The significance of heart rate variability
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is critical for (at least) three reasons:
- HRV accurately predicts your death (if we measure the HRV for twenty-four hours we can tell you when you’re going to die). 1
- HRV predicts how much energy you’ve got. 2
- HRV alters brain function – this is the key to performance. 2
When we are happily getting on with life the HRV is quietly chaotic, as each and every beat is different, but not too different. But if we are put under pressure, our HRV becomes super chaotic.
Chaotic HRV caused by anxiety:
Your brain receives a signal that travels up the vagus nerve channel from the heart. In yogic terms the signal is the prana and the vagus nerve is the nadi. When you are under pressure this signal becomes chaotic, and the more pressure you are under the more chaotic it becomes.
The consequence of this chaotic signal is a shut down of the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes are responsible for decision-making, problem solving, judgements, planning, working memory and controlling purposeful behaviours.
Dr. Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in Neuroscience and Psychological Medicine at Imperial College, London, calls this phenomena of frontal lobe shut down a “D.I.Y. lobotomy”.
Think About Your Thinking?
We do lots of thinking but we don’t think about thinking! We just think but we don’t realise that what we think and how well we think is actually influenced by something else. Thought is an emergent property from within your system. You will think different things if you’re happy than if you’re depressed, and how well you think the thoughts will depend on the biology.
If you what to change thinking, to double or treble the quality of your thinking, you can’t do it by thinking about it! If you find a problem – caused by not thinking smart enough, you can’t go home for the weekend, think about your thinking and come back thinking twenty-five per cent smarter on Monday!
“You can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created the problem.”
You need a new level of thinking. To get this new level you have to change the context in which thought emerges. The context in human terms is the biology – the biological context from which thought emerges is the emotional state.
If you change biological and emotional context, then you can change the quality of the thought and the actual thought itself.
Now the good news: you don’t need to be a yogic master in order to change your physiology and regain control of brain function.
It’s simple – you need to influence the pattern of your breathing, which in turn affects your HRV, which affects the coherence of signals in your prefrontal cortex. The thing that absolutely underpins brain function is the ability to generate a coherent signal when reading HRV. There will still be variance, but it is stable variance as opposed to wildly fluctuating variance. That stability or coherence is the source of your brilliance.
This coherent pattern is achieved with yogic breathing and leads to improved mental performance, more creativity and problem-solving, better decision-making, more flexibility in the way we think, improved memory and improved immunity to disease.
How to Achieve Coherence
Because we can get conscious control over our breathing, which controls the types of signal sent to the brain from the heart, we can use the breath to achieve physiological control by reducing and stabilising the chaos.
There are twelve different aspects of your breath that you can regulate and control. We will look at the three that are more helpful to brain function as they are key to achieving coherence:
- Rhythm of breath pattern
- Smoothness of breath flow
- Attention location
The single most important aspect of the breath when creating a coherent signal from the heart to the brain is rhythm.
Rhythmic breathing will immediately change the physiology and the frontal lobe will work better. You’re more perceptive, insightful, your thinking is clearer and sharper, problem solving is like second nature, and intuitively when things go wrong you can figure out what to do.
So the next time you need to calm down and someone tells you to “Take a few deep breaths”, don’t bother. The depth of the breath will not alter your brain function that much; it will have some affect but if we rank the aspects of breath that impact your physiology and help you calm down then depth (or volume) is at about number six.
Rhythmic breaths will immediately start to change your physiology. Try putting this to the test next time you are about to step out of your comfort zone, or if you notice you’re getting worked up about something. Take a few rhythmic breaths, using a rhythm that has a fixed ratio of inhale length:exhale length. It doesn’t matter what the ratio, but it has to be fixed.
Try in:out at 4:6 seconds, four seconds in and six seconds out, or you can do 3:4, 5:5 or even 6:6 – as long as it’s a fixed ratio. As soon as you’ve established and relaxed into a rhythmic breathing pattern, the calming will begin.
The second most important thing is smoothness: even, smooth flow and pressure from start to end of both the inhale and the exhale. This will give a fixed volume per second around the entire cycle of the breath.
This aspect was described beautifully by Niranjan Gogia, one of my favourite teachers from the Yoga Institute in Mumbai. He said to imagine getting into a lift on the ground floor, the doors close smoothly and silently. You are unaware of any motion; you are simply standing still in the lift for a few moments. Then the doors slide open gracefully and there you are at the eighth floor! Now this smooth graceful operation of the lift is how you must operate your own breath, without any jerking, without any obvious change of pace, flow or direction, so smooth and graceful only you are aware of its motion.
The third aspect to consider is the location of your attention while you’re breathing. Again, as with the ratio of the rhythm, this must be fixed. It is the fact that it is fixed that is most important, where it remains fixed is of lesser importance, as long as the location of the attention is focused on some aspect of your internal environment.
The Powerhouse of the Heart
Let’s use the heart. Not only is the heart in the general area of the breath, in the centre of the chest, it also generates more electrical power than any other part of your system. Even thought there are billions of nerve cells up in the brain and only a couple of hundred thousand in your heart, the actual power output for your heart is about 3.5 watts, much greater than the power output from your brain, which has electrical charges that go in all different directions, scattered and often cancelling each other out. In your heart you have auto coherence, whilst the heart has to synchronise its power in order to pump.
The heart generates fifty times more electrical output than the brain, and electromagnetically it generates five thousand times more energy than the brain.
I first began to understand the power of the heart when I encountered the Institute of HeartMath – an American organisation that is all about lowering stress and building resilience. Its scientific research is extensive and has certainly helped me to appreciate my heart and how amazing and powerful it is.
I hope that you, like me, have come to the same question: “What is in control here – the head or the heart?” We have all been taught to be brain focused or brain centric in our understanding of human biology, but with all the new findings about the heart and its power I now openly question that.
Putting your attention in the heart is putting it where the primary source of power is. As if that was not enough there are other reasons to focus your attention on your heart when practicing this breathing exercise to establish coherence: dropping your attention down from your head and to your heart gets you out of your head, out of the noise, the jumble of thoughts and into the relative peace and quiet of the body. This is far less distracting and you are likely to be able to sustain the practice for longer without interruption.
And finally, “Why the heart?” Because this is where we feel love and passion, where we feel our positive emotions. So going from controlling the physiology up to the emotional state we want to generate a very positive emotional state. And many of our positive emotions are experienced in the centre of our chest. “I love you with all of my heart” – all of my head or all my brain! The awareness might be in the mind but where we feel the sensation is in the centre of the chest.
Putting your attention in the heart area will begin to put you into a more positive state, to attune you to your positive emotions.
Breathing Practice to Achieve Coherence
Fixed ratio breathing:
- Breath in long, smooth and slow for four seconds
- Breath out long, smooth and slow for six seconds
For consistent brilliant performance every day, follow Dr Alan Watkins’ clever acronym:
B – Breathe
R – Rhythmically
E – Evenly
A – And
T – Through the
H – Heart
E – Every day
“Companies Can Do Yoga Too”
by Marion Bevington, Corporate Yoga Teacher & Trainer
find out more about the book by clicking the book image.
More recommended reading:
A. Watkins – Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership.
Heart Math Institute