Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.

Adventures in Biofeedback

biofeedback-copy-for-web-biggerA few weeks ago Glyn Blackett came to Breathworks to show us his biofeedback and neurofeedback kit. This was with the view to discussing whether this is something we could use at Breathworks, in conjunction with mindfulness, for people who are looking to improve their quality of life despite living with stress, pain or illness.

I turned up to the meeting somewhat stressed. Usually I have a PA who comes and helps me with my personal care and to get ready for the day and, due to a misunderstanding, she hadn’t turned up. So I’d been struggling as best as I could to get myself presentable and I arrived late for the meeting and a bit breathless – hardly a poster girl for mindfulness! In my naivety I’d thought he would just talk about options, but before I knew it, he had me wired up measuring the tension levels in my neck and shoulders. It wasn’t awful but neither was it the sort of reading someone who has been meditating for 25 years would hope to get! It was fascinating to get an objective reading of an internal experience. I sense this is the main value of these machines. I knew I was tense and rushed and the machines validated that and they also showed the benefits of a few moments of mindful breathing and meditating – the graphs responded immediately and this in turn helped me feel calmer – a virtuous circle!

Next up came a machine that measures the levels of CO2 in the blood. I just breathed ‘normally’ for a few moments whilst chatting, noting that I was peaking below a line on the screen that I sensed was significant – but I had no idea what it meant. Glyn then explained that, if breathing optimally, one peaks above this line and this showed me that my breathing was a little bit inhibited. Not surprising given I was wearing my rigid back brace that constricts my belly, but, once again, very helpful to have the effect of this objectified. I need to wear my brace, but I found it helpful to learn that there is more I can do to help my breathing exhale to a full out-breath even whilst wearing my brace. I sense my breathing is much better when I am lying down, but I am upright wearing my brace most of the day, so this is where the work needs to be done.

So far, so predictable. The shocker was still to come! Next there was a measurement of ‘Heart Rate Variability’, which I don’t really understand, though it was clear that in an ideal world your breathing and heart rate variability are beautifully synchronized as Glyn showed me on a graph. Mine was a mess. My heart rate was all over the place and I could discern no relationship between this and my breathing. Now I started to see the downsides of bio/neuro-feedback as I felt disheartened. I knew from past medical tests that I have an unusual ECG that shows I have had a silent heart attack at some point in my life; and my autonomic nervous system was damaged in spinal surgery a decade ago – but to see the consequences of these things on the screen was unnerving to say the least. In the situation of the feedback machines I compared myself with ‘normal’ and felt a) humiliated (especially as I’m a mindfulness teacher with decades’ experience) and b) rather concerned that my readings were so far away from ‘normal’. Wise friends later commented that they were astonished and amused that I would have ever thought my readings would be those of a perfectly healthy person and this was reassuring. They also reminded me of how much work I have already done to create a rich and fulfilling life despite my circumstances and this helped me re-gain perspective.

So what are the main lessons?

Pros: Bio/neuro feedback has great value in giving an objective reading of inner experience. Meditation and mindfulness are profoundly subjective experiences and it is impossible to know if a perceived sense of relaxation is actually objectively relaxed, or just relaxed for you – from a baseline of perhaps a high level of tension. I feel motivated to hire a machine and check my readings in different circumstances and gain a more objective sense of when I need to practice breathing more fully, for example. I am sure I will benefit greatly from this.

If you have a damaged body, like me, then it can just trigger feelings of being a failure and a ‘freak’. I think the comparisons between readings would be most effective if done just from one’s own ‘baseline’, rather than comparing one’s own readings with what it looks like if one is perfectly relaxed, or breathing perfectly. Otherwise it is just disheartening and the last thing we want people to feel when they come on a Breathworks course is disheartened. No one is perfect and we all have different baselines and potentials. I came across the image below the other day of 2 pelvises, which illustrates how differently people will respond to yoga. Due to different pelvic shapes one of them will have much greater range of movement in the hip sockets. No amount of yoga will change this basic anatomical fact. Perhaps bio-neurofeedback needs to be used against this backdrop of accepting we are all different, with different anatomical facts and potentials.

of great benefit if used wisely. I am sure it can help people shift their baselines towards greater health, within their own unique physiological circumstances.

For more information on bio-neurofeedback contact Glyn Blackett


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Tallberg mindfulness week

Posted by     Vidyamala on     Thursday, 04 July 2013

Mindhouse Park Mindfulness Week 2013

By Vidyamala Burch

Last week Sona and I travelled 3 hours north of Stockholm to spend a week with like-minded people at a 'mindfulness week' conference. It was quite a remarkable experience. The location was stunning in a small Swedish village on the shores of the famous Lake Siljan. The night didn't arrive before it was morning again. If I looked out the window at 2 am it was still light! This alone has a tremendous effect on the spirits and I felt energetic the whole time I was there.

a1sx2 Thumbnail1 tallberg eve sun

We were there at the invitation of our friend and colleague Dr Ola Schenstrom who founded the Mindfulness Center in Sweden some years ago. He had teamed up with Anders Liden, a meditating entrepreneur, to host the week with the intention of running a similar event annually for the next ten years. Ola is a highly idealistic guy who was very involved with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in the 80's and 90's. He is now in his mid sixties and shows no signs of slowing down in his wish to make the world a better place for future generations. The conference was very, very idealistic - even radical.

Various topics were covered including mindfulness in society, health-care, leadership and nature. I gave a key note talk on Breathworks 'Mindfulness for Health' courses as a self-management intervention for people living with long-term health conditions and chronic pain. Here are some of the scary statistics I quoted:

  • 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer chronic pain (3+ months)
  • 1 in 5 in Europe suffer moderate to severe chronic pain (2006)
  • In recent 'Health Survey of England' = 20 million people in the UK suffer chronic pain: 31% of men, 37% of women
  • In USA some 116 million people suffer chronic pain = $635 billion a year
  • The problem worsens as population ages: 57% over 75's suffer daily pain in UK.
  • If include all chronic health conditions = epidemic proportions. This is taking up increasing proportion health care spending.

Giving the talk, and attending the conference, made me reflect on whether I need to work a little more 'politically' to raise the profile of self-management interventions such as mindfulness. It is obvious to me that teaching people skills to help themselves (which includes seeking external health care as appropriate, of course) is the way forward in this new world we live in. Not long ago the bulk of public health spending went on acute care; now it goes on chronic conditions. This is due to the massive burden of chronic health conditions to both the individual and society as we live longer and modern medicine is increasingly able to keep people alive. Cancer, for example, is increasingly being seen as a chronic condition as more and more people are successfully treated, but left with long-term effects to manage.

Being around visionary people at Tallberg has had a big effect on me. It was galvanising and inspiring. On the last morning I had a spontaneous breakfast with three remarkable women who are all working tirelessly in their fields of endeavour. Here we were gathered from across the glode sharing our vision: Lucia McBee who teaches mindfulness to elderly people in New York - surely one of the most neglected groups in our culture; Katherine Weare who works developing mindfulness for kids, including the very successful .b programme; and Merle Lefkoff who is radical to her core having spent her life travelling the world as an international mediator. She was going from the conference straight to Jordan to do some work with young women activists involved in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It was amazing hooking up with these women, as well as all the other idealistic radicals at the conference, and I look forward to our connections deepening over time.

I hope to go to Tallberg again next year to continue this vital work of trying to make the world a better place for all of us alive now, and all who will follow behind.

pano party

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Life works in mysterious ways

By Vidyamala Burch 

Vm recordingWhen I was a young woman I was a film and sound editor in the New Zealand film industry. I worked on many projects – some of which were good and some of which have gone the way of all things, perhaps thankfully. I very much enjoyed this work: it was intense, creative and provided a way of compulsively distracting myself from my back pain. Of course this method of pain management was not at all intelligent and eventually led to a complete crash; but for a time I was gainfully employed in enjoyable work.

One of my lesser known skills is that I know how to create the sound of a head hitting the tarmac in a fight scene. Plunge a knife into a cabbage and slow the sound down and it is remarkably authentic. I know how to create atmosphere and a 'soundscape' by adding a dog barking in the distance in a night scene. And I know many such tricks of the trade when designing sound for a feature film or drama.

So, isn't it strange how this week I found myself in a recording studio for 4 full-on afternoons recording the audio version of my new book 'Mindfulness for Health'. Here I was dealing with microhones, sound quality and feeding my obsessive side again – in the fabulous company of Jenny Leow from Sthrathmore Publications, based in London. She and I come out of the same mould and the jury is out as to which one of us is the bossier. I, of course, think Jenny was much more bossy than me, but she may disagree. It is really rewarding to find a new outlet for my recording experience – especially when produced by someone who is as fussy as me when it comes to quality.

At one point we were both sitting there with our headphones on, intensely working away, when we both heard a 'squeak, squeak' in the background. "What was that?" we cried out to one another. And then it came again "squeak, squeak". She said, "It's an owl". I said, "no way" and didn't believe her and said, "go and ask Matt" (the guy who runs the studio). Sure enough, she came back and said it was indeed a local owl that sometimes comes out for a little daytime calling. For some reason he/she was quite chatty on this particular occasion so we had to wait for the owl to go back to sleep. We think we didn't record over it, but perhaps we could have a competition when the audiobook comes out to see if any really sensitive listener can spot the owl call that may have escaped our brutal editing.

The audio version of the book comes out at the same time as the print version on Sept 5th. I am so very happy about this as I know many of the people who could benefit from the book can't read a print version for one reason or another: they may be visually impaired; they may suffer from paralysis; they may just be too tired to hold a book. I hope all the work and, perhaps somewhat unhealthy feeding of my obsessive side, bears fruit for future listeners who want to learn how to apply mindfulness and compassion to their health difficulties and to learn to live as well as possible.

job doneVm and jenny working

Vidyamala and Jenny at recording studio

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Our First Blog

VM in Holland13sonainholland13

Sona & Vidyamala arrive in Holland to train experienced MBSR and MBCT teachers

Ok the time has come to take the plunge and start a blog. Its been on the 'to-do' list for long enough. In this blog I'd like to say more about my life and work and how mindfulness goes with me through my days.

I'm actually writing this in the car on the way back to Rotterdam for the ferry tonight to UK. (No I'm not driving!). I look out the window every now and then and it is just more motorway, lorries, cars, busy, busy tin cans on wheels. It does make you wonder about this world.

I’ve been at training event in Holland with my colleague and partner Sona Fricker. It was for people who already teach mindfulness and want to learn more about mindfulness for people with pain, illness and stress we've developed over the past decade or so.

One of the highlights was a visit from Jaap who recently completed an 8 week Breathworks course with Ingrid Van Den Hout, one of our Dutch teachers. On these events we inevitably talk about what it is like to work with people with pain, which sometimes can feel slightly abstract. Jaap punched through that veil and, with beautiful honesty and courage, told us about what it has been like to live with chronic head aches, neck and back pain following a whiplash injury 13 years ago. He's gone from being an ambitious, sporty, financial manager, to a guy who is unable to work and spends hours a day at home on his own.

Jaap told us how the Breathworks approach to mindfulness had helped him. He's now pacing his activities and working for 20 min periods before resting. He's got more of a life again. He's less angry. More motivated. He's got more of a sense of being in the driving seat of his own life. He smiled a lot when talking to us. He and I shared some of our experiences of living with dodgy bodies and yet being determined not to go under with the struggle.

His visit to the training retreat reminded me of a session we led at a conference a couple of years ago. We invited some participants from a course we'd led for people in recovery from addictions, asylum seekers and carers. They spoke to the a workshop we were leading with about 70 delegates, many of whom were health care professionals. Once again, it was as if their eloquence and honesty punched through the veil that so often separates 'professionals' and 'patients'.  We were all just human beings in a room sharing, and being awed, by the human stories of the course graduates we were listening to. It was incredible. Ingrid told us that hearing their stories that day was when she decided to train as a Breathworks teacher. It wasn't just a theory. It was real and transformed the lives of people who had been fighting immigration systems for years trying to get asylum from war torn lands; people who had spent years in prison; people who had lived on the fringes of society. This group has now nearly finished their training and, very soon, will be teaching mindfulness themselves. How extraordinary.

Ok we've arrived at the ferry terminal so I'll stop now. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog!


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