Heart Rate Variability, Coherence, & Resonance Breathing

Resonance breathing, Coherence, & Heart Rate Variability aka HRV

What is Heart Rate Variability?
A heart rate that increases on your inhales and decreases on your exhales. 

A heart rate of 60 or 70 BPM has a beat to beat difference in a healthy person — your heart is not like a metronome just ticking away at a steady beat (unless you are stressed).  There is some variability in our heart’s beat to beat difference; a healthy heart rate variability is when our heart rate increases on our inhales and decreases on our exhales.

This is a sign of healthy vagal tone because it is slowing down the stress response appropriately.  When we inhale it signals the sympathetic system to increase our heart rate and when we exhale it signals the vagus nerve to slow down the heart rate.  

  • The heart has two main nerves connected to it, the accelerans nerve and the vagus nerve — the accelerans nerve is what stimulates the SNS, and the vagus nerve is what stimulates the PNS which puts a brake on the SNS.  This allows the heart to pump in more blood on the inhale and less blood out on the exhale which better oxygenates the blood.
    • When you inhale your chest expands which allow more room for blood to rush into the heart, so your body says to your nervous system “hey pick up your heart rate”
    • As you exhale the chest compresses inward putting pressure on the heart which speeds up blood flow, so your vagus nerve signals your heart to slow down.

A healthy heart rate variability means your autonomic nervous system is in balance ~ meaning you can quickly react when necessary to a stressor and then let it go and recover back to homeostasis where healing, digestion, and regeneration can carry on.  If your heart is beating like a metronome this is a sign your stress response is in overdrive, if not addressed this can lead toward the development of diseases in the body.

If the heart does not slow down on the exhale it could be triggered by an old traumatic event that is still effecting us, or low level daily stress such as from a job or unhealthy relationship.  Low heart rate variability is an indicator of low vagal tone and will be associated with the same diseases; heart disease, blood pressure, diabetes, and inflammatory diseases in general.

Heart Rate Variability and Coherence

While we want this variability in our heart rate we want this variability to be in a pattern — when you plot your heart rate over time the overall shape of the waveform should be like a smooth harmonious set of waves.  This is how our heart looks when we are happy, feeling the uplifting emotions of joy, gratefulness, love, compassion, and appreciation.

When we are stressed or mad — or anxious or frustrated plotted heart rate waveforms look like a dangerous mountain with uneven jagged peaks — or a stormy day at sea.  This is called an incoherent heart rate pattern, it means our nervous system is out of balance — basically like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake — not a pleasant ride.

These differences in heart rate waveforms effect our brain waves and brain function.  If our heart rate waveforms are incoherent for prolonged periods of time it impairs our prefrontal cortex —remember what our prefrontal cortex does?  Memory, learning, compassion, good decision making.  Instead it activates the  amygdala putting us in a stress response which impairs our decision making and creates a vicious cycle.

When we are in coherence with a coherence breath or resonance breath it synchronizes our heart rate and our brain waves putting our brain waves in the meditative alpha and theta brain waves. 

We have tools

Decreased heart rate variability is akin to a wounded heart that needs some TLC to repair.  We can overcome incoherence:

  • If we are able to shift our emotions to one of joy, appreciation, or love and happiness, it will bring us into coherence, this was fascinating research by HeartMath.  Sometimes this can be difficult ~
  • We also can make this shift by slowing our breath rate down to 5-7 beats per minute. 

Other tools that can improve HRV:

  • Sacred Movement and ancient forms of mind body exercise such as yoga, qi gong, tai chi etc. are all to strengthen our vagal tone
  • Forest Bathing — or bringing the forest inside with incense, smudging, essential oils, and infused oils.

Our breathing patterns modulate our hearts rhythm which also modulates our blood pressure rhythm which also effects brain function.  We are so connected. 

What the HeartMath technique does is combine slow breathing with feeling positive emotions to shift our body into coherence.  When we are in coherence our respiratory rate, heart rate, brain waves, and blood pressure rhythm are all in balance. 

See the graph above, at about the 300 second mark (which is 5 minutes) the person hooked up to the bio feedback devices went from an incoherent state to coherence. See the difference in the waveforms for respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure — showing the jagged waveforms becoming smooth waves. 

Enter Resonance Breathing (aka Coherence breathing)

Resonance breathing is the act of slowing down your breath to a rate of 5-7 breaths per minute, which is the rate we breathe at for our meditations and in the closing lotus flower (padmasana) — this has also be called coherence breathing.  Most people normally breathe at a rate of about 15-18 breaths per minute which can be adequate to ensure the body has the oxygen it needs.  

When feeling anxiety or stress the breathing rate usually increases to around 20-25 breaths per minute — when the breath speeds up but there is not a demand in the body for more oxygen — or faster breathing — it sends a message to be on alert and can activate the sympathetic arm of the nervous system raising blood pressure, inflammation or other stress responses.

When we slow our breath down, it stops this process and balances the two sides of our autonomic nervous system bringing our body back into homeostasis.  When we meditate, chant, or sing — and even sometimes just talking our body falls into this breathing rate.  

When we sleep we fall into a slow breathing rate with our exhales slightly longer.

The inhales and exhales can be equal or the exhale can be slightly longer for example; 

  • 5 second inhale / 5 second exhale (or 4 or 6 second inhales and exhales)
  • 4 second inhale /  6 second exhale
  • 5 second inhale / 7 second exhale

The breaths do not need to be real deep, it is more important to keep it smooth and a little slower than your normal breath.  Sometimes when we try to breathe deeply we put a little tension in our breath.

You can use our ujjayi or loud breath like we do in our ashtanga practice — with or without bandhas, but you don’t have to.  Just a belly breath is ok too.  And sometimes that is nice, you can lay your hands on your abdomen as you slow your breath down and feel your belly rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale — which is a level of biofeedback.  Many people breathe backward which sets off the stress response, breathing backward is when you inhale and suck your belly in and then when you exhale your belly tries to expand but it really can’t do it well and you just don’t get a good breath.  You can feel this with your hands and then reset your breathing.

I like extending the exhale — the exhale is under used (and under-rated!) when people breathe unconsciously.  During the exhale is when the O2 we just breathed into our blood transfers to our tissues — we don’t want the oxygen to stay in our blood, we want the oxygen to get from our blood to our tissues.

And this could also be helpful anytime you are having breathing difficulty — as I write this we are in Covid-19 times, nasal breathing with a longer exhale could be helpful if your blood oxygen level gets low.

Resonance means when 2 or more things are in harmony, in this case we are harmonizing our inhales, exhales, sympathetic nervous system, and parasympathetic nervous system (and even our heart and brain waves and blood pressure!).

As I mentioned earlier when we inhale it activates the SNS when we exhale it activates the PNS, when we breathe conscious and slow it brings both the sides of the nervous system into balance where our body can heal and digest and repair the best.

One of the primary benefits of breathing this way is the balancing effect it has on blood pressure.  As I mentioned when we do sun salutes (or prostrations if your religious belief practices those) it exercises the baroreceptor reflexes which are wrapped around our carotid artery in our neck, when we change positions the baroreflex-ers send the message to your heart to pump harder or slower depending on whether we need our blood pressure elevated or decreased.

When we breathe slow it also balances the baroreflexers to those nice smooth waveforms.  It takes about a 5 seconds for the message sent from the baroreceptor reflex to reach the brain, meaning within about 5 seconds we can start to influence a better balance in our own blood pressure.  This is why when you stand up quickly after sitting for a long period of time — or when you come out of a forward bend too quickly — you get light headed briefly, your blood pressure was low for sitting, when you suddenly stood up you needed more blood pressure and it takes about 5 seconds to send the message to the heart and brain for the dizziness to go away.  Sun salutes and movements that exercise your baroreceptor reflexes will shorten this time and improve the synchronization of heart rate and blood pressure (and so will biophotons if you remember from Minding your Mindstuff topic).

HeartMath has a device and app that tells you when you are in coherence, it comes with an ear clip to measure your vitals and is live and interactive with you telling you to keep going, you’re doing great, or to think of something joyful, etc.  (Picture to the right is my feedback from a session with my HeartMath Inner Balance app.)  I have enjoyed playing with it over the past year or so, it is interesting to get the biofeedback, but mostly now I just sit and meditate.

You don’t need the app to do this if you are good at taking your pulse, simply sit and breathe slow and deep while taking your pulse, tune into your inhales and exhales ~ If you are in balance you will notice a slight increase in your pulse as you inhale and a slight decrease in your pulse as you exhale. If you have that you are in HRV, if you don’t you may have some stress in some form.

Eddie Stern has a nice breathing app too that lets you set a timer and the inhale / exhale ratio too — and it has the option to have sound that changes slightly cuing you when to inhale and exhale, or an image of a ball getting bigger and smaller helping you to resonance breathe. 

While the apps are fun to use for biofeedback, they are not necessary.  It’s really quite simple and does not require you to be an expert breather.  You can sit, lie down, or even a slow walk while you resonance breathe.  I try to get in the habit of resonance breathing throughout all of my days — and even when I am out running errands.  It gives me a feeling of calm and clear seeing while working, cooking, or shopping.

When you practice slow breathing in yoga or meditation it is a carry over to better breathing all day long.  When we are slow breathing for meditation or yoga it better balances our O2 and CO2 — remember CO2 is what gives us the feeling of calm — CO2 chemoreceptors in the brain would normally react to increasing levels of CO2 or air huger, they are slower to react in people who practice yoga and mediation.

Long time yoga practitioners have been shown to be able to handle an increase in workload with less oxygen consumption ~ this suggests yoga, meditation, pranayama, and breathing exercises makes the body better able to deliver more energy using less fuel — Yoga makes us more efficient.

May you be in coherence~

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