The first time Anu Bhatnagar walked on fire, she cried. Not because her feet were burning on the hot coals, but because she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what she had just achieved. Anu, who says she has a penchant for trying new, challenging experiences, decided to attempt it in November last year.
Prior to being led to the coals, she was guided through a seminar session on overcoming fears and limiting beliefs. Once complete, Anu and the others in the seminar were free to attempt the fire walk.
“Those few minutes were surreal as I just didn’t feel like I was walking on fire,” she says. “I walked on it twice in order to internalise the full experience. I first realised what I had done after I finished my turn and sat down to watch others firewalking. The fact I achieved something we all think is impossible moved me to tears and I cried while standing there.”
What Anu achieved may sound incredible, but the seemingly bizarre, age-old tradition of firewalking is actually performed regularly around the world, and perfectly demonstrates how we have the ability to train our brains to alter our perception of pain and, in turn, achieve feats that many see as impossible.
“When we do something that we once believed to be virtually impossible, it shifts our way of thinking about what is and isn’t possible, allowing us to overcome our limiting beliefs, fears and doubts,” explains Carol Talbot, a professional speaker, master trainer and neuro-linguistic programming expert who organises firewalking events in the UAE.
She explains that many people who try it experience a dramatic change in the way they feel – mentally, physically and emotionally. “Most people find the firewalk to be an amazing, if not life-altering experience. That’s why I have a passion for what I do; I often get the opportunity to witness these drastic transformations in people’s way of thinking. Such massive shifts allow us to grow as individuals and truly be the best we can be,” she says.
Mind over body
No one can deny the fact that the human brain is extremely powerful, but what makes it truly fascinating is the extent to which we can train it to achieve extreme feats; the practice of various types of hypnotherapy is an example of this. As the name implies, hypnotherapy is a type of therapy that uses hypnosis.
While in a hypnotic state, your subconscious is more open to suggestions. These suggestions can be used to help someone change a behaviour (like giving up smoking), or change a thought pattern (for example, overcoming fears), or to help them deal with emotional/mental pain (such as stress), or deal with physical pain (as in firewalking).
While many wrongly regard hypnosis as an alternative therapy reserved for New Age enthusiasts, the reality is that the medical world is increasingly acknowledging its effectiveness in helping to treat various ailments.
According to Graça Ward, a Dubai-based hypnotherapist, although trances have been associated with witch doctors, medicine men and healers, modern hypnotherapy isn’t related to any of this.
“No special potions or plants are drunk, eaten or smoked in order to call on ancestors and induce the altered state of consciousness,” she jokes. “Hypnotherapy is simply a state of focused concentration so we can rehearse what it feels like to achieve our desired behaviours, or end goals.”
An increasing amount of medical research is demonstrating the effectiveness of various forms of hypnotherapy. Researchers in Brussels reported two studies, both of which proved that using local anaesthetic and hypnosis was better than using general anaesthetic in certain surgeries.
According to the report, not only did it mean fewer drugs, less recovery time and less post-op medication, but it also meant a shorter hospital stay. Another study from the University of Gothenburg found that hypnotherapy helped alleviate long-term symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in 40 per cent of patients, while researchers at Baylor University’s Mind-Body Medicine Research Laboratory reported that clinical hypnosis can successfully reduce hot flushes among post-menopausal women, as well as reducing anxiety, depression and other symptoms. The proof just goes on and on.
Dr Leila Edwards, a leading consultant hypnotherapist and motivational coach based in Dubai, says, “Because it is one of the most effective ways of inducing the relaxation response, hypnotherapy is a powerful tool in managing and controlling pain. During the 19th century, there were a number of active and pioneering medical practitioners using hypnosis for pain control, including for surgical anaesthesia. Unfortunately, interest in this approach declined with the development of increasingly sophisticated chemical methods for managing pain. However, as we become more aware of the limitations
and potential risks of chemical interventions, there is a growing interest in alternative techniques for managing pain.”
Hypnosis for childbirth
One way that Dr Edwards uses hypnotherapy in a medical, pain-relieving context is through Hypnobirthing. The process is based on the work of English obstetrician Dr Grantly Dick-Read, who observed that when women in labour were free from fear, their bodies relaxed and, in turn, the muscles of their cervix relaxed, allowing for an easier birth. According to Dr Edwards, hypnobirthing takes advantage of the ‘robot response’ in which the body acts according to what the subconscious believes.
She says, “During childbirth, if the mind accepts the belief that, unless there are specific complications, birthing is a natural process, is not painful, and that no extreme – or even any – pain or discomfort will be experienced, the body’s physiological response is to feel only the tightening of the uterine waves as they dilate the cervix and push the baby out naturally. This belief is learned and reinforced through a process of education and preparation using hypnotherapy.”
It sounds unbelievable, but hypnobirthing is a growing trend all over the world, with one institute in the US reporting that in two years, 12,000 mothers had taken a hypnobirthing class. Additionally, according to www.hypnobirthing.com, mothers who choose this path are half as likely to have a Caesarean section, ten times more likely to opt for home births and 50 per cent less likely to opt for an epidural.
Dr Edwards says, “Jessica Watson-Thorp was my first hypnobirthing client in Bahrain, giving birth to the lovely Havaani without any medication and with joy and confidence. She then went on to use hypnobirthing to give birth to her twin boys after moving to Abu Dhabi. Although the medical staff told her she would have to have an elective Caesarean section, she insisted that she wished to at least attempt to give birth naturally.
I prepared her for both eventualities and, as it turned out, she delivered her first twin son naturally, but had to have a C-section for the second, due to complications. She was very pleased to have had at least one natural delivery and was able to recover very quickly from the C-section by applying her hypnobirthing skills of relaxation, visualisation and positive thinking.”
Dr Edwards also says most women just need a basic course of four sessions, which include details on the preparation of a birth plan, an introduction to hypnobirthing, rehearsal of pain-control techniques and practising different birthing positions.
“The vast majority of hypnobirthing clients don’t need to use any other form of pain relief in labour,” she says. “Every woman – and partner – trained in hypnobirthing to date has reported that it gave them a far greater sense of confidence in their ability to cope with any eventuality and a much greater sense of control over their emotions and their physical sensations.”
Hypnosis to lose weight
Another way that hypnotherapy is being used today is to overcome obesity in the form of gastric mind banding (GMB) therapy. GMB is a non-surgical substitute for the hugely invasive gastric banding surgery – a weightloss procedure usually performed on individuals with BMIs over 35. During the physical surgery, an adjustable band is placed around the upper part of the patient’s stomach.
This band is then inflated, creating a pouch of stomach above it, and when the patient eats, the pouch fills up quickly, so he or she ends up feeling full much sooner than usual.
In GMB therapy, the subconscious is made to believe that you have had surgery even when your conscious brain knows you haven’t. This mind trickery is done through neuro-linguistic programming, cognitive behavioural therapy, visualisation techniques and pause button therapy.
According to Dubai-based psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist Anna Yates, these mind-based techniques help create new patterns of behaviour in the subconscious, thereby changing a person’s eating habits and relationship with food.
She says, “The psychology behind it is that the subconscious has difficulty differentiating between reality and imaginary situations. So, if while someone is in a state of total relaxation and focus, you can get them to imagine the surgery procedure, and you can incorporate surgical sounds, smells and adjust the air temperature to utilise multiple senses and reinforce the fantasy, the subconscious will believe that the gastric band has been fitted and that the stomach has been restricted to the size of a golf ball.”
Yates, who is a practitioner of gastric mind band therapy, says that it takes approximately 12 hours to complete the course and that these hours are spread out across four sessions. She believes that gastric mind band therapy has a number of advantages when compared to surgery.
She says, “Firstly, this avoids the very serious health risks of undergoing the actual surgery. Secondly, it is much less expensive. And thirdly, the underlying causes of the weight issues, which could be the person’s bad relationship with food, is addressed.”
To illustrate just how effective hypnosis and visualisation techniques are, Yates uses a computer programme to show clients how their heart rate dramatically slows during the session. “I think people have this false idea that with hypnosis, or relaxation and visualisation, they are going to feel different – heavy, dreamy, floaty,” she says.
“But that is not always the case. Hypnotherapy simply enables them to be totally focused on one thing to the exclusion of all else, so the therapist can offer suggestions to the subconscious. Whether it is to overcome severe obesity, or someone who just wants to lose those last few kilos, this works because it is a permanent answer to weight-management issues. If you change a person’s mind, you change their physical behaviour. It really is a case of mind over matter.”
The medical world is slowly waking up to this previously untapped resource of the mind. Here are just some of the ways hypnosis, and other controlled relaxation techniques like meditation, are being utilised.
- Psychology experts at Stanford University use hypnosis to help Parkinson’s patients remain conscious and calm while they’re having deep-brain electrodes implanted, and also to relieve the anxiety of children undergoing bladder catheterisations.
- The University of Washington’s Burns Centre has been using hypnosis for more than a decade to help patients deal with the intense pain of having their dressings changed.
- A third of thyroid and breast cancer surgeries at Cliniques Universitaires St Luc in Brussels are performed using a combination of local anaesthetic and hypnosis, instead of general anaesthetic.
- Research at the University of California found that a three month meditation retreat physically slowed down the ageing process at a cellular level, while a study published by New Scientist found that just 11 hours of meditation can have a positive impact on brain structure, implying that meditation could be used to treat, and prevent, mental health disorders.
Try it yourself
A four-session course with Transformations Institute Dubai costs Dh3,950. Email
email@example.com, or call 04-3440115 for details.
Gastric mind band therapy
The 12-hour programme normally costs Dh7,000, but is being offered at an introductory price of Dh5,000 during January and February. For more information, contact Anna Yates on 050-6512145, or email her on firstname.lastname@example.org
For details of the next firewalking event held by Carol Talbot, visit www.caroltalbot.me.