A 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.
Cons: 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.
Conclusion: 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