The Uncanny Practice of Entrainment
“Can you breathe with me?” Nancy asks.
She’s kneeling next to a large recliner as she calmly invites a cardiac patient in acute respiratory distress to change his breathing pattern. Meanwhile, two additional EMTs are setting up critical care equipment. This is a familiar call, and Nancy is the preferred first responder because of her “uncanny ability” to give other EMTs valuable time. Her unusually calm demeanor is said to have a magical effect. When I first heard about Nancy during a CPR certificate renewal, I realized that her “magic” is a traditional Eastern teaching technique known as entrainment.
Entrainment is what happens when an individual gives up their independent breathing pattern to accept the rhythm of another individual or group. In Eastern spiritual traditions, entrainment is a pedagogical tool used to ready an individual or group to receive a teaching, to share experiences of certain states of consciousness, or to grant an aspirant the opportunity to stand in another’s shoes, thereby assisting with the teaching of forgiveness, love, and compassion. Perhaps the most critical component behind the effective use of entrainment is the sincere desire of the lead breather to serve selflessly. Whether or not entrainment is recognized in the West, it is one of the key tools employed, often unwittingly, by exceptional teachers, speakers, health care practitioners, clergy, devoted guardians, or parents. In Vedic tradition, Mother is referred to as “first guru” precisely because of this phenomenon.
Nancy’s ability to invite entrainment relies on three key factors:
- She has an unusually calm demeanor, both on and off the job. Thus, Nancy knows her true center, or personal stillpoint.
- She is able to stay connected to her true center in the face of a medical crisis.
- She is willing to serve selflessly—from a seat of pure human charity—while fulfilling her professional duties.
If you desire to assist others via the use of entrainment, the first step is the rediscovery of your own true center—that immutable place encountered in the earliest part of an untroubled childhood. As adults, the rediscovery of this built-in place of peace typically requires familiarity with the quality and cadence of our own breathing, uncovering and honoring our individual rhythm, as well as actively observing the multifaceted aspects of our personality in a myriad of emotional states, whether we are functioning alone or in community.
This initial step involves a focused and unswerving period of commitment to a dedicated, personal practice at least three times a week for 20 to 40 minutes. As a teacher and practitioner, I favor a much broader definition of personal practice than most. A personal practice may be defined as any solo, repetitive, physical activity that promotes an awareness of the breath and encourages some degree of introspection. Sample practices include swimming laps, solo Tai Chi or yoga, distance running, cycling, rowing, or regulated breathing practices, such as pranayama, where the breath is actively counted.
After the initial phase of solo work, it is often helpful to take your burgeoning self-awareness into a group meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga class once or twice a week—where your relationship to the breath is brought to the fore. There you will be invited to surrender your personal breathing pattern and step into the pacing set by the instructor or by the established group. It is in gently bumping up against the breathing patterns of others that we are better able to redefine or refine our own.
If the instructional space is safe—which means that there is an absence of gossip and judgment, ample support, and the instructor has good boundaries and a clear awareness about their own stillpoint—you will have the opportunity to recognize and shed some of your less effectual or outdated breathing patterns. This shedding process is difficult, but it is the most efficient way to learn to maintain a relationship with your stillpoint.
To become a lead breather, you must first learn to consciously relinquish your own breathing pattern and choose to entrain with the breathing pattern of an instructor or class. For the lead breather, entrainment means serving selflessly and without attachment. It is the offering of momentary assistance to another individual—without the lead losing himself or herself to the often uneven or otherwise ineffectual breathing patterns of novice travelers on the path. Entrainment is not about dominance, power, manipulation, or control. Entrainment is not about ego.
Just as lifeguards know to offer a flotation device or looped pole to someone struggling in the pool, the lead breather must offer assistance while maintaining the sanctity of their own stillpoint. We are not meant to invite entrainment with everyone we meet or serve. Therapists, teachers, and other caregivers who entrain too frequently with struggling clients, students, or physically sick patients risk burnout.
Let us assume for a moment that you have remained fastidious in your personal practice and that your group-class experience has been exceptional. You have found your stillpoint, and you know how to reenter that personal, sacred space at any time. You may even feel ready to extend aid to someone in need. In reality, the first person you should offer assistance to is yourself. Waiting and watching, you should jump on the first opportunity when you observe yourself coming away from center during a major or minor crisis—whether that crisis is personal or professional, real or perceived.
When you can maintain your center in times of stress or crisis, you are at a point to shift into the role of potential lead breather. Potential is an important word here, because ethically, we are required to ask first, “Can you breathe with me?” It is only after we have received permission that we may proceed with compassion, ease, and, sometimes, the assistance of a force we might refer to as Grace.