The 3rd Annual Breathe & Heal Conference, sponsored by Chemung County Department of Mental Hygiene, was held in Elmira, NY over the weekend of April 17th. Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, Dr. Richard P. Brown, and yoga therapist, Joy Bennett-Jennings, led the conference for 80 educators and health care professionals. Among those in attendance were staff from the Sol Stone Nutrition Clinic, Elmira Psychiatric Center, Elmira Family Services, Economic Opportunity Program and the Southside Community Center.
Over 10 years of research have led Drs. Gerbarg and Brown to see that if you can control your breathing, you can better control your emotions. If we change the patterns of our breathing, we can use the body’s internal communication networks to send messages to the brain that help calm down emotional over-reactions and improve our ability to understand situations, solve problems, make better decisions and relate better to other people. This enables the brain’s emotional regulatory centers to function more effectively and restores a healthier balance in our stress response systems, including certain neurotransmitters and neurohormones. Their Breath-Body-Mind programs are specifically designed by Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg to relieve stress, anxiety and different forms of trauma.
Local professionals acknowledge that in their area, schools were recently reorganized, staffing was cut and parents have lost jobs, all of which have created stress on the community. Parents’ stress is absorbed by the children, resulting in decreased focus and increased behavioral problems, bullying and episodes of violence in school. Children don’t have to be bribed to take the program, not even the toughest kids, and once breathing is learned, they are able to utilize it wherever they are. This program could become a key to reducing violence in the Elmira schools. The techniques are self-regulated and provide viable options for dealing with the stressors of life in a healthy manner, free of medications. As they are able to get more parents involved, families will be impacted, which will, in turn, decrease the stress on the overall community.
This program would not be possible without the endless, committed work of Martha Benedict, retired Elmira school administrator, and her husband, Bill Benedict, the retired director of the Elmira Psychiatric Center. They are both certified Breath-Body-Mind instructors, and have seen first-hand the calming effect that the breathing has on children as young as kindergarten age.
The following people provided invaluable assistance:
Brian Hart - Richard Fidelman - Sheila Katz - Lynn McNett - Dianne Hill
Ellen Rusling - Alice Lombardo - Dianne Hill - Claire Brown - Bill & Martha Benedict
Sheila Katz - Lynn McNutt - Maggie Benedict - Doris Farmer - Hollace Donner
Logistics & Assistance:
Richard Fidelman - Hollace Donner
Photography: Iretta Alexander
Director of Community Services, Chemung County Department of Mental Hygiene, Geneva NY
In 2012 the Chemung County Department of Mental Hygiene was approached by community members with a long history of providing services to children. The purpose of this initial meeting was to discuss the possible benefits of training individuals in techniques associated with coherent breathing, meditation, relaxation... as they relate to coping with the stresses in life.
In April of the following year the Department sponsored an international experiential Breathe and Heal conference for approximately 50 participants taught by two psychiatrists, Dr. Richard P. Brown and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, world renowned Breath-Body-Mind educators, and a pilot was born. The following April, doctors Brown and Gerbarg were joined by yoga instructor Joy Bennett-Jennings to provide a second conference of a similar nature, but this time with a focus on children, and while this one, like it's predecessor, had approximately 50 attendees, we opted not to offer it internationally as that created many challenges.
As April of 2015 approaches we are bringing the three extremely talented presenters to Chemung County. Our initial goal of training 20-30 local individuals in these skills and encouraging them to use them for their own self regulation has been achieved. These graduates of the program now use the techniques with individuals they serve in their work environments, and several of them have attended further training at Kripalu to be certified as trainers and “breath coaches”. This positions our community to expand the scope of these techniques from their current sites—in school classrooms, an after school program, a psychiatric hospital, and a mental health clinic—to working with children of abuse and neglect and their families, multiple school sites, and in primary care settings, to name a few.
The next logical step we will take this Summer will be to begin to collect outcomes data from pre- and post-test surveys, service utilization data, and indicators of stress-related behaviors. We hypothesize that the use of the Breath-Body-Mind techniques will improve emotional self-regulation, as indicated by improved behavior and attitudes towards learning as well as a decrease in perceived stress, utilization of healthcare services and reliance on psychotropic medications to deal with the stress of life.
Executive Director, Southside Community Center
My name is Pam Noviello. I am the Executive Director of the Southside Community Center. The Southside Community Center is a youth center located in the most populated, lowest income areas in the City of Elmira. We provide free out of school supervision and learning opportunities to hundreds of community youth every year.
The majority of the 80-100 children we see every day are considered at-risk youth. Our youth not only come from families who live in poverty, but these children deal with so many other issues, such as neglect and lack of proper nutrition. Many live with parents with substance abuse issues, while others have to deal with their parents being arrested and at times actually being incarcerated. 80% of our children come from a single mother home, and when I say single mothers, I mean these mothers are not receiving support checks, the kids do not have scheduled visitations with their fathers on the weekends, and many of them rarely even see their fathers or may not even know who their fathers are, having no positive male figures in their lives. At the Center, we unfortunately see MANY youth who experience stress, anxiety, and worry about things in their lives that they have no control over whatsoever. The list of what our children deal with on a daily basis goes on and on, which is why so many of them struggle emotionally, academically and socially each and every day.
On a more positive note, I am happy to report that in the past few months we have been able to introduce a pilot program to help address these specific needs.
It all started when we first met Doris Farmer at the Great American Smoke Out held at our Community Center. Doris had a table set up for her Heart to Heart Yoga and Healing program. After meeting our Program Coordinator, Doris immediately shared her expertise and quickly convinced us that our kids would benefit greatly from yoga and breathing exercises.
Doris then introduced us to Bill, Martha, and Dick from Crow Calls. It didn’t take much convincing after speaking to all of them and seeing how passionate they all were about helping our area youth, that this is a program which our kids are in desperate need of, and would also have a good time all at the same time. Initially, we introduced the Breath-Body-Mind program to our staff. After 40 minutes with Doris, Martha and Bill, my staff were more relaxed, focused and when the kids came through the doors immediately following their school day, they were able to better address the needs of our kids, all 80-100 of them, in a calmer, more timely fashion. One week later we began the Breath-Body-Mind program with our children, ages 5-12.
Martha will tell you in greater detail more about the program itself, her experience with our young people and how it has progressed over the past few months.
Conference Organizer, Elmira Southside Community Center
I have been working at the Community Center for over 30 years, and may I share with you all that I haven’t been this excited about a new program, if ever, in a very long time. I have witnessed first-hand, how much the kids thoroughly enjoy their time with the staff. I have seen, within 6 weeks of introducing Breath-Body-Mind practices, some definite improvement in some of their behavior and how they deal with stressors and daily frustrations when they are having a bad day. My staff has commented that they have also seen positive changes and that the kids are much calmer when they come out of the gym. I have also received some great feedback from my parents who are also very excited about this new initiative. But most importantly, is the feedback I have gotten from the kids. They look so forward to their weekly visits with everyone from Crow Calls, they love the breathing buddies, the yoga and breathing exercises, especially the HA breathe, the stretching, the pictures from Iretta, and the older ones really feel good about themselves when they help out the younger ones.
We provide many educational and enrichment programs for our children at the Center, all of which are extremely beneficial, but for many of the programs we provide, there are many times when we have difficulty engaging our youth and really need to convince, coax, even bribe our kids into participating. Think back to when you were a child and immediately following your school day, if you were given the choice of running around the playground with your friends or going into our computer room for a Stem activity, I think I can guess what you would choose. Well, I can honestly tell you that when the kids see the yoga mats come out, and they see Martha and Bill, Doris, Iretta, Dick and Cindy show up, they flock to the gym, with no bribing whatsoever. They absolutely love the exercises and they also have enjoyed the relationships which have come about with the adults in the last few months.
We are extremely grateful that our paths have crossed with all of you and that SCC has been chosen to be part of this pilot program. My board is equally as excited about the possibilities of this new program, I am in the middle of writing a grant to help sustain this initiative and I personally will do whatever it takes to continue with the great works that Breathe, Body and Mind has already accomplished in such a short amount of time with our kids. I truly believe that our kids are in desperate need of these tools and techniques to help reduce their stress and anxiety, helping them to better cope and have control over their behavior, which will carry through right into their adulthood.
Director, Community Wellness Economic Opportunity Program, Inc. Elmira, NY
Dr. Rachel Bryant is a Licensed Psychologist in NYS and the Dir. of Community Wellness at Economic Opportunity Program, Inc. (EOP) in Elmira, N.Y. EOP is a community action agency that provides essential programs such as Head Start, Job Training, After School Programs and Weatherization to families struggling economically. EOP was asked to partner with this county wide initiative to provide children and families with an effective, inexpensive and safe way to reduce stress.
Dr. Bryant attended Drs. Brown and Gerbarg’s Breathe and Heal Conference in 2014 and tried to bring some of the techniques learned to one of the programs at EOP. There were factors both expected and unexpected that impeded implementation. While training, staffing and integration of breathing techniques into existing programs were anticipated factors that could be managed, what was not anticipated was the degree to which implementing an unfamiliar technique would meet with resistance. When it did not take, Dr. Bryant retooled her introduction of these techniques and conducted a pilot program where staff was offered the opportunity to experience 15 minutes of coherent breath 2x/wk for 3 weeks. This was well received by approximately 13 staff members and revealed several who were motivated to implement these strategies in their programs.
Dr. Bryant discussed these obstacles and how to avoid the pitfalls she initially faced. At EOP, coherent breath will now be used by staff attending the April 2015 training that participated in the pilot at EOP. These breathing techniques will be taught to a population of children already designated as having high levels of stress and difficulty with self-regulation. These techniques will also be brought to parents by utilizing parent group structures that already exist. Stay tuned for the outcomes!
Grade 6 Teacher, Enrico Fermi School 17, Rochester NY
Breath-Body-Mind Certified Instructor
Being an inner-city sixth grade teacher for over thirty years, I have watched new generations of students become more and more needy, not just academically, but socially and emotionally, too. Children come to school unprepared to learn due to other factors in their lives. The children in my school district in Rochester, New York as well as many other districts, have many obstacles to overcome including severe poverty levels, fetal alcohol syndrome or drug addiction, lead poisoning, domestic or street violence and the desensitizing nature of violence on TV or on video games. Further, with the onslaught of social media, students are losing the ability to socialize appropriately in face to face situations. Cyberbullying causes issues at school. Today's students are under unbelievable stress and experience more trauma on a daily basis than students of past generations. This can manifest itself in behavioral issues, inability to focus and retain information, inability to work in groups and/or use higher level thinking skills. These all contribute to low self image. I, myself, was feeling run down, over-stressed and pressured by curriculum demands, behavioral issues and a less than supportive administration. We all needed help.
Three years ago, I became involved with a Learning Circle hosted by Dr. Elizabeth Meeker, member of the Core Management Team the Rochester City School District’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant focused on improving access to mental health care and school-based mental health treatment. Elizabeth mentioned an upcoming Breath and Heal Conference she was participating in and I was intrigued. I registered and attended the two day event. During the training I realized I had found a way to help myself and I imagined what impact the Breath-Body-Mind techniques would have on my students. I already sporadically used movement and meditation which had a limited positive impact with students.
I incorporated the techniques I learned from Doctors Brown and Gerbarg slowly, in our daily schedule right after lunch. Over 150 students were corralled into a cafeteria for 30 minutes of crazy chaos. When students returned, we needed to do something to settle us. We started slowly with calming music. We began to use the Qigong "ragdoll" movement, introduced coherent breathing using Dr. Brown's CD and did five minute non-mandatory guided meditations. Students did not have to participate, but they could not disturb those of us who did. At first, few students fully participated. After a while, more joined the exercises. Fairly soon after that, everyone was onboard for at least some of the activities. What I noticed was a calmer, more focused class and an increased willingness to engage in learning, the behavioral issues lessening. I was onto something.
In the summer of 2013, I took the week long Teacher Training certification course for Breath-Body-Mind at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, a beautiful retreat near Stockbridge, MA. I eagerly learned much more and began to apply this to my practice the following September. My school had just begun "Extended Learning Time" or ELT, elongating the school day by one and one half hours. The intent was to provide students with enrichment activities or differentiated intervention. I completed a unit plan which offered both under the title "Breath, Body and Mind." We took a look at stress, how it affects our health and our mood, how we could control the effects stress caused. We learned Qi Gong's Four Golden Wheels, Coherent Breathing, Guided Meditation- some of these modified to be child friendly. We brought in the "Golden Rule" and its many versions in all major world religions. We learned to use "I Statements" when confronting others (I feel ______ when you_____). For homework, we shared what we learned with our families.
I found some amazing results:
Breath-Body-Mind (BBM) became part of our curriculum this school year since I blended the entire school day, ELT included, into what we called "Project Based Learning." Real world applications for the skills we were learning blended into all facets of curriculum. We started the day with BBM strategies, used more as needed, incorporated movement, added a monthly positive character study and encouraged each other to find our center and breathe through difficult situations. We started to look at the affects diet had on our state of mind. We were making significant progress, lowering our stress levels, becoming ready to learn.
Unfortunately, due to family illness, I had to leave the classroom for weeks at a time and will be retiring in May. When I returned to the classroom after an extended absence, I found students regressed in behaviors and that the stress level of the classroom had escalated. In one sense, this proves the strategies of BBM truly helped my sixth graders since once the structure which allowed daily use of the strategies was no longer in place, old issues surfaced and the good work we had done was unraveled.
This gives me hope. I envision school districts with high instances of suspension or violence and low test scores using BBM strategies to promote a healthy student body. I see more of an impact when all classrooms use these techniques, not in isolation but in concert with each other. I feel all staff members, especially those in struggling schools, from teachers to administrators to cafeteria and custodial staff, need to be trained in using these strategies.
Breath-Body-Mind Training, Levels 1 and 2
It’s so effortless and so meaningful to teach with Dr. Richard Brown and his wife Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, and through the years we’ve taught to a variety of communities. For my part, I love offering presentations to adult professionals on how to use yoga therapy for the children whom they serve. In working with children who have a broad spectrum of emotional or psychiatric disorders, it’s important to offer ideas that are engaging and experiential. It’s important to “hold the space” from the first moment on, and I’ve learned to present a style of calm presence that invites both the children and their adult caregivers an opportunity to discover accessible tools for emotional regulation. Through movement and music, through yoga postures and breath (always, the breath!) it is possible to foster contentment and deep peace.
I avoid the “dummy down” approach, informing children about ancient yoga practices, and spicing up the learning process with lessons on human anatomy. I can teach from a much deeper place when they can locate their cranium, their spine, and their joints. Other vocabulary can be expanded, too--in learning to “inhale” and “exhale” through their “nostrils”—they can form a whole new relationship to their physical being.
I’ve taught groups of children who charge into a yoga session with unbridled energy—and that energy is the stuff of life that makes one strong and wise. I’ve learned not to panic, to simply trust the process: opening the body to channel the breath, the life force of each student takes hold. . .fully alive, healthy, and whole.
My intention for each “Breathe and Heal Conference” is that the material I present is easy to remember and to recreate for each person in attendance. If our participants return home energized and enthusiastic about what they’ve experienced, they’ll feel motivated to “share the wealth”, and to use and to offer the practices within the scope of their work with children.
View video: Tap-Tap-Tap by Joy Bennett-Jennings, EYRT-500
Elmira Psychiatric Center
My name is Dianne Hill and I'm a social worker on the inpatient children and adolescent unit at the Elmira Psychiatric Center. I am one of 3 social workers who work with children from the age of 5 to 18 as well as with their families throughout their hospitalization. Length of stay varies from sometimes a couple of weeks to months depending on medication adjustments, whether the child will be going home or transitioning to an out of home placement as well as making sure there are mental health, educational and community supports in place prior to discharge. Besides individual and family therapy, I run an anger management group in the high school classroom and a relaxation group in the elementary classroom. I am also currently heading up a group with other colleagues to incorporate more sensory options into treatment.
The ages of the kids in my relaxation group have ranged from 6 to 11. The size of the group has varied from 1 to 5. Depending on the acuity on the unit, 1 can certainly feel like 5! The majority of diagnoses are commonly driven by some form of trauma, whether it be sexual abuse, verbal and physical abuse and/or neglect. The fallout is generally ADHD, emotional dysregulation, Reactive Attachment Disorder and at times, good old fashioned misbehaving.
While I was at Kripalu, I became excited to bring what I had learned back to EPC. I believe we all have a niche for certain age groups and mine happens to be working with naughty little ones. I like having to think on my feet. Even though I think I have the best group planned and envision how they are going to absolutely love it – the group can fall apart before we can even begin due to one member struggling with another, which in all honesty, is probably more common with the environment they are used to living in. When Joy was presenting I was absolutely inspired and even threatened to kidnap her to have her get us started at EPC.
The 4 Golden Wheels have been a great way to get the kids settled into group. The first time I held the relaxation group, I had the room all set up with the desks moved and the lights dimmed before they came into the classroom. What I've discovered is that by having them 'help me' get ready by pushing their own desks helps to get some restless energy out. The first Golden Wheel has been renamed 'The Wiggle' by one of my former group members and the way that she did it, there couldn't be a more appropriate name!!! If the kids have been in this group for a number of weeks, I will sometimes ask for a volunteer to help lead one of the Golden Wheels. They love to be in that leadership role, in a positive way. I tell them that this is so they can teach it to their families and they get to practice on us.
The kids have also really liked the breathing with the chimes using breathing buddies. Some are comfortable closing their eyes and if not, they are asked to look at the ceiling. It's when they make eye contact with their classmate that the 'think on my feet' has to kick in!! I try not to be punitive or have too much dialogue with an acting out child because they are talked to, corrected all day long and it has a tendency to engage the rest of the kids in the behavior.
Prior to starting the 4 Golden Wheels, after we've moved the desks, we talk about group rules and expectations. I also like to hear why they think it would be a good idea to learn and teach their families better ways to breathe when they are mad or sad.
I recently had a 10 year old girl that was on my caseload and hospitalized for over a year due to placement issues. She really enjoyed the relaxation group and on many occasions was my co-leader. Her history prior to being adopted was horrific. She could be the most loving little girl one moment and without a known antecedent, call you every filthy name you could imagine, at the same time, trying to attack you. Some of my individual therapy sessions with her focused on teaching her how to pay attention to her breathing and how to slow it down when she felt flooded with an emotion. It took lots of time and creativity. What finally clicked for her was that I had her 'listen to her heart' and ask herself these questions: was it wanting to run, crumble or was it doing okay as a self-check. The next step was what she could do when it wanted to run or crumble. She had a great imagination and came up with colors of the rainbow: red meant run, blue for crumble and pink (her favorite color) was okay. If the color was red or blue “you know what to do.” She would then put her hand on her belly and breathe in the pink, breathe out the red or blue until she was breathing pink in and out.
One obstacle is the quick turnover rate we have at times. The group is held once a week for 30 minutes so there are times I may only have the child 3 or 4 times prior to discharge. I believe that if they can minimally learn to pay attention to their breathing it's a least a start. Having kids in the group who are hypersexual has created an obstacle of it's own and due to the continued disruption of the group, have had to ask to not have the child in the group for a little while until I can meet individually with that child and talk about how they can be successful with the rest of the group. I've been having the group take place in their classroom and have recently been considering having it somewhere else as there are computers, things in their desks and toys that can be so enticing. I have also struggled with staff coming in and out, sometimes having conversations in the doorway during group time.
Families for the most part have been interested and open to learning. Time, as with everyone, is a huge constraint. Teaching and educating more staff is imperative in order for this to be incorporated into the everyday language and treatment process in managing the children and families that come to us in their desperate time of need. As I mentioned before, I am heading a committee on integrating sensory items into treatment. It seems like using the sensory items along with breathing and relaxation techniques would/should go hand in hand. Having all the age group of kids taking part in a relaxation group is another goal that should be incorporated . To expand on that, we have a parent advocate who has get-togethers for families. This would be a perfect opportunity for the kids to teach their parents and siblings along with guidance from trained staff members.
Drs. Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg hope to make the world a calmer place five breaths at a time.
More than 10 years of research has led the husband-wife psychiatrists to a theory: control your breathing and you can better control emotions. Friday and Saturday, there were in Chemung County to share their knowledge.
The concept is simple, but there is a lot of science behind it, Gerbarg said.
“Breath and emotion we know are connected. If you are anxious, your breathing will speed up and be shallow. If something terrifies you, you hold your breath and stop breathing,” Gerbarg said. “Particular breathing patterns will tell the brain we are safe, we can calm down, we don’t have to be aggressive because there is no threat,” Gerbarg said.
Gerbarg explained that controlling breathing tells the brain what message to send the body. She added that breathing can also change certain neurotransmitters in the brain, allowing that organ to better control emotional reactions.
“We are working the system in reverse,” she said.
Dr. Patricia Gerbarg is a practitioner and assistant professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College. Brown is an associate professor in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical College. His work is drawn from ancient and modern mind-body techniques such as Qigong, yoga, Christian monks, martial arts and meditation. She has co-authored many scientific articles and books.
Their research has extended to survivors of tsunamis and 9/11 and been done in such places as Sudan and Australia. Gerbarg said their Breath-Body-Mind technique has even been taught to parents of children recovering from cardiac surgery in El Salvador, whose crying often leads to burst stitches.
“You can take it and use it in health care settings, schools , corporations, disaster relief. We would like every child to learn how to do this. If they have to take an exam, they can sit in a chair, breathe at a certain rate and calm themselves down,” Gerbarg said.
She said they have found the ideal breath rate is about five breaths per minute. “This ideal breath rate can lead to optimal mental state, optimal calmness, optimal alertness and mental focus, too,” she said.
Gerbarg and Brown see applications for their techniques to relieve stress, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder and other trauma as well as improve focus and behavior.
Local proponents think it could be a key to reducing violence in Elmira schools. (A few Elmira school staff are among those registered for the conference.)
Brian Hart, director of community services for the Chemung County Department of Mental Hygiene, a license social worker, said he was initially a skeptic but now buys into the movement. He has spoken with Elmira school Superintendent Hillary Austin and the Chemung County anti-bullying coalition about its benefits.
“If enough people learn these techniques at all ages, we will potentially prevent people from acting out in the form of bullying,” Hart said.
Bill Benedict, retired director of the Elmira Psychiatric Center, and his wife, Martha Benedict, a retired Elmira school administrator, are certified instructors. For about seven weeks now, they have gone to Elmira’s Southside Community Center after school every Wednesday to teach the movement and breathing techniques to children as young as kindergarten age.
Martha Benedict said they bring yoga mats and work with groups of 10 to 15 kids sitting in a circle, first letting them shake out the tension, then adding a “HA” breath to release energy and working in swinging movements and quieting breaths.
Martha Benedict, who once played the role of school disciplinarian as an assistant principal, said the techniques could benefit schools.
“Our kids are electrically charged. They are living stress and trauma all the time. There are things in the community that are really stressful. Parents’ stress rolls over on the kids. Our school districts need it desperately,” Martha Benedict said.
Alice Lombardo, a veteran teacher in an impoverished inner-city Rochester school who said the approach has a calming effect on her students, and even many of the toughest kids have bought into it.
Bill Benedict has been surprised at the effect on children, but even more surprised with the impact on returning soldiers. “A greater surprise was when we worked with Fort Drum. There were 330 soldiers back from Afghanistan. Within a week of landing on the turf, to watch those traumatized people react positively to this program was a very moving event for me.”
Pam Noviello is the longtime director of Elmira’s Southside Community Center, which she said serves about 400 families and is used by 100 children daily.
“When they are doing the breathing, I see a more calm child, they are almost happier. Their faces, they are grinning more. I can see it carrying over to when they are leaving the gym area,” Noviello said.
“I am so excited about this program. I want to continue this. This is my mission,” Noviello said. “We are trying to get parents involved. If we can show mom the effect of what is happening to their child, we will be able to take it to the adult level.”