a lean, mean fighting machine. Happiness ensues.  Despite a rocky start, Geraint and Enid lives happily ever after – but you can have your own rocky and romantic weekend in Snowdonia where there are ample opportunities for racing pulses.  You could even create your own proposal opportunity at Snowdon’s summit, where King Arthur supposedly buried the remains of a giant (Rhitta) under the stony boulders. Romance on the rocks, just like Geraint and Enid! 

Myfanwy and Hywel: songs of love

Castell Dinas Bran, a ruined castle which sits prettily above Llangollen, was once the home of a beautiful (if vain) princess called Myfanwy. She is wooed by a talented (if penniless) local bard called Hywel ap Einion, but dumps him for someone richer and more silver-tongued. Poor Hywel roams the forests, singing a sad song of unrequited love. The story inspires a 19th-century ballad, Myfanwy, which is still sung by every male voice choir in Wales today.  

Macsen and Elen: dream believer

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd
 by Wales On View
Macsen Wledig is based on the real-life Magnus Maximus, a 4th-century Roman governor of Britain. In the Mabinogion version, Macsen dreams of beautiful maiden in a wonderful, far-off land of rivers, mountains and valleys. He’s dreaming about Wales, obviously – and that’s where he eventually finds the gorgeous Elen, who is the daughter of a Caernarfon chieftain. Macsen marries Elen, and builds her three castles at Caernarfon, Caerleon and Carmarthen. The real Magnus Maximus didn’t fare quite as well: after usurping the Roman throne and becoming emperor, he was executed for treason in AD388. With Elen’s roots firmly in Caernarfon, Caernarfon’s majestic position as a fort of Edward 1st is a great place for history hunting and basing yourself for a longer Snowdonia adventure. With romantic walks around the harbour, it’s a great spot to see a sunset. 

Gelert: one man and his dog

Beddgelert, Snowdonia
Beddgelert, Snowdonia
 by Wales On View
We’re a nation of dog-lovers, so here’s a tragic tale about man’s best friend. The name of the pretty Snowdonia village of Beddgelert means ‘Gelert’s grave’, supposedly after Llywelyn the Great’s trusty hound. Llywelyn returns from hunting one day to find his baby missing, and Gelert licking his blood-stained chops. The prince draws his sword and slays the dog … only to find the infant safe and well, next to the body of a great wolf that Gelert had killed while protecting the baby. Oops. Filled with remorse, Llywelyn buries Gelert with great ceremony, and never smiles again.  This may be the one children remember for sadness and tragedy, Beddgelert is a wildly beautiful town –  perfect for rambles and cosy beverages in country pubs (keep your dogs close in case of wolves).

The Lady of the Lake: a striking beauty

Llyn y Fan Fach, a little glacial lake at the western edge of the Brecon Beacons  National Park, is home to the beautiful Lady of the Lake. She married a local farm lad, Gwyn, with a pre-nuptial clause that if he struck her three times, she would go straight back to her lake and take all the farm animals with her. Predictably, the marriage ended in tears, but their sons went on to become the first of many generations of expert herbalists and healers, the Physicians of Myddfai. Taking inspiration from the area’s legacy, you can now find your own herbal goodies and beauty products via a social enterprise and even partake in a spot of wild swimming and a picnic at Llyn y Fan Fach. We’re sure the Lady of the Lake won’t mind.

Burton & Taylor: Hollywood’s greatest romance

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor met on the set of the 1963 epic Cleopatra, the first of a dozen on-screen collaborations that peaked with the magnificent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). But the drama of their off-screen relationship eclipsed all of their films. They were both married to other people when they had their first fling. They tied the knot twice, in 1964 and 1975, and were twice divorced. There were legendary gifts (a $1m diamond; a yacht) and legendary tempestuous arguments. And there were trips home to the Miner’s Arms in Pontrhydyfen, where Taylor had her first pint of bitter.  Interested in other Neath legends? How about a romantic waterfall walk at Pontneddfechan or a tramp around the ruins of the beautiful Neath Abbey, founded in 1130.