Breathworks Blog

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

The Mindful Jigsaw Puzzle

Katy Owen - The Mindful Jigsaw Puzzle

This Christmas I did my first ever jigsaw puzzle. For some of you it may sound bizarre that I’ve never done a jigsaw puzzle before, but in the past the mere thought of a jigsaw puzzle filled me with boredom and frustration. Obviously, it’s not entirely true that I’ve never done a jigsaw before. A few weeks previously on the request of my friend’s 2 year old I had attempted a jigsaw puzzle for children aged 3 to 6. It had 9 pieces. I failed to complete it. After checking the picture on the box (which I had previously been told by a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast was ‘cheating’) ensuring that yes, it did only have 9 pieces, and yes they were all present, I had to enlist the help of the 2 year old’s mummy. All I can say is that she’d clearly had practice. So, the 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a very beautiful garden scene both excited and terrified me! In particular the large expanse of blue sky, how was I ever going to piece that together?

What Changed?

I came to mindfulness about 5 years ago in the midst of a stressful period at work. Despite my inability to complete children’s jigsaw puzzles, I was actually quite successful in my career (fortunately jigsaw puzzles are not part of the assessment process). Pre-mindfulness I would describe myself as a Type A personality – someone who was very busy all the time, rarely slowing down, let alone stopping to breathe! I had a busy job in London, was a competitive rower training 6 days a week with a busy social life. There was barely enough time to sleep, let alone meditate, or do a jigsaw puzzle for that matter!

However, following a mindfulness taster session by a colleague at work, I developed a mild interest. Then, after a period of insomnia worrying about work I decided action was needed. I recognised that I might not be able to change the external environment that was causing me stress, but I could change my relationship to it and mindfulness might help with that.  

I participated in an online 4-week introduction to mindfulness course and quickly started to experience the benefits, not least a good night’s sleep! On the completion of the online course I knew I needed to keep practising to ingrain the habit, so I read the excellent ‘Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, a self-taught 8-week course in mindfulness with a CD of meditations. I was hooked. I felt refreshed and happy with a better sense of perspective over what was worrying me.

Meditation became as important to me as sleep, healthy eating and exercise. Over time I started to prioritise better, slow down, become more self-reflective, and do what my mum had been telling me to do since I was a child – stop and take a moment before reacting. In tandem my previously high levels of irritability decreased and my patience and compassion (towards myself and others) increased. I really liked this new person I was becoming.

Relishing in Being Mode

Fast-forward 5 years and now I can sit still long enough to do a jigsaw puzzle without getting bored or frustrated. Instead, I was ready and up for the challenge, even the endless blue sky which looked pretty impossible. After the initial panic of where to start, I discovered what seems to be a well-known jigsaw strategy, do the edges first… And then as if by magic, I found two pieces that connected! I experienced a significant moment of delight, relief, achievement and satisfaction. It also very quickly became apparent, that the ‘blue’ sky in the jigsaw contained lighter and darker patches, just like the real sky.

It dawned on me, that the jigsaw was a very mindful activity, I was in the ‘being mode’. Exploring the colours and shape of each piece created a sense of care and curiosity in me; just like the quality of awareness we create in our mindful meditations. The jigsaw became a very satisfying, relaxing and enjoyable activity. I was able to observe my emotions come and go – frustration, satisfaction, achievement, joy.

It may sound crazy, but I learnt a lot from doing the jigsaw puzzle and it became a reflection of where I was in life. I was going through a major life transition and the jigsaw helped me to see that things almost ‘fall into place’ when other key pieces are present; a good reminder to be patient and have faith even when I can’t yet see the full picture. I also found it very helpful to turn the jigsaw puzzle around, and look at it from another angle. Literally changing the way I saw the puzzle enabled me to piece together bits that previously didn’t seem to fit; a helpful reminder of the benefits of changing my perspective to find solutions.  I also learnt that, even if it is ‘cheating’, it’s helpful to look at the box to see the ‘big’ picture every now and then to remind myself of where I’m going.

The Dangers of Doing Mode

However, no one warned me how highly addictive jigsaw puzzles were! It became very clear that I needed to finish it before the holidays were over, otherwise I would struggle to prioritise work! My self-imposed deadline pushed me from ‘being mode’ into ‘doing mode’. My addiction grew worse as I stayed up late drinking wine and eating chocolates desperate to finish the jigsaw.

Again there were lessons for me in life. Whilst I tried to push past my ‘hard edges’, I could also clearly see when it was time to stop. My mind would go fuzzy and I’d become frustrated that I couldn’t place a piece. A helpful reminder of the importance of taking a break to look after myself and be at my best.

Eventually I completed the puzzle and the satisfaction was immense, promptly followed by sadness and loss. What would I do with my life now?! I didn’t dare buy another puzzle having seen my addiction! I would have to wait until next Christmas before I took on another jigsaw…

Katy Owen

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Twelve Questions with Vidyamala

12 Questions with Vidyamala

Breathwork co-founder Vidyamala Burch recently did an interview with the Malaysian magazine 1Twenty80, on the topic of mindfulness and its health and professional benefits, as well as how to best practice mindfulness to feel its extraordinary value in your own life.

1. Could you kindly explain what mindfulness is?

Mindfulness is, in essence, awareness. Through training, traditionally by practising meditation, we learn to become aware of what is happening mentally, emotionally and physically in each moment. This then gives us the tremendous skill of choice in how we respond. So rather than feeling a victim of our thoughts, emotional states or physical experience; we can learn to choose to respond rather than react and feel much more of a sense of power and control in life.

(For more on this:

2. How does being mindful benefit one’s health?

Mindfulness can have a hugely beneficial impact on health. When we have pain or illness the chances are the body will have some unpleasant feelings - parts of the body will be hurting. If we aren’t mindful we will almost certainly have some unhelpful habits such as tensing against the pain and holding the breath. This will make the pain, fatigue or other symptoms more severe.

With mindfulness we learn to acknowledge the pain with kindness and acceptance but to let go of the tension, breath-holding and resistance. This means that the overall experience of pain or fatigue or other symptoms will ease.

We use a model of dividing pain, discomfort or illness into two components: Primary and Secondary Suffering. The Primary Suffering is the actual unpleasant sensations or feelings in the part of the body which is hurting. Secondary Suffering is caused by the resistance and struggle and includes things like secondary anxiety, depression, fear, physical tension.

We essentially teach people mindfulness skills to accept the Primary Suffering and reduce/overcome the Secondary Suffering by letting go of the resistance and struggle. When this skill is developed people often report a significant improvement in quality of life and reduction in suffering/pain.

3. Besides health, what are the other benefits of being mindful?

Mindfulness can be applied to any area of life as it is a universal quality of mind/awareness/consciousness.

It comes from the 2500-year old tradition of Buddhism where a key teaching is that human beings increase our suffering in life by resisting and pushing away things we find difficult and grabbing hold of things we like. These twin poles of aversion to pain and clinging to pleasure lead to all kinds of distress. With mind training, through learning meditation and mindfulness, we can learn to let go of these reactions and live with a much more open, kind and confident attitude.

In the UK there has been a major Government report into the benefits of mindfulness across Healthcare, Education, the Criminal Justice System and the Workplace.

There are also people teaching mindfulness in myriad contexts globally through all stages of life from mindful childbirth to mindfulness in elder care and mindfulness with the dying.

Many people are discovering the tremendous sense of freedom that comes with being more mindful in all activities.

4. How can one practice to be mindful?

Meditation is the ideal way to cultivate mindfulness. It is a space and time to train the mind, a little like training the body by going to the gym.

In meditation we turn our awareness inwards to get to know our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without the usual distractions of daily activities. We sit quietly and close the eyes and put our inner world in the laboratory of awareness.

In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism the word for meditation is ‘familiarisation’ which I think is a very good description of what is happening when we meditate. We are going within and ‘familiarising’ ourselves with the inner world so we can learn to gradually let go of automatic reactions and to bring much more space to our experience. The behavioural outcome of meditation and mindfulness is choice. It is amazing to feel that we can have some control over out minds and emotions and to respond with kindness, love and a sense of connection to ourselves and all the people we come into contact with.

5. Does being mindful make a person a better individual and leader? How?

Yes, definitely. For all the reasons above being mindful means that one is more mentally and emotionally spacious and flexible. One is more empathetic and connected with others and less stressed and reactive. This makes one both a better individual and a better leader. People want to see qualities of calm, confidence, resilience, clear thinking and non-reactivity in a leader and mindfulness helps build qualities such as these.

6. As a leader, how can one encourage his or her employees to be mindful too?

I think the most important thing is to ‘walk the talk’. To exemplify the qualities that come with mindfulness. Sometimes it is said that mindfulness is ‘caught, not taught’ and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s not enough to talk about mindfulness without exemplifying it as it just becomes another fad and people won’t be enthusiastic.

So the most important thing is for leaders to develop their own effective mindfulness practice if they want their employees to take it on.

I got this article today that beautifully expresses this from the CEO and Chairman of Aetna, a company in the US healthcare market that employs 49,000 people.

7. How does being mindful improve teamwork and the atmosphere at a workplace?

Work atmospheres and workplaces often deteriorate when workers are stressed, unhappy, unmotivated. They can start to feel like cogs in a machine and there is no ‘heart’ in their work. It becomes a grind.

Mindfulness ideally would come ‘from the top’ where the leaders become more aware of their own tendencies and stress and start to become more fully present, calm and kind. They would start to relate to their employees as rounded human beings rather than productive units. As the atmosphere changes employees in turn learn to take responsibility for their mental and emotional states and to learn to be more focused and effective in their work.

In my opinion a mindful work place would also value things like making sure employees get reasonable breaks so they don’t get over-tired or stressed; and social interactions would be valued through creating a warm and harmonious working culture.

8. Could you share with us what Breathworks UK does?

Breathworks UK was founded by myself way back in 2001. Initially I just ran a few mindfulness courses a year explicitly for people living with pain and illness. I injured my spine 40 years ago; mindfulness has been a big part of my healing journey and I wanted to share these skills with others.

In 2004 I formed a company with two colleagues and in 2005 we started our Teacher Training Programme - we realised the most effective way to offer our programme to the billions in the world who could benefit was to train others. This exponentially increased the number of courses being run around the world. We now have teachers in 25+ countries.

Along the way we have expanded our programmes beyond the explicitly health focus and we now also run a very successful ‘Mindfulness for Stress’ programme and we are developing an adaptation of this for the Workplace

9. How can this method help others to manage their stress levels?

It helps people cultivate calm, focus and to STOP. Meditation is a fantastic way to calm down if we have become stressed. Even stopping for just a few moments and focusing on breathing can interrupt the escalation of stress. There’s lots of evidence about how the brain and stress chemicals are beneficially affected by mindfulness. Cortisol and adrenaline production decreases and oxytocin and endorphin production increases. These are naturally healing. Vagal tone improves and studies show a reduction in inflammation markers with meditation, amongst many other benefits.

10. Does it also help them to understand themselves better? How and why?

Meditation involves a turning within to directly get to know your thoughts and emotions - crucially without any harsh judgement. Maybe you notice a tendency to harsh speech, to insecurity, to anxiety. This is all really good information if you don’t then add a layer of thinking there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You’re just human, with a human mind with all the trickiness that comes with that!

Through recognising harshness, insecurity or anxiety, etc. you can then do something about it with mindfulness by learning to let go of identifying so strongly with these habits and cultivating new, more positive habits.

It’s very simple, in essence. Though hard to practice of course as some of our habits are very strong indeed. But meditation and mindfulness are profoundly optimistic in the recognition that, with careful training, we can change our minds in fundamental ways.

11. Being mindful takes practice; what is your advice to people who are giving up on practicing mindfulness?

There is a great phrase in relation to this question that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it!” I love that. So often we only do what we ‘feel like’ in life which can lead to an undisciplined and whimsical existence.

Mindfulness is a discipline and I think of it like cleaning my teeth, having a shower, eating and sleeping. I consider these things essential to my ability to function and to stay well and clean. I don’t do them because I ‘feel like it’. They are just part of my daily routine no matter my mood or motivation.

I think we should take care of our minds in the same way we take care of our bodies. Our minds are so precious! And yet we pay so little attention to keeping our minds in good shape.  So I would encourage people to ‘just do it’ every day and not get too caught up with the immediate results. Sometimes it takes quite a while to notice real changes in how we respond to things: maybe we still get really stressed and anxious. But, slowly, slowly you will start to see small changes if you keep up your daily meditation. And, over time, these small changes will become big changes and you will start to feel very different: more whole, alive, loving, and less stressed.

Even 10 minutes a day will have an effect. I think it’s better to do a shorter practice every day, rather than a long practice more infrequently. Of course ideally you would do 20-40 minutes a day but that is hard for some people with very busy lives. So just do what you can manage but make sure you do it regularly.

Here are some meditations to try, for stress, and for pain.

12. In your opinion, why is it important to be mindful of oneself?

To be fully alive! Life is precious and fleeting and I want really live my life while I have it and not to dwell in some kind of grey half-life. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and regret not having made the most of it. With mindfulness and kindness practices I have some moments that are vivid and bright and full of wonder, which is wonderful!

I also want to feel more connected with other people and the world around me. The more I practice the more connected I feel and this is very important to me. Mindfulness isn’t just for me, it’s not a self-centred endeavour just so I can be a bit happier. It is great to feel happier, but it is more important to me that it helps me be a better person in the world and, hopefully, to make the world a better place.

Vidyamala Burch

 You can find out more about our Mindfulness for Health Courses and Mindfulness for Stress Courses here.

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How Mindfulness Techniques Can Help with Stress and Anxiety

How mindfulness techniques can help with stress and anxiety

Breathworks teacher Donna Brown was recently asked to write a magazine article in Northern Life Magazine on the topic of how mindfulness can help with stress and anxiety. She wrote a wonderful article, which you'll be able to find in the latest edition. Click here to read the online version.

Donna will be teaching the Mindfulness for Stress Courses in London starting 9th May, 11th June, and 4th July. Take a look here for more information about the course, and to book your place!

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Self-Compassion at Christmas

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Last night I was at a local sitting group and the topic of Christmas came up in the sharing. I suppose this was inevitable as, even for the many who don’t celebrate it, its presence looms large in advertising, TV and much of the wider culture at this time of year. What struck me forcibly last night was how, even in that one small room, everybody expressed such different responses to it all, depending on their own circumstances, past associations, family, faith, attitude etc.

Of course this should not have been surprising, but it was lovely to openly share this difference within an atmosphere of kindness and acceptance. For some, Christmas simply meant holiday and time off work, for others it meant time with family or friends, others noticed a feeling of aversion and a desire to withdraw, for some it is a reminder of loneliness or bereavement, for others it is a positive time of family, food and sharing. For many, as in most things in life, it was mixed; the difficult and the pleasant will always co-exist, whatever time of year it is.

There was also a shared acknowledgement of discomfort about the disparity between us in that warm room and those nearby living in shelters or on the streets, or perhaps faced with a choice between paying for heating or food. These are huge topics but it was lovely to notice a common concern and a desire within each of us to find a balance between generosity and looking after ourselves. I believe that to be able to really give to others without burnout, self-care and self-compassion are essential. I have certainly found this even within my own family. It is useful to remember this when, for example, one of my teenage children rolls their eyes at me, or totally ignores some reasonable request, just before demanding that I drive them somewhere – right now! This is when a few mindful breaths, a warm hand on my heart and some kind words to myself really help.

Something that has also helped me recently is a greater understanding that self-compassion is also good for those around me. I was struck by this recently when looking at research on mindful parenting. Two studies I read demonstrated a link between self-compassion in parents and a more positive outcome  for their children in terms of their levels of anxiety and depression. In fact of all the factors related to mindfulness that they measured in these studies, this was the only one that showed an impact. So self-compassion in parents promoted more positive mental health in their children. Admittedly these studies were small scale and not at all irrefutable, but they made me think.

I believe that embodying mindfulness has the most impact in terms of teaching it to others. It therefore makes sense to me that the best way to help those we love be with themselves when they are suffering is to be with our own suffering, large or small, with kindness and self-compassion. I hope that we can all remember through the highs and lows of Christmas that self-compassion is not only wise and important for ourselves, but it also helps those around us. It will also increase our ability to really take in and appreciate all the good and beauty that will be there too. Happy holidays everyone! 

By Sophie Matthew

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Pain is the First Step to Compassion

Breathworks Blog - Pain is the First Step to Compassion

Our practice at Breathworks is to move toward the painful, the difficult; to meet our suffering, loneliness, lost-ness and disappointment with kindness and tenderness. The emotional attitude is open, receptive, welcoming and embracing, rather than rejecting or abandoning. When we’re exploring the practice of befriending our suffering during a mindfulness course (whether that’s physical, emotional or mental suffering), I ask people what their reaction might be to a child or loved one who is in pain or who is afraid, lonely or lost. Participants always know what to do and how to be; they talk about love and kindness and patience and listening and holding close, and giving of themselves in terms of attention and time and tenderness. We know how to love and how to live from the heart. We are born knowing this. We unlearn it.

Moving toward and attending to pain and distress can often make sense theoretically, but resistance may continue and so it’s useful to take some time to consider some of the things that we can learn from attending to suffering. There are benefits to coming into close and kindly relation to our suffering but what are they?

One of the benefits of learning to repeatedly turn towards pain or discomfort is the development of courage. It takes courage to change, to stop avoiding, to stop distancing ourselves from life, to what’s really happening. It takes courage to turn around, to face and open up to our pain, fear or loss. The word courage derives from the word ‘heart’ and is linked to whole heartedness. The chance to develop whole heartedness is a chance to live fully and brightly even if and when we hurt.

Perhaps the most beautiful benefit of the practice of moving toward the difficult or the painful is the development of self-compassion. To see, to feel, to know that we suffer, that we experience pain, that we feel despair, grief, fear. Our mindfulness practice gives us permission to name this experience, to name what’s happening for us, not in an abstract but in a very visceral way, to come to know where pain lives in the body, to be able to place a hand there, to take the breath there, to touch our suffering with the warmth and affection of awareness. In this way we interrupt the habit of abandonment.

When we’re willing to lean into, stand close to and pay attention to suffering, we come to see that experience, sensation, feelings, moods, patterns of thoughts change. We imagine them to be seamless and endless (it often feels that pain and depression will never end), but the very nature of experience is to change, it shifts, it alters, subsides, recedes and reduces in intensity. We can come to see experience and sensation for what it is, a constantly changing flow of sensation/thought and feeling. Knowing this to be true is a very valuable insight because it means that neither pain nor low mood will last; everything is subject to change.

When we abide with pain or suffering, when we’re willing to return, to hang around with, when we’re willing to open to our whole experience, we begin to notice that there’s pain and low mood, but also that our experience may include and be coloured by the sound of laughter in the street or the sight of a of a small flower living brightly in a pot. There may be pain, but this is not all of our experience: joy and discomfort, beauty and sadness can live in us simultaneously. This seems to echo the nature of life, wonderful and difficult as it is.

Abiding with our pain or discomfort, we come to rest in our own vulnerability, coming to know our own tender and open places, places that are innocent and undefended and beautiful. With courage, with our hearts engaged, we allow this precious part of ourselves to breathe and to see the light of day.

Once we know that we suffer, once we know that we’re vulnerable, its only a short step to acknowledge that others must suffer too, must be vulnerable too, because they’re human! If we pay attention and look closely we see that many people are happy, but many also struggle with loneliness, sadness, disappointment. We see our own lives reflected back to us in the faces of people we don’t know in the street, on the bus, the train. And seeing this is an opportunity to make connection, to feel common humanity, an opportunity to feel that we are not different to each other, not so separate, that we’re in this together, and that we don’t suffer alone.

There is much to learn from our raw experiences of suffering about the nature of reality and experience, about change and about transformation. Intimacy with suffering doesn’t need to isolate or separate us from each other. A caring, compassionate connection to suffering can bring us into a close and heartfelt understanding of what it means to be human, bringing us closer to ourselves and each other.

Colette Power

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