Headlining the 2015 Newtown Yoga Festival on Saturday, August 22, will be two award-winning authors and nationally recognized doctors: Dr Patricia Gerbarg and Dr Richard Brown.
Partners in work and life, Dr Gerbarg and Dr Brown, of Kingston, N.Y., with offices in Manhattan, will present the afternoon workshop for ages 16 and up, “Back to Balance: Yoga, Meditation, and Tools for Cultivating a Stress-Free Life.”
The Breath-Body-Mind workshop, a specific practice developed by the two psychiatrists, is designed to open communication pathways between the mind and body, increase energy and performance, and regulate the mood. Simplified, Dr Gerbarg said, what they offer is a fusion of ancient practices and modern science.
Yoga is an ancient practice with many forms, Dr Gerbarg said Monday, August 4, and a complex system that takes time for people to learn.
“We’ve come at the problem of stress with the point of view of psychiatrists and scientists,” she said. The technique they will offer to Yoga Festival participants is one that can be quickly learned and utilized in many situations, with practice.
Dr Brown is an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. He is a clinician-researcher, and trained in psychopharmacology. He has practiced martial arts since a child, and is a practitioner of Zen meditation and qigong, a system of body movement, breath, and meditation. He has most recently trained in the Japanese martial art aikido.
Dr Gerbarg trained at Harvard University as a psychoanalyst, and is also a clinician-researcher. She is a consultant, and teaches neuroscience, natural treatments for mental health, and integrates the Breath-Body-Mind practice into psychotherapy.
It was Dr Brown’s knowledge of martial arts practices to enhance the ability to overcome physical and emotional stress, and intense breathing techniques used to strengthen endurance and the mind that eventually led the couple to develop the Breath-Body-Mind program.
“I was very happy with my traditional practice,” Dr Gerbarg admitted, but at her husband’s urging, began to learn the breathing practice known as sudarshan kriya yoga [SKY]. I was blown away by what I experienced, and what the others experienced,” said Dr Gerbarg. She delved into studying and researching what she saw happening with participants, which included a loss of anxieties and worries.
In 2000, Dr Brown furthered his studies in SKY breathing practice, sponsored by the Art of Living Foundation based in Bangalor, India.
“It was a specific six-day program that included yoga movements, yoga philosophy, yoga breathing practices, meditation, and Hindu religious content,” Dr Gerbarg said. “The breathing practices included slow, medium, fast, and very fast breathing techniques. We found the faster breathing techniques to cause adverse reactions in some vulnerable people, particularly those with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorders, and seizure disorders. Since we were not able to convince the Art of living Foundation to allow us to adapt the program to the needs of individuals with mental illness, we withdrew from the organization after about five years of study.”
Dr Brown began offering the practice to certain patients, and seeing good results.
With her husband’s successes, Dr Gerbarg also began utilizing the breathing practice with patients she felt could benefit from it. She was “astounded,” she said, at some of the results, recognizing them as “transformative” for patients who had residual issues despite fairly successful traditional therapy.
In addition to reading about yoga practices, she began to read literature about respiratory physiology.
“I began to pick up information on how the respiratory system works and how it can affect the mind,” Dr Gerbarg said.
A paper by Stephen Porges, PhD, about the autonomic nervous system (controlling the involuntary functions of the body), which handles stress, proved enlightening.
The autonomic nervous system, she explained, is made up of the sympathetic branch, “which initiates the ‘fight or flight’ response,” and the parasympathetic bran, “Which is the ‘calm down’ part of the system.” The parasympathetic branch restores energy reserves and repairs physical damage brought on by the fight or flight response.
Dr Porges identified the vagus nerves as containing the main pathways of the parasympathetic nervous system, which carry information between the body and the brain. But while only 20 percent of the pathways within the vagus nerves send messages from brain to body, 80 percent transport information from the body to the brain.
“That information is relayed to the main regulatory centers of the brain,” said Dr Gerbarg, “influenced by information from the body via the vagus nerves.”
Drs Gerbarg and Brown recognized that breathing and emotion are connected. “It turns out,” Dr Gerbarg said, “if you change the pattern of breathing, you can change the messages being sent from the respiratory system to the brain. The brain has its own way of interpreting these messages. With the right breathing patterns you can bring about a changes in how the brain is thinking, feeling, and regulating emotions, and behavior.”
The core practice the doctors teach in their workshops is what Dr Gerbarg called “coherent” breathing, “That is, breathing gently at a rate of five breaths per minute using a length of in-breath that is equal to the length of out-breath.” They have found this to create the optimal balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems, leading to greater synchronicity throughout the major systems in the body.
“We can teach most people, in a few minutes, to pace their breathing, very gently; and something interesting happens. At this rate,” she said, “people become very calm.”
The Breath-Body-Mind technique can also be used to help people sleep, to reduce depression, “and most interesting,” Dr Gerbarg said, “ is how rapidly it reduces symptoms of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”
Dr Brown and Dr Gerbarg have worked successfully with survivors of 9/11, offering workshops three to four times a year. Even years after the initial trauma, they have seen patients resolve both physical and emotional issues. Dr Brown has also traveled to Sudan, sharing the Breath-Body-Mind technique with former slaves, and the couple has worked in a number of other disaster areas.
“Breathing seems to break the link with trauma,” said Dr Gerbarg.
“As a yoga therapist, I’m in touch with that niche and connected to Kripalu [Center for Yoga & Health, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts],” said Karen Pierce, a co-founder of Newtown Yoga Festival. Drs Brown and Gerbarg teach Breath-Body-Mind at Kripalu.
In seeking presenters for the Yoga Festival, Ms Pierce said she tends to act intuitively, in order to address the needs of the town, post-12/14.
“I felt [Dr Brown and Dr Gerbarg] were a good fit for what was needed here. This is what the town needs, so far as dealing with grief and trauma,” said Ms Pierce. “I thought that what they have to offer will be very beneficial. These are doctors using complementary medicine, and finding great results,” she said.
Participants may see immediate benefits of Breath-Body-Mind in a reduction of anxiety and emotional distress, Dr Gerbarg said. The practice tends to alleviate worrying, bring about mental calm, and relax the body. Simple qigong movements will coordinate with one to 15 minutes of breathing practice, followed by relaxation, at the August 22 program, said Dr Gerbarg. “Then, if time allows, we will offer more than one round,” she said.
The doctors suggest doing the practice once a day, with eyes closed. A soundtrack can be used to monitor the breathing.
“Then, over time,” Dr Gerbarg said, “we suggest doing the practice with the eyes open.” This enables practitioners to use the program anywhere, at anytime.
Breath-Body-Mind, practiced correctly, can alleviate physical as well as emotional conditions, she said, as many physical conditions are exacerbated by stress.
The breath practice turns on the body’s anti-inflammatory system, she said.
They are happy to have the chance to offer Breath-Body-Mind in Newtown, Dr Gerbarg said.
“We did offer our assistance right after 12/14, but there was so much else offered and so much going on. We hoped that eventually someone would invite us to help the community,” she said.
For those who cannot attend a workshop, Drs Brown and Gerbarg have written a book, The Healing Power of the Breath. The book with CD is available at www.amazon.com.
More information can be found on their website, www.breath-body-mind.com.
To register for the 2015 Newtown Yoga Festival, visit newtownyogafestival.org. There is a suggested donation of $25. The festival takes place Saturday, August 22, from 9 am to 4 pm, at NYA Youth & Fitness Center, 4 Primrose Lane, at Fairfield Hills. A variety of yoga and dance programs for all ages and all levels will be ongoing throughout the morning, including a family program by renowned dance troupe Pilobolus.
Live music, vendors, and a silent auction are among the activities that will take place in the NYA courtyard. Visit the festival website for a full schedule and additional information.