Author Archives: breathenews

Science playing catch up to Yoga

imagesIn 2004 I went to India to learn to become a Yoga teacher.  It was a transforming experience.  Since then I have been fascinated by the benefits of a regular practice.  In 2006 I started investigating the research about Yoga .  This led me to take a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology.

In this blog I take four basic ideas from the eight limbs of Yoga and highlight some of the amazing research which supports many aspects of the practice of Yoga.


How you stand and move changes the way your brain works 


The exercise
Try this – hold your arms above your head for just 2 minutes
Do it again after you have read the research and feel empowered. Imagine the positive benefits of an hour or so of Yoga !
The evidence base
In a 2010 study researchers Dana Carny and Amy Cuddy asked people to take on “power poses”. These were various postures reflecting confidence, such as placing their hands on their hips. The research team measured testosterone and cortisol levels (stress hormones) before and after the test. A second group was asked to hold “weak” positions (for example crossing their legs or arms or making themselves as small as possible) . The power or weak postures were hold for just 2 minutes by each group.

Analysis of the results showed an increase in testosterone of 20% for the power group and a 10% decrease in the weak group. The power group showed a 25% reduction in the stress hormone level cortisol whilst the weak group had a 15% increase. The people in the power group also demonstrated behavioural changes. They felt more confident and relaxed and more willing to be adventurous.

In a follow up piece of research one group was asked to hold their hands in the air for just 2 minutes and a second group told to hold weak positions. They were then given mock job interviews which were recorded. The study was obviously a double blind study, which means the people conducting the interviews had no information on what the participants were asked to do before the interviews.

The group holding the power postures were seen as more confident, passionate, enthusiastic, authentic , captivating and comfortable. And more employable.
And all this happened in 2 minutes. Can you imagine the positive effect of practicing physical yoga for an hour has on us?

Why is attention so important – Dharana

The exercise
Close your eyes and pick your favourite workout activity for 2 minutes – swimming, sun salutations, weight lifting etc
As you visualise this activity focus on the particular muscle group that you are using. If you are imagining swimming focus on just one muscle group – for example your chest

Do it again after reading the research and know that energy and nutrients are flowing to that area!

swim2The evidence base
A study by Erin M. Shackell and Lionel G. Standing at Bishop’s University reveals you may be able to make gains in strength and fitness without lifting a finger!
That study measured the strength gains in three different groups of people. The first group did nothing outside their usual routine. The second group was put through two weeks of highly focused strength training for one specific muscle, three times a week. The third group listened to audio CDs that guided them to imagine themselves going through the same workout as the exercising group, three times a week.
The control group, who didn’t do anything, saw no gains in strength. The exercise group, who trained three times a week, saw a 28% gain in strength. No big surprises there. But, the group who did not exercise, but rather thought about exercising experienced nearly the same gains in strength as the exercise group (24%). Yes, you read that right!
The group that visualized exercised got nearly the same benefit, in terms of strength-gains, as the group that actually worked-out.
A Harvard study reported in February 2007 on the impact of your thoughts on calories burned.
In that study, the housekeeping staff in a major hotel were told that what they did on a daily basis qualified as the amount of exercise needed to be fit and healthy. They made no changes in behaviour, just kept on doing their job. Same as always.
Four weeks later, those housekeepers had lost weight, lowered blood pressure, body-fat percentage, waist-hip ratio and BMI. A similar group of housekeepers who had not been led to believe their job qualified as exercise saw none of these changes.

Every thought counts – your thoughts change your body

The exercise
Spend 5 minutes doing breathing exercises
Now read the research and repeat. Empty your head of thoughts and fill your body with energy
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
your thoughts become your words,
your words become your actions,
your actions become your habits,
your habits become your values,
your values become your destiny.”
The evidence base
Most people know about “fight or flight” and how the body has a physiological reaction to a perceived threat. Whether it’s a physical or a psychological threat the outcomes to the body and mind are similar – we get braced for a fight or energise our muscles to run. So whether it’s a caveman running from a sabre toothed tiger or your boss yelling at you the physical effects are similar in the short term:
• your digestion system shuts down – absorbing nutrients takes energy and the body needs the energy for a fight – hence constipation, IBS etc
• your muscles tense ready for a fight – you are braced, your body becomes brittle and armoured – neck pain, lower back pain
• your heart rate rises to pump blood to the major organs of movement – heart rate increases
• hormones secreted constrict blood vessels to enable blood to be pumped to the major muscle groups quickly – blood pressure rises and your face gets red
• the muscles of fight/flight are prioritised – there is a dramatic reduction in flow to non essential areas – like the skin, kidneys and re productive areas – so you wont look good and your bits and pieces wont work so well
• your pupils dilate in order to pick up more information from our surroundings -you look a bit unhinged
• proteins, carbohydrates and fat are stored in your body and during fight flight are mobilised and dumped into the bloodstream to provide energy for the major muscles of movement. They circulate in the bloodstream as amino acids, glucose and fatty acids and can adhere to the constricted blood vessel walls -increasing your chances of heart disease or stroke.
• amino acids are not great sources of energy so during fight/flight the protein in muscles is dumped into the blood stream and then converted by the liver into glucose – this increases diabetes risk and makes it hard for the mega stressed to grow lean muscle mass
• when the fight flight emergency ends the amino acids, glucose and fatty acids are re absorbed, often in fat store deposits – this requires a huge amount of energy to convert from one form of storage – hence we get tired easily and store fat deposits

As part of your ethical code – be kind

At the start of the 8 limbs of Yoga we are recommended to be kind to all sentient beings and avoid violence of thought, word and action (Ahimsa)

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The exercise
Close your eyes and picture a loved one. As you breathe out imagine breathing loving, kind energy to that person. Spend 10 minutes doing a Metta Bhavana Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM)

Read through the research and repeat the exercise. As you do so you now know you are changing the way your brain is wired. You are wiring it for kindness, love and compassion
The evidence base
Neuroscientific meditation researcher Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin became interested in just that question. He has extensively studied the effect of meditation, including LKM, on the brain. He had a simple question. Would LKM change the brain? To investigate the exact implication of this practice on the brain he invited two groups of subjects into his lab: those who had at least 10,000 hours of LKM under their meditative belt and those who were interested, but new to meditation. He invited both these groups into the fMRI scanner to see how LKM would impact the brain.

The results were clear. The practice of LKM changed several important brain regions: both the insula and the temporal parietal junction (TPJ) lit up as a result of LKM. The insula is the part of the brain responsible for our ability to empathize with others, and to make oneself aware of emotional and physical present-moment experiences. While both groups saw an increase in insula activity, the group with 10,000 hours of experience showed significantly more activation than the other group. This group was experiencing higher levels of compassion than the non-practicing group.

A similar finding appeared for the TPJ. The TPJ, like the insula, is also related to our ability to process empathy and our ability to attune to the emotional states of others. Again, compared to short-term meditators, those with a long-term meditation practice showed significant activation of this brain region.

Other activities where you give unconditional love, such as random acts of kindness, have been shown to change the way our neurons connect to one another and strengthen existing positive pathways. Research from Positive Psychology indicates the greatest factor in developing personal happiness is having strong, loving relationships

Coming soon – Our Positive Psychology course for Yoga teachers



New Positive Psychology Course

downloadWe are about to run a course of five Positive Psychology workshops.  These weekly sessions will be one hour long and will focus on the techniques that have been demonstrated by research to have a positive impact on our wellbeing levels.  In week 1 we look at some of the barriers to happiness and how we can overcome them. Each week we introduce a different evidenced based technique from Positive Psychology.  We then practice it within the group and at home with friends and family

Because we have a strong community ethos at Breathe and because we believe the knowledge emerging from this field should be widely available we are making these workshops low cost. The UK course, run by Madeleine, is £15 a week  (£75 for the 5 week course) and $30 for the  Australian course run by me ($150 for the 5 week course) 
Madeleine and myself met in 2007 on the first Masters Degree in Positive Psychology outside of the US.  We were early adopters and have a healthy respect and a healthy skepticism about this new science and what it can do for human flourishing.  Course details:
 2 GROUPS ON MONDAYS in London : 12.30-13.30PM OR 4-5PM
7th, 14th, 21st,28th, JULY and 18th August
To book the UK course  .  For more information about the UK or Australian course contact me 
Read more about positive psychology

download (1)Humans tend to be optimistic about the future.  When asked how satisfied we are with our lives the response is usually about 7 out of 10.  When asked how satisfied we think we will be in the future most people tend to say they will be more satisfied.

Confusingly however, research suggests that we also have a tendency to focus on our deficits rather than our strengths, our failings rather than our successes and what we crave for rather than what we have. On the one hand we say we are satisfied whilst at the same time we feel restless and incomplete.

The power of restlessness can be a motivating energy that drives us forward and helps us to achieve great success in life.  It moves us on, thrusting and conquering.  It can be a force for great good.  For example when scientists and philanthropists apply their energy, passion and knowledge to overcoming the challenges we face.  It can also be the most destructive force on the planet destroying individual and global wellbeing.

Overcoming the barriers to happiness
So let’s consider the barriers to happiness and why we may feel this underlying restlessness:

The hedonic treadmill – When we enjoy a new material possession, for example a car or a house, our minds quickly adjust to the heightened experience.  Research suggest that at first when we enjoy a new thing we feel “happier” but within no time at all we are back to where we started, restless and seeking the next thing to consume
We are more alert to danger and our defects rather than our opportunities and strengths – From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense.  In the 19th century life expectancy in the UK was 35.  Prior to the 20th century it was often a violent and dangerous world and we needed to be on our toes. As Steven Pinker noted in his book,  “A history of violence” , despite all its carnage the 20th century was statistically the least violent century there has been and the trend is continuing to improve in the 21st century.  There are many challenges facing us now but in general we’ve never had it so good. 
However brains change slowly and training the mind to be receptive to the positive as much as to negative influences requires tenacity and heightened awareness.  There are many wonderful exercises explored in Positive Psychology research which remind us to cherish what we have and remind us to count our blessings.  When we are aware of our evolutionary bias, which tends to focus our minds on problems, we can re train our minds to focus on our strengths and those of colleagues and friends. A positive mental outlook goes hand in hand with positive emotions and a healthy body.  With positive emotions and a healthy body we are better equipped to overcome loss and suffering which inevitably will come into all our lives at some point
Our ancestors – Studies indicate that when we respond to a survey about how happy we are, the answer that we give is likely to be highly pre determined by heritable factors.  Whether you are a 5 or a 9 out of 10 is determined by three main key factors:

  • your ancestors,
  • the circumstances in your life (for example how much money you make) and lastly
  • the choices that you have made that day to influence your mood state.

50% of the variance between your answer and the average for the population is determined by heritable factors.  In psychology that’s a huge percentage which suggests that the view that we have of our own happiness and how happy we think we will be in the future is fairly well determined at birth.  And as a reminder of why this self evaluation of happiness is important – the more satisfied people say they are with their lives the longer they are likely to live and the healthier they are likely to be.

On the flip side studies indicate that just 10% of our self reported happiness levels are down to the circumstances in our life (for example how much money we earn) and a further 40% is down to the choices we make on a daily basis.  That’s a great positive message.  With this knowledge we can remind ourselves each day that although we have a tendency to have a certain level of happiness which is influenced by our ancestry, it is not fixed.  We have the power to re-write a new future for ourselves and our children. 

The key to this may be to raise awareness about the tools and tendencies that we are born with that can either propel us towards success or destruction.  When we are able to observe these tendencies in ourselves, our parents and our grandparents it makes it easier to create new positive habits and rituals. This is similar to the karmic tendencies that Hindus believe we inherit from past lives.  They also note importantly each day we are given the opportunity to start again, begin afresh and rewrite the present and the future.  They call this Aagami karma – the karma that you are creating at this moment with your thoughts, emotions and actions.

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 “When you arise in the morning think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think to enjoy, to love”
Marcus Aurelius

This was written by him nearly 2,000 years ago.  There is nothing new in the world but we have to keep reminding ourselves of what is important

To learn more about and make a booking for the UK or Australian course 

“Switch it off” and Connect

download (8)We all know how irritating and intrusive smart phones can be and how often we lecture our kids about engaging positively in conversations.  Many of us recall how we used to sit around the dinner table and talk about the day with friends and family. As our relationship with technology develops, our level and quality of attention seems to be diminishing. Many of us find it hard to focus on a report at work, read a book or be mindful of the feelings of our nearest and dearest.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggest having a constant low level of partial attention has an adverse affect on our wellbeing levels.  It’s apparent to most people that constantly checking Facebook statuses takes us away from having real life experiences and forces us to compare our lives with those of our friends.  The vast majority of posts on Facebook report the positive experiences people enjoy, often containing an element of bragging. When people constantly compare statuses it forces them to compare own lives with those of their friends. Surrounded by this self-reported positivity some people conclude their own lives are less adequate than their peers.

Apart from social media, another great stressor is the constant flow of work emails.  These constant notifications take our attention from living a healthy balanced home life and make us focus around the clock on work problems.

Switch it off and connect

photo (1)In order to encourage people to spend a little more time living in the present we thought it would be a good idea to encourage people to disconnect from TV, smartphones, tablets and laptops for 30 minutes a day for 28 days.

These are the simple ground rules for the switch off:

  •  not during work time except during a lunch break
  •  not whilst driving to and from work

You can do anything else you like – play with your children, read a novel, meditate, eat with friends, practice yoga, take a walk, eat dinner…  anything really, so long as it’s done with your full attention.

Breathe Australia and Breathe London are looking for organisations in Australia and the UK to encourage their employees to sign up.  Initially we are inviting those in Queensland and Central London to take part but hope to expand the scheme throughout Australia and the UK

We propose to go into each company and give a quick talk on what happens to your brain when you have continuous partial attention.  We briefly explore how having our attention switched on to so many different sources rewires the brain and makes it difficult to focus on the things that bring us meaning and happiness.  We then teach simple techniques to help focus attention.

We also give those who sign up a reflective journal to note down what they do with their thirty minutes and record how it makes them feel.

At the start of the 28 days we ask participants to rate how satisfied they are with their lives and make a note in their journal. At the end of 28 days we get them to rate their satisfaction again and record how they felt about the process. We also ask them to obtain feedback from their partners or a close friend on what they observed during the process.

Why spend more time in the present?

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Research suggests that people who spend more time living in the present and less time worrying about the future, or ruminating about the past, are happier than those who let their attention drift from the here and now.

In fact the happiest people seem to be able to shift their attention seamlessly between living in the present, reminiscing positively about the past and having constructive and optimistic thoughts about the future.  This can be described as a Balanced Time Perspective (Boniwell and Zimbardo 2004) Read more about the research on time

Our 28 day course encourages people to stay present and connect in a meaningful way to the people and things they love.  Spending too much time online makes us focus on other peoples’ experiences (Facebook) or other people’s problems (work emails).

The research suggests that training our minds to be more present more often increases the level of positive emotions we experience and has a long term positive impact on how satisfied we are with our lives (Fredrickson 2008)  Read more about Fredrickson’s study

Why ask people about life satisfaction?

download (9)Asking people how satisfied they are with their lives is one of the most commonly used tools to assess wellbeing and has been used in many worldwide studies on wellbeing, creativity and productivity at work

We are beginning to make a clear connection between productivity in the workplace and happiness.  Happier employees are more productive than their colleagues, and are more mindful of interpersonal relationships  (Oswald, Proto, Sgroi 2014)  Read more about happiness and flourishing workplaces  and Happiness at work.

By asking participants to reflect on their wellbeing levels and record their experience in a journal it increases the likelihood that the 28 day attention training will have long lasting benefits.  They will practice something new, reflect on the change and document the results.  This embeds learning.

 What the organisation gets from this training

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  • A training attention workshop for their staff
  • Employees with an improved ability to focus their attention
  • Happier and more engaged staff


Reaching out to the community

In Australia we are charging an introductory rate of $50 for each person signing up. Fifty percent of this will be donated to charity.  We are seeking four Australian charities to buddy up with.

In the UK this is £30 per person and once again we are looking for four charities to connect with.

The next step

We’re looking for organisations, initially in Queensland and Central London, who want to advertise the scheme to their staff.

For more details contact me  at Breathe Australia (for both UK and Australian enquiries).

 About Breathe Australia and Breathe London

I set up Breathe in 2003 with Tom Te Whaiti.  After a Corporate Finance career, in Sydney with KPMG, I left for India and studied to be a Yoga teacher.  In 2007 my study of wellbeing led me to enrol in the first Masters Degree course in Positive Psychology in Europe.  Since I left Australia I created a thriving wellbeing business in the UK with a team of twenty mind and body therapists.  Back in the UK my personal wellbeing work has expanded to include corporate wellbeing and over the last ten years I have presented on Positive Psychology, Emotional Intelligence and Meditation to staff at the House of Commons, Amerada Hess and back at KPMG. The UK business is Breathe London

My Masters degree dissertation was “Introducing Attention Techniques at Work”

We have now set up a Positive Psychology business in Townsville and Sydney and are hoping to make a positive impact in business, education and the wider community here, and throughout Australia.   For more information check out

Academic Support

Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004; Boyd & Zimbardo, 2005

Fredrickson, B., Cohn, M., Coffey, K. A, Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1045–1062.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Oswald, Proto, Sgroi 2014

More about continuous partial attention



Building creativity at work

Building creativity at work

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A couple of major things stifle creativity in the workplace.  The first is that we think what we are observing is completely accurate and secondly that our world view and decision making is somehow better than others.

It turns out that neither of those things is true and these beliefs impede the creative process.

A couple of years back an oil company asked me to talk to their team of geologists about fostering creativity and knowledge sharing at work.  This was vital to the effectiveness of the team.  An error could lead to the drilling of a test rig in a barren spot at a cost of $10 million plus.  The department members were required to work in teams to analyse data over and over again to ensure that an accurate interpretation had been made.

One of the problems with this approach is that once you make a decision about something our brains are hardwired to stick to our first conclusions.  We find it hard to interpret the information in a different light and we find it easier to collect evidence supporting our first analysis rather than looking for evidence pointing to a different conclusion.  This is the confirmation bias- where we scan for evidence supporting our conclusions

The trick is to keep seeing the world through fresh eyes and not to be fooled by our brains.

‘Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.’ Mahatma Gandhi

How our mind plays tricks on us

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David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.”

Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are many examples of optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that what  you think is going on in front of you does not actually represent physical reality but is your brain constructing what it wants to see.

If you don’t believe me check this out

Our construction of reality shapes and alters our view of the physical world. It also limits our cognitive ability because we weigh our views more importantly than others. This blinkered view can often put us in opposition to our friends and colleagues and can be a real impediment when we are in a creative process with another.

Recognizing that our view of the world is limited is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.

This “umwelt” creates a belief that our world view is the correct one.  At work, in politics and in our home life this can be a recipe for disaster.


Our perception of reality is influenced by our culture and language

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How we interpret what we see is subjective and influenced by many factors such as the social context we are faced with and our prior experiences.

For example there are a number of languages in Africa and in Europe (such as old Welsh) that have only a small handful of words differentiating colours.  One African tribe had just five words to describe colours and used these words to group shades of colours in ways which Western eyes could not comprehend.  The tribe lived on the red dusty savannah and had developed a unique way of perceiving their surroundings in order to extract the maximum nutritional value and beauty from their environment.  Their language developed as their perception developed and may have helped shape how they experience the world.

In one study westerners were compared to the tribe members.  Each group were each presented with a range of different colours and asked to choose the odd one out.  Westerners found it easy to pick the odd one out whereas tribe members struggled.  Tribe members however, were able to pick out different shades of the same colour (desert reds) which were imperceptible to the Western eye.  Their interpretation of the world in front of them was very different to westerners and their increased perception in some areas was in order to get the most useful information from their home environment.

What you see is not necessarily what I see.

Our emotional state effects what we perceive

Our emotional state also has an influence on perception.  People who feel in control of their lives and confident about the future perceive a greater range of colours, with a greater degree of accuracy, than people  who feel they have little control over their lives.  Confident people are also better at identifying solutions and opportunities when faced with complex problems.

What we can perceive is very different from the people around us and is influenced by the language we speak and the mood we are in.

We think that we are better at things than we really are

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It’s human nature to think that the way we see things is “the correct way”. We have a tendency to attribute our success to our skills and our failures to external events.

The author, Nasssim Nicholas Taleb, looked at journals which investigated  the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know.  In studies, experts and lay people were asked to provide confidence limits surrounding an assertion.  For example, “I am 98% confident that the population of Brazil is between 100 and 200 million”.  It turns out that on average the 2% error rate is more like 45%.  We are 22 times more confident in our beliefs than we ought to be.

Surprisingly the studies indicate that the more “expert” we are, the greater the average error rate.  The more information we have the greater the confirmation bias (looking for confirming evidence) and belief perseverance (stickiness of beliefs), creates the illusion of certainty.

Staying creative

In order to stay open to other peoples ideas and keep a fresh perspective we need to understand our tendency  to pick up false information and hold a rigid world view. The author Ian McGilchrist describes this false world view  as like living in a hall of mirrors where we constantly reach out to what is familiar,  comfortable and supports the view we have of ourselves and the world around us.

To break free of these chains we need to do at least two things:

-       Increase our field of perception

-       Understand that a closer proximity to truth can only come through dialogue

Increasing our field of perception


There are a number of strategies for doing this:

  • Rearrange your home environment and take different routes to work
  • Set goals which are slightly outside comfort zones but are attainable
  • Change how you present yourself – dressing differently makes you feel, think and act differently
  • Reintroduce play into your life – being happy fosters neural plasticity which helps us develop flexible minds – you are 30 times more likely to laugh in the company others compared to being alone
  • Construct goals and “to do” lists which are divided between maintaining your existing world view and developing a new one
  • Human touch fosters neural plasticity – its associated with a hormone called oxytocin which is related to a flexible thinking style – so get a massage!

Seeing the reality that others see

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Our view can never be perfect but a more accurate view of reality comes when you weave together different stories:

  • Explore the differences between dialogue and debate – what are the characteristics that harden opinions in one and foster creativity in another
  • Identifying strengths of colleagues – spend some time thinking about what they are good at
  • Force yourself to think from alternate points of view in situations
  • Write about your day from another point of view  – try and gexplore your experiences from the view point of another person

The like button for work

So far in this life I’ve worked in my dad’s hardware shop as well as a tile factory. I’ve worked on a farm, been an intern at a stockbroker, an auditor for an accountancy firm, a corporate financier, a removal man, a massage therapist, a manager of a therapy business, a yoga teacher, a writer and a speaker.


Over twenty five years I’ve had fun at work, been lost, sometimes sad, often supported, sometimes excited. My mood shifts relentlessly. I’m lucky that I often find happiness and meaning at work. I’m fascinated by work. We spend so much time in it. The time we have and the health we are blessed with are our only assets so why do we sometimes squander these things?

Many employers are smart. They realise that if their staff are healthy, happy and engaged at work they are more likely to work harder, take less time off, share information with their colleagues, are more productive and less likely to leave the firm. I’ve written about this before (Happiness and productivity at work) 

A good manager at work, like any good football team manager, knows performance is affected by confidence and the positive vibe in the team. This positive vibe is a fragile thing. It waxes and wanes. We try to assign reasons for a sudden loss of form but often it’s just down to chance or a myriad of unquantifiable factors. And so it is at work. Good vibes come and are shared, or can drift away. (How emotions spread at work)

Measuring the mood at work

images (2)In order to understand the vibe at work a lot of organisations have resorted to questionnaires. I’m fairly dismissive of the veracity of these surveys simply because they are often one dimensional and ask people how they think about their place of work rather than how they feel. Quite often these questions fail to address what the employee wants to be asked. Are they just the lazy option for poor management? (Can you measure engagement at work?)

When I reflect on the managers who motivated and energised me , they would take me for a coffee or a beer and ask me how I felt. They wouldn’t be afraid to say hard things to me. They supported and encouraged me. They cared for me and many are still my friends years after I left the organisation.

These managers did not use surveys to measure the mood of their staff. They talked to them.

I’ve just read an amazing blog by a workplace coach. He gave the example of a case study where the employee was required to put a smiley face or a grumpy face on a white board at the end of each day. I am almost speechless. Picture your place of work. Or any of the places you have worked, and then think about how a smiley/grumpy board would affect the place!

BUT… I’ve thought for a long time that if you could measure the mood of an organisation anonymously you could provide information that could be of great use to management. I used to work for KPMG, doing due diligence on companies about to be acquired. Alongside the historic and current financial performance of the company tracking the positive vibe of its employees could be useful too.

I appreciate it’s a generational thing… Many young people want to do anonymous surveys. They are also happy for their data to be mined by Google and Facebook (or rather they can’t imagine a world where beliefs and feelings were shared in confidence).  If they are happy with Google and Facebook doing this then why not their employers?

Perhaps software could measure positive and negative expressions in email exchanges between staff. I’m sure that piece of software is already being considered by organisations. Google claims to be seeing into the future already. With some degree of accuracy they can predict flu pandemics based on searches for tickly coughs and cold remedies  (Google predicts the future). Its almost inconceivable that large organisations are not already monitoring or planning to monitor the emotions of their staff. How do you feel about that?

Is there a conclusion?

I think that capturing data on how staff feel at work could provide a great deal of useful information. It could enable training resources to be channeled effectively and poor management to be improved, but it should never be seen as a lazy alternative to good management practices.

People see through smiley faces and contrived wellbeing programmes at work. They want to be appreciated by their employers; comforted and supported, as well as challenged and occasionally reprimanded. We are flesh and blood and there is still no better alternative to good management practices and relationship building. The relationship we have with an organisation is in many ways like a marriage or being part of a family and these complex relationships should not be replaced by algorithm management.

“All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected. But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships. A timeless interval was spent doing that. “
— Isaac Asimov




Work on your posture and build your confidence

Where’s the evidence?
Shari-Half-Moon-PoseMy yoga teacher Brenda taught me a posture called Ardha Chandrasana (Half moon posture) years ago. She said that in her school of yoga, Iyengar, it was good for spinal flexibility , upper and lower back strengthening and alignment. She also said that it was good for people suffering with depression.


How? Why ?

Those are the sort of questions our enquiring minds ask. Many people would understand how the yoga postures could improve strength and flexibility . However there is a natural healthy scepticism when it comes to assertions about how the postures improve mental wellbeing.

When it comes to the mind we prefer to rely on an evidence base. We listen to experts from the fields of psychology, psychiatry and pharmacology. They base their evidence on randomised control trials. I’ve written about the problems associated with over reliance on such an evidence base before .

Psychology studies are WEIRD

The problem with a lot of these studies are that they are based on WEIRD people :

Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries

Now you might say that’s not a problem. I’m all those things. Thats until you look a little more into the detail. Between 2003 and 2007 undergraduates made up 80 percent of study subjects in six top psychology journals. Scientific America   Teenage minds and young adult brains are very different to the rest of the population. Another problem with the whole area of research in mental health is that much of the research is paid for by Big Pharma. If they can identify a brain “problem” they can sell you a solution. And the first step enabling them to do this is to fund research .

The cost of mental health 
In the UK more than 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were issued last year, the highest ever number and 7.5% up on the year before.  UK research  and according to a Kings University study the annual cost to society in 2010 of mental health “problems” was £105 billion . The cost of mental health . In the US one in ten people now take anti depressants  Antidepressants in the US So either there are a whole load more depressed people than in the past or we’ve become better at diagnosis or we are trying to solve problems that are not really there.

How is Yoga a science ?
imagesFor thousands of years seekers of knowledge (Sadhakas) have experimented and observed the connection between the mind and the body. They tried putting their bodies into different alignments or they experimented with breathing in a different way and they observed the effect that this had on their minds. This knowledge was passed down from guru to student and in this way a body of knowledge grew.
How thoughts and feelings influence our bodies
We already know the effect of thinking and feeling on physiology. A thought changes the body and enables healing or illness. The science is irrefutable. Our entire physiology is influenced by thought.

We can also observe how living in a city surrounding ourselves with negative influences changes the way we think and influences our physiology –  City Stress  or How emotions spread. For example our posture is negatively or positively influenced by what people say to us . We slump when we are criticised.

How our bodies influence our minds
What is now becoming apparent is how our thoughts, feelings and physiology are influenced by our posture. An Ohio State study in 2009 found that sitting up straight reinforced confidence. Further studies have demonstrated that bad posture is associated with feelings of helplessness and stress . Adopting postures associated with power can decrease sensitivity to pain.
In a 2010 study researchers Dana Carny and Amy Cuddy asked people to take on “power poses” . These were various postures reflecting confidence, such as placing their hands on their hips. The research team measured testosterone and cortisol levels before and after the test. A second group was asked to hold “weak” positions (for example crossing their legs or arms or making themselves as small as possible) . The power or weak postures were hold for just 2 minutes by each group.
Analysis of the results showed an increase in testosterone of 20% for the power group and a 10% decrease in the weak group. The power group showed a 25% reduction in the stress hormone level cortisol whilst the weak group had a 15% increase. The people in the power group also demonstrated behavioural changes. They felt more confident and relaxed and more willing to be adventurous.
In a follow up piece of research one group was asked to hold their hands in the air for just 2 minutes and a second group told to hold weak positions. They were then given mock job interviews which were recorded. The study was obviously a double blind study, which means the people conducting the interviews had no information on what the participants were asked to do before the interviews.
The group holding the power postures were seen as more confident, passionate, enthusiastic, authentic , captivating and comfortable. And more employable.
And all this happened in 2 minutes. Their physiology changed. They felt good about themselves. See more in this amazing TED TALKS

Back to Yoga
We are just at the beginning of trying to understand how changing the shape of our bodies changes our minds. We know that exercise makes us happier  and we are beginning to study posture and how it shapes our minds.

In the meantime we have ancient knowledge of Yogis to rely upon. They are the experts in body language and how we can train the brain by using the body. It’s taken Western science until 2010 to work out that standing tall and adopting a strong body position has a positive effect on your physiology and how you feel and how others feel about you.
Yoga teachers have been taught by their teachers in a line going back many thousands of years. They experiment, they observed and they passed the knowledge on.
In the meantime don’t wait for “science” to catch up with human experience. Try something that’s been taught for millennia and see if it works for you.

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Can you love your job?

Can you fall in love with work?
“I come to work and work hard, not just for the money but because I like the people. I can see where the company is going, we all pull our weight.  I can see myself developing here.  I feel supported and valued”

Do you feel like this?

If not then this article is for you.  At the end I suggest ways to help you re-evaluate your relationship with work

Before answering this question I need to take a look at how we measure the relationship between employees and employers.

Lots of you reading this will have filled out employee engagement questionnaires at work.  Organisations use them to identify issues within the workplace and to help attract new recruits.  For example in the UK organisations strive to get Investors in People status or break into the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to work for.  In order to do this an organisation needs to show an evidence base to demonstrate that employment is not just a financial arrangement between the organisation and the employee, but is also about meaning and fun.

Consultancies such as Towers Perrin and Gallup have devised surveys to measure how engaged employees are. These surveys tap into the following:

  • Basic Needs – Are my basic needs met in the workplace? Do I have the right tools?
  • Teamwork - Do we work well as a team?
  • Growth – Do I have the opportunity for career and personal development in my organisation?
  • Valued - Do I feel valued as a human being?  Am I supported and receive a fair salary?
  • Vision and values - Am I clear on the vision and values of the organisation and how I fit in?
  • Likeability – Do I like my colleagues? Do I like the organisation?
Gallup has run its survey over 5 million times and their internal data (unverified by third parties) suggests a strong link between positive responses to questions similar to those listed above and the financial performance of the organisation.

What are the pitfalls of these surveys?

  • Often completed at work and are one-dimensional snap shots of what people think at a specific moment in time
  • Don’t ask participants to describe how their actions or feelings change over time
  • Boring and time consuming to complete
  • Generic and lacking in contextual or situational awareness
  • Fail to examine the blockages to engagement, which employees are really interested in
  • Do not have an evidence base or baseline measurement of engagement to compare findings against
The surveys are often filled in at work with your boss breathing down your neck. They use a snapshot approach to ask employees how they “think” about their organisation, rather than how they feel.  Tony Graham is the former HRD of Scottish & Newcastle. According to Graham, not only are most engagement models passive (asking, for example, what managers did for the employee six months ago), but they seek to capture what people ‘think’, which is meaningless if it does not correlate with what they ‘do’.

There is little evidence that engagement (as measured by these types of surveys) has a relationship with financial performance.  Peter Hutton (former Deputy MD at Mori) author of “What Are Your Staff Trying To Tell You” claims the correlation between the Gallup survey questions and business performance is “extremely small” – ranging from a low of 0.057 to a high of 0.191 (a 100% correlation would be 1). He adds:

“No statistician would put any credence on this. Although Gallup does not claim there is a direct engagement: performance correlation, I believe it implies it. But correlation does not mean causation.”

It’s often difficult to ask the right question. Carol Mote of HR management consultancy Verdant Futures previously had HR experience at Birds Eye Foods.  She says the reality of asking what you want is always more difficult than it sounds:

“At Birds Eye we never really got what we wanted, because we couldn’t ask the questions we wanted. Questions like ‘What would be the top three things you would like changed in the next quarter?’ would be diluted to something like ‘How could we improve productivity”

So what is employee engagement?
When you look up the definition of engagement you get marriage.

download (1)So it’s a bit like a marriage or at least you’re dating.  When you look at the survey questions noted above they seem quite consistent with the kind of questions you might ask about a relationship with a person ……or maybe you should be asking.
  • Are my basic needs met?
  • Do we work well as a team?
  • Do I have the opportunity to grow as a person?
  • Do I feel valued?  Am I supported?
  • Am I clear on your vision and values? How do I fit in?
  • Do you like me? Do I like you?
Everyone reading this article is now asking these questions about their loved ones.

But the big, obvious, difference between marriage and the relationship you have with your employer relates to motivation by love or money.  In reality there may be little difference between the two.

Love - Some lucky people love their place of work and career.  Most kind of like it but there are shades of grey from loving to liking to loathing.  Hopefully you love the person you are married to.

Money – some people get paid to do the job they love, some people get paid to do the job they loathe.  In some relationships there is an understanding that one person will provide financially.

So in the truth the relationship you have with your partner is similar in many respects to the relationship you have with a company.

In both a marriage and an arrangement with a company there are accommodations and understandings that you come to over time.  It’s complicated.  Initially you might be at a company for the money and career opportunities but over time you grow to love your colleagues, enjoy your routines and get pleasure from mentoring new people in the organisation.

Marriages can go through stages from passion to gentle understanding (or simmering hatred and divorce).  It’s often the same with the relationship you have with a company; from high energy excitement, a voyage into the unknown, through to gentle acceptance of your place… or alternatively; bitterness, rivalry, jealousy and separation. eggs

So answers to the employee engagement questions are strongly influenced by the length of your relationship.   Like a marriage the complexity of a relationship between an employee and a company is very hard to narrow down to just a few generic questions.

Keeping the fires burning
How long does that person or organisation keep your attention and energy levels high?  Perhaps as long as you get some meaning or fun, stimulation or opportunities for growth from it.

Being in love or engaged with your partner/organisation is often not a matter of the head but rather of the heart and the guts.

The questions business psychologists and HR departments are using to measure engagement may describe how we think, but not how we feel.  They miss the mind /body connection.  Although I am not aware of any research to date, I expect organisations that score very highly on each of the Gallup questions would have fitter and healthier people working for them.  Thinking positively about your work, colleagues and routines is likely to have a positive effect on the body.  The problem with current surveys is that they tend to encourage people to answer how they expect they ‘should’ think about something.  Questions and answers can be contrived and stilted. The questions might not be relevant to the needs of the organisation or the employee.

By asking questions about feelings, pain, energy levels and so on, we tap into a whole new area in the workplace.  One that acknowledges the whole human experience of wellbeing in the workplace.  We may be measuring engagement from the other side of the coin to existing studies, but interpretation of more contextually relevant information can throw up solutions which may be of great benefit to the individual and organisation.

So how can we measure feelings?  
One possible way is to use an online tool for measuring  emotional intelligence.  If you want to do this just click on the link below.   We are able to give feedback on your ability to recognise, use, understand and manage your emotions.  We also ask you to fill out an online strengths assessment.  This ranks (from high to low) your top 24 character strengths.  Finally we ask you to provide a description of one major blockage to your engagement at work.

Using this information we provide two 60 minute feedback session on Emotional Intelligence at work and develop actions to use your strengths to overcome the challenges you face.  Follow this link to view our workplace coaching package.

Developing Emotional Intelligence in the workplace pack

You will receive:

  • A summary report on your emotional intelligence scores
  • Your ranked list of top 24 strengths
  • Two 60 minute coaching sessions
  • Advice on developing your emotional intelligence using your top strengths in order to address your major workplace challenge 

For more information go to Breathe Australia

Happiness arises in the space between

balloonsA coach is asked to present a wellbeing workshop for an organisation’s staff. The group arrive and are presented with a room full of fifty golden balloons, each with the name of one of the participants on it.

The coach asks the group to look for their own balloon as quickly as possible and in complete silence. Those who find their balloon are told they will be eligible for a small reward.

There follows a chaotic scramble; lots of pushing and balloon popping. After a few minutes the exercise is stopped and from the fifty there are a handful of participants clutching their balloons. They are rewarded with a small box of chocolates. The rest have the glum outlook of people forced to go on a training course by their employers whilst their workload piles up at their desk.

The coach runs the exercise again but this time lets the group know that once they find a balloon with a colleagues name on it they should take it over to their workmate. Within a few minutes everyone is holding their own golden balloon. The coach then asks everyone to peel off their name tags. Behind each tag the word happiness is written.

I’m not going to hammer the point home but it’s clear and apparent that this simple little exercise reveals some great truths. We find our happiness and get to understand our strengths and weaknesses through helping others find theirs. We hold a mirror up and reflect each other’s joy. The joy is more than doubled. There is the joy of helping another and celebrating with them, the joy of receiving a gift and the collective joy of the group. Someone way smarter than me said,

“Illness begins with I and Wellness begins with we”

We find out what makes us tick by helping others uncover their truth. To do this all you need is a bit of time, a bit of space and people with positive intention for each other . Usually we do this with best mates and family and I feel really blessed to have lovely friends and such an amazing family .

There maybe times in our lives when we feel at a crossroad or feel the need to step outside of the circle of our friends and reflect on our experience in a different way ; for example when looking for a new job or to gain insight into a whole new way of living. So there may be times when our friends and family don’t have the resources to provide this insight and in order to grow we need the dispassionate reflection of a stranger.

At our centre in Waterloo we have coaches who have the time, space and positive intent to help – David, Dorinda, Madeleine , me and Anita. Find out more by reading our profiles at

Learning yoga

Learning yoga

Ask my friends.  I am easily distracted.  I’m also extremely curious and have a ridiculously low boredom threshold coupled with high energy levels.  My Chinese astrological sign is monkey which says it all really.  Being aware of my tendency to be easily distracted I took up yoga about thirteen years ago .  It seemed to work for me.

Yoga tools for the mind
Holding some of the postures, like standing on your head for example, stops you thinking.  As soon as you think you fall over.  So this was a useful tool to shut my monkey mind up and help me focus better.  As I studied yoga more and more I learned that the physical postures are just one tiny aspect of what yoga is about. The more you study you begin to realise that the physical aspect of yoga is just one of the tools to help you sharpen the mind and focus on the present.

Its really tricky to simply sit still and breathe and clear our head of thoughts.  Everyone knows its good for us to do that but when we live in a place like London its easy to get distracted and easy to start comparing ourselves with others – people we may perceive as happier, more successful or better looking.  Yoga helps stop that needless self destructive internal chatter.  Yoga provides us with a range of tools enabling us to focus our attention on the present.

Other tools from yoga, apart from the physical postures, include things like repetitive chanting of a mantra.  If you repeat a self affirming mantra in your head over and over you crowd out the negative self destructive thoughts.

Another technique is to start creating a mindset of kindness and compassion  to others.  If you spend a few moments every day focusing on someone in need or someone in trouble it brings your own problems into perspective.  My little sister Jane dart is amazing at this.  She’s a nurse and every year volunteers her time to go to Ecuador with a team of other Canadian nurses and doctors to perform operations for people living in poverty and without access to medical care

How yoga toughens us up

Prakriti is the Sanskrit name for nature.   Nature throws randomness at us. We think we are in control of our destiny until nature throws wind and rain and illness and good fortune or sadness and pain at us.  We think we have control of our destiny until we bump into reality.  We create a soft nest and insulate ourselves as best we can from the ups and downs of life.  In truth we can only do so much to protect ourselves from what nature has to throw at us.

Most of us try to protect ourselves from what the ups and downs of life by accumulating material possessions.  Yoga creates a different kind of insulation.  Yoga teaches us that life is random and the only thing that is truly within your gift is to remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of adversity.  That’s not to say be naively optimistic but  continue to draw on an inner well of joy. Retaining hope, optimism and positive energy is the best way to enjoy the good times and shield ourselves from the inevitable bad times that nature occasional flings our way.

The physical and mental exercises from the eight limbs of yoga train our minds to remain resilient and upbeat as storms crash around us.  Patanjali wrote the yoga sutras 2,000 years ago to help us be more like warriors, strong and resilient as nature throws all that it has at us. They teach us to build strength from the inside out.


Welcoming change

I’m about to write about personal change in 2014.  The problem is that each time I begin to write it sounds utterly hopeless. I haven’t written anything for about 3 months.  I only write when I feel I have something to share. When I write it flows. A couple of thousand words in 20 minutes or so. The reason I can write so fast is because when I learn something in psychology or yoga I only pass that knowledge on if I have had direct experience of it.  I try it first and understand it through my eyes and ears.  Now I feel like I have so much to say but each beginning sounds either patronising, condescending, obvious or textbook. I guess it goes with the subject.  When you want to change something its not always apparent what needs changing, or rather which of your many habits or routines no longer serve you. It might therefore be better to consider the idea of change and create a mindset that welcomes change.  In this way you are more likely to be open to new ideas.

In 2006 I went to India to learn to become a yoga teacher.  The timing coincided with a celebration called Shivaratri a celebration of one of the Hindu gods, Lord Shiva.  Hinduism is not the same as yoga, although there are many crossovers. I am not a Hindu and apologies to my Hindu friends for my ignorance but I am fascinated by its ideas.  For example I warm to the idea that God is not separate from us but within us, that we are all made of the same stuff, somehow perfect inside and this inner radiance is shared by all of us.  The only thing that obscures this radiance is the belief that we are somehow separate from one another, made of different stuff to our surroundings.  Our thoughts and feelings manifest separateness but the reality is that we are all joined by this inner radiance.

I saw a lovely quote recently “llness begins with I, wellness begins with we”.  Its so obviously apparent that health and happiness stems from connection.  My wellbeing is raised when my friends are happy and confident.  You might say bullshit.  You could argue that this is a very personal mindset that I’ve developed over the last few years and that most people strive to get as much for themselves and maximise their own wellbeing by promoting themselves, perhaps at the expense of others.  The research suggests otherwise:  Random acts of kindness raise the wellbeing levels more in the giver than the receiver.  Volunteering your time to charities has a positive effect on health and wellbeing – people live longer and are happier.  Surrounding yourself with happy friends rubs off on you – you get happier.  Living in a society with a large gulf between rich and poor has an adverse effect on the wellbeing levels of the rich – perhaps they live in fear of what they have to lose or deep down know at a basic level that if their neighbours are not doing well then they also can’t be truly happy.

I think human brains are hardwired for fairness and compassion.  We want to succeed as individuals but we know deep down that this shouldn’t be at the expense of others.

At the end of a yoga class we say the word ‘namaste’, which has a number of meanings but essentially is a recognition of each others inner spark or light.  That at our core, we are brilliant and radiant and shiny.  I like these ideas.  Even if that’s all they are, it is a useful proposition.  It does you good to think that we are all radiant and loving and made of the same stuff on the inside. And what’s even better is that the latest research strongly supports the assertion that as I recognise your strengths and goodness, and as I strive to help you out, I actually help myself more.

Another lovely idea in Hinduism is how their many millions of different gods are actually just different manifestations of our higher selves. They do not worship separate individual gods but recognise the godlike attributes we all have. So that when we think of a particular deity we are not praying to a thing that is separate, or better than us, but we are accessing and promoting a useful mindset that promotes our highest self.  For example I started with Lord Shiva. One aspect of this deity promotes the idea of change.  He can be the violent destroyer, transforming the past, present and future.  You can think of him burning everything in his domain, of destroying old habits, thought patterns, attachments to material possesions and old ways of doing things.  Hes like a forest fire that allows regrowth and fresh life.  When you are able to destroy and burn these old views of the world, you are more able to see the world afresh and when you look deep inside yourself and others, the inner luminence is not obscured by by preconditioning and material attachments from the past.

I use this in my personal life.  I tend to over-attach to good times.  When I want to access the inner knowledge that letting go allows growth and love to enter your life, I think of the ideal of the Shiva consciousness. 

In India on 28th February 2006 I sat with a group of friends by an open fire visualising Lord Shiva and chanting the word “svaha” over and over.  In fact for at least six hours. Svaha means to let go or “so be it”.  I was constantly throwing away and letting go old stale views of the world. Burning my old prejudices in the fire.  As you do this you retrain your brain.  You re-fire the synaptic connections between your neurons.  You create the mindset for change.  You allow yourself to see your own inner radiance and the radiance of others.  I think its great to use old ideas and re-fashion them to make them work for you. 

As I prepare to go and live back in Australia I’ve got rid of most of material possesions and am using my yoga techniques to create the mindset that embraces change. If you are interested in learning more about these techniques I’ll be running morning meditation classes in January and February so let me know .  You can also check out our team of mind therapy experts at

love Andy


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