Yoga teacher training in lockdown. Not exactly the experience I signed up for, back in that other life, eight long months ago, before Covid-19 knocked us all off-balance – but, honestly, so much better for it. I mean, what better opportunity to test your yoga-chops than through this ultimate challenge to inner spirit? What better time to rediscover your balance – literally, in my case, one wobbly leg at a time?
So how’s it been, yoga teacher training in lockdown (and the few weeks since)? Challenging, enlightening, inspiring, educational (obvs), overwhelming, mind-blowing, frustrating at times. Bloody hard work and bloody good fun too. All those things. Too much information, not enough information – the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. A deep, bottomless depth of not knowing. A deep bottomless yearning to know more. And then more still. So many threads to knit together. And Sanskrit! So much blummin’ Sanskrit!
Freshly-seeded friendships have taken root, tiny blossoms forming – nourished by the light of Zoom – despite the inauspicious ground we scattered to. And wow, have they been important.
We’re six months into the course now with, for me at least – having missed a module in March – only one weekend spent face-to-face in the classroom. We were thirteen at first but very soon lost three. Preferring not to carry on through the wonders of wifi, they deferred to a later intake. Now, as lockdown limitations dawdle on into summer – and, as I prepare to post this, make an overnight return in the Greater Manchester area – we’re down to nine. Fingers crossed we’re back in the studio in September but who knows? The only certainty we have right now is the inevitability of change.
I know it’s been a struggle for some – circumstances and expectations differ – but it’s been fascinating for me, to see how well it’s worked. How even the most technophobic of teachers have risen to the challenge of teaching to a randomly rearranging bunch of pixels, using only their sofa cushions, dressing gown belts and Jamie Oliver’s latest as props.
Outside the course modules, and my regular teachers’ classes here at home, I’ve bumped up my required contact hours by virtually attending classes across the country – and further afield in Christchurch, New Zealand, San Fransisco Bay and Oregon too – with teachers I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to experience.
A five-day Yin intensive – which should have been in the studio but transferred online without a hiccup – proved inspiring and thought-provoking despite requiring me to spend several hours a day on my living room floor, peering at the telly, culminating in having to teach a short ten-minute sequence to a distant ‘gallery’, all of them (bar one) experienced yoga teachers.
It went okay. Not as relaxed as I one day hope to be but feedback was positive. ‘Duck broken,’ I thought.
But I was wrong. The duck hadn’t so much as broken sweat. As I discovered last weekend, with the first teaching practice assignment in the yoga teacher training course.
‘A thousand mile journey begins with a single step,’ wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching1, in (perhaps) the fourth or third century BCE, and the Gremlin reminds me – almost daily now – how relevant that ancient wisdom, as the depth of my unknowing really starts to dawn and the thought of delivering any sort of yoga class – even to him, my most forgiving and eager student – turns my brain to mush.
‘Just do one thing’, he’ll say. ‘Take one step. Sit on the yoga mat. Arrange a few props. Talk me through one thing.’ And without knowing how, I’ve taken not one but several steps along the mat and he’s snoozing his way through Savasana.
Brain freeze. We’ve all had it. That moment, faced with a challenge or any sort of pressure, when the words just disappear. There’s nothing there. Empty space. Nada.
Hundreds of years after Lao Tzu, Nath Yogi Swatmarama wrote that ‘when the breath is steady, the mind is steady and the yogi becomes steady.’2
In other words (paraphrasing ever so slightly), when our breathe is calm, our brains are less likely to turn to mush. And our body becomes calm too.
And science – so often the cynic when it comes to anything even vaguely spiritual – agrees.
According to neuroscientist and cardiologist Dr Alan Watkins (check out his entertaining TedX Talks), that brain-turning-to-mush thing is our frontal lobe shutting off, hijacked by our own physiology. Faced with any sort of challenge, our inherent survival system kicks in and we either stop and fight that sabre-toothed tiger or run for our life. Or play dead.
Our tigers take many forms these days, with or without teeth, our frontal lobes perpetually inhibited – along with our awareness that they are so. To take back control, says Dr Watkins, you have to ‘change the context (the physiology) within which your thoughts emerge. Then you can change the thoughts.’ And the starting point for this is to take conscious control over your breath.
But forget ‘taking a couple of deep breaths’ to calm your nerves before that exam, or gulping in the air through the mouth to ‘get more oxygen’ after a run. Neither will sufficiently restore equilibrium.
‘The single most important thing,’ he says, ‘is to breathe rhythmically. The second most important thing is to breathe smoothly, at a fixed volume per second round the entire cycle. And the third most important thing is to focus your attention, while you breathe, to the centre of your chest – the heart centre – because the heart generates more electrical power than any other part of the system.’ (Heart chakra meditation anyone?)
Better still, breathe in for six seconds and out for six seconds (five breaths per minute), smoothly and rhythmically – through the nose or with softly parted lips if this isn’t possible – for twenty minutes every day, over a six month period, and you will ‘turn the clock back ten years’.
I like the sound of that, so tune in here in twelve months, when I hope to feel twenty years younger.
Stephen Elliott, who coined the term ‘coherent breathing’, posits that when combined with stillness and relaxation, breathing in this way ‘is meditation’ and that the positive effects during both meditation and daily life are ‘simply the effects of residing in the state of ideal balance’.
Dr Richard Brown, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, and Dr Patricia Gerbarg, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York Medical College, work with a range of breathing techniques – drawn from yoga, Buddhist meditation and qigong – to treat disorders such as anxiety, insomnia and PTSD. They’ve used coherent breathing to help emotionally withdrawn children respond better to their environment and worked with survivors of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, to help clear ‘ground-glass lungs’, also known as ‘ground-glass opacity’.3 (a phenomenon seen in Covid-19 patients, incidentally).
When asked how breath can be healing when we do it all the time, Dr Gerbarg responds that ‘the brain listens to the lungs’. At any given moment, our brain needs to know what is happening with our body and our breathing patterns signal when we’re safe, and when we’re challenged. And key to this is our autonomic nervous system and its effect on our heart rate variability (HRV).
Breathing deeply, smoothly and rhythmically activates the calming, healing parasympathetic nervous system and quiets the defensive, energy-burning sympathetic nervous system – bringing the two into balance.4
It does this by influencing our heart rate variability – the natural fluctuations in time between our heart beats. Coherent breathing both modulates and increases HRV, and a higher HRV means ‘a healthier cardiovascular system and a more resilient stress response system’. Our vagus nerve, linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, sends a message from our lungs to our brain that we’re safe.
Breathing at five breaths per minute is the ‘frequency of resonance’ for an adult, at rest or active, which the body recognises as the ideal for homeostasis – a system in balance – and HRV automatically aligns with it. ‘Even a few minutes of breathing at the frequency of resonance can move a person from being tense and anxious to being calm and relaxed’.5
In the week leading up to that teaching practice, I’d run through my short sequence so many times, speaking the cues out loud, my tongue was starting to do cartwheels, evidence perhaps that my frontal lobe was heading for the freezer. But I’ve been practising the 6:6 breathing every day too. When my moment came, somehow – from somewhere – the words appeared. They might even have been in the right order.
Whether breathing in and out five times a minute helped, it’s hard to say – but that teaching duck is definitely broken now. On to the next challenge. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to turn the clock back another few months.
References: 1Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64; 2The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter 2, Verse 2; 3,4Richard P Brown MD, Patricia L Gerbarg MD, ‘The Healing Power of the Breath’ (2012); 5Stephen Elliott, ‘The New Science of Breath’, Second Edition (2006).
I should also credit Ben Wolff, yoga teacher, neuroscientist and hyonotherapist, and guest teacher on the Norman Blair Yin intensive I attended in July, whose session inspired me to read, research and write about Coherent Breathing. Truly inspirational.