Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.
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How Mindfulness Practice Has Changed My Life – My Personal Story

I have dreadful memories from when I was 4 or 5 and onwards of feeling terribly frightened and anxious about anything and everything. Going to sleep was the worst. Ideally I would have liked to stay at my mother’s side day and night. I didn’t want to go to school because I was feeling scared of being in a big group of children I didn’t know, I didn’t want to be in a car with more than three people in it because I was feeling terribly anxious about the car breaking, I did not want to be on a boat for fear it would sink, I didn’t want to be at home with a child minder because I was worried that my mother was not coming back.

Many things terrified me. I constantly believed that something bad was going to happen to me, that I would get lost, that I had to go to hospital, that I was going to be separated from my mother and sister, that I was going to be in a lot of pain, that I was going to die…

Those were some of my catastrophic thoughts that kept me in a constant state of high alert and worry. Life felt very scary to me.

Anxiety – worrying about what has not happened yet - has inhibited me from fully living.

Of course I had therapy when I was a child; also later when I was a student and as young adult. It reduced the level of anxiety I was suffering from considerably.

Still, anxiety had been a constant unpleasant companion in my life for almost four decades until I was introduced to the practice of mindfulness in 2008 – when I was forty.

Thanks to mindfulness practice I understand myself better and the cause for my anxiety. That in itself is not a remedy but it helped me bring understanding and compassion to myself and that has helped me to come into a different, more supportive relationship with myself.

My parents divorced when I and my sister where two and three years old. My mother never remarried and brought us up a s single mum needing to work full-time. It meant that we had to grow up quickly, to get on with our life, and that felt deeply scary and unsafe. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was certainly not a bad mother – this is not about blaming my parents – it was just that she wasn’t around enough to reassure me that I was okay.

Mindfulness has helped me become more and more aware of my stress pattern.

When I feel anxious and then stressed I have a narrative in my head that goes like this: It’s too much, I have too much work to do, I can’t cope, I won’t be able to do it. These thoughts trigger my mind’s alarm system which in turn triggers more tension in my body and makes my breath shallow and inhibited which in turn impacts on the choices I make; what I say to my colleagues, friends, partner, family etc and how I say it, aka knee-jerk reactions.

Then, to top it all off, I beat myself up for being so stressed, inefficient, grumpy or moody, which adds another layer of anxiety and stress. And this is the crucial bit that was a complete eye-opener for me that mindfulness has taught me: harsh self-criticism or self-judgement is the very thing that puts most pressure on me, on us, that creates most stress, anxiety and can lead to depression. Mindfulness practice has helped me to see things more for what they are. Yes, I have work to do, and deadlines that perhaps are unpleasant but they are just deadlines and work is just work and giving a talk is just giving a talk – no more no less. It’s called primary experience. What we do with it, i.e. how we interpret what happens to us is called secondary experience and that’s what can cause us a lot of pain depending on how we interpret, judge, analyse life’s events.

Mindfulness has helped me become more and more aware of my stress and anxiety pattern. So when I feel stressed or anxious, I now notice my breath getting shallow, I recognise the thoughts racing through my head, and the feelings in my body (eg tightness, racing heart, anxiety, sweating, panic, overwhelm, too muchness) and take some deeper breaths and let my breath find its natural rhythm again which allows my mind and body to calm down and relax.

Mindfulness has transformed how I experience myself, has helped me see and understand my helpful and unhelpful habitual ways of thinking and behaving which in turn has helped me respond differently, more kindly and compassionately to myself, others and life’s challenges.

Today, I still suffer from anxiety occasionally, particularly in the early hours of the morning when I wake up sweaty and with a beating heart. The difference is, today I know what I need to do. I expand my in-breath and slow down my out-breath. I feel my body on the mattress, my feet, legs, bum, back, back of my head. I become aware of whatever catastrophic thought is going through my head, I ask myself: Is this true? 99% of the time the answer is ‘No’. I’m back in the here and now and continue to sleep.

Mindfulness is not an idea, it’s a practice. It requires daily commitment, faith and stamina. The pay-off is huge and can be life-changing. It certainly has given me back my life.

Engaging in an 8-week mindfulness for stress course can help you tap into your inner resources, can help you become more aware and awake in order to make more creative, wiser choices about how to respond to what’s happening in life.

Karen will be leading the upcoming 8-Week Mindfulness for Stress Course in London, Starting 17 Jan 2018; 7-9.30pm at The West London Buddhist centre. For more information and to book take a look at the London Mindfulness for Stress Course Page.

Image of Karen Liebenguth - Breathworks Accredited Teacher

 

Karen Liebenguth is an accredited and associate mindfulness teacher with Breathworks UK. She teaches 8-week Breathworks courses for stress and pain management and offers 1:1 mindfulness training and tailored mindfulness programs for the workplace. Karen is also a qualified life coach and MBTI facilitator. She specialises in 1:1 coaching while walking outdoors in green space where she believes insight, change and creativity can happen most naturally. For more information on Karen’s work visit her website: http://www.greenspacecoaching.com

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How (and Why) to Enjoy Your Meditation Practice

How and why

During meditation practice, it is inevitable to have periods of feeling impatient, restless, and distracted. Usually our response to this is to try to knuckle down and use willpower to fix attention on the meditation object, or decide that we’re not in the right place and not to meditate today. Neither of these, as it happens, will help us very much.

The problem is that our unconscious mind is always working away to seek pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant ones (e.g. by fantasising and worrying). When it comes up with a better idea about how to find enjoyment or avoid displeasure than what you are currently doing, it will fire some distracting thoughts (like about those blueberry muffins you just bought) into consciousness. When we are concentrated on an activity which is engaging and enjoyable, however, all of our mind is unified in engaging with the current task. This happens when the mind is already satisfied and experiencing ongoing reward.

If our response to distraction is to tighten attention onto the breath, like we’re tightening our grip on something which might get away from us, we are exercising a misunderstanding of how attention works. Clasp your fist as tight as you can, and hold it; what effect does this have on the rest of your body, on your breathing, on your mind? When we attempt to use power of will to force attention on the object in this way, we are moving further away from a relaxed and happy engagement. Parts of our brain will go into overdrive reminding us of all the other things we could be doing, and even more distractions will sneak up.

This creates a feedback loop where distractions lead to a forcing of willpower, which leads to tightening and vexation, and this leads to more distractions. It’s like trying to pull a seat belt too fast; if you didn’t know how seatbelts worked, your natural reaction may be to get frustrated and try to pull harder and harder. This is why it is so important to understand the mechanics of your own attention.

So, then, if you shouldn’t be responding to distractions by trying to force your attention, how should you deal with them? The simple answer is to enjoy your practice. This isn’t always easy, but it is so important to focus on any and all positive aspects to your meditation. Is your mind calm today? Is your mind worried and distracted, but you’ve kept your resolve and you’re sitting anyway? Congratulate yourself. Do you feel comfortable, or in a little less in pain than earlier? Are your feet warm? Appreciate these simple treasures.

See if you can enjoy the subtle sensations of the meditation object; see if you can imagine the breathing as a kind of internal massage. Savour the sense of accomplishment of following a whole breath from start to finish without getting distracted. And when you get distracted again, as every meditator will, focus on the only moment that matters; the moment when you realised your mind was wandering, and returned to the wholeness of the present moment.

Enjoy and reinforce any fleeting pleasure or enjoyment of any aspect of the meditation like you were savouring your favourite food. When the mind is happy and in a relaxed engagement with the task it is doing, distractions naturally become quiet, and we don’t need to waste any energy in trying to quiet them.

If you try to meditate by rowing with as much force as you can muster, you will end up quickly exhausted, uncomfortable, and dispirited. Meditate by stringing up a sail to catch the pleasure and enjoyment of sitting, as wide and as wonderful as you can. Then relax, and enjoy the ride.

Ollie Bray

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Pain Management with a KISS

Pain Management with a KISS VIdyamala Blog banner

Breathworks Founder, Author of Mindfulness for Health, Vidyamala Burch

There are so many ways to interpret the, perhaps surprising, title of this column.

When we were children and fell over, our parents may have said “let’s kiss it to make it better”, which is testament to the power of both touch and love. Touch infused with love and care releases Oxytocin which is a powerfully healing neurotransmitter.

But the main reason I am writing about KISS today is because it is an acronym for Keep It Simple and Straightforward. There’s a lot of wisdom in this approach and it can sometimes get lost in our struggles to manage pain over time.

How often do we reach for more and more solutions as we try to salvage something resembling a life - ending up in a quagmire of ever-increasing medication, booming and busting (over-doing it one day and crashing the next), feeling more and more despondent and desperate as time goes on. It’s a horrible situation and increasingly undermining and soul-destroying.

Or maybe you start to feel a bit better but you don’t know what is the key cause of this improvement as you are trying so many different strategies at once – a bit of physio, a bit of diet management, a bit of fiddling with your medication. It’s a random, scattergun approach which is also soul destroying and undermining as it’s so chaotic.

My recommendation is KISS. Rather than falling into the trap of complexity, strip things back and bring a more systematic, step-by-step approach to your pain management. Try one thing at a time and keep clear records of the effects and you’ll gradually get a much clearer sense of how to get back a sense of control and improve your quality of life.

Breath awareness is the foundation

My own advice is to keep awareness of the breath as the absolute primary principle. Everything else will build on that. When we are in pain we almost inevitably hold the breath and this leads to a spiral of tension and fatigue. Breathing is our most basic and life-affirming activity. Our bodies are designed to breathe and they want to breathe, so every time we tense against our pain and hold our breath we are interrupting this natural activity.

By learning to relax breath-holding each time you notice it, you will gradually come to a new relationship with your pain and body. On the basis of this you can then clearly and steadily try other strategies, one at a time, and monitor their effects. Keep doing the things that are helping and abandon or modify the things that are making your pain worse. I know that sounds simple in principle and, of course, life is rarely straight forward and untoward events will still send you into periods of chaos. But, pain management with a KISS is an excellent guiding principle and will give you something to come back to again and again in your journey to a better life.

Vidyamala Burch - Breathworks Founder & Author of Mindfulness for Health

The Mindfulness for Health Book – now endorsed by the Reading Well for Long Term Conditions Scheme (books on prescription) – www.reading-well.org.uk/

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Mindfulness for Chronic Dizziness

Mindfulness for Chronic Dizziness Breathworks Blog Post

 

‘I arrived at the balance clinic depressed, anxious and scared, not really understanding what was going on with me and unable to get a grip on any aspect of my life. I was just about getting through half a day at work, not leaving the house for any other reason if I really didn’t have to and I had no energy at all’

This is a quote from one of my patients with a chronic balance organ (vestibular) disorder.  Balance is a sense that we take for granted….until it goes wrong.

Patients will experience spinning, nausea and vomiting and a whole host of other symptoms such as hearing loss, tinnitus and migraine headaches. Depending on the cause, balance rehabilitation exercises and other medical treatments are generally very successful for these disorders. With hard work most patients are able to get rid of their dizziness completely, returning to their previous lifestyles. However unfortunately this is not the case for all patients, and some continue to have acute attacks of spinning, or develop constant low level dizziness.  The impact on these patient’s quality of life can be profound; some do not feel able to work and many develop anxiety and depression.

Following attending a mindfulness course myself, I began to think that some of the techniques I had been taught may be useful for my chronically dizzy patients. Initially I supported patients through the Mindfulness for Health book, helping them tailor the course to their individual needs. In July 2016 I began my Breathworks teacher training, and a year later I successfully led my supervised practise course specifically for patients with chronic dizziness.

Feedback from my patients suggests that there is so much in the Mindfulness for Health programme that they find useful. This includes being more aware of their body and breath, (patients with dizziness will tend to hold their bodies stiffly and breathe poorly), learning to respond differently to understandable anxious and worried thoughts about their dizziness, and pacing themselves better in their daily lives. Most importantly the Mindfulness for Health programme seems to help patients to slowly learn to build a different relationship with their symptoms and to be able to restart some of the activities they have stopped for fear of exacerbating their dizziness- even if the dizziness persists.

I have recently written a booklet to be used in tandem with the Mindfulness for Health course, tailoring the course more to the specific needs of dizzy patients. I have also written some more detailed material on how I have used mindfulness for dizziness patients on the Breathworks website.

And what of my patient? In addition to other balance rehabilitation techniques I suggested the Mindfulness for Health course. She openly admitted that she initially thought this was ‘mumbo jumbo!’ but decided to give it a go. Six months on from when I first met her, following huge commitment and determination, and just before her discharge she wrote:

‘(I am) now back living life to the full, still feeling (the) dizzy/catch up sensation, but in a place that I can now cope with my condition…. I now understand why I  feel the way I do, and (have) strategies in place that will help me maintain where I am and hopefully help me reduce my symptoms still further over time’.

This patient was able to return to work full time and went on to win a golf tournament after a prolonged period of not playing due to her symptoms. She still experiences dizziness, but continues with her golf and her mindfulness practise. She was a huge support during my training and practise course and listened to me leading each meditation via skype before I led them on the practise course!

There is very little research on mindfulness for dizziness. So as my patients and I continue with our mindfulness practise I am keen to raise awareness of the potential benefits of mindfulness in this patient population, and learn how to better support them in developing a practise. Please do contact me if you are a dizzy patient who has used mindfulness, a clinician who uses these techniques with your patients or are interested in collaborating in research.

Debbie Cane MSc CS Senior Clinical Scientist and Lecturer in Audiology (Debbie.cane@manchester.ac.uk)

See the new page on managing dizziness with mindfulness here!

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A Visit from Argentina

Marcella A., Marcella J., and Miryam (above), are English teachers working at The National University of Santiago del Estero in Argentina. They recently visited Breathworks’ offices in Manchester to take a weeks crash course in Mindfulness and Meditation. They were taught by MJ Stephens (above) and Andrea Cygler, who acted as Breathworks teachers by day, and Manchester tour guides by night. We dropped in hald way through to ask them a few questions about how they were getting on.

  1. What made you pick Breathworks to train with?

Marcella A.: I went on a Vipassana retreat in my country, and somebody gave me a guide to Mindfulness institutions. I learnt about Breathworks and there was something that told us: this is it; this is the right place.

  1. What has been your experience of the course so far?

Marcella A.: Beyond our expectations, even though we try not to have expectations!

Miryam: From the very beginning, we have been very happy

Marcella J.: Everybody we’ve met from Breathworks has been really kind.

Miryam: it’s a very warm atmosphere, a very friendly atmosphere.

Marcella J.: We go through the whole day without looking at the time or wondering when we’ll get to go home!

  1. So what have you covered so far in the course?

Marcella A.: We have been from the very first basic definition of mindfulness, through basic principles, and to the principles in Breathworks; how to relate mindfulness with emotions and our thoughts; we’ve covered a lot of practices: body scan, mindfulness of breathing, mindful movement… today for example we learned how to connect to pleasant sensations and pleasant things in daily life. Yesterday we covered how to deal with difficult things and difficult situations too. And that’s a lot in two and a half days!

  1. What have you found most personally relevant or helpful about the course?

Marcella A.: That it’s very important first of all to learn mindfulness to apply to our daily lives. We can realise that in fact through practice we can change the way we are living. Because we know that we live in a state of being in a hurry, we’re stressed every day, but it’s possible to have choice of changing that. It’s possible to take measures and make decisions about it, and we’ve been given a lot of tools to be able to carry that out.

Tomorrow Andrea is going to give us some tools to apply mindfulness to education, that’s one of our main goals, but we were talking about how of course we first have to learn to apply mindfulness to ourselves.

  1. How are you hoping to apply the training when you get back to Argentina?

Marcella A.: We are planning to share this experience with our colleagues, then we hope to arrange a course for other people or other teachers, even those who may not be involved with the university but who are interested in this philosophy of life. And to practice, obviously!

Miryam: Yes, to apply it in our everyday lives, I think that’s the most important part. And of course to try to apply it to our students. We were talking about this; we realise that our students don’t want to think; it’s very difficult to make them feel curiosity for things, and to convey the importance of investigation. So we think that it’s a way of making them become aware of the possibilities of having choices in their lives; that their decisions are their own.

Marcella A.: And it can be just very simple practices. Our classes last two hours and sometimes we expect the students to be sat still doing their exercises, or reading or copying or listening, and we don’t give the opportunity of moving or breathing, because we don’t give the opportunity to ourselves.

Miryam: It would be very natural to see a student stretch and say “oh, don’t do that!” perhaps at the very beginning of our careers we would have told a student off for that.

Marcella A.: We are doing something which is very formal and sometimes to pause and say “would you like to stretch, or do some breathing even just for a few moments before we go on?”

  1. It’s great to hear that you’re getting so much out of the course! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Marcella A.: It’s a very nice place; a beautiful building!

Marcella J.: Yes, we’re very comfortable

Marcella A.: We are feeling at home.

Miryam: It has been a pleasure.

 

MJ and Andrea expressed what excellent students they made and how much they enjoyed their time teaching and exploring Manchester with them.

If you are interested in finding out more or trying a Breathworks course yourself, in person or online, you can look at your options on our Courses Page.

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