How can you demonstrate that yoga practices are beneficial?
How do you know you are tightening the correct muscles or relaxing the muscle not involved in the movement when practicing asanas?
How can you know that the person is mindful and not sleepy or worrying when meditating?
How do you know the breathing pattern is correct when practicing pranayama?
The obvious answer would be to ask the instructor or check in with the participant; however, it is often very challenging for the teacher or student to know. Many participants think that they are muscularly relaxed while in fact there is ongoing covert muscle tension as measured by electromyography (EMG). Some participants after performing an asana, do not relax their muscles even though they report feeling relaxed. Similarly, some people practice specific pranayama breathing practice with the purpose of restoring the sympathetic/parasympathetic system; however, they may not be doing it correctly. Similarly, when meditating, a person may become sleepy or their attention wanders and is captured by worries, dreams, and concerns instead of being present with the mantra. These problems may be resolved by integrating bio- and neurofeedback with yoga instruction and practice. Biofeedback monitors the physiological signals produced by the body and displays them back to the person as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Biofeedback is a methodology by which the participant receives ongoing feedback of the physiological changes that are occurring within the body. Reproduced with permission from Peper et al, 2008.
With the appropriate biofeedback equipment, one can easily record muscle tension, temperature, blood flow and pulse from the finger, heart rate, respiration, sweating response, posture alignment, etc.** Neurofeedback records the brainwaves (electroencephalography) and can selectively feedback certain EEG patterns. In most cases participants are unaware of subtle physiological changes that can occur. However, when the physiological signals are displayed so that the person can see or hear the changes in their physiology they learn internal awareness that is associated with these physiological changes and learn mastery and control. Biofeedback and neuro feedback is a tool to make the invisible, visible; the unfelt, felt and the undocumented, documented.
Biofeedback can be used to document that a purported yoga practice actually affects the psychophysiology. For example, in our research with the Japanese Yogi, Mr. Kawakami, who was bestowed the title “Yoga Samrat’ by the Indian Yoga Culture Federation in 1983, we measured his physiological responses while breathing at two breaths a minute as well as when he inserted non-sterilized skewers through his tongue tongue (Arambula et al, 2001; Peper et al, 2005a; Peper et al, 2005b). The physiological recordings confirmed that his Oxygen saturation stayed normal while breathing two breaths per minute and that he did not trigger any physiological arousal during the skewer piercing. The electroencephalographic recordings showed that there was no response or registration of pain. A useful approach of using biofeedback with yoga instruction is to monitor muscle activity to measure whether the person is performing the movement appropriately. Often the person tightens the wrong muscles or performs with too much effort, or does not relax after performing. An example of recording muscle tension as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Recording the muscle tension with Biograph Infinity while performing an asana.
In our research it is clear that many people are unaware that they tighten muscles. For example, Mcphetridge et al, (2011) showed that when participants were asked to bend forward slowly to touch their toes and then hang relaxed in a forward fold, most participants reported that they were totally relaxed in their neck. In actuality, they were not relaxed as their neck muscles were still contracting as recorded by electromyography (EMG). After muscle biofeedback training, they all learned to let their neck muscles be totally relaxed in the hanging fold position as shown in Figure 3 & 4.
Figure 3: Initial assessment of neck SEMG while performing a toe touch. Reproduced from Harvey, E. & Peper, E. (2011).
Figure 4: Toe touch after feedback training. The neck is now relaxed; however, the form is still not optimum. . Reproduced from Harvey, E. & Peper, E. (2011).
Thus, muscle feedback is a superb tool to integrate with teaching yoga so that participants can perform asanas with least amount of inappropriate tension and also can relax totally after having tightened the muscles. Biofeedback can similarly be used to monitor body posture during meditation. Often participants become sleepy or their attention drifts and gets captured by imagery or worries. When they become sleepy, they usually begin to slouch. This change in body position can be readily be monitored with a posture feedback device. The UpRight,™ (produced by Upright Technologies, Ltd https://www.uprightpose.com/) is a small sensor that is placed on the upper or lower spine and connects with Bluetooth to the cell phone. After calibration of erect and slouched positions, the device gives vibratory feedback each time the participant slouches and reminds the participant to come back to sitting upright as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: UpRigh™ device placed on the upper spine to provide feedback during meditation. Each time person slouches which often occurs when they become sleepy or loose meditative focus, the device provides feedback by vibrating.
Alternatively, the brainwaves patterns (electroencephalography could be monitored with neurofeedback and whenever the person drifts into sleep or becomes excessively aroused by worry, neurofeedback could remind the person to be let go and be centered. Finally, biofeedback can be used with pranayama practice. When a person is breathing approximately six breaths per minute heart rate variability can increase. This means that during inhalation heart rate increases and during exhalation heart rate decreases. When the person breathes so that the heart rate variability increases, it optimizes sympathetic/parasympathetic activity. There are now many wearable biofeedback devices that can accurately monitor heart rate variability and display the changes in heart rate as modulated by breathing.
Conclusion: Biofeedback is a useful strategy to enhance yoga practice as it makes the invisible visible. It allows the teacher and the student to become aware of the dysfunctional patterns that may be occurring beneath awareness.
Arambula, P., Peper, E., Kawakami, M., & Gibney, K. H. (2001). The physiological correlates of Kundalini Yoga meditation: a study of a yoga master. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 26(2), 147-153.
Harvey, E. & Peper, E. (2011). I thought I was relaxed: The use of SEMG biofeedback for training awareness and control. In W. A. Edmonds, & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Case studies in applied psychophysiology: Neurofeedback and biofeedback treatments for advances in human performance. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 144-159.
Mcphetridge, J., Thorne, E., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2011) SEMG for training awareness and muscle relaxation during toe touching. Paper presented at the 15th Annual Meeting of the Biofeedback Foundation of Europe. Munich, Germany, February 22-26, 2011.
Peper, E., Kawakami, M., Sata, M., Franklin, Y, Gibney, K. H. & Wilson, V.S. (2005a). Two breaths per minute yogic breathing. In: Kawakami, M. (2005). The Theses of Mitsumasa Kawakami II: The Theory of Yoga-Based Good Health. Tokyo, Japan: Samskara. 483-493. ISBN 4-434-06113-5
Peper, E., Kawakami, M., Sata, M. & Wilson, V.S. (2005b). The physiological correlates of body piercing by a yoga master: Control of pain and bleeding. Subtle Energies & Energy Medicine Journal. 14(3), 223-237.
**Biofeedback and neurofeedback takes skill and training. For information on certification, see http://www.bcia.org Two useful websites are:
“My breathing was something that took me a long time to adjust. I had been breathing almost entirely from my chest and my stomach was hardly moving when I breathed. I made a conscious effort all throughout the day to breathe slowly and with my stomach relaxed. I’ve noticed that my mood is much better when I am breathing this way, and I am much more relaxed. Immediately before I feel like I would have a seizure, if I would change my breathing technique and make sure I was breathing slowly and with my stomach. It would avoid the seizure from developing… This is a huge improvement for me.” –24 year old student who previously experienced 10 epileptic seizures per week
“I blanked out and could not remember the test material. I then reminded myself to breathe lower and slower while imagining the air slowly flowing down my legs. After three breaths, I could again process the information and continue to take the exam. A week later I got my grade back– an A-. Better than I had expected.” –21 year old student
Breathing occurs without awareness unless there are specific problems such as asthma, emphysema or when we run out of air while exercising. Breathing is more than just the air moving in and out. It is the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious—the voluntary and involuntary nervous system— and affects the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity of our body. The way we breathe, such as chronic low level hyperventilation, may contribute to increasing or decreasing anxiety, pain, epileptic seizure, exhaustion, abdominal pain, urinary incontinence or fertility.
We usually think of breathing occurring in our chest. Thus, during inhalation, we puff-up our chest so the lungs will expand. Observe that many people breathe this way and call it normal. Experience how you breathe:
Put your right and on your stomach and your left hand of your chest. Now take a quick big breath. Observe what happened. In most cases, your chest went up and your abdomen tightened and even pulled in.
This breathing pattern evokes a state of arousal and vigilance and activates your sympathetic nervous system. You tend to automatically tighten or pull in your stomach wall to protect your body. When we’re in pain, afraid, anticipate danger or have negative and fearful thoughts, “Do I have enough money for the rent,” or “Feeling rushed and waiting for a delayed Muni bus,” we instinctively hold our breath, slightly tense our muscles and breathe shallowly. Unfortunately, this makes the situation worse—symptoms such as pain, anxiety or abdominal discomfort will increase. This type of breathing is the part of the freeze response—a primal survival reflex. It may even affect our ability to think. Experience how dysfunctional breathing effects us by doing the following exercise (Peper & MacHose, 1993; Gorter & Peper, 2011).
Sit comfortably and breathe normally.
Now inhale normally, but exhale only 70 percent of the air you just inhaled.
Inhale again, and again only exhale 70 percent of the previously inhaled volume of air. If you need to sigh, just do it, and then return to this breathing pattern again by exhaling only 70 percent of the inhaled volume of air.
Continue to breathe in this pattern of 70 percent exhalation for about forty-five seconds, each time exhaling only 70 percent of the air you breathe in. Then stop, and observe what happened.
What did you notice? Within forty-five seconds, more than 98 percent of people report uncomfortable sensations such as lightheadedness, dizziness, anxiety or panic, tension in their neck, back, shoulders, or face, nervousness, an increased heart rate or palpitations, agitation or jitteriness, feeling flushed, tingling, breathlessness, chest pressure, gasping for air, or even a sensation of starving for air. This exercise may also aggravate symptoms that already exist, such as headaches, joint pain, or pain from an injury. If you’re feeling exhausted or stressed, the effects seem even worse.
On the other hand, if you breathed like a happy baby, or more like a peaceful dog lying on its side, the breathing movement occured mainly in the abdomen and the chest stays relaxed. This effortless diaphragmatic breathing promotes regeneration by allowing the abdomen to expand during inhalation and becoming smaller during exhalation as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Illustration of diaphragmatic breathing in which the abdomen expands during inhalation and contracts during exhalation (reproduced by permission from Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A Non Toxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic).
The abdominal movement created by the breathing improves blood and lymph circulation in the abdomen and normalizes gastrointestinal function and enhances regeneration. It supports sympathetic and parasympathetic balance especially when the breathing rate slows to about six breaths per minute. When breathing slower, exhaling takes about twice as long as the inhalation. When you inhale, the abdomen and lower ribs expand to allow the air to flow in and during exhalation the abdomen decreases in diameter and the breath slowly trails off. It is as if there is an upside down umbrella above the pelvic floor opening during inhalation and closing during exhalation.
Most people do not breathe this way . They suffer from “designer’s jean syndrome”. The clothing is too constricting to allow the abdomen to expand during inhalation (Remember how good it felt when you loosened your belt when eating a big meal?). Or, you are self-conscious of your stomach, “What would people thinks if my stomach hung out?” Yet, to regenerate, allow yourself to breathe like peaceful baby with the breathing movements occurring in the belly. Effortless diaphragmatic breathing is the cheapest way to improve your health. Thus observe yourself and transform your breathing patterns.
Interrupt breath holding and continue to breathe to enhance health. Observe situations where you hold your breath and then continue to breathe. If you expect pain during movement or a procedure, remember to allow your abdomen to expand during inhalation and then begin to exhaling whispering “Shhhhhhhhh.” Start exhaling and then begin your movement while continuing to exhale. In almost all cases the movement is less painful and easier. We observed this identical breathing pattern in our studies of Mr. Kawakami, a yogi who insert unsterilized skewers through his neck and tongue while exhaling—he did not experience any pain or bleeding as shown in Fig 2.
Figure 2. Demonstration by Mr. Kawakami, a yogi, who inserted non-sterile skewers while exhaling and reported no pain. When he removed the skewers there was no bleeding and the tissue healed rapidly (by permission from Peper, E., Kawakami, M., Sata, M. & Wilson, V.S. (2005). The physiological correlates of body piercing by a yoga master: Control of pain and bleeding. Subtle Energies & Energy Medicine Journal. 14(3), 223-237).
Shift shallow chest breathing to slower diaphragmatic breathing. Each time you catch yourself breathing higher in your chest. Stop. Focus on allowing your abdomen to expand during inhalation and become smaller during exhalation as if it was a balloon. Allow the air to flow smoothly during exhalation and allow the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation. Over time allow yourself to inhale to the count of three and exhale to the count of 6 or 7 without effort. Imagine that when you exhale the air flows down and through your legs and out your feet. As you continue to breathe this way, your heart rate will slightly increase during inhalation and decrease during exhalation which is an indication of sympathetic and parasympathetic restorative balance. A state that supports regeneration (for more information see, Peper, E. & Vicci Tibbetts, Effortless diaphragmatic breathing).
For many people when they practice these simple breathing skills during the day their blood pressure, anxiety and even pain decreases. While for other, it allows clarity of thought.
Focus On Possibilities, Not On Limitations. Youtube interviews of Erik Peper, PhD, by Larry Berkelhammer, PhDPosted: March 18, 2013
Focus On Possibilities, Not On Limitations
This interview with psychophysiologist Dr. Erik Peper reveals self-healing secrets used by yogis for thousands of years. Mind-training methods used by yogis like Jack Schwarz were explored. The underlying message throughout the discussion was that suffering and even actual tissue damage are profoundly influenced by both our negative and our positive attributions. The methods by which yogis have learned to self-heal is available to all of us who are willing to assiduously adopt a daily practice. It is very clear that when our attention goes to our pain or other symptoms, our suffering and even tissue damage worsens. When we focus all our attention on what we want rather than on what we are afraid of, we achieve a healthier, more positive, and more robust level of healing. We suffer when we have negative expectancies and we reduce suffering when we focus our attention on positive expectancies. We can train the mind to fully experience sensations without negative attributions. For the vast majority of us, we have far greater potential than we believe we have. Biofeedback, concentration practices, mindfulness practices, and other yogic practices allow us to condition ourselves to concentrate on the present moment, rather than on our negative expectancies, limitations, attributions, and fears.
Belief Becomes Biology
Dr. Larry Berkelhammer speaks with Dr. Erik Peper about the connection of our beliefs and our health.