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One Breath at a Time

--Anne-Marie Bauer, on May 12, 2014

After his PhD in Computer Science at UC Berkeley, Bidyut Bose spent many years doing research and development for Silicon Valley's tech companies. However, in 1998, he started paying forward a gift that his father (and later monks from the Himalayas) had endowed him with -- gift of yoga. At a local YMCA, he started teaching seniors. Longing for a greater integration of his personal and professional life, Bidyut found himself gravitating towards Yoga. 

As he saw the students gaining in strength and self-esteem, he started to wonder about others who could benefit. Bidyut began contacting treatment centers, hospitals and homeless shelters. “If millions of Americans are doing yoga, then there are millions who are not getting it, not coming to a studio, not able to afford classes,” he thought. And soon enough, Niroga Institute was established in 2005 to bring yoga to people in drug rehabilitation programs and juvenile detention centers, formerly homeless veterans and victims of domestic abuse.

At a recent presentation, Niroga Institute founder Bidyut K. Bose a.k.a. BK, lead with two questions for his audience. The first: “how many of you feel chronically stressed?"   He found 60-70% of his audience raised their hands in response.  His second question: “how many of you are around other people who are chronically stressed?”  At that time, he found a 100% of the audience raised their hands.  Stress can play a part in our everyday lives, sometimes a little stress can be a motivator for people, but stress when it is chronic and not handled in a healthy way, can be debilitating and have far reaching consequences for the individual and others around.  In this enlivening  Awaking Call, we find how ancient practices such as yoga and meditation, are not only healing for the individual, but have profound impacts on the community level as well. B.K Bose shares his dream to bring yoga to people from all walks of life and with the help of recent research, this under appreciated and largely misunderstood practice, is now gaining much interested and acceptance as a real path to social change.

Rahul: [Interviewer]  When we first met, you shared a little about the distillation of this (yoga and meditation) and the training you went through.  Could you share more about the influence of yoga and spirituality and the monks/monastics had on your life growing up. I understand it was a very central part of your early childhood. 

BK:  I was very blessed and fortunate to have my parents who lived this practice.  My father taught me yoga and meditation from the time when I was a little child.  I would also see both of my parents seamlessly engaging in serving those around them, without a hint of any expectation of anything in return, so I was seeing them living the essence of the practice.  My father would also take me to the foot of the masters, the monks that lived in the mountains who were lived extremely simply and committed their lives to conscious evolution.  I learned two key things other than yoga and meditation.  First, connecting to who we are is perhaps one of the central purpose of our lives, because if I don't know myself then everything I do is tinged by that, and the other was this idea of selfless service.  I could detect a positive feedback loop, the idea that if I got to know myself better, then I would be able to serve others a little more selflessly and if I served others a little more selflessly than I would get more clarity on who I was.  That inspired me when I was really quite young, and it has been a part of the very fabric of my life. Thinking about how it could be practiced, taught, and shared with all around us. Seeing the ravages of chronic stress on health, on relationships, on productivity and in competitiveness, I wanted it to bring these foundational practices that were so close to me when I was a child, to those around me. 

Rahul: Can you tell us more about the mission of Niroga Institute and Niroga Center?

BK: Niroga Institute is a small non-profit, formed about nine years ago, and the idea was simple: that if indeed chronic stress, traumatic stress, post traumatic stress is ubiquitous in our communities, then why not bring optimal stress resilience tools, to those that need it the most.  As mentioned, I grew up with yoga and meditation, and I knew that these foundational skills that are time tested, have a profound impact on our internal environments, thereby influencing our behavior and through that, effecting our external environments.  It was a process of bringing these tools out in a systematic way to as many people as we could.

Rahul:  Do you feel like there has been a shift to bring alternative and complimentary medicine into the mainstream, and to what extend do you feel it has shifted, or is there is still resistance to it in our modern context? 

BK: I'm hopeful that there are shifts.  We have moved from non-existence, of only recognizing western medicine, to alternative, to complementary, to integrative. But that is just terminology. There is drive coming from other directions as well, for example, the latest research in neuroscience is showing that stress effects us all the way down to our DNA.  Also, social biologist show that stress accelerates aging, and aging is related to a whole bunch of diseases.  Furthermore, a landmark study, where a psychologist was not only looking at stress, but the very perception of stress and found that those who perceived their stress to be greater, actually had shorter telomeres accelerating aging.  The idea that perception is an internal response, and chronic stress in our environment, so the work is shifting us to look at our behavior. Also, research is showing how stress is impacting our brains, effecting our behaviors, impacting very serious things like our ability to hold attention, our ability to regulate our emotions, and our ability to feel empathy.  Also, you can see connections to education, when a child that is dealing with trauma comes to school not really ready to learn.  We often rush to teach them before we heal them.  Moreover, in talking about violence prevention, three out of the four at risk youth end up in juvenile hall.  Without changing behavior patters the recidivism rate can be as high as 75%.

Rahul:  As you point out stress is chronic, and as so many of the callers shared, a lot of people arrive at yoga on the other side of a personal health issue that has been unable to be solved by the mainstream healthcare system.  Could you tell me what are some of the insight that move people to explore this if they are a public official or an administrator who isn’t personally facing a challenge that really pushes then to the edge of exploration?

BK:  One of the first challenges is that the yoga community has itself created much confusion about what yoga really is.  Yoga is a transformational practice, and yet look at most of the yoga that is practiced throughout the country in the developed world.  There is this idea that it is somewhat socially elite, that it is socially congruent.  What we lead with is the research on these transformative practices that lead to outcomes, that relate to specific domains in social function. Statements such as “it is calming and relaxing” alone are not going to convince public officials, whether they are head of healthcare, probation officers or education. When you look at the work by Martin Seligman, who states self control is a better predictor of academic achievement than, IQ.  What is the power of that? The idea that we have established a powerful inductive connection.  If we can say self control is effecting academic achievement, and yoga and meditation can increase self control, then perhaps if A affects B, and B affects C, then there is probably a connection that needs to be explored.

Rahul:  I can see the science supporting the application in schools may seem easier of a challenge than I imagine in juvenile halls or prisons. Juvenile halls, prisons and mental health facilities aren't the easiest places to spread wisdom based practices, it takes a great amount of courage and skills to do that.  When you bring the data and anecdotes to people who sit on the boards of juvenile halls or prisons etc does it help them get to a place where they allow you to pilot or experiment, are there any anecdotes?

BK: There are several beautiful stories. I remember one of this seventeen year old girl who was placed in isolation.  She heard voices that told her to harm others.  Due to being in isolation she couldn't participate in group activities.  A resident health professional wrote to me and asked if this girl could be seen on a one-on-one basis.  He further added that she unfortunately was going to be transferred to an adult facility in three days because of turning eighteen shortly.  Despite this, he asked if she could be worked with.  I sent one our our senior teachers to work with her for one hour everyday for those three days and gave her instructions to help this girl recognize that there is at least one person in this world that loves her unconditionally.  Then unsolicited, this mental health professional wrote me an email and said: “I just wanted to let you know, that we noticed that just within those three days significant changes, the way she was interacting with us, they way she was keeping her room, the way she was talking to her family”   It was interesting that in such a short amount of time there was significant shifts.  He concluded with this opinion: “the gift that you gave her in those three days, I believe she will carry with her for the rest of her life.”

Caller:  You brought up unconditional love when you were sharing the story about the seventeen year old girl, and what struck me was, that the essence of our existence is love and it's external manifestation is to let someone else know you love them.

BK:  I believe that qualities like generosity, gratitude, compassion, kindness can systematically be manufactured through transformative practices. That is why I go back to this idea that each of us who wants to bring these out into the community we need to learn transformative practices, we need to change our selves, and as we do that, as we change our internal environment, we cannot but grow in love and compassion and gratitude, in forgiveness and empathy.  It is not jut an idea, it is not just a bunch of words but every cell of our beings that is radiating that love and compassion.  It is not about sharing then depleting ourselves. There is an infinite source. St Francis of Asissi reminds us, it is in giving that we receive. That starts to be apparent as well, as we start to grow our capability in love and compassion and as we start to live it and embody it, we are in a state of amazing abundance.  Where you are able to give it and share it, your cup will fill only more and more.  We do need structures and we need role models, but perhaps more than anything else, we need a transformative practice that can be so profoundly empowering.  Even when the world is telling us that personal transformation and individual change is really slow and inefficient.  

Another example of love and compassion, is a story about this one kid Darnell, in an alternative school in Oakland, in a tough environment.  Darnell who one might of thought of as a typical, angry disenfranchised and disillusioned youth comes to a yoga class. And before long he is hooked on the benefits of yoga and joins a mentoring program and now serves on a youth advisory council.  For his senior thesis, the presented in front of his entire school on how Yoga can present violence in Oakland. In his closing remarks he goes on to say that he is going to go to college and plans to take a vigorous yoga teacher training at Niroga Institute, because he wants to not only deepen his practice, but also because he plans to bring this practice to his friends who need it the most. If we keep that in mind, personal transformative practices can absolutely lead to generational transformation, the holy grail of social service, then we need to develop all of these tools to have at our disposal.

Rahul:  That's beautiful, the person that is helped is helping others, really paying it forward.  Sounds like you have developed a system to teach teachers so that they can teach others, can you tell us a little more about the system?

BK:  I feel that there is a sense of urgency if we are going to save our fragile planet.  Training a yoga teacher, a rigorous training takes typically years.  That is how I was trained in India, but here we are trying to accelerate the process.  However, even a year or two I believe is essential, to have a well trained yoga teacher.  I also believe that people I think we simply don’t have the time to turn the whole world into yoga teachers.  So, what we have been doing is essentially extracting the essence of a yoga practice, a mat based yoga practice and reducing it down for about 15-20 minutes.  Keeping the same structure, anchoring it in mindfulness, connecting it with breathe, emerging with movement, and what has happened is quite interesting. 

Our first experiment was in an inner city school, the principle was eager to try the methods. He even compared his school to war zones in other parts of the world.  The administrators understood that teaching the practice had the potential to lead to learning readiness and emotion control in his students.  We were offered 15 classrooms and we tested our hypothesis with varying dosages for each classroom.
Some classrooms did the practice once a week, some twice a week, some five times a week, others none. We went into all 15 classrooms, and had our control group that didn’t get the practice. Researchers from U.C Berkeley and social workers teamed up to help analyzing the data, and what we found was very interesting, that even a 15-20 minute dynamic mindfulness practice, had these key impacts lowering stress and increasing self control/emotion regulation.  The dose response was interesting as well, once or twice a week didn’t seem to have measurable impact, but as soon as you went up to three times and more you saw a significant and statistically measurable impact. 
The data and the neuroscience supports this.  If we are going to attempt to rewire our brain, we need to do the practice often enough. As you live the practice you learn the practice and the next step is the idea of giving and sharing this practice with those around us.  It becomes a natural very obvious dissemination model, that is extremely efficient and cost effective.