Yoga breath control for recovery from startle & shock


Loss of control in-flight (LOC-I) was the major killer in civil aviation during the years 2006–2010, resulting in ICAO setting a high priority to developing mitigating measures to reduce the LOC-I accident rate. This takes a 2-phase approach: establishing training requirements for upset prevention and recovery in commercial aviation and launching a human performance review to identify ways for pilots to improve their monitoring skillset, the response to startle effects and other aspects of human performance.

EASA the European Aviation Safety Agency has released a research report on startle effect management.

The report identifies the problem area as startle and surprise. The effects of this can influence pilot performance in many detrimental ways. At the very least, these effects serve as a distraction which can disrupt normal operation and erode safety margins. On a more critical level, they can lead to inappropriate intuitive actions or hasty decision making. Well learned procedures and skills can be discarded and are substituted by the first thing that comes to mind. (NLR-CR-2018-242)

Startle defined (NLR-CR-2018-242)

The startle reflex is the first response to a sudden, intense stimulus. It triggers an involuntary physiological reflex, such as blinking of the eyes, an increased heart rate and an increased tension of the muscles. The latter are necessary to prepare the body for the fight-flight response (Koch, 1999). The startle response is accompanied by an emotional component which for a large part influences how a person responds to the unexpected event (Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 1990).

Different elements were combined in the first step, the “unload”-step of the URP

  1. taking physical distance
  2. deep breathing
  3. muscle relaxation
  4. checking of colleague

Cognitive effect of startle (Griffith aviation)

  • Research has shown significant impairment in information processing for up to 30 seconds
  • Information processing tasks such as attention perception, situational awareness, problem solving and decision making can be markedly impacted.
  • Communication is often disorganised and incoherent for some time.
  • Psychomotor impairment often occurs but generally lasts for only 5-10 seconds.

Yogic Breathing from the diaphragm is the solution (NeuroMuscular reprogramming)

Breathing with the diaphragm as practiced in Yoga is crucial to healing from structural injuries, whether they are generated from injury or shock. When we get into accidents, arguments, or other physically or emotionally traumatic experiences, our initial response is to hold our breath. By locking the diaphragm, we signal our body to go into a state of shock. This shuts down many of our restorative physical systems, and re-routes energy to our muscles so that we can fight or flee as necessary to get through the situation we are in.

Once that moment passes, it is necessary that we consciously release the contraction from the diaphragm. If we do not, the contraction (at this point, a fixation) in the diaphragm will persist, and will continue to keep us in a state of shock, during which the body cannot heal tissue or perform vital functions.

The diaphragm has 3 essential functions:

1. It provides a platform of support between the top and bottom of the body.
It is at the diaphragm that our body twists to accomplish contra-lateral coordination between our shoulders and hips as we walk and work. When it is fixated, not toned, or not working properly, our structure collapses and twists, creating weakness in some places and stress points in others.

2. It regulates the shift between the state of alarm and the state of relaxation. When it locks or collapses from having “the breath knocked out of you”, the nervous system can become stuck in the alarm response. This is called Sympathetic Hyper Arousal. SHA shuts down many restorative functions of the body (like digestion, immune system function, and detoxification of chemicals in the liver) in favor of emergency functions. This condition will not resolve until the diaphragm is unlocked and able to function properly.

3. It is the one autonomic nervous system function that we can consciously control! Though you can’t think your way into digesting food more quickly (wouldn’t that be nice) it is possible to speed or slow the breath just by thinking about it. We can use this mechanism to self regulate our nervous system and shift ourselves into a more relaxed state. It is only in a state of relaxation and slow breathing that our body performs important tasks like repairing muscle and joint tissues, nourishing and hydrating the skin, actively absorbing nutrients from the food we eat, deeply relaxing into restorative sleep, and allowing the body to enter a state of sexual arousal. That’s right, beauty, health, and a great sex life, all by taking some time out to breathe! No wonder the disciplines of yoga and meditation incorporate a focus on the breath as a steppingstone to personal mastery.

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The duration of a startle can vary from less than a second to about 1.5 seconds depending on the arousal levels. This period can extend if the diaphragm is locked and breathing not restored. While, this is a known fact, no training programme addresses this critical unloading exercise as is carried out in the UPRT programme. The only solution proposed by other methodologies is “do noting first”. This action is counter-intuitive and counter-productive.

The yogic methodology of restoration of the breathing process from the diaphragm or a form of controlled deep breathing is the solution for which the flight must be trained for.

In order to orientate and become situationally aware of the event and environment, mindfulness also requires control of breathing. One is with the body in that point in time when breathing is controlled. Awareness and attention is focussed on the task in hand and all the distractions/clutter removed.

Nidhidyasan the path to sustainable learning

Vedic approach to education

Pilot training is undergoing a paradigm shift from competency Based Training (CBT) to Competency based Training and Assessment (CBTA).

What is CBTA?

CBTA is an holistic approach to pilot training that provides the progressive and continuous development and assessment of pilot competencies.

ICAO Definition – Training and assessment that are characterised by performance orientation, with emphasis on the standard of performance and their measurement, and the development of training to the specified
performance standards

Traditional training v CBTA training

Separated theoretical and practical training
All training phases develop the pilot competencies and TEM
Each training phase ends in known test profile/ rote learn exam hurdle with pass/fail standard
Progressive and continuous training and assessment with grades + summative assessments at milestones
Prescriptive hours based courses
Output directed, iterative, ISD driven course design
Devices defined
Training need can determine the required device characteristics- enabling
more effective and efficient training and encouragement of device innovation
Prescriptive regulation and oversight
Performance based oversight with focus on course quality and effective

Loosing the plot

CBTA was developed with the intent to provide continuous development and assessment of pilot competencies. One size fits all training is detrimental to the learning experience and the biggest cause of loss of motivation. What is in it for me? Unless the curriculum addresses this issue actively, the initial training may be of some value but continuous training looses the purpose.

Vedic solution to sustainable learning

The three-step education process, namely: 

Shravan, Manan, and Nidhidhyasan.

  • SHRAVAN: essentially translates to but not plain listening; it implies listening attentively without interruption and with an absolute focus to any data, information, knowledge or wisdom.
  • MANAN: is the process of memorizing everything you’ve listened or learned without manipulation or distort emotions.
  • NIDHIDYASAN: To ensure that your mind remains unswayed by people with ulterior motives, Rishis suggested the process of Nidhidhyasan – a continuous pursuit of questioning, challenging, re-learning, rejecting or re-affirming everything which you have learned. In this life where change is the only constant, it is vital to keep a watch on your mind and all that it holds. If you do not change – you perish. Refusal to change stems from ignorance. Such ignorance also stems from holding on to irrelevant data, information or knowledge. The only way to check your ignorance is through Nidhidhyasan. 

Your old habits, thought patterns, values, relationships, activities, and ways of relating to others and the world must be re-evaluated in the light of Truth.

Anything that no longer serves you or which is incongruous with your identity as the Self—including adharmic habits that cause unnecessary agitation to your mind, body, or senses—should be weeded out.

The way that you live should be as close a reflection of who you truly are as possible. 


The duration of the first two steps is limited but the third step of Nidhidyasan is life long and a continuous process.

Performance= Resources X Ability X MOTIVATION

In order to maintain standards and continuously evaluate the present, the individual needs to be highly motivated. CBTA does not include motivation as a competency therefore the absence of this important aspect goes unnoticed.

Psychological weakness can be more debilitating than physical exhaustion. When people feel lack of motivation and inspiration, they feel difficult to carry on with the normal chores of life leave alone aim for perfection and competence at work.

Motivation is what drives or inspires people to perform specific actions or indulge in specific behaviors and attitudes to achieve or gain something. It may arise either from an inherent condition or an external situation.

Motivated behavior gives you a sense of purpose and direction in life. It keeps you engaged in tasks that seem to enhance your value, status, esteem, or self-worth. Motivation also makes life purposeful and fulfilling.

Swami Vivekananda alluded the idea of intrinsic motivation through empowerment and reasonable degree of autonomy. An organisational vision that allows the member to experience a sense of calling, accompanied by a sense of conviction that they make a positive difference, and, a culture where the member gets a feeling of belonging will motivate them intrinsically.

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Knowledge will be eroded with time. Skills won’t remain as sharp and attitudes change with experiences. Therefore the vedic methodology of listening without past experience & bias, internalising and questioning to ensure relevance will ensure that learning levels are sustained with passage of time.

A motivated learner will yearn for more and ensure that the curriculum need analysis updates accordingly. CBTA may be a good beginning but to ensure that the system stays relevant, there is a need to challenge the system continously.

Indian Pilots read carefully, for they don’t know what they are doing


The number of suspensions of pilot in India has been increasing over the years. This excludes the ones under the breath analyzer positive regulations. Suspension of the flying license is the harshest measure that DGCA can take as a deterrent in order to preserve safety.

DGCA State Safety Policy

DGCA will foster and assist stakeholders in developing comprehensive Safety Management Systems (SMS) and will develop preventive safety strategies for the aviation system in an environment of a “just culture”. 

CAR Sec I, Ser C, Part I

Just Culture: It is a culture in which personnel are:

  1. not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them which are commensurate with their experience and training, but 
  2. where gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated.

Therefore the investigation must determine the root cause/es in order to distinguish between 1 and 2 above. So far, the regulator has not established the root cause, completed the investigation yet managed to merge points 1 & 2 above. The net effect is that punitive action has been taken arbitrarily and to the detriment of the minimal safety culture which had been in existence.

Principles of DGCA India Enforcement Policy ( Download the manual here)

The ‘Public Trust Doctrine’ is based on the concept that the powers held by Government officers are, in fact, powers that originate with the people, and are entrusted/ delegated to the government officers only as a means of exercising governance and with the sole objective that such powers shall be exercised in good faith for the benefit of the people.

Powers exercised contrary to the ‘Public Trust Doctrine’ would amount to abuse of powers and contravene the rule of law.

In the process of ensuring enforcement, the officers shall invariably be guided by the following principles:

  1. Natural Justice and Accountability
  2. Impartiality
  3. Proportionality

In the exercise of his discretion, the Officer/Inspector should be guided by the following general approach (DGCA EM, Introduction):

  1. A person who reports making an honest mistake should generally not be prosecuted or fined, nor should their license, certificate or authority be suspended or cancelled for reasons of punishment. 
  2. There should be a measured response to less serious contraventions of the safety rules and procedures which may involve counseling and training rather than either criminal prosecution or the suspension or cancellation of licenses, certificates or authorities or imposition of any monetary penalties.
  3. People who consciously and wilfully choose to operate outside the rules or procedures and thereby put the lives of members of the public including the passengers or property at risk should be prosecuted and removed from the industry.
Occurrence handling


  1. Notification (CAR Sec 5, Ser 5, Part I), sub-rule (2) of rule 1 of the Aircraft (Investigation of Accidents & incidents) Rules 2012.
  2. Processing of occurrence/incident reports (CAR Sec 5, Ser 5, Part I), (Air Safety Procedure Manual Part II) : Occurrence data shall be assessed and analysed in order to detect safety hazards which may not be apparent to individual operators and where appropriate to issue specific advice or instructions to particular sections of the industry.
  3. Investigation (CAR Sec 5, Ser 5, Part I)
  4. Timeline for completion of investigation (CAR Sec 5, Ser 5, Part I)
  5. Determination of severity (Enforcement manual)
  6. Administrative/Judicial action a. Oral counseling b. Warning c. Suspension
  7. Appeal process: If any person is aggrieved by an order passed by an officer in exercise of a power conferred on him by these rules or delegated to him under rule 3A, he may prefer an appeal to the next higher officer within sixty days of the date of the order subject to the condition that not more than two appeals shall be filed in any one case. The next higher officer in case of Director-General shall be the Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
Enforcement action

Crew must refer to the relevant sections of the DGCA Enforcement manual for more exhaustive information.

To summarize, the state safety policy lays emphasis on the benefits of safety culture and an environment of just culture. However, the opposite is being practiced and the bond of trust is being destroyed by targeting pilots and using the harshest means of punitive action as a deterrence for any occurrence. In this environment where there is blatant misuse and violation of the public trust doctrine amounting to abuse of power by the regulator, the pilots must read the provisions of the DGCA regulation s carefully and use all options available to demand a just and fair process be established.

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