Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.
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On Backs, Beds, Necks, and Wrecks

On Backs Beds Necks and Wrecks

Vidyamala Burch is the founder of Breathworks, author of the books Mindfulness for Health and Living Well with Pain and Illness, and a world-class expert on mindfulness-based pain management.


 Last week I got a lovely email from Michelle DiGiacomo in the USA that included her blog "battered by beds".

Her email said:

Dear Vidyamala,

I feel like Christopher Columbus and that I’ve just discovered America. 

In telling my story in my blog, I was hesitant to talk of meditation because the western world hasn’t quite caught on, but it was pivotal to this discovery. I laid in those beds for years throbbing in pain, yet it took a very deeply felt body scan to finally discover this. It feels like a miracle. 

I want to scream this from the rooftops. I’ve suffered in pain for years and been given powerful drugs I never needed when I was simply sleeping in extremely defective beds which caused intense pain. 

Thank you for your work as I truly couldn’t have discovered this without you. I’m hopeful that I can share this with my Mayo Clinic doctors and that they will take it seriously. I think the problem is epidemic and needs serious attention. 

I read her blog and felt all kinds of resonances. Her realization that bad mattresses and pillows were causing a significant escalation in symptoms correlated vividly with my own experience, so I thought it would be good to share this more widely. In fact I get very similar symptoms to her if I don’t have the correct mattress for my spine - appalling nerve pains and weakness in my legs at night that comes from pressure on the sacrum if the bed is too hard. If the bed is too soft - that’s another whole disaster. As for pillows, well: headaches, fatigue and neck pain quickly arise if the pillow is too high, too low, too soft, too hard. Truly I have become like the princess and the pea!

We are all different but the best solution for me is a reasonably firm inner sprung mattress with a memory foam topper pad on top. When I travel the world teaching for Breathworks I always take my trusty travel topper pad and generally sleep reasonably well. I also travel everywhere with my memory foam pillow that has transformed my sleep and neck pain. There are many different brands on the market but the Harley works best for me.

When travelling my luggage allowance is quickly used up by topper pad, pillow and other disability paraphernalia such as catheters; so if you wonder why I sometimes look a bit scruffy you now know. There’s very little room left over for actual clothes! But it’s worth it.

Vidyamala Burch


Here is Michelle’s story

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Attitudes for Living Well with Illness

Attitudes for Living Well With Illness

Shunyamala is a Wellness Coach who works one-on-one with people experiencing chronic pain or stress in their lives. She says: “Through years of managing my own chronic auto-immune illness I have learned effective, authentic, holistic ways to soothe the roller-coaster challenges that being out of balance in our bodies and in our minds can bring.”


Many people have asked me "How do you do it? How do you have a smile on your face and good humor while dealing with autoimmune issues day in and day out?" Most of the time I fumble something like "This is the way it is” or “I have no other choice." On further reflection, I can see that I often am using the Breathworks concepts that I learned a while ago and that in fact they serve me very, very well.

So, I'll share some of my favorites that I have woven into my life, and that have made such a difference;

1. Start Where You Are
Full-heartedly turning toward where you are before you decide where you are going. Take some time to listen in and honestly assess how you are feeling before forcing your way, forcing your body, to perform out in the world. Sometimes this can be painfully emotional and yet this is where authentic healing happens. I may even decide to postpone my plans. Permission to do less. It sounds obvious and yet, in the past, I’ve relied on sheer will-power to get me through. Being accepting of where you are is a healthier, smarter alternative. What would make it easier?

2. Listening To Your Body
When listening in or settling in for a meditation, pay attention to the breath in the back of the body, the sides of the body, as well as how your body breathes in the front. Being so forward-centric many of us only think of the body in terms of its front - the face, the heart, the belly. And it is the back of the body that protects us, supports us, that is a force for stabilizing. Keying into the back of the body naturally sends a message of support and self-care. And hey, our bodies like these messages! What is it you would really like your body to know?

3. You Can Always Look for the Positive
There is always the possibility to look for the positive - and this is not some sugar-coated theory. Even in extreme pain, in a dire situation, there is more happening than what may be grabbing your attention. As you relax, see if you can expand, rather than tighten around the pain, to what else you are feeling. Perhaps the sense of stillness as you calm the mental negative chatter. What else is happening now?

4. Honor the Rest Your Body Needs
Honor the rest your body needs before it gets too stressed and strained under pressure. Vidyamala refers to this as pacing. It is a way of saving your body from stress, rather than managing the stress after it has already happened. Bodies that are already compromised in some way do not like stress in any form or manner. For me rest is the best medicine I can give myself. What is it that allows your body to thrive?

Whether it is illness or anxiety that is creating your stressful pain, Vidyamala’s book "Mindfulness for Health", is full of wisdom and ideas that can shine a lighted path forward. The guided meditations included in the book are an invitation to listen in for that healing place in your body. I share these with many of my coaching clients as we all have times that are painful. Albeit some of us more than others. Instead of pushing away what seems to be the source of the discomfort it is the turning towards that can create more possibilities of connection and health.

Shunya


You can learn more about Shunyamala and her work at HeartWisdom Coaching or contact her directly at heartwisdomcoaching@gmail.com. Shunyamala is also a Buddhist practitioner and teacher and member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, practicing at the San Francisco Buddhist Center.

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Embracing Compassion: Experiences from the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course

 

embracing compassion blog

Reflections from Breathworks teacher Katherine Michaelis' on her Mindfulness MSc. Thesis 


Feldman and Kuyken (2011) describe compassion as:

"an orientation of mind that recognizes pain and the universality of pain in human experience and the capacity to meet that pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity and patience".

I am a Breathworks teacher. When I teach the compassion part of the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress (MfS) course I have noticed that some participants struggle to engage with the practices, and occasionally find them upsetting. When I first tried these practices myself, as a MfS course participant, I found them tricky. Now, though, they are part of my daily practice and through them I feel I’ve become much kinder both to myself and to others. I draw on them all the time; recently they helped me to care for my mum who had Alzheimer’s.

When I undertook a Mindfulness MSc with Aberdeen University I chose to research how participants experienced compassion training on a Breathworks MfS course. I wanted to gain a deep, rich understanding of participants’ experiences and what these experiences meant to them. I hoped to benefit my teaching and the experiences of course participants and perhaps to benefit other teachers and participants. I began my research by doing a literature review and I found that although compassion training is very beneficial, leading to increased well-being and lower levels of psychological distress, it is also quite common for people to find compassion training difficult and even upsetting at first.

I chose a qualitative approach for my research, which let me capture participants’ experiences and thoughts about compassion training during classes and from interviews conducted some weeks after the training ended. 6 participants of a Breathworks MfS course took part in my research.

My findings revealed that all the participants valued the compassion training highly; they felt it addressed their needs for greater self-compassion, it benefitted their relationships with themselves and with others and it improved their wellbeing. One participant discussed how she had become kinder to herself:

I don’t put myself down, I don’t yell at myself, ‘Oh you stupid person.’”

Another discussed how she benefited from practicing loving kindness for work colleagues she found difficult,

the next day it’s so much easier to talk to them. I can then go and be nice to the person.”

Two participants talked about how kindness practices helped them manage health conditions. One said practicing kindness to herself helped her recover more quickly from depression. Another was recovering from an operation and said the practices were, “helping her to feel better, more reassured and calm,” and that self-compassion, “supports her through the day really.”

Some participants initially had negative experiences of kindness meditations but these experiences changed over time and became more positive. One said she had been skeptical about the benefits of kindness practices and had felt irritated, frustrated, and impatient when she first did them; however, after a week of practice she reported liking the sun imagery practice. Another participant had initially felt pressured during self-kindness practices; striving to achieve happiness, but this attitude had softened over time. One participant became tearful and felt unable to wish herself well when she began. In her interview she said the phrase “may I be safe” had triggered difficult feelings from a childhood in which she had “never felt safe”. She had persisted with the practices and 8 weeks after the course ended she described how she was using compassion practice to calm herself.

Some participants had customised their compassion practices and felt this helped them to gain benefits. One participant, who was a Christian, had mentally changed the sun image into the Son of God, which made more sense to her,

As Christians, he is within and outside… the sun, it didn’t have the same effect, where as the Son of God did.

Another practiced self-compassion when unsettling physical feelings arose by placing her hand on areas of discomfort and using the breath to soothe her. This made her feel, “much calmer and better”.

Learning in a group brought insights into difficulties experienced by others, which helped participants gain self-acceptance, self-compassion and compassion. One participant said, “if you feel that other people are struggling, it’s OK to struggle too and therefore you can be a bit kinder to yourself because you are not judging yourself for feeling crap, you’re saying I am human, this is fine, other people feel like this, I’ll get through this."

However one participant had initially felt intimidated in the group because two other participants, who were counselors, had said they were attending the course to gain skills to use with clients. She felt better when she realised that the counselors also experienced difficulties.

Some participants said that I, as the teacher, had helped group dynamics by giving the sense that we were all in the group together, “teacher included” and by demonstrating kindness towards people who were struggling. However, one participant had felt picked on when I went round the group asking individuals about their experiences.

Most participants said the teaching of Gilbert’s "Three Circles" model; three broad emotional systems corresponding to: The ‘Red Circle’ of Threat, the ‘Blue Circle’ of reward-seeking, and the ‘Green Circle’ of Soothing, Caring, and Contentment:

The home practice of finding ways into the green circle zone had helped them access soothing, nurturing behaviours; they spoke extensively about how they were accessing it in their lives. One participant also said this teaching had taken away the guilt of “feeling all those things in the red circle.” However, two participants had not connected with this teaching. One said that this was because she had identified so strongly with the threat system that she had missed the soothing system.

It was heartening to find that all participants had continued with their compassion practice and were gaining benefits 4 to 8 weeks after the course had ended.

It is not possible to generalise from this kind of study; every group is different and every person will have a different experience of compassion training. However, my findings resonated with the literature and with my previous observations, and I have made some changes to how I teach the Breathworks MfS course. In week one I now encourage participants to share specifically personal wellbeing benefits that they hope to gain from the course, to foster a sense of common humanity, and I now invite participants to share their experiences rather than go around the group in turn so no one feels put on the spot. I encourage participants to customise the kindness practices if they wish, for example I suggest the use of the hand on the heart area to help access warm feelings and I discuss the use of alternative phrases in the loving-kindness meditation. When teaching Gilbert’s theory, I ask participants to share ways in which they already access the “Green Circle” to help them connect with this emotional system. I try to manage expectations and cultivate helpful attitudes for kindness meditations by talking about these before I lead any meditations. I am hopeful that this will help reduce possible striving and feelings of failure. In case of painful emotions arising in the kindness practices, I remind participants of how to work with difficulty and discuss how they can support themselves if they feel overwhelmed; I try to do this lightly so as not to create an expectation of difficulty. I am also alert to any difficulties participants may have and offer opportunities to talk outside class.

Doing the research was a great experience, I feel I have learned lots and I’m really grateful to the study participants who were so helpful and so open in sharing their experiences.

Katherine Michaelis

If you have any questions or want to read my full thesis (18,000 words) then do please get in touch: katherine.michaelis@gmail.com.


 Find out more about the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course here.

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Mindfulness for Pain

Mindfulness for Pain Breathworks Blog

 A taste of the Mindfulness for Health course from Breathworks teacher and pain specialist Tuula.


There is excitement in the room. People chance curious glances at each other. New people around, people you have never seen. Men and women, who have brought suffering and pain with them, here, into this room. We are going to meet eight times over these next months; there is time to get to know each other. This is a Breathworks mindfulness pain management program. Mindfulness and meditation as pain treatment – this is a very new idea for most people here.

We introduce ourselves in pairs, tell our stories of why we are here; how we would like to manage our pain and health conditions better. We tell just what we feel is safe to tell for now. Then, pairs introduce their partners to the group. This is the first mindfulness practice: mindful listening in this moment.

People wish their pain would be more tolerable and wish that they could somehow accept the pain. They would like to learn from others’ experiences and to have a source of support. Some wish to diminish the pain medication and find non-medical treatment for pain. Good goals, that arise in every group.

 Then one man says quietly: “I look for mercy and forgiveness.”
What do you mean?” I ask.
My pain has come and brushed away everything in my life, everything has changed, I am not the same person anymore. I seek mercy and forgiveness.”

As weeks pass we talk less and less about pain and suffering. We have learned that no amount of talking and thinking can solve the problem of pain. In the practice we turn towards the pain, the unpleasant sensation, breath by breath. How do we experience the pain, how does it feel to soften around the pain instead of resisting or trying to escape it? This moment, this breath, this sensation. We find that the pain is changing all the time, as everything changes: breath, emotions, thoughts, and sensations move through us like flowing water. We bring a new kindness into the experience. Is that mercy?

Threats, danger, and potential problems; our brain is wired to detect these things as fast as possible, and to hold them in attention, demanding that a solution be found. Now, after experiencing our familiar unpleasant sensations in a new way; a kindly, open way, we begin to turn towards the pleasant. Our evolved instinct is to focus on the unpleasant, and ignore the pleasant.  Now we begin to tune in our brain to that which is beautiful around us; the things that are usually hidden behind our pain and suffering. How lovely it is to find miracles in our garden, or on our way to work, only by opening our senses to receive them. The birds which have been singing to us this whole time. The flowers we have been too busy to see. The first smell of the earth after a long and snowy winter. We surrender to these small and everyday wonders.

In the same way, we learn to  find something pleasant in our own, suffering body. It can be tiny, but very significant: soft skin, warm hands, a light wind on the cheek, a mere absense of pain in some part of the body; anything. It is joyful to notice something good in our body and let it be as it is. No need to change anything.

Weeks pass by. How can we find balance, when the world around us is upside down and the pain is trying to control us by changing its locations and intensity? We learn to observe and to be in our body moment by moment, breath by breath. We learn to let the pleasant and unpleasant sensations come, let them be and let them go without trying to change anything. We let the breath flow naturally and soften to all our experiences. We touch the pain in a gentle way, as we would comfort a fearful child. We meet the pleasant sensations by letting them be as they are, without clinging on to them.

Pain is isolating, and as our group approaches the end of the course, we have a theme of connection to others. We may feel pressure and demands from our surroundings, and some from ourselves. How do we find connection to others without trying to pretend to be happy and healthy? It is helpful to listen to our own body and recognize our resourses. I give myself as I am and I receive help, when needed.

What have we learned? Peer support in the group has become significant. We have shared our experiences, learned from each other and from ourselves. We have created our own humour, black but gentle. A concrete change has begun in how we pace our daily lives. We have learned to listen to our bodies and mind and to take a break before we need a break. Mindfulness meditation has become a part of our life. Natural breathing has become our pain medication. Some have been able to diminish medication and others have accepted that they will still need some. However, we have found many new ways to manage pain aside from the pill bottle.

The main finding is kindliness and compassion towards ourselves. These qualities allow us to accept pain that can’t be changed, and to recognize that there are still many things we can change; still much happiness and well-being to be found. Pain may be part of our life, but we are much more.  If we have had to abandon something, there are always new possibilities, if we let ourselves see them. First, we need to forgive pain.

Tuula Korhonen, Breathworks teacher, anaesthetist and pain specialist


 Find out more about the Breathworks Mindfulness for Health course here.

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Mini-blog: The Music of Difficult Emotions

Inside Out Disgust Anger Fear

If you've been practicing mindfulness for a little while, you've probably noticed that negative emotions and difficult experiences begin to act as a sort of mindfulness bell that brings you back to your immediate experience.

A key part of this process is becoming grounded in body sensations. Often we think of difficult emotions like fear, anger, and sadness as being states of mind, yet, looking beyond the stream of thoughts, they are largely composed of sensations in the body. If we are not mindful of them, those sensations (such as the tension and heart-pounding accompanying stress) can seem to make those thoughts more believable. It's a lot like how background  music can make a speech seem so much more powerful. 

Becoming grounded in the body is like just learning to listen to that music in itself, and not let it carry you away with the content of the speech. So, the next time you find yourself in the grip of some negative emotions, try to look past the thoughts and become grounded in your body; note what sensations are taking place, where abouts, and with what intensity, like a composer listening to a piece of music. Does it change your experience? This can be a fascinating practice to experiment with, and can help you unhook from the spell of a charged thought.

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