There are a range of modalities that are used to help those with varying issues and ailments. Prayer, therapy, medicine, surgery…the list can be pretty robust. But what about a tool that most of us readily have at our disposal? Breath and the ability to breathe. We’ll explore it, and how breathing techniques can help your partnership with Drs. Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg … on this edition of Frank Relationships.
FRANK RELATIONSHIPS: HEALING THROUGH BREATH WITH DRS. RICHARD P. BROWN AND PATRICIA L. GERBARG
Guests: Richard P. Brown, Dr. Patricia L. Gerbarg
Date: July 08, 2013
Frank: There are a range of modalities that are used to help those with varying issues and ailments: prayer, therapy, medicine, surgery. The list can be pretty robust, but what about a tool that most of us readily have at our disposal–breath and the ability to breathe? We’ll explore it and how breathing techniques can help your partnership on this edition of Frank Relationships.
Welcome to Frank Relationships where we provide a candid fresh and frank look into relationships with goals of acceptance, respect and flexibility. I’m Frank Love and you can find me, my blog and my various social media incarnations at franklove.com.
As always, I’m joined by my super duper co-host, Dr. Gayl. She is my–
Dr. Gayl: What do you have to say?
Dr. Gayl: Did you miss me?
Frank: Yes, I’ve missed you. How have you been?
Dr. Gayl: I’m good.
Frank: Good. If you guys don’t know, she’s going to do everything I tell her to do. She’s my “yes” woman. She listens attentively and when I say jump, she says, “How high.” Isn’t that right, Dr. Gayl?
Dr. Gayl: Is that what you dreamed last night?
Frank: Last week, I wrote a blog about Will Smith, his recent movie, After Earth. I loved the movie and found it to be an outstanding father-son flick. Check it out. Check out the blog if you can and check the movie out too.
In the movie when his son was in a few tough situations, his father told him to “take a knee.” I translated that as a form of pausing, breathing and regrouping. Even in the mist of danger.
It’s amazing how difficult such an exercise can be–to just stop and regroup and breathe. His son had a problem with it at times, but the movie was a good one and he got through whatever challenges he needed to get through.
Enter today’s guest. When there are disasters occurring around the world, thousands of deaths ensuing in rampant pain as families maybe destroyed, they’re suggesting that we breathe. And they’re here to share their research findings, beliefs and successes with hopes that we will leave today’s show with a free tool for healing at our disposal.
They’re Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg, authors of The Healing Power of the Breath. A book that offers a drug free alterative that works through a range of simple breathing techniques, drawn from yoga, Buddhist mediation and other sources. Docs, welcome to the show.
Dr. Gerbarg: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Dr. Brown: Great.
Dr. Gayl: Good morning.
Frank: What’s the purpose of breathing practices? Please tell us a little history.
Dr. Brown: It’s interesting. Breathing practices are very important in a lot of countries around the world: Hawaii, India, China, Japan and Russian–and American Indians. I’m sure there are some other places, but those are ones where they’ve really been maintained as a tradition for a long time.
And they’re used for two main things. One is to help people spiritual practice and development. They’re often used before prayer, to help the prayer or meditation. And they’re also used to help warriors get ready for war and to be more resilient. And then, to also kind of wind down when they return from war.
And what we see, kind of scientifically, a big thing that the breathing does. The breathing practices can do many things, but they really improve the energy of crucial parts of our nervous system, so that we can deal with change. And stress is change. And there are so many changes happening for all of us these days around the world.
Frank: Explain how the nervous system has parts? What are the different parts?
Dr. Brown: It’s interesting. A lot of stuff in the media or even for doctors, talks about stuff having to do with our head. But really a core part of us is our heart and our spirit, as well as basic organs and things like that. But that’s a part that’s generally, in our society, ignored a lot.
And in old cultures people talked about your spirit and your soul, because that’s kind of hard to define scientifically, it tends to get ignored. But I think it’s a concept that’s very useful, and in terms of our nervous system, there’s a part of our nervous system that makes everything down to the crucial energy reactions of the cell run properly.
You have a stress respond system that helps you deal with change. And you also have a soothing healing, recharging part of your nervous system. The stress part helps you get the stuff that makes you feel good and avoid the stuff that would make you feel bad or kill you. And so, those are two crucial parts of that dealing with the nervous system. And that part of the nervous system tends to look for threats.
Frank: And that would be fight or flight?
Dr. Brown: Fight or flight is part of that, but there are other parts of that too. Actually, the interesting thing is, if you or any of your listeners have ever been in a situation where there’s a real good chance that something really bad happening to you, most people freeze. They don’t fight and they don’t run.
Frank: A deer in the headlights?
Dr. Brown: A deer in the headlights. It’s like most people just freeze and sometimes that’s good, but you should have a choice about it. Most people just freeze, there’s no choice about it and they don’t know what to do.
Dr. Gayl: Do your breathing techniques teach people or show people what to do in those types of situations?
Dr. Brown: The interesting thing is, when you do the breathing practices, people just seem to know what they need to do without thinking about it.
Dr. Gayl: It is an automatic response?
Dr. Brown Well, the problem is, we normally react to things without thinking when we’re under big stress.
Dr. Gayl: Right.
Dr. Brown: But the breathing kind of allows you a space where you can respond and it’s a way of responding and you’re not thinking like, okay, two and two is four. It’s like you just feel what you’ve got to do.
Dr. Gayl: Is this kind of like mindfulness or how does this play or interact with mindfulness?
Dr. Brown: I think that when you do the breathing, you become more aware of what’s going on deep inside you and you feel more connected to what’s going on around you and that makes you more mindful.
I think that mindfulness is very valuable and a lot of work’s been done with typically with groups at Harvard–Dr. Herb Benson and John Captain. But I think that the breathing that we teach is much more sophisticated. Part of it is it helps reconnect you to your inner-self.
I think people are often these days, disconnected from the heart, disconnected from the bodies, disconnected from other people, and the breathing kind of reestablishes that connection as well as recharging your energy. And when you’re having a lot of change, your energy gets drained.
Frank: Speaking of-
Dr. Brown: And when that happens, you’re not so good.
Frank: Speaking of the university setting, please tell us a bit about yourselves.
Dr. Brown: I’m an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and that’s kind of one track. And I felt when I was growing up that it was really the quality of our minds and our hearts that determine the quality of our lives. And I felt that psychiatry was the way that I wanted to go to help people with that. At the same time, I started doing Japanese Martial Arts when I was 12 years old.
Frank: Which one?
Dr. Brown: I started with jujitsu and judo and my teacher was Cuban, although he had a lot of training with Japanese. I became quickly acquainted with the Central and South American ways combined with Japanese ways of protecting one’s self.
Frank: Explain the difference between jujitsu and judo, please.
Dr. Brown: Judo was kind of a systematic sport way of using throws and locks and chokes to protect oneself. Jujitsu involves a broader range of things, most of which can be deadly. It’s hard to make them safe as a sport. And then, when I was in medical school, in New York, I was in such a bad neighborhood, I began doing full contact Japanese karate.
Dr. Brown: And did that for some years. And then, after quite awhile I realized I wanted something even more spiritual, although breathing and meditation was a part of me for the judo and for the karate. And I found a wonderful aikido master in New York.
Frank: His name?
Dr. Brown: His name is Sinshe Shizuo Imaizumi and he trained with the founder of aikido. My judo teacher told me if you ever find an Aikido master, train with him. And the first day, there was a lot of breathing and it was crucial. Every class would start or end with breathing. And interestingly, that core breathing is pretty much like one of the core breathings that we teach. And I’m sure it’s several thousand years old and probably came from China, originally from India to Japan.
Frank: You are Dr. Brown or Dr. Gerbarg?
Dr. Brown: I’m Dr. Brown.
Frank: Alright and your colleague, Dr. Gerbarg, are you there?
Dr. Gerbarg: Yes, I’m here, yeah.
Frank: Like to hear a little bit about you too.
Dr. Gerbarg: Okay. I’m like Dr. Brown. I really was not exposed to meditation or any of that kind of stuff. I had a very traditional medical training. I went to Harvard Medical School, finished there in ’75 and then I went on to become a psychoanalyst, with the Boston Psychoanalytic. That was very different perspective. And I practiced as a psychiatrist and as a psychoanalyst for quite a few years. I want to mention here, I know this program is about relationships and Dr. Brown is my husband.
Dr. Gayl: Okay.
Dr. Gerbarg: So we are partners in every sense. In any event, I became very ill in the 1990’s with Neuro Lyme disease and when I was recovering from that, he convinced me to do some breathing practices. I was not interested, because I was very busy.
Frank: It’s amazing how we can get so busy that we don’t breathe.
Dr. Gerbarg: Right. I’ve got three little kids. I’ve got my practice. I’m writing papers. I’m giving lectures and we just got a new puppy. Forget it. I can’t sit for 20 minutes and do nothing but breathe. I’m too busy. But finally–he’s very patient and he has lots of reasoning and convinced me. So I tried to do some breathing and we did a workshop. And I was totally blown away, the first day we did the breathing.
It was a whole new experience and I also thought that the other people in the workshop were having very deep experiences and I knew these people quite well. So that got me really interested, because I’m interested in the emotions and the mind. How could breathing have such an incredible impact on how people are thinking and feeling about things? And of course, that hooked me.
You get me asking questions, I have to pursue the answers. I embarked on some intensive research and study and a lot of reading of everything I could get my hands on. And the two of us were puzzling over this. And the more that we did, the more that we saw things happening inside of people, including transformation of trauma. And what I mean by that is, that people would come to these workshops who had been traumatized years for many years, year and years ago and had been carrying this trauma and having all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress or problems in their relationships, like blaming the spouse for something, some horrible accident that occurred–whatever it was that was interfering and in their life. And through the breathing, this would all be resolved and they would see the truth of the situation and they would see what needed to change and the change would just happen.
Frank: How does that work? Where you have a relationship issue and breathing makes a difference?
Dr. Gerbarg: There are many ways that can happen and I’ll just give you one quick example and then mention some of the other ways.
There was a gentleman in one of our workshops who was very angry and negative and his wife was very sweet and you could see in the relationship where she’s always trying to cheer him up, but he’s just angry at her and angry at the world. And the story was that several years earlier there had been fire in their home and she managed to get one of the children out, but not the other.
Dr. Gayl: So he blamed her?
Dr. Gerbarg: He was blaming her in his mind. And he was treating her the way his mother had treated him when he misbehaved. His mother was very cold and strict and negative and so all *(inaudible) 16:16 him was being expressed towards his poor wife. And this was going on for years now.
In the middle of the workshop, he just said, “I want to say something to my wife.” And he turned to her and he said, “Darling,” he said, “I just realized what I’ve been doing to you and how unfair it is and how much I love you and how I should never have done this. And I’m hoping you’ll forgive me. I really want to give you a loving husband.” And then, he sang her a love song in the middle of strangers. This was totally unlike him.
Frank: Would you explain what you were doing in the workshop up until that point?
Dr. Gerbarg: Right. What we found with and he’s not the only one who’s had this happen. People come to us and they tell us that either during or shortly after certain breathing practices they experience a transformative change.
Frank: A catharses?
Dr. Gayl: Dr. Gerbarg, do they already have to come open to the experience prior to experiencing the change?
Dr. Gerbarg: Well, he certainly wasn’t and I certainly wasn’t. One of the nice things about the breathing is that it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your mind. If you do the breathing, it will bypass all of that negatively, because you’re actually using the signals from your respiratory system from your body and they are bypassing all the intellectual garbage and these signals are going directly into the motion regulatory center– all of the major emotion regulatory centers. And they are changing what’s happening there.
Now, we’ve been studying this now for, I’d say about maybe 13 or 14 years, trying to understand how this works, because we’re interested in neuroscience, we’re interested in the psychology of it. And through the years of researching and just listening to people and then trying to figure out–this is fortunately where my analytic background comes in.
Trying to understand psychologically on a very deep level, we put together initial theory to try to explain all of this and since then we’ve been elaborating on that, we’ve been testing it and refining it. And every time there’s a new scientific discovery, we say, “How does this relate to our theory?”
Frank: What is that theory?
Dr. Gerbarg: I just want to say it’s not all proven. Many parts of it are very scientifically grounded. But the basic idea and the really simple level is that we have certain modes of “being.” In a sense, you could say we have a mode when we feel safe and we have a whole different mode when we feel unsafe.
When you feel unsafe for any reason, then all of your defensive systems come on line. And that’s the part that we were talking about earlier with Dr. Brown. Forgive me if I call him Dick. It’s just my instinct to call my husband. But those systems are in play. And when we’re in defensive mode, then we’re actually much more rigid and we’re using in a sense, less complex, more basic survival skills and we’re not thinking in a clearer way. We’re thinking in a very focused way, but we’re not taking a lot of other things into account.
So people get kind of fixed into that mode of being, where they’re kind of defensive and suspicious and uncomfortable and rigid in their thinking and very rigid and sort of repetitive in how they react to things.
Now, the other mode, where you feel safe, that’s the warm fuzzy feeling that you get when you’re with people you love and trust and you know that you’re safe and you know that you’re loved. And when you’re in that mode, all of the healing, soothing, parts of the system are in play and the part of the nervous system that does that is called the parasympathetic system. The part that’s involved more in the defensive reactions is the sympathetic system.
Now, we have our sympathetic system turned on very easily by any kind of threat. It doesn’t have to be a Saber Tooth Tiger, it could just be a threat that somebody’s going to criticize us or somebody isn’t going to think well of us or we’re not going to do well at work.
Any of these things are to us, threats. So you think about how many threats you go through in the course of the day and all of the things you worry about. So our sympathetic systems are turned up too high. Very easy to turn them on, but it’s hard to turn them off. It’s hard to feel calm and safe.
Most of the medicines that we use as psychiatrists are designed partly to dampen down that system, to quiet it down to some extinct.
Meanwhile, the other part of the system, the soothing recharging “I feel safe” part of the system is much harder to turn on. So, we tend to stay in the defensive mode and it’s very hard to totally relax into, the chilled out, “I’m safe, I’m loved” and “I’m a loving person” mode.
So you can see how this plays into relationships all the time. There is no medication. There is no pill that’s been developed to turn on the soothing recharging part.
Dr. Gayl: Dr. Gerbarg, now I see how you and Dr. Brown as psychiatrists, your point of view, because initially I was like, “Wow, this sounds more like psychological background verses psychiatry.” So now I understand, because you guys are viewing it from a biological model.
Dr. Gerbarg: Exactly, both psychological, but also informed by all of the training about the mind, which is both neuroscience as well as psychology. It’s a of different streams and that’s why it’s so great to have our close collaboration, because he’s got so much training in the brain biology and I’ve got depth training in the brain psychologically. Put that together and we’re able to really team together well.
But in terms of the soothing part of the system, there are things that will turn that on and some of them are very simple things. If you are hugging and cuddling with someone that you love and care for, you’re going to turn up that system and you know that, because you get all these warm, happy, oceanic almost-feelings come on with that system. That’s the feel good.
It turns out if you have a meal with your family and close friends that will actually turn up that system too. Things that make you feel really good and happy and cared for and safe, will help that system.
Unfortunately, as I said before, it can be hard to turn it on, especially when there’s so much activity and noise in the other part of the system. And that’s where the breathing comes in. And we’ve researched many, many different kinds of breathing and practices and through the years we’ve tried to distill out of all of that, certain very simple practices that anyone can do that are safe for everyone, because some breath practices have adverse effects. And that anyone can do and that will rapidly turn up the soothing part of the system.
Frank: Dr. Brown, you said something that is of interest to me, which you were discussing martial arts. And I asked you about the difference between judo and jujitsu. And I want to go into that a little deeper, just based on my understanding and share basically with my audience, my understanding.
Judo is actually an off shoot, if you would say, if you could say from jujitsu. In many ways Kano Tenjin, who is the founder of judo, he studied jujitsu and wanted to figure out a way where practitioners could participate in a martial art as a sport without harming each other the way many of the jujitsu techniques did.
Many of the jujitsu techniques were techniques that if applied to your partner, would harm you. It’s not just something you could do over and over again. So, as Kano Tenjin developed judo, he removed many of the techniques that could be harmful and changed some of the existing techniques so that they can be practiced in a manner where you could do it over and over again.
You mentioned the founder of Aikido, that was O Sensei, means great teacher–
Dr. Brown: Yeah.
Frank: And he developed the art between and in his studies around the 1930’s. It’s a relatively modern martial art and it’s highly steeped in like, Dr. Brown said, breath and gentleness.
Now, its funny aikido is called, the way of harmony and judo is the gentle way. There’s some similarities. Many of the Aikidoka that trained directly under O Sensei are his existing students even to this day, were Judoka. And O Sensei originally said that when he took in a new student, he actually said that he wanted them to be at least, I believe it was second degree black belts and another art. And many of them were second degree black belts in judo. All of the to say, I find that the martial arts piece is something that I can relate to. I enjoy and I kind of pass it back to you to weigh in on everything I might have said that might provide clarity to our listening audience.
Dr. Brown: I agree with everything you’ve said. And judo came from jujitsu. And aikido, in part, came from jujitsu. O Sensei was very advanced in a very hard of jujitsu, but he also fused with it, sword work and staff work at the same time, so that kind of somewhat changes things. But he really emphasized the spiritual dimension. And actually the first time that Kano Sensi observed an aikido demonstration, he was so blown away, he said, “This is the real martial art.”
Dr. Brown: Because it really goes beyond the physical techniques to the energy and the spiritual dimension beyond the surface of things. And in Japan, police are taught the aikido techniques, because they’re also a very loving way of subduing somebody who may be doing dangerous things or about to do dangerous things to other people.
Frank: Speaking of, I recall talking to a Judoka many years ago and he had taken a class at an American police academy and he was mind blown at the techniques that they were being taught and the destructive nature of them–
Dr. Brown: Yes.
Frank: And that he couldn’t believe that they were being taught to people in such a raw–and what he considered, unloving manner when they were supposedly going to be subduing citizens, people that we care about.
Dr. Brown: Yes.
Frank: So I can easily see how and why Japan would teach aikido techniques, which are taught and which are based in preserving yourself and preserving your partner.
Dr. Brown: Exactly, exactly.
Dr. Brown: Some people do bad things out of stress–
Dr. Brown: And because they’re inherently bad and you want to be able to help them come back to a better place without leaving them damaged.
Frank: Your book, The Healing Power of Breath, teaches many different breathing practices. What are these used for and who would you say–if there’s one distinct audience, who would you say would benefit from them?
Dr. Brown: We think everybody can benefit from the breathing. Man, woman, young, old. It’s good for everybody. And one of our hopes is that all kids by the time they’re 10 or 11 or 12, can learn these things. Help deal with their negative emotions.
Dr. Gayl: And how–I’m sorry.
Dr. Brown: They don’t have to turn to drugs to violence to deal with their negative emotions.
Dr. Gayl: How would we initiate that and instill that in the younger generation, Dr. Brown?
Dr. Brown: Well, I think we adults have to take the lead. And very often people come to my courses and they say, “Oh I really want this person,” whether it’s my spouse or somebody else “To learn this and feel good.” and “I really want them to have it.” And they say, “I’m going to go home and I’m going to tell them they got to do this.” And I say, “No, you practice it and show them the change it makes in you and they’re going to want to feel like that.” Yeah, the best thing is to be an example for other people.
Dr. Gerbarg: I’ll give you a quick example of that. We were working with social workers and caretakers who work with military and Veterans and taught them some of the breathing. And what people can do is, they can get a relatively inexpensive CD that has a chime track on it and the tone will time the breathing, because one of the keys to the breathing we do, is to have people breathe at five breaths per minute very gently in a particular way.
Somewhere between three and a half and six breaths per minute is the range. But five is pretty good for most people.
So she learned the breathing and she loved the way it calmed her down, because she had very rambunctious children. She had three of them and whenever she would have to take them somewhere they’d get in a fight in the back seat and her anger and her frustration would go up and then she’d start yelling and it was a mess, like you know it could be.
Frank: Are you talking about my wife?
Dr. Gerbarg: What she ended up doing was she put that CD in an played the chimes and started breathing and she would calm down. And when the kids saw that they would do the breathing too and everybody would calm down.
Dr. Gayl: How many sessions do people have to come to before they’re able to do this alone?
Dr. Gerbarg: Just one session.
Dr. Gayl: Okay.
Dr. Gerbarg: They can either learn it individually with their healthcare provider or psychiatrist. There aren’t too many out there. We’re trying to teach more people, more professionals. Or they can take a weekend workshop or one day workshop or two day workshop.
They can learn it immediately and the first time they do it, that’s the beauty of it–like, if I do it in my office and teach someone, it takes me 15 to 20 minutes. Within five minutes they feel more relaxed and calm than they can remember feeling. It’s hard to believe, but actually that’s what happens.
Dr. Gayl: Dr. Gerbarg or Dr. Brown, what’s the difference between this and relaxation techniques?
Dr. Brown: Well, this goes much deeper than relaxation techniques. When you do the breathing you need to relax, but this has such a profound affect on deeper levels of our emotional circuit that it’s a whole step beyond. But if you’re tensed up while you’re doing the breathing, it won’t have the same effect.
It will still have some effect, but you need to work on the relaxing. The other thing we find is that a lot of people come to our courses are very stressed out and tense and we don’t overly emphasize the relaxation thing, because that often makes people tense up, because they’re like, “Am I doing it right? Have I really gotten relaxed?”
Frank: “I’m not relaxed. I’m angry.”
Dr. Brown: You just, sometimes, have to sink into it. And the interesting thing is if they do the breathing it just happens. So, a core part–the first part of what we teach is breathing at about five breaths per minute, because the average person’s breathing about 15 to 20 breaths per minute in a shallow way and just that alone will make somebody stressed.
They don’t realize it. We just get used to being stressed. And when you slow the breathing down, it really changes things.
If someone is taller than six feet in height, their ultimate ideal kind of rhythm of breathing–to do at least part of every day, because we’re not talking about doing this every minute of the day, we’re talking about doing it for a short time every day and it still changes your system–but for tall people, they need to eventually get down to breathing around three breaths per minute as their practice. And this profoundly changes how your brain, your heart and your lungs work together, so that you deliver more oxygen to every cell and your blood vessels relax and begin to be more like a baby’s again.
And that’s part of what happens, is you can measure–people get much more like a baby, whether you’re measuring how flexible their blood vessels are or the electrical soothing activity in their heart and the blood flow in the brain and the heart come together.
So normally, let’s say–and again this is not so much a medical idea, but it’s one that is found in Asia and martial arts. You have your mind, you have your body, you have your spirit and normally they’re not working together. They’re going in totally different directions. And when you do this kind of breathing, they just all come together. And when your mind and body and spirit are together, everything flows much better in your life.
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships. We’re talking with Doctors Brown and Gerbarg, authors of The Healing Power of the Breath, a book that offers a drug-free alternative that works through a range of simple breathing techniques drawn from yoga, Buddhist meditation and other sources.
Please tell our listeners how they can find you and your book.
Dr. Gerbarg: We have a website, which is haveahealthymind.com and we have a number of books. The one we’re talking about today is the, The Healing Power of the Breath, and it’s a Shambhala publication that actually just won a Nautilus Silver award, which we’re very proud of–
Frank: Very nice.
Dr. Gerbarg: And it’s available either at the Shambhala website or on Amazon. It’s a book with a CD, so the first half of the book teaches a number of different breathing practices, using the CD with Dick’s wonderful voice on it. And the second half of the book explains how to use it in all different aspects of life.
There’s a section on how to use it to improve your emotional condition, if you’re having anxiety or depression or post traumatic stress disorder. There’s a section on using it at work, on using it for performance, whether it’s athlete or artistic performance. And there’s a section on using it to improve your relationships.
Frank: Very nice. Now tell me about the part where you can use it improve your relationships. Can you speak about that for a moment?
Dr. Gerbarg: Yes, as we were talking before about how to turn on your soothing, loving, empathic self when you use the breathing, people find that they do become less irritable, more patient. They are more empathic. They’re calmer. And it turns on what we call, pro-social systems, which are the systems that enable us to want to relate socially to other people and our loving, feelings and our bonding, which is very important.
It enhances our ability to feel close, connected and bonded to other people. All of those qualities are going to enhance any relationship, especially if both people are doing it. You have two people turning on their soothing, loving, bonding systems of their body, of course that’s going to enhance the relationship.
Dr. Gayl: What about intimate relationships?
Dr. Gerbarg: I think that’s a very important issue, because in a sense, if you think about it, intimate relationships are not only the most rewarding, but in some sense they’re also dangerous, because when we’re very intimate, we’re very vulnerable. That person that we love so deeply, could hurt us so easily. And it’s often in intimate relationships that you see people having–they can get more angry and more violent with someone they’re close to than with a stranger, because it can trigger such deep emotions and vulnerabilities. And also, we put so many of our issues into our relationships.
What’s important here is that the breathing practices help people to, in a sense, override the negative reactions and have more loving patient feelings and also to simulate the bonding part of the relationship of the system so that you can become more intimate, because you can feel safer and you can feel closer.
We’ve had a number of people come to our workshops who have, through trauma–because everybody’s born with the basic, in fact every infant is ready to love and to be loved and it’s through negative and stressful when traumatic life experiences, bad parenting, abuse that sort of thing that those capacities get layered over with protective layers and defenses where we distance ourselves, because we don’t want to be hurt.
So it takes a lot of work and often in therapy, this is one of the things I came to realize. I had people in psychoanalysis, which means they would come to see me three or four times a week for five to ten years and they made a lot of progress, but there was one core trauma that wouldn’t respond to the treatments.
It was a sexual trauma or a parental abuse trauma and when I had them do the breathing, within a period of a couple of months, the trauma completely dissolved. And it enabled their brain to reset to their normal original point before the trauma.
Frank: How were you able to measure that? How do you know it? How do you know that happened?
Dr. Gerbarg: If someone’s in psychoanalysis and they’re coming three or four times a week to talk to me and then in the middle of the treatment I have them take a workshop and they come in the next day and tell me that, for example, the feeling of their heart, which was unable to feel love, which feel like it was in a steel box, that during the breathing, there heart opened up and they were able, for the first time in their life, to experience love and that feeling stays with them. It’s not something that just comes and goes and it becomes a permanent part of their life so that they can become a loving person. That’s what I would see in my treatment in the analysis. That was part of it, and then of course, we went about trying to understand scientifically how that could happen. What we discovered–
Dr. Gayl: Could you possibly–
Dr. Gerbarg: What?
Dr. Gayl: Could you possibly do–well you can’t do a CAT scan or MRI, but could you do some type of scan of the brain to determine–
Dr. Gerbarg: Well, that’s really what we’re doing.
Dr. Gayl: Okay.
Dr. Gerbarg: Let me tell you about the science. So there is a way to measure what’s happening in the soothing part of the system. It’s called heart rate variability and it’s a complicated way of using the electrocardiograms by measuring the change in the beats and the rhythms of that. You can actually determine from that, how active the parasympathetic system is. And if you have people breathe at five breaths per minute, you optimally activate the parasympathetic system and this is recorded.
This is now become a standard test for measuring the activity of the parasympathetic and the sympathetic system. So you have them do the breathing and you can see by the change in what’s called the heart rate variability that they’ve made the shift. That’s one way we know that.
Now in terms of the brain, there is a neurotransmitter known as GABA, which stands for Aminobutyric acid, but we’ll call it GABA. And GABA is the most important inhibitory neurotransmitter. You don’t hear much about it yet, but I think people will hear more about it going forward. And what it does is it enables the higher centers of the brain to better regulate the emotion centers, especially those involved in anger and fear reactions. So if you can increase the activity of the GABA, you’re going to get better regulations of those emotions.
Dr. Gayl: You can increase that just with the breathing? You can increase the GABA?
Dr. Gerbarg: We believe that you can, because of the downstream effects. But we’re just starting a large research project with a Dr. Streeter at Boston University Medical Center, where she has a special kind of brain scan–and there are only a couple of these around–where you can actually measure changes in brain GABA levels in specific places in the brain that are critical to the fear and emotion regulatory circuits.
So we’re hoping in the next couple of years, we’re going to have people with depression do some yoga and breathing practices and measure the changes in their brain GABA levels, so we’ll actually be able to test that hypothesis.
Dr. Gayl: And other things I’m certain will help to be controlled.
Dr. Brown: And I’m sure that in doing physical yoga improves the GABA levels. We think the breathing is even more powerful and enhances the effect of natural–a beautiful physical movement on increasing GABA. And also the GABA’s very important in terms of drug cravings. When people want to do drugs, it’s because it’s going to improve their GABA levels in part.
Frank: That brings up an interesting article that I recently read. And it’s a gentlemen–I forget his name, but he said that we all have a addictions and that addictions basically are what we do to get a certain brain response. I forget what the chemical was, the brain chemical that he said we–
Dr. Gerbarg: Dopamine. It could have been dopamine.
Frank: Okay and he said it could be jogging, it could be cocaine, but it ends up being the same response in our brain that we’re looking for. How does that incorporate into what you just said?
Dr. Brown: Right. It’s related, So the dopamine system is the part of the system that’s our action system. The action part of the sympathetic or stress response system. It helps you anticipate and have the drive to get the stuff that will make you feel good. But that is counter-balanced by the GABA helping you calm things down, because at different stages of your doing things, you need each of them at a different time.
Dr. Gayl: And then, isn’t that how you can transfer coping mechanisms. For instance, someone that utilizes drugs for a negative coping mechanism, is that how you transfer exercise or working out from cocaine use or drug use to the working out?
Dr. Brown: Yeah.
Frank: So the nicotine patch helps a person stop smoking?
Dr. Brown: Right. Again, my feeling is it would be nice if people learned from an early age, how to use the breathing to deal with their stress, so they don’t need to turn to those other things that you get hooked on and you end up paying a lot of money for.
Dr. Gayl: External things.
Dr. Brown: And add damage to your body.
Dr. Gayl: Right.
Frank: So what I said about the nicotine isn’t quite right, but jogging could help a person stop smoking?
Dr. Brown: Right.
Dr. Gayl: But it kind of sounds like Dr. Brown, that’s still an external thing that you want people–
Dr. Brown: Yes.
Dr. Gayl: Right. So you want us to focus on the breathing rather than external things.
Dr. Brown: Exactly.
Dr. Gayl: Right. So you guys mentioned that you have several other books. Can you tell us what those other books are and are they also related to breathing and stress reduction?
Dr. Gerbarg: Yes. One of our books that actually came out the same year in 2012, is Non-Drug Treatment for Attention Deficit Disorder, and–
Dr. Gerbarg: Yeah, that as you know is a big area of concern for many parents.
Dr. Gayl: Right.
Dr. Gerbarg: So, because of the concerns about the medications, we wanted to offer that. And the book contains different approaches using herbs and nutrients and breathing practices as well as yoga practices, specifically for children, but also very good for adults. It’s for both children and adults and that one won a Gold Nautilus award. So we’re really, really proud of that one.
Dr. Gayl: That’s amazing.
Dr. Gerbarg: And people seem to find that helpful.
Dr. Gayl: My question is, how do you have the broader community accept the non-drug practices?
Dr. Gerbarg: Now are you talking about the professional community or just people?
Dr. Gayl: Yes.
Dr. Gerbarg: The professional community. We’re very fortunate, because we have our background and credentials. Dick is an associate professor. I’m an assistant professor, so because of that, we are invited to give lectures at professional meetings and we’re invited to write a lot of chapters for mainstream textbooks for doctors. And also, we’re able do research and write a lot of scientific articles.
We give hundreds of lectures and programs every year, in order to try to present to the professionals in a way that they’ll relate to. That’s why we really stress the science and the research, because they understand and respect that.
So we can show this isn’t just suggestions. It’s not a placebo response. There are real studies. There’s real science. So we’re working very hard to get this into mainstream medical practices and psychiatric practice.
Dr. Gayl: Right. I think it’s very interesting.
Frank: What’s your experience using breathing techniques and exercises to help individuals who been through pain and trauma, such as 9/11?
Dr. Brown: We’ve done a lot of work, the last five years, helping 9/11 responders and residents recover both emotionally and physically. And the latest study, which came from the Department of Public Health in Columbia, show that there were 400,000 New Yorkers still physically and or emotionally affected by 9/11 in a serious way. And we’ve just changed so many people’s lives with it. That’s been wonderful.
We’ve also worked with a lot of other groups including active duty military, veterans and their spouses. Because when you’ve been in war your stress systems get turned way on. And when you come home, you don’t know how to turn them off. And nobody teaches you how to turn them off. And you’ve got to hit the right switches to do that. And we’ve also been privileged to work with therapists in Mississippi, who after two hurricanes, the BP oil spill, floods and tornados. Even the therapists were being overwhelmed by having so many people with terrible trauma. And they were getting traumatized seeing so many people every day with terrible trauma and people who’ve become homeless through no fault of their own, through the disasters.
And we’re having more and more disasters, because of the changes in our physical world. And also, we got to help people in Southern Sudan, who for the last 50 years, much of the time they’ve been at war with Northern Sudan, and especially many women and children have been taken as slaves from the South to the North and experiencing the most terrible trauma of all the different groups I’ve ever worked with. And using the breathing to help them recover has been really amazing and a special privilege for that.
And a friend of ours in Miami, Teresa Descilo, who is an expert in trauma, has for years, incorporated the breathing with her work with people with different kinds of trauma and also works with the Red Cross to prepare people for hurricanes, which are traumatic. Because my feeling is everybody can benefit from having these tools, whether you’re in Oklahoma or if you’re in Miami or New York City or any place, because everybody has frustrations and stress and negative things happening.
By the way, it’s not just negative things that stress us, because all changes that we have to adjust to are stress.
Positive things can be stressful, whether you’re getting married or you’re getting a great new job, it’s stressful. And very often we just think of it as just being the negative stuff, but no positive stuff can be a big challenge at the same time.
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships. We’re talking with doctors, Brown and Gerbarg, authors of The Healing Power of the Breath, a book that offers a drug-free alternative that works through a range of simple breathing techniques drawn from Yyoga, Buddhist meditation and other sources. Again, please tell our listeners how they can find you and your books.
Dr. Gerbarg: We have a website, which is haveahealthymind.com. And on the website, you can find twiddlings, you can find our workshops, lectures, our books. The books are available at amazon.com. The have a healthy mind books are also available there. And people can also ask us questions through our website.
Dr. Brown: Just to say, part of what we wanted to do is find the breathing practices that had the most benefit in the shortest possible time, that were safe for everybody and you can do anytime, anywhere. I’ve taught and learned many kinds of breathing practices and they’re all really valuable, anytime you consciously pay attention to your breathing.
It’s transformative. It takes you back to your original self–the place that’s untouched by all the stresses and negative things that happened. But the kind of breathing when you start breathing around five breaths per minute, you’re getting the benefit of slower breathing and faster breathing, so your stress system is capable, it’s working, but it’s also working with the soothing, healing, loving part of your system.
It’s kind of like ordinarily when you’re just in stress mode, you’re like an SUV that’s guzzling gas and when you turn on the charging system at the same time, you’re more like a Hybrid and you’re recharging as you go instead of getting so drained by the daily stress. And we wanted it so people could do it anytime anywhere and nobody has to know you’re doing it.
Are there other breathing practices and are valuable? Sure. And we get into some other of them too in the book. And I’d also say that what we did was we took, for example, the five breaths per minute breathing–which described in an ancient Chinese medical text several thousand years ago and it’s been rediscovered in many different cultures–and we combined it with what scientist call resistant breathing from yoga.
And we also combined it with something that’s found some in India, Hawaii more in China. But we felt it was developed to its most sophisticated degree by Russian Orthodox Christian monks. At least over a thousand years ago. And it was for them, like for the Shaolin Buddhist warrior monks in China, a way of preparing for prayer and helping their spiritual development. And it’s still taught to Russian Special Forces in their military and–
Dr. Brown: And a lot of their Olympic athletes also do it.
Frank: Can breathing practices be used to enhance a couples sexual experience?
Dr. Brown: I’ll let Pat start with that.
Dr. Gerbarg: Well, let’s not get too personal here.
Frank: No particular couple.
Dr. Brown: I’ve taught different courses at different times, like the course we like to teach these days is like a Saturday day and then a little bit on Friday night or Sunday with it. And a lot of people come back in a second and they go, “You know, do you know how much this breathing is good for sex?” We haven’t said anything about it.
Dr. Gerbarg: Oh, that’s interesting.
Frank: Right. No one’s ever told us that before. Please do tell.
Dr. Gerbarg: We couldn’t figure that one out.
Dr. Brown: When you’re doing the breathing, part of what happens is, your brain goes into the zone of flow and your heart’s a electrical activity becomes this very beautiful smooth kind of activity and the two people almost like join in an energetic way, in an electrical way. And really what you’re talking about in sex, is a way of joining mind, body, spirit for two people so that the breathing is a very beautiful way of making it easier to do that.
And there’s ways–sometimes in more advanced courses we get into doing the breathing in pairs and helping people find that resonance. But I’m invited to teach a lot of the wonderful family therapy institute in New York City, called the Acronym institute, and a lot of the top faculty are advanced Buddhist meditators and they have me come, because they find when they use the breathing for families that are stressed out, the couples get better and often the parents end up doing it some of the time with their kids. And it everybody starts to resonant together instead of being on very different pages of music, shall we say.
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One more question, when is the best time of day to practice and how do you create an environment–the appropriate meditation shall we say or breathing environment?
Dr. Brown: Those are great questions. The core part of the breathing is five breaths per minute and, if possible, combining it with resistant breathing. In yoga in America breathing that’s often called Ocean Breath. And the third part that we used that came from the monks, although it’s found in China and Hawaii and India, we call Moving the Breath. And when you combine all three of them, it feels so refreshing. And a lot of people like doing it that way in the mornings.
At night, a lot of people just like breathing at five breaths per minute, because it’s so peaceful. So partly it depends on, when people ask me in the course, what’s the best time of day to do this. I say, “Whatever time of day that you will do it at,” because people seem to have so many things they’re trying to do every day–more than they can possibly do, that you have to carve out a time where you’re going to do it for a few minutes.
Although the nice thing about this breathing is, it will carry over and you find you slipped in and out of it all day, whatever you’re doing. I find with some of the things I do, I often have meetings that can be stressful or there are times where you’re just sitting waiting for something. You hurried to get somewhere and then you’ve got to wait before it happens. And you just go inside doing the breathing and nobody knows you’re doing it and you’re recharging.
A lot of animals do that, whether you watch lions or bears or cats, they often just sit there quietly. They have a cycle of energy and action and then they have a cycle of rest and relaxation and recharging.
And we’ve forgotten a lot about that. It’s like people supposed to be going all the time when they’re awake and actually when they’re asleep and their dream period, they’re often stressing out going over things in their dreams. And we really need to reduce that extra activity of the mind, because our mind is both a blessing and a curse. It could be our greatest enemy and too much of the action of the mind keeps you from just doing what’s natural.
Dr. Gayl: How often do you practice?
Dr. Brown: I always make sure I do 20 minutes of breathing a day. There’s a lot of research now showing that it’s amazing how 20 minutes seems like a magic time. Now, if you only do it for five minutes or eight minutes, you can measure profound changes and people feel better. But it looks like if you do it for 20 minutes it has really amazing effects. Your energy is so changed.
It depends. A friend of ours, a famous researcher, Dr. Luciano Bernardi in Italy, he also studies breathing for different medical conditions, including, “How do you adjust to high altitude?” So he took a group of professional mountain climbers and half of them were trained to do this kind of breathing. And they had to come to the laboratory every day, do it for an hour. Everything they could measure was being measured on them while they were doing this breathing. And the other half of the professional climbing group, which were amazing athletes to begin with, they weren’t doing the breathing. They were just doing their usual extreme athletic activities.
Two years later they went back to Mount Everest and the guys doing the breathing could comfortably climb way above 20,000 feet without oxygen. And they went from using 20 percent of their lung surface to 80 percent, which is the most anybody could ever use, even theoretically. And of course, they weren’t doing the breathing most of the day, but their whole system worked better. That’s the amazing thing is, if you just do it some every day, it will affect how everything works in your body.
Dr. Gerbarg: The other thing is usually we have people do it with their eyes closed when they do that intense practice 20 minutes a day. But then, after a couple of months, they learn to do it with their eyes open. And then it’s something you can do on and off throughout the day if you’re having a stressful day.
You could be at your desk typing or doing your computer or whatever or in a meeting and you could be quietly doing this. No one will know and everyone else is going bonkers and you’re just sitting there breathing, feeling good. So it becomes something that doesn’t take time out of your busy day.
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships and we’ve been talking with doctors, Brown and Gerbarg, authors of The Healing Power of the Breath, a book that offers a drug-free alternative that works through a range of simple breathing techniques drawn from yoga, Buddhist meditation and other sources.
Along today’s journey we’ve discussed a connection of breath and the martial arts, sex and the breath and the dopamine response of our activities.
I hope you’ve had as much fun as I’ve had learning about the power of breath and breathing exercises with doctors, Brown and Gerbarg. I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity and the information.
As always, it’s my wish for you to walk away from this conversation with a heaping helping of useful information that’ll help you create a relationship that’s as loving and accepting as possible. Let us know what you thought of today’s show at: facebook/relationshipflove, on Twitter @mrfranklove or at franklove.com. On behalf of my producer, Phileta Legette and my assistant producer, Anayza Stewart, keep rising. This is Frank Love.
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