Author Archives: breathenews

Yoga and neuroscience

photo (1)My yoga journey started back in 1999. From the start I was hooked. Initially drawn to fast paced dynamic flow yoga, my practice has evolved over the years. The hard physical aspect of assana practice was my entry point to the  complexity of yoga.

Early in my practice I was blessed to come accross an amazing Iyengar yoga teacher. She had been a pupil of the great teacher,  Iyengar, for over 25 years. Over the years she had direct experience of Iyengar’s adjustments and I was lucky to receive some of this wealth of experience via Brenda. In 2003 I was also lucky to stumble accross Sivananda yoga. Their fantastic course provided a great introduction to the beautiful knowledge from the Yoga sutras and also the Bhagavad Gitta. Since then I’ve learnt techniques and received insights from hundreds of amazing teachers and been lucky to have taught thousands of classes and workshops.

My yoga journey led away from my former career in Corporate Finance with KPMG towards physical and mental fitness.  And from there to Leadership development and Mindfulness

Yoga – flourishing 

Many people see yoga as a stress management tool, a good stretch, a way to alleviate pain or create a hard and lean body. It is all this but is also much more. The Eight Limbs of Yoga, contained within the Yoga Sutras, provides a diligent practicioner with the keys to a thriving life. Daily practice provides insight into the perfection that is already present. We reveal our inner radiance and connection to the outer radiance by exploring and bringing into presence each area of the eight limbs.

Through my subsequent exploration of neuroscience and Positive Psychology I have have come to realise how each of the eight limbs re wires the brain. Diligent practice enables us to thrive as individuals and also fosters community and global wellbeing.

The Eight Limbs

The long roadPatanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras over 2,000 years ago.  It builds on the observations of thousands of years of self enquiry by seekers of knowledge.  It is a deep, rich source of powerful tools.

Many mental health practitioners are embracing the wonderful concepts from various Buddhist traditions but there is a real lack of knowledge among psychologists about the depth and power for brain training and whole body flourishing contained within the Eight Limbs of Yoga.  Here is a little about each :

Yama – mindfully developing love, kindness and compassion for others and the environment

Niyama – mindfully developing self kindness and compassion. This includes being mindful of our cravings and impulses and regulating them in order to encourage non attachment. Through practice we are better able to savour, observe and let go – Non grasping. Non affliction. The joy of life flows and we let it flow on by

Asana – mindful observation of our physical bodies. The act of observing in a kind and compassionate manner changes the observed and has a positive impact on the brain

Pranayama – mindful observation of our breath changes the observed. As we engage in deep, slow, abdominal breathing, our resting heart rate and blood pressure are positively influenced. And as we engage in this process the body informs the mind, through the vagal nerve, that all is well. We feel safe, loved and have all we need. No need to run. No need to strive in order to keep up with the crowd. In a calm, balanced, state we are better able to attend to the things in life that bring meaning and foster personal and global wellbeing

Pratyahara – Mindfully turning our attention inward in order to observe the relationship between cause and effect. We observe how we crave some things and are repulsed by others. This mindful, non judgmental, observation allows us to unpick some of the hard wired tendancies that we have. These are the tendencies we were born with, the ones that came to us with our development and the ones that we are creating or solidifying at this very moment. Like Leonardo DA Vinci we become the disciple of experience through mindful observation. We observe ourselves moving through life, attracted by some things, repulsed by others. Calm observation fascilitates the development of wisdom as we understand that our ego is nothing but a bundle of thoughts, feelings and sensations wrapped in a physical layer. Observation enables us to understand that the self is not an unchanging thing but an evolving, connected thing which can grow and change and live harmoniously within the world

Dyhana – Being mindful of the first five limbs requires focus. Dyhana is the process of training the attention to focus on one thing. As we practice this we get better at it. With the sharpened tool of attention we can attend better to developing kindness and compassion for others. We are also better able to develop kindness and compassion for ourselves. With sharpened attention we can be more mindful of our physical bodies, our breath and better placed to observe and regulate our thoughts and feelings. Without attention we can not attend to that which we find meaningful . Without attention we cannot attend to the things that the Buddha and Patanjli observed made us thrive

Dharana – effortless attention. Through practice the karmic impulses are quietened and non judgmental single pointed focus can be achieved effortlessly.

Samadi – a practicioner of yoga may experience fleeting moments and profound realisations. The realisation that our neurons are connected. As you suffer, I suffer. As you thrive, I thrive. The world in peace and harmony . The mind in peace and harmony. Transcenence, oneness. The realisation of perfection

Our next course, Positive Psychology for Yoga teachers, Mental health workers, Psychologist  and Yoga students, explores how the findings from Positive Psychology and Emotional Intelligence compares and contrasts with the observations of Yoga practiconers.

The next course is with myself and Michale de Maninor at the Yoga Institute, Sydney on the 9th November http://www.breathe-australia.com/sessions

Happiness at work – the good and the bad

bottomlineI’m always a bit dubious about psychology studies that purport to show that happy employees are more creative, diligent and productive. Sure we all want to be happy at work and be surrounded by happy colleagues but apart from having some fun at work we also want to be inspired, pushed, challenged and to find meaning.

 The happiness industry

Here’s an example of some recent research:

A 2010 study, by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School, concluded that there was a positive link between an employee’s happiness and their productivity. The team conducted a range of exercises in their research. The subjects were asked to add a series of two digit numbers in ten minutes. They were paid an attendance fee, and also a performance fee based on how they performed.

Half of the group was then shown a ten-minute comedy film. The film apparently led to an increase in the self reported happiness levels of participants, compared to those who did not see it or who watched placebo film clips. The participants then repeated the task. The researchers concluded that those participants with an elevated self reported happiness level were 12% more productive than the participants with non-elevated happiness levels.

They also noted that those participants who watched the film but did not feel any happier did not demonstrate improved productivity.

 Reality check

farside-cat-trickery

This was reported in the media as groundbreaking research, however it merely adds to the body of findings from the field of Positive Psychology, which has a far more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in the workplace. Emotions, both “negative” and “positive” have a vital role at work. They are a call to action to help change behaviours. There is a danger in that this type of research might suggest that positive emotions are appropriate in all workplace settings.

The Andrew Oswald study involved students at the business school and not employees on a production line or sitting in an office.  When the media reports on these studies they often miss the vital aspect of context.

We have seen a large growth in the Positive Psychology industry in recent. Many wonderful coaching organisations have sprung up around the world, however I am concerned that the simple message that we should all be happy at work can be disempowering and disengaging for lots of people.

Organisations do not exist in a vacuum. They mirror society
Society 

Here are some of the stats for Australia:

  • Anti depressant use in Australia is the second highest in the OECD
  • The Safety at work Australia survey noted in 2013 that 20% of people at work had been humiliated by a colleague and 42% had been bullied at work
  • 1 in 5 Australians say their stress levels affect their health
  • Depression affects 1 million Australians

Given this background it needs care and sensitivity when introducing Positive Psychology programs at work. Happiness is not the goal but can be a by product of being engaged, finding meaning, being well rewarded, experiencing growth and feeling close to colleagues

Emotional intelligence and mindfulness

UntitledDifferent situations and tasks at work require different types of emotions to be generated. For example, research indicates that where fine attention to detail is required( for example when studying the findings of a report) it’s more useful to foster serious, almost downbeat emotions.

Where creative, blue sky thinking is required it’s more useful to engender a fun, light hearted approach. So clearly before HR departments rush out and hire comedians its worthwhile understanding that context and task are at least as important as creating a fun place to work.

We need to learn skills to help us switch between emotions in a calm manner and have the ability to return to the default position, within the organization, of happy and upbeat.

Some of the downsides of happiness at work

 Happy people can be lazy thinkers.

Happy people are more likely to use cognitive shortcuts and approximations when thinking about the world. In one study researchers presented people with a list of 15 words related to a theme (e.g. tired, bed, rest, etc) and then asked participants to recall the list as best they could by looking at a separate list and identifying the original words.

The researchers include some false items related to the theme such as “sleep” that never appeared on the first list. Happy people were 50% more likely than their counterparts to mistakenly identify such words.

Happy people may be less persuasive.

Researcher Bob Cialdini identified concepts associated with persuasion: scarcity, expertise, and so forth. One element of persuasive communication is clear, concrete, detailed arguments. Exactly the stuff happy people are inclined to gloss over.

In three studies, judges rated the arguments about everyday issues such as allocating tax money. Happy people were rated as about 25% less impressive and 20% less detailed than were their more negative counterparts.

Conclusions

I think that the key points that HR departments need to draw from this research are as follows:

  • Ensure that staff have a clear understanding of how to use emotions at work, in particular how to match the appropriate emotion to the task in hand
  • Be aware that because emotions are easily transferable and escalate its easy for the mood of an organization to tilt into a downward spiral
  • Get into the habit of celebrating the strengths and achievements of individuals and teams
  • Find authentic, fun ways to raise the overall mood of the organization
  • There is a place for letting people be moody – it reflects reality. When we are close to our colleagues we adapt and grow accustomed to these moods. Creating a false positivity can be stifling

Our next Townsville courses are at www.breathe-australia.com/sessions

The old lady on the train

I wrote this article last year. Its words mean so much more to me now. Its about growth through loss. Its about love and letting go

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“A couple of weeks ago I was travelling back from North Wales on a packed Virgin train. It was crammed with the usual assortment of hungover post hen/stag do people plus university and army people returning to their digs or barracks. I had spent the weekend at my little brother Dave’s second stag do and hadn’t slept for two days. As I boarded the train I managed to find the last free seat on the whole train. I desperately looked forward to catching up on two hours sleep on the way back to London

As I sat down I said hi to the elderly lady in the seat next to me. That was my first mistake. She was a talker, and by Crewe we were deep in conversation. For the first 20 minutes it was politeness that kept my eyes open. And then things changed . I told her about my life as a yoga teacher. I told her about how when I was 30 I stopped trying to accumulate money and became more interested in experiencing life and learning new things.

She was born on the beautiful island of Anglesey but had moved to the South of England with her childhood sweetheart. They married at 20 and set up a thriving florist business. They were inseparable. When she described him she glowed. At 80 she looked radiant and beautiful. After 25 years of blissful marriage he died suddenly in her arms in their little shop. She has spent the last 30 years asking why.

I had started the conversation by telling her about what yoga teachers do and what positive psychology was all about. As the conversation proceeded I soaked up her wisdom and my tiredness drained away. Her lesson was so beautiful:

- tell the people you love that you love them, never miss an opportunity for cuddles

- move on quickly – life proceeds in one direction – the people who loved you unconditionally would want you to find new love

- build love inside of you, be happy with your company, don’t be too attached to things or people. Work on self love. Feeling good is an attractive trait and brings good people and things into your life

- fear of change is natural but you have attracted love and positive things into your life in the past and you will do the same in the future

- be who you are now – speak your truth, tell people what makes you happy as well as what you fear.

- be true to yourself and be true to other people – 80 or 90 years on this planet and so many people pretend to be something they are not

- enjoy your career – find the thing you love and just do it

After three happy hours on the train I helped her with her bags and we gave each other a big hug. She was a talker. I’m a talker. I also cry easily so we both had happy tears flowing down our cheeks. We connected as two souls in a moment in time. We both joked that we were terrible with names but neither of us cared about that. I felt her goodness, her energy and her wide eyed curiosity in the world. I turned 45 last Saturday and I want to keep being like that.

I don’t know her name but she was beautiful. “

Since then

I wrote that piece back in July 2013 shortly before my brothers wedding. In February 2014 my mum passed away suddenly and unexpectedly . One minute she was playing tennis, baking cakes and getting excited about the arrival of her third grand child and then she was gone

The things that I wrote about in July I have come to experience in my blood and my heart. I feel humbled by the loss of mum. I don’t know where she has gone. My mind plays tricks and I often think that I need to phone my mum. Loss has made me feel vulnerable and often sad but its also done something very profound.

I feel so grateful to be alive. I live in the moment far more often. I don’t feel work stress any more. I prioritise my leisure time.

When mum passed away I was very lucky to be in the company of a very wise friend. Matthew comforted me and told me of his experience when his dad passed away unexpectedly . He said that because mum was no longer around in physical form that her kindness, strength and loving energy would come through me. I often think , what would mum do now? And as I try to follow her loving nature it reminds me of her and makes me feel that she is close. Her sudden passing has left a terrible void in my family but I feel its brought us even closer together. Terrible loss has made me feel more vulnerable than I used to but I also feel stronger, calmer and a happier person. Matthew’s words have come back to me again and again.

I am so grateful of the loving friends and family in my life

David, Michael, Jane, Chris, Kate and Pete I love you very dearly

Is Mindfulness a trap?

 

UntitledIn recent weeks there have been a number of articles about whether Mindfulness is being taught in “the right way” and some commentators have voiced concern that such courses may be doing more harm than good. Many organisations now pay for trainers to teach their staff how to be Mindful. But what does Mindful mean?  A HR director at a company recently asked me this question. The question made me reappraise my whole approach to Mindfulness and led me to conclude that Mindfulness should be at the heart of Coaching, Education, Politics, Business Training, Mind Therapies and Physical Therapies. In fact it is the essence of all we do.

Defining Mindfulness

A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something

Another common definition is, “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”.

Another way of saying Mindfulness is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focussing our attention on?  This blog explores how established frameworks such as “Yoga” and “Buddhism” teach Mindfulness, how it fits into a personal and societal development framework and how these teachings can inform the methods taught within organisations.

 Mindfulness in organisations

download (1)Many training companies follow an approach similar to Jon Kabat Zinns Mindful Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). They do this because it is a highly effective, evidenced based program. People who adhere to the program handle stress well, are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions effectively, have a higher tolerance to pain as well as enjoying many other positive physiological and psychological effects. In general it is an excellent program.  The MBSR program focuses on teaching:

  • How to observe the breath (to sharpen our ability to focus on the present),
  • Relaxation tools
  • How to observe the world through the five senses and
  • How to observe fleeting thoughts and feelings.

All of these are invaluable tools.  Organisations and their staff look to such programs to help manage their stress. They also produce wonderful by-products for the organisation. Employees who feel calm and balanced have improved levels of emotional and cognitive regulation. They tend to be more creative, productive and share information more readily with their colleagues.

Mindfulness taught in a vacuum

My only criticism of such programs is that they cherry pick bits of Buddhist and Yoga teachings in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Looking at the very words of MBSR – Mindful Based Stress Reduction.  Stress reduction is a goal. A destination. It is not a program with a holistic approach to personal development.

Since my preliminary attempts to introduce Mindfulness into organisations back in 2007 there has been an exponential increase in Mindfulness consultancy firms. Many are excellent. However I have seen awful examples of trainers with little personal Mindfulness experience going into organisations to run short, one off training sessions for staff.  These are merely stress Band-Aids. These poorly managed courses do not go to the heart of what it means to be Mindful. They teach techniques to alleviate stress without exploring underlying causes of stress. They merely encourage the practitioner to identify strongly with ego and use the techniques as temporary measures to deal with life.

My Vipassana teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques to sharpen the attention are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be “bare attention”. Its like sowing seeds on barren ground.  When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. Without a holistic personal development framework, attention-focussing techniques merely embed the ego.

The Buddhist and Yoga approaches

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In both Buddhist and Yoga traditions learning to focus attention is a vital part of a persons development and is one of the tools enabling the conditions for good physical and mental health to develop.  Both traditions instruct that Mindfulness is taught in conjunction with:

  • Learning to contribute to a more ethical, harmonious environment.
  • Being sensitive to the needs of other people and the environment
  • Training ourselves to be kind, compassionate and empathetic
  • Learning to positively detach from wants, craving and desires
  • Understanding that life is constantly changing and learning to detach from a rigid view of our selves and environment

Mindfulness is complex

Both traditions also teach that Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:

  • Our thoughts & feelings;
  • Each of the 5 commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
  • Our breath;
  • Our posture

And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses.

Is it merely about being in the moment?

download (7)If we look at common descriptions of Mindfulness we see “being in the moment”, or “observing whatever arises without judgement”. By learning to focus attention on whatever arises, the act of observation quietens the mind and helps me observe recurring patterns of thought and feelings. This practice also sharpens the ability to attend to what ever I choose to attend to.  Many Mindfulness courses teach people to attend to the present moment by using a point of focus such as the breath. As discussed earlier these techniques have tremendous positive physiological and psychological benefits but they fail to address underlying causes. This approach to Mindfulness is useful but it is just part of the story of what it means to choose to attend to something. 

For example as part of my Positive Psychology studies I looked at the Zimbardo Time perspective research. This area of research describes a framework for our thoughts and chunks up our thought  (“time spent” or “mental capacity”) into the following areas (I’ve simplified this a good deal):

  • Past positive – looking back at the past and reflecting on prior experience in a positive way
  • Past negative – re examining the past an reflecting negatively on events
  • Living in the moment experiencing and observing whatever arises in the moment
  • Future positive – planning for and envisaging a positive future
  • Future negative – worrying about the future and focussing on what can go wrong

The way I have described the time perspective research is simplified and there are other dimensions but it enables us to explore what it means to attend to something in greater detail. The research suggests that the happiest people tend to be able to use each of these thought dimensions in a fluid manner. For example “future negative” thinking can be extremely useful when we need to understand worst-case scenarios to adequately assess risk, without becoming obsessed or overly stressed about a possible future.

Many Mindfulness courses simply teach practices to observe the present but in Yoga and Buddhist practices we learn to sharpen the attention so that we can deliberately choose to attend to potential realities. For example some Tibetan Buddhist practices teach students to visualise desirable beautiful bodies as rotting and decaying. With heightened awareness, students are able to do this without experiencing  an adverse physiological effect and to reflect impartially on death and impermanence. This is a useful technique to learn detachment from ego and permanence. It enables us to grow and prepare for the future. It allows Mindfulness to be a tool for personal development and not merely a stress management tool.

Similarly there are marvellous Tibetan Buddhist practices which teach us to deliberately attend to the problems and perceived ‘mistakes’ we have made in the past. By calm deliberate non judgmental reflection on these things we can change our negative tendencies and create new healthy patterns of living.

Sequential mindful observation

The Buddhist and Yoga traditions teach sequential Mindful observation. We can’t be Mindful of everything internally and externally all at the same time so we practice focussing on different things at different times. This does not mean that one stage leads to another but we train our attention to attend to different things at different times in order to grow and learn.  In this way it becomes an engrained habit to observe the world in a fluid and calm manner. The more we practice Mindfulness the better able we are to make positive healthy choices. We can pick our way gently through the noisy stimulation that surrounds us. We are better able to choose to attend to positive stimulus and thoughts

Yoga  an example of structured mindful development

UntitledPatanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga provide structure. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, encourage us to attend to developing kindness and compassion and living within an ethical, harmonious framework. The third limb, Asana, teaches us to attend to the relationship between our mind and the physical sensations in the body as we practice the postures. The fourth limb, Pranayama, teaches us to be mindful of our breathing. We use this as a tool for both physiological and psychological benefit and in order to sharpen the attention.  Pratyahara is the fifth limb. Students begin the process of withdrawing from observation using the senses. This leads to the final stages of single pointed concentration leading to a state of Mindful awareness without judgement.

I need to emphasise again that although there is clear structure for developing Mindfulness in the Yoga system documented by Patanjali, one state does not lead to another. For example we do not attain mastery in attending to the development of kindness and compassion and then move on to mindful awareness of posture or breath. As part of our training we attend to one aspect at a time and build up our skills in each area

Through this process we learn to detach from negative influences and cultivate an optimistic and realistic mindset which is open to growth and development.

Challenges and negative stimulation

This is not to say that we ignore the challenges or negative influences around us. They are as much a part of life as positive influences.  However by learning Mindfulness within a Buddhist or Yoga holistic framework we observe the world with kindness and compassion and we develop an understanding that all things arise and pass away. “Good” things arise and pass away as do “bad” things.  By learning how to detach from fleeting thoughts and feelings we can minimise many of the harmful physiological effects of observing our pain and suffering or that of others.  Detachment does not mean that we become isolated and aloof from our emotions. As part of the Buddhist and Yoga traditions we train ourselves to be mindful of being kind, loving and compassionate.

Students of Yoga and Buddhism train their minds to feel the pain and suffering of others but learn to allow those fleeting emotions to flow through them without negatively affecting their physiology.  In this way they are better able to observe emotions, empathise with others, use both their emotional signals and their deeper values to choose better actions, then allow thoughts, emotions and decisions to flow through them – they learn to positively detach from suffering and move on.

Allowing the good times to flow

In the same way that students train their minds to  allow “negative” emotions and experiences to flow through them, they also appreciate that the good times come and go. By not overly attaching to the good times we allow new experiences to come to us.  We are taught that liking an experience can lead to attachment, which can lead to craving. When craving cannot be fulfilled it can lead to “negative” emotions which may have a strong physiological impact – for example loss, jealousy, anger etc.  That does not mean we can’t enjoy the good times and the positive emotions that arise from them. It just means we allow them to come and go in the knowledge that trying to hold on to a fleeting thought and feeling inevitably leads to suffering

He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

William Blake 

Conclusions

I remain a big advocate of Mindfulness courses for individuals and for staff within organisations. My only note of caution would be that when trainers are putting courses together they should have the necessary practical personal experience of having learnt Mindfulness within an established tradition. Patanjali and the Buddha taught complex psychological tools 2,500 years ago. These have been observed, practiced and developed since then. A coach or trainer’s ability to teach Mindfulness depends upon their experience of what it means to be mindful.

Without understanding that Mindfulness goes hand in hand with developing positive intention, understanding impermanence and detachment, many of the benefits of practice may not accrue. Indeed simply teaching Mindfulness as a stress management tool deepens attachment to ego and may be a barrier to personal to growth and raised self awareness.

My experiences

For more information about courses Positive Psychology and Mindfulness go to www.breathe-australia.com

Like many Mindfulness coaches my training has come from many different sources including :

  • Mindfulness of body awareness and breath from my Yoga and Chi Kung training (Sivananda and Iyengar Yoga)
  • Mindfulness of the relationship between cause and effect (Tibetan Buddhism)
  • Mindfulness of physical sensations arising in my own body (Vipassana meditation, Goenka centres)
  • Mindfulness of cultivating kindness, empathy and compassion (Buddhism, Vipassana and Positive Psychology)
  • Mindfulness of emotions (The Mayers Salovey Caruso model of emotional intelligence)
  • Study of the Mindful Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR)
  • Various research areas from Positive Psychology including Flow and Philip Zimbardo’s research on Time perspective

I started practicing physical Yoga (the Asanas) in 1999 and subsequently trained with the Sivananda organisation to become a Yoga teacher. They provided an excellent grounding in the philosophy of Yoga.

In 2007, as part of my Masters degree in Positive Psychology, I studied the Jon Kabat Zinn Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and my dissertation was “introducing Meditation and Mindfulness into organisations”. Since 2008 I have practiced Vipassana Buddhist meditation techniques at the Goenka centres around the world. In 2008 I studied the MSCEIT model of Emotional Intelligence. This model teaches a systematic approach to recognising, understanding, using and managing your own and other people’s emotions.

 

How our posture and emotions are connected

The Mind & Body Connection 

Over the past 10 years we’ve been building a team of Mind and Body therapists at our centre in Waterloo.  It’s been clear to us from day one that as you treat and train the body you also have an impact on the way you think and feel.   It’s equally clear that the way you think and feel has an impact on our posture and physical health.

We now have a great team of over twenty Mind and Body therapists based at the Colombo Centre in the heart of London

This weeks amazing blog is contributed by Keith Graham, one of two Rolfers at our centre www.breathe-london.com and www.breathe-australia.com

Posture and emotions

Leonardo-da-Vinci-Vitruvian-Man

The shapes we make with our bodies as we go through life are not something we have to think about but seem instead to be influenced by deep preconscious survival systems which respond moment by moment to the spaces we inhabit and the situations we encounter.

These continual shape adjustments made by the musculoskeletal system but involving also the respiratory, nervous and endocrine systems are not necessarily confined to what is happening in the present moment but can be conditioned also by events from our past and also by ideas we have, hopes and fears perhaps, about the future. Furthermore, to a trained observer these unconscious signals open a window into the deep enduring belief systems and fleeting emotional filters which effect how we posture in life.

Mary Bond a Rolfer and Movement specialist writes in her book “The New Rules of Posture” – our shape, how we hold ourselves, isn’t a fixed thing, “posture is in fact, a response,” a response to “where am I and what is happening here?”

Ron Kurtz the founder of the Hakomi method of body centred psychotherapy remarks that, “Our habitual gestures and even fleeting facial expressions can give very accurate clues about the beliefs that condition that persons’s way of being in and responding to the world.”

Hubert Godard, Scientist, Dancer and Rolf Movement Faculty member notes “We are affected physically, and psychologically by the world around us – but the spaces we share are not homogenous.

Insights from Rolfing

One of Ida Rolf’s  (the creator of the Rolfing Bodywork series) key insights was that appropriate relationship with gravity is a fundamental necessity to our health as humans on planet Earth.

picture-610For a long time we have traditionally observed this relationship in two ways. From a structural point of view, we use the terms of ‘alignment’or ‘posture.’ From a functional view point, studying the movement of various joints and the impact of forces upon them we have developed the science of ‘biomechanics.’  However, both of these perspectives carry a kind of objectification, a denial of human experience. For instance, when pain brings our attention to a particular area of the body, we do not experience this as a collection of muscle fibre contractions, boney side bends and rotations or hyper aroused nerve impulses. Alignment and Biomechanics completely leave out what we as individuals are ‘feeling’ and ‘experiencing.’

Ida Rolf in developing her 10 session Structural Integration series in the 1930’s was acutely aware that for her method to be truly wholistic it had to take into account the person’s perceptual experience too and the ten session Rolfing series that she devised pays attention as much to the clients internal feeling state as it does to inviting change in the physical structure. We know that some of her ideas came as a result of  cross pollination with her contemporaries, Mosche Feldenkrais, Mabel Todd and Lulu Sweigard who where developing exciting new ways to see and interact with the body in the fields of movement and dance. All were perhaps influenced in tern by the newly emerging philosophical approach known as phenomenology.

Phenomenologists do not accept the traditional division of subject and object and instead attempted to study human beings in-the-world, as experienced. For a phenomenologist a person does not exist separately from the environment but is embedded in it

Bringing movement, strength and  balance into harmony

sprinter

Edward Reed (a leading Scholar in the field of ecological psychology) has carried the phenomenological perspective into his work with motor responses. Reed points out that movement never takes place in a vacuum but always in context and that lab studies that attempt to isolate and analyse movement do not yield very useful information and lead to very little that can be applied to the problem of rehabilitation. He suggests that to be useful, the study of posture and movement must be looked at in terms of functions that he calls Action Systems. Reed’s list of action systems include, among others, the locomotion system that gets us around, the expressive system that allows us to look and listen and the semantic system that lets us speak and represent. Seeing movement as purposeful activity through which we establish a relationship with our environment and each other begins to contribute to our understanding of actual behaviour.

The basic movements of lying, sitting, standing and walking are fundamental to our ability to function in the world. Underlying all of these is the even more basic necessity of establishing a viable relationship with the gravity field.

Our upright posture also defines us as a species bringing with it a specific set of gravitational challenges. For humans balancing on such a narrow base of support, constantly negotiating between stability and movement is a problem with significant psychological meaning. Our language reflects this in words that link verticality with morality and even more fundamentally, uprightness is a condition of survival.

Monkey-Man

Hubert Godard has revolutionised the way Rolfers think about how the body functions in gravity. (and Rolfers do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this !) Godard calls the body’s ability to organise itself in gravity, “tonic function.”

 

Two different muscle types

Anatomically, what Godard has named the Tonic system includes the brain, nerve pathways, fascia, muscle spindles, golgi tendon organs and postural muscles. Godard divides the individual fibres which, in bundles come together to form the skeletal muscles of the body into two distinct groups. Those that we have conscious control over – the movers – he calls “phasic” and those that keep us stable and upright in gravity, “tonic.” Most muscles in the body contain both types of fibre but all muscles depending on their function show a preponderance of one type or the other. So generally speaking and for the purposes of understanding how these two systems work together we can say that muscles are either tonic or phasic.

In very simple terms Phasic muscles move us, Tonic muscles keep us upright and balanced.

Tonic muscles like hamstrings, deep abdominal core and the deep spinal erectors are slow twitch muscle designed for endurance. They are the red meat in our bodies because they burn oxygen for fuel and therefore need a rich blood supply to deliver it.

Phasic muscles like the biceps, pectorals and quads are fast twitch, they burn sugar as fuel and can deliver huge amounts of power very rapidly but only for relatively short periods.

In order for the Phasic (movement) muscles to move us, the Tonic (stabilising) muscles which act like brakes, must first relax. This “letting the brakes off” is known as a “pre movement” and is part of and must precede every action we make.

Imagine you are standing and you raise your arm, the power for this action comes from contraction of the phasic muscles at the front of the shoulder. But the first muscles to respond as soon as we even think of making this movement are the tonic or gravity muscles. Guess where? Not in the shoulders or arm but way down at the back of the leg. The soleus muscles act as stabilisers preventing us falling forward under the gravitational weight of the cantilevered arm.

The degree to which we can relax the tonic system and allow “in-stability,” conditions the quality and efficiency of the movement that follows. Because we ordinarily have little conscious control of the Tonic system it is difficult to simply ‘will’ the brakes to release and would anyway, be way too slow and cumbersome. It has to be automatic to work efficiently.


The brain that controls the muscles – our need for automatic processing

connectomeIf you imagine the action of writing your signature on a cheque. This seemingly simple task actually requires the coordination of muscles in the hand, forearm, upper arm, shoulder, neck, face, eyes and so on. Some of these muscle will move the fingers, hand and arm, some to will need to let go, lengthen to allow this and some will be asked to switch on only partially to support, stabilise and maintain focus etc. If you now think about the thousands of individual motor and sensory neurones supplying each muscle which must be excited or inhibited by the brain like a conductor coordinating huge complicated orchestral piece, you will begin have some idea of how much computing power is needed for every movement we make. Actually, we know that to do all of this whilst maintaining all the other systems, which keep us alive at the same time; circulation, respiration, digestion etc, would be beyond even the 80 billion or so neurones in our huge brains.

So, the clever nervous system learns the movements we most often perform and writes automatic programs which it runs to tell the muscles what to do and in which order. These programs have been named Engrams by author Deane Juhan author of Job’s Body (an essential read for all Bodyworkers)

The amazing thing about these programs is that they are elastic and can adapt to the almost infinite positions and environments that we find ourselves in. So that for instance, whether you are writing your signature on a small piece of paper, on a blackboard, or in the sand at the beach the engram for that task will organise the muscle actions needed to allow your signature to be recognisable at every size.

These wonderful programs however, can be fragileand although operating for the most part beneath our every day awareness, are never the less listening to, influenced, changed and disrupted by what we think, feel and believe. Recognising when there is a glitch in an engram and knowing how to bring it back into balance with sensitive movement cues has been one of the most important evolutional changes in the work of Rolfers since Ida’s original pioneering start and much of our new understanding of how to work with perception and coordination has been thanks to the inspired research and generous sharing of Hubert Godard.

To understand more fully how all of this links with an individual’s mental and emotional state we have to look to MacCleans model of brain functionality which he named the “Triune brain.”

Embedded emotions

MacCleans’s model divides the brain into three layers classified according to function and age in terms of evolutionary development. The first and oldest layer is the reptilian brain, it takes care of the basic functions of survival including the fight or flight response. It is also from where the tonic system receives its instructions. Emotional associations take place in the paleomammalian or limbic level, a more recent evolutionary development. The third and most recent level in MacClean’s model is the neocortex which we share with only the higher primates and whales and dolphins. This layer gives us the ability to rationalise and find meaning.

So in simple terms, any unresolved trauma, deeply buried belief systems orunconscious emotional habits associated with certain movements or situations, will alert the body’s older and more primitive brain centres and the fight/flight system will be activated telling the tonic tissues that it is not safe to move. Because these muscles are stronger, more durable and controlled by the primitive, subconscious brain, any ideas that you may have about “letting go.” are easily overpowered.This situation ignites a kind of myofascial civil war. Muscles fibres which want to move you pitted against muscle fibres which want to keep you still. This is “Stress”it wastes energy, feels terrible and often leads to one or more secondary acute and then chronic stress related syndromes. With the body fighting itself in this way, movement of any kind will feel awkward and uncoordinated and will of course burn far more energy than you need to. Is it any wonder that many of us feel exhausted just getting through a normal day?

Ida Rolf and F. M. Alexander were among the first to devise ways of disrupting this cycle of activation. Recognising that the most profound changes come from the deepest psychological levels. By addressing the tonic function we can effect the basic senses of support and orientation without needing to talk about the associations involved. If we can help build a sense of support in the body (instead of breaking down armour as in the Reichian model) we will create deep change without ignoring the psychological significance and without going off into emotional history.

So as a Rolfer when I work in movement with a person’s orienting system, their relation to gravity, it  is useful to remember that I am addressing one of the most fundamental aspects of what it is to be human. I am tapping into something primordial, instinctive, pre-verbal a part that is constantly looking for reassuring answers to two simple questions, “how safe is my ground?” and “what are the possibilities of movement in this space?”

Of course the concept of safety is relative. Part of being a human is to be dependent upon other humans. Not all the time, of course. Similar to most mammals, we come into the world with great dependence on our caregivers, and that need to connect and be connected to others remains throughout our lives. As we mature, we need to find safe environments so that we can sleep, eat, defecate and reproduce. We create the safe environments by building walls to create boundaries and privacy. Or, we may get a dog, which will guard us, so we can sleep. The point of these strategies is to create an environment in which we no longer need to be hyper-vigilant, and to allow us to participate in the life processes that require “safe” environments.

Social engagement behaviours—making eye contact, listening to people—require that we give up our hyper-vigilance. This of course requires that we be able to quickly distinguish between friend or foe? But how do we do this ?

Experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has enabled researchers to observe neural activity uniquely associated with perception of biological motion. With specific brain centres seemingly dedicated to detecting familiar faces, familiar voices and familiar movements.

The recent work of Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago has added considerably to our knowledge of how we interact with each other and our environments.

Dr Porges has proposed and developed what he has termed the Polyvagal Theory

Which specifies two functionally distinct branches of the vagus, or tenth cranial nerve. The branches of the vagal nerve serve different evolutionary stress responses in mammals: the more primitive branch elicits immobilisationbehaviours (e.g., feigning death), whereas the more evolved branch is linked to social communication and self-soothing behaviours. These functions follow a phylogenetic hierarchy, where the most primitive systems are activated only when the more evolved structures fail.

So hand gestures, facial expressions and vocalisations that appear “safe” turn off the brain stem and the limbic areas that include fight, flight and freeze responses. Furthermore, embedded within the lining of the gastrointestinal wall itself there is a massive plexus of nerves. This complex network of sensory, motor and interneurons (those nerve cells that connect between the sensory and motor neurones) integrates the digestive and eliminative organs so that they function coherently. The “gut brain” is an intricate system has about the same number of neurones and white matter as does a cat’s brain. Because of this complexity, it has sometimes been called the second or enteric brain; a forth to the other three layers described earlier.

The enteric nervous system is our oldest brain, evolving hundreds of millions of years ago. It produces many beneficial hormones, including 95% of the serotonin in the body, and thus is a primary natural medicine factory and warehouse for feel-good hormones. Amazingly, as much as 90% of the vagus nerve that connects our guts and brains is sensory! In other words, for every one motor nerve fibre that relays commands from the brain to the gut, nine sensory nerves send information about the state of the viscera to the brain. The sensory fibres in the vagus nerve pick up the complex telecommunications going on in the gut and relay them, first up to the (mid) brain stem and then to the thalamus. From there, these signals virtually influence the entire brain, and subliminal “decisions” are made that profoundly influence our actions. Many of our likes and dislikes, our attractions and repulsions, as well as our irrational fears, are the result of these implicit computations in our internal states. Additionally, the linkage between the nerves that regulate the face and the nerves that regulate the heart and lungs implies that we can use the facial muscles to calm us down. Think about it: whenwe’re stressed or anxious, we use our facial muscles, which include the ears. We eat or drink, we listen to music, and we talk to people to calm down. The power of the social engagement system is amazing both in terms of its effects on behaviour and mental state, but also in terms of the speed with which it works

In this article we have looked at phenomenology, action systems, tonic function, engrams, the triune brain, the ‘gut brain’ and the polyvagal theory all in an attempt to understand how we humans maintain a healthy posture as interact with our environments and each other. But perhaps when all is said and done it could have been more simply stated with the phrase,

Smile and the world smiles with you :)

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 

Shari-Half-Moon-Pose

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.”
Gandhi
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 www.breathe-australia.com

 

 

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
MIN 2 PEOPLE, MAX 5 PER GROUP.
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.

tom 052
 “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 www.breathe-london.com

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 www.breathe-australia.com

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 http://breathenews.wordpress.com/positive-psychology-articles/neural-plasticity/

http://maggie-jackson.com/books/

 

 

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo

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.

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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

 

 

 

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