Dr Ela Manga on the importance of integrated energy management for modern lifestyles.
Join me and Dr Ela Manga in the Villa Moji at the Fairlawns as she breaks down the principles of integrated energy management and the implications that this has for our lives in this modern age.
Dr Ela Manga is one of the most renowned Integrated Medical Doctors in South Africa. Her first book, Breathe: Strategising Energy in the Age of Burnout, originally titled, The Energy Code: Mastering Energy in the Age of Burnout, is a collection of real-life case studies which portray her approach to mental, physical and emotional health. Dr Ela Manga is the founder of Breathwork Africa, an organization that promotes the use of breathwork for transformation at all levels of society. Dr Manga runs a thriving practice in Muldersdrift and works with individuals, families and groups. She also travels throughout Africa facilitating workshops and is a sought-after speaker locally and internationally.
Dr Ela Manga is one of the most renowned Integrated Medical Doctors in South Africa. Her first book, Breathe: Strategizing Energy in the Age of Burnout, originally titled, The Energy Code: Mastering Energy in the Age of Burnout, is a collection of real-life case studies which portray her approach to mental, physical and emotional health. Dr Ela Manga is the founder of Breathwork Africa, an organization that promotes the use of breathwork for transformation at all levels of society. Dr Manga runs a thriving practice in Muldersdrift and works with individuals, families and groups. She also travels throughout Africa facilitating workshops and is a sought-after speaker locally and internationally.
We talk a lot about “energy” in common parlance, but I suspect that we may not be clear about what it really is, could you start us off by breaking this concept down for us?
I think energy can be a confusing concept because it is talked about in so many different ways but essentially, energy is everything. Every thought, every emotion, every experience, has a certain energy frequency to it. Every living thing is an expression of energy, so what we say, the words that we use have a certain energy frequency, the feelings that we have, have a certain energy frequency, so really energy is a frequency if we look at it from a scientific perspective. But energy in terms of health is an expression of our natural state and how connected we are to that natural state because our physical body vibrates or operates on a certain frequency and we need a certain high energy or stress state to do what we do. But then, to sustain that state, we need to relax, we need to recover, and it is this rhythm of energy that we have disconnected from. So, we are stuck in a state of adrenalized energy or stress energy, which is helpful for a while, but eventually, it starts to become more harmful. We’ve become so addicted to adrenalized energy that we even prefer physical exercises that fuel adrenalized energy. So, you’ll see people furiously cycling away, doing Bikram yoga, having pumping, high energy experiences. Can we slow down? We’re using exercise as a way to tune out, not to tune in. Can we use exercise to tune in and listen to what the body is saying? Can we just feel and enjoy a deep stretch and a cooling down? So, to me, this is what energy management is, the ability to notice your energy states and energy rhythms and consciously be able to switch on and switch off as and when appropriate.
Adrenalized energy is a beautiful energy to have, it helps us to get things done and supports focus. When we harness it, when we use it consciously, it’s very helpful, but when we become unconsciously stuck in that state, it becomes very destructive. We live from a fear-based place and we start getting paranoid and creating separations between “us” and “them”, we become hyper-vigilant, waiting for the next crisis to deal with and waiting for the next opportunity to be offended. Someone looks at you in a funny way they’re being racist, someone didn’t bring you your cappuccino on time, you’re ready to take them on and being in that state constantly is completely depleting. So, to sustain natural energy, we need to re-establish our natural rhythms or cycles in a way that is sustainable for our modern lives, in a way that is practical and relevant for our modern lives. How do we do that? How do we live in our natural state in a world that feels so unnatural? That is primarily what my work is about.
When someone is tapping into that natural state and living from that place, how would you describe that?
I think our natural energy state or natural state is one of love, compassion and deep connection to each other and connection to nature. We have disconnected a lot from nature because we naturally feel energized when we’re in nature. This world of technology disconnects us even more from nature and from real human interaction. This is why heart connection and heart intelligence, which is part of our authentic energy state, is so essential because sometimes this adrenalized energy state is very addictive, we get stuck in it, and it disconnects us from this heart energy and this is when we start burning out because we are disconnected from the source of natural energy that resides within our hearts. So how do we get back to living a more heart-centered life?
The problem is that, firstly, the physical body has very basic primal needs such as food, sleep, optimizing our breathing and so on. The mind, on the other hand, has different needs and wants to feel stimulated constantly, it wants information all the time, it wants thoughts and experiences that feed its need for excitement. The heart then also has its own needs, deeper needs, such as the feeling of deep connection to each other and to our emotions and intuition, but the problem is that everything in our modern lives is pulling us more towards supporting the needs of the mind and we’re living from the head and at the expense of the needs of the body and the heart. So, the net result is that all these aspects of our being are operating in isolation and it is this disconnection that leads to burnout, it is this disconnection that causes depression.
For me that’s what depression really is, it is a disease of disconnection from who we really are, from what connects us as human beings. Depression is a real state, it’s a real feeling, but I think that we are not seeing it for what it really is, and it is over-pathologized. We are not supporting it the way we should be doing. We are over-medicating it and numbing the inner voice that is speaking from this state of emotion. What if we could just drop into it and feel the gifts that this state of being is offering? But the medical system is so burnt out in itself, our caregivers are so burnout that they don’t have the capacity to sit and hold the space for someone to share this experience. So, we are looking for quick fixes all the time, which then exacerbates the energy crisis that we are sitting with.
So, your work is an effort to connect all these human aspects into an integrated system to achieve optimal living?
Optimal living is not an endpoint state that one reaches where they can safely say, “oh now I’m optimized”. Optimal living is a daily practice of awareness, of being real and responding to what life throws at you and it’s not always going to feel pretty. Now the question is, can we sit with that, can we work with what this is really about? Our inability to sit and feel is a problem, there is such a fear in the feeling and we don’t even know how to do it. So, tools like mindfulness and Breathwork are ways in which we can relearn just to be with who we really are. Optimal living is not this happy, la-la state that we finally get to, it is about being okay with being real, it’s about navigating the challenges of life from an open, accepting place, because life is going to throw you curveballs. It doesn’t mean that because you are in an enlightened state you are immune to the ups and downs of life. Seeing curveballs as an opportunity to grow is a different way of relating to and deepening into it. Don’t pathologize it. Being sad when someone close to you has died is normal, it’s part of the grieving process, it’s about how do we support ourselves to navigate these feelings? Feelings and emotions are transient like water, they come and go, they don’t last forever. Like this feeling of happiness, it’s now the new success and it’s a problem because happiness is also a fleeting state that doesn’t last forever, but we want to hold on it to and make it last forever. So, this clinging onto this happy state and the avoidance of what is uncomfortable is what is leading to this disconnection.
I’d like to believe that the moment I left my mother’s womb I already had an inborn, constructive capacity to navigate all my emotions, so what happened to us?
I think we get socialized and we start getting conditioned from the moment we are born. We are also imprinted by the belief systems and fears from our ancestors, from our lineage. It is important to bear in mind the studies that have been done that show that we inherit the fears of our ancestors, we carry the legacy of our past and we are imprinted from the moment we are born. We are put into boxes, a gender, a nationality, a religion, and then we start getting taught that, this is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is bad, we start to build our worldview based on what we observe about the world around us and these perspectives get so deeply embedded in the psyche, in the subconscious. In the first seven years of life our belief systems are imprinted and then we spend the rest of our lives experiencing and attracting events that reinforce these belief systems until we get to a point where we can see it for what it is and say, okay, I’ve got the opportunity to unravel these belief systems and create new neural pathways and new belief systems that support where I am now, that’s the work.
I think that organizations in trying to address some of these problems tend to just throw things at the problem rather than having real, courageous conversations around what is really going on and what it requires for real, sustainable change to occur. Change is not an easy, linear process, it has a path and it requires certain conditions to sustain that change and it requires courage, perseverance, persistence and practice over and over again to start to create these new neural pathways within ourselves and within these systems. The problem also is that we are trying to fix something that is not working anymore. What is broken about these systems cannot simply be fixed, what needs to happen is that the rubble needs to be swept away to make space for things that will help us to grow in all the ways that we need to grow.
What would it take to get people to start shifting this perception around brokenness and feeling like they need fixing?
Changing perspectives and helping people to see things in a different way and to stand in a different place can happen through us having conversations with each other. The gifts come from our conversations, from our collective stories, that’s where the wisdom lies. There is such beauty, such strength, such power, in what we have all experienced. I get to do this every single day. I get to listen to the most incredible stories. Yes, there’s a symptom covering all of that but beneath, through the stories, I get to see the essence of people, I see the perfection of people, the beauty of people and I just want to support that so that they can be unleashed into their fullness. So, my philosophy is, let’s start to create the environment in your physical body so that the spirit within you can express itself because that’s how the physical body has been designed, it’s a vehicle of consciousness and it’s an expression of consciousness.
Please bring the Breathwork into the discussion because I feel that it is ripe for that?
Yes, so the breath is a tangible, physical expression of consciousness itself. When we take a breath and feel it in our bodies, we are feeling consciousness, we are feeling divine lifeforce within us. And we can open up to it and take more in, it is a gift of life and it is so generous. It is everywhere. The trees breathe it out for us. And yet, our breath is so shallow, we are not breathing properly, we are habituated in that pattern because we are so stuck in the mind. So, if we can just turn our attention to something that is already there, because, we are breathing, but how are we breathing? Are we breathing in a way that opens up our hearts to receiving more? Are we breathing in a way that gets us aligned to the rhythms of nature, of the natural state of things? Are we breathing in a way that activates our bodies’ ability to heal itself? And yet breath is the most powerful medicine, it’s there, we do it all the time! So, if we turn to it and we deepen our breath and exhale according to a rhythm, just do that three times and you will feel an immediate shift in your energy state. You will move from a state of fear into a state of calm, you will move from a state of anxiety into a state of peace, you will start tapping into the natural source of energy that resides in you where authentic power lives, where creativity lives, where healing starts from. The breath is a way in. We speak about “the journey inwards” but what does that actually mean? There are so many tools and methods out there and it can be confusing. Do we really need to go to an ashram in India to support this journey within? Is it about doing yoga and eating vegan food? Not necessarily. Yes, all those things might help but it is the ability to turn inwards and feel the breath, it all begins with feeling the breath inside your body. This is not just an esoteric concept, there’s science to it that when we breathe in a certain way, we can shift the way that we feel. When we start to slow the breath down, it activates the vagus nerve in the body which stimulates the body’s relaxation response so that you can activate a state of focused, calm energy. That’s really what authentic energy is, it’s not this adrenalized, wired energy, it’s a calm, focused, aligned energy where you are fully present and fully harnessing the energy that is within you.
What’s your take on the impact of technology on modern lives regarding this issue of connectedness and the natural energy state?
We’ve handed our power over to mobile communication devices and to systems. The human mind has created these devices, we’ve ironically created the very poison that is killing us. I think that a mobile device can be a very powerful tool to communicate and to break down barriers, but I think that it requires an awareness and a daily practice. I find myself being addicted to the device and this habitual thing of checking messages because the brain releases dopamine every time we check our phones. So, we need to put practices in place where there are certain things that are non-negotiable, like guidelines at home around technology. At our home for example, no one can check their phone or answer their phone during meal time, so meal preparation and dinner time are a no-go zone for phones. You must put strategies in place for you to be in charge of this thing. It’s just an awareness that this is a problem and changing your relationship with it and that requires boundaries, seems simple but it’s not.
I also have to consider what living in integrity with what I say means in general. For example, I am so passionate about what I do that I sometimes get caught up in the busyness of it all and if I don’t pay attention, I may find myself in that adrenalized state. So, I constantly need to check in and sustain the natural rhythm and to support what really is important to me. So, for example, last year, I made a conscious choice to never ever compromise what’s important to me. Human connection is very important to me, so I make time to connect with my friends and my soul sisters and brothers. I make time for art, I make time for creativity. So, I dedicate every Monday afternoon to painting even though I am not a great artist. I just mess around and play with colour. The process of putting paint to canvass and using my brain in a way that doesn’t require language and words is something so powerful. I take walks at least once a week. I try to do yoga regularly and of course, I do my Breathwork. Underneath all the daily demands, my breath is always there. I have a very intimate relationship with my breath.
So, what led you down this path of Integrative Medicine seeing that you started off on a conventional route?
I went the normal medical training route and did my internship and community service. I was very burnt-out when I was doing my internship and community service by the way. I was so sleep deprived. What we put our young Doctors through. How do you expect someone who is sleep deprived and hasn’t slept for 48 hours to make life and death decisions? I think that we are burnt out before we even start our careers! I felt disconnected from my humanity in my training and did not feel any empathy for my patients. I was physically burnt-out.
I practiced as a GP in a family practice for about 5 years and during that time felt emotionally burnt-out seeing about 30 patients a day. It became very clear to me, very early on that I was not really supporting sustainable wellbeing. I was just dishing out pills to suppress symptoms and meantime what I was seeing were obvious links between what people were experiencing emotionally, the stresses they were facing in life and how that was manifesting physically. There were patterns that I was starting to see in certain people and that certain emotions would lead to certain illnesses. I became very interested in this mind-body connection and how this all works and supporting wellness from this new paradigm where you’re not just throwing drugs at somebody, but you’re really supporting the body’s ability to heal itself. Another thing that became very clear to me because of this approach is that, if we create the correct conditions, the body knows how to heal itself.
In Medical School not even one lecture is dedicated to nutrition and yet it is the foundation of our health. So, I started the shift from practicing as a GP to an Integrative Medicine Practitioner, and what that means is that we are supporting the whole being, we are seeing the whole person, body, mind, heart, spirit as one system. It also means that we are dealing with the root causes of your ailment, we are looking at what we can address on a deeper level even though sometimes it may not be clear from the onset. It also means that Dr and patient are equals in the co-creation of health, so it’s not me being prescriptive, it’s a conversation around how we can support you, what your unique body-type is, what your unique circumstances are, what your unique challenges are, what we can tweak, how we can support you with nutrition and tweak it to suit your lifestyle. So, it becomes a beautiful canvass that we are working on together and it’s about you becoming the artist of your own life. So, I see myself as an artist rather than a healer, in fact this idea of being a healer as well is also something that I’ve been thinking about. I am not actually a healer, I am not here doing the healing, I am just supporting the healing happening in your body. I am just helping you to create the right environment for that healing to happen within you. The mental breakdown, the burnout, the stress and anxiety attacks, all these issues that I deal with in my practice actually represent breakthroughs if patients can see them for what they truly are. It is a gift, it is an opportunity to wake up.
Twelve, fifteen years ago, this concept of Integrative Medicine was not even known, even now it’s still not that widespread. I started this journey in Integrative Medicine practicing a form of Quantum Medicine called Body Talk. To practice energy medicine was really left-field coming from a traditional medical background, but it was fascinating because it gave me a whole new perspective. It was also a time when I felt alone and very confused, but I had to go through that to find my own voice and find that which felt true to the deepest part of me. Then I practiced with Dr Bernard Brom who is considered the founder of Integrative Medicine in South Africa and further trained as a Breathwork Practitioner. But mostly, my learning has come from my patients and they have taught me that a true heart-centered Doctor is one who is humbled every single day because we don’t know all the answers, we can’t know all the answers. What the breath taught me, through the action on the inhale and the surrender on the exhale, is that it’s not about sitting back and waiting for things to happen, we need to make things happen, we need to take the action steps but then we need to let go at some point and can we learn to do that? That’s the skill of true energy management really, can we all just learn to let go and relax after all the work has been done, and everything that can be done has been done, can we just let go?
In wrapping up, you said something very profound much earlier this morning about leaders being healers, and I’m on this journey where I am exploring the rich and deep layers that make up this tapestry called leadership, please share your thinking on that?
You also said something about how, regardless of the role we occupy in society, we are all leaders. And what does that mean, being a leader? And for me, being a leader is being a healer because we are all sitting with so much trauma from the beginning of time and we are dealing with systems that are so fractured, within ourselves and as collectives. To be a leader is to take responsibility for your role as a healer. Where are you leading from? Where are you healing from? So, it’s about making this very long journey from the head back to the heart and to have a deep compassion for yourself and for others because we are all the same and we have moments of feeling that. There are certain experiences that connect us as human beings, music connects us, sports have been known to connect and yes, mostly disconnect. But, the breath is consistent, the breath connects us. This is why I am so passionate about the breath, it cuts across all divides and is a universal experience of life itself and when we breathe together, we have a tangible feeling of Ubuntu, we have a felt, physical sense of what Ubuntu feels like in our bodies and in our hearts and in the energy between us. I have a dream of every class, in every school, at every level, starting with a 5-minute session of breathing together. I have a dream of every board meeting starting with a 5-minute session of conscious breathing. I have a vision of every Parliamentary session beginning with 5 minutes of conscious breathing. I think the world would be a very different place. Breathing together, beyond words, beyond ideologies, beyond belief systems, beyond fear, beyond all these things that divide us, can free us to express our diversity but from a different place.
Photography by Makgomo Mushwana – Sali Sali Photography