Conscious Breathing can increase heart rate variability, which improves a range of symptoms such as stress, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, obesity, depression, and aging. Dr. David O’Hare has been practicing general medicine for over thirty years. He graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of Marseilles, France, and he also holds a postgraduate degree in cognitive and behavioral therapy. He has been practicing and researching the link between heart-rate variability and breathing since 1977. Heart rate variability, or HRV, refers to the natural tendency of the heart to speed up and slow down with each breath. Having higher HRV is a sign of a healthy heart and an indicator of overall well-being. Many researchers like Dr. O’Hare have been studying and bringing awareness of this phenomenon to the world. Yogis, Taoist monks, and others are known to be able to control various so- called involuntary physiological processes in the body: heart rate, brain states, and so on. Dr. O’Hare teaches a very simple and specific breathing practice that allows anyone to take more control over their health and to begin to develop some of those same abilities. The title of his book, Heart Coherence 365,describes both the practice formula and the benefits. Dr. O’Hare explains: “When we breathe in, the heart speeds up. The
mechanism is complex; it has to do with inhibiting the parasympathetic nervous system (the brake). It is like lifting our foot off the brake on a downhill slope; the car accelerates. When we exhale, the heart slows, like reapplying the brakes on a downhill slope; the car slows down.”
6 Breathing gives us a way to hack into our own brain and nervous system! High HRV is linked to longevity, and it is inversely proportionate to stress.
The more stressed you are, the less your heart speeds up and slows down with every breath. The less stressed you are, the greater the range of your HRV. When you are in the zone, it is at peak or optimal variability. Various things reduce HRV: aging; chronic illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, stress, anxiety, depression, tobacco consumption, or insomnia; and lack of exercise. We normally measure heart rate in beats per minute, and we assume that a regular, steady rhythm is good. In fact, a steady, regular heart rate is the last thing you want! When we measure the heart rate in milliseconds, we find that the time between two heartbeats is never the same. Imagine a tennis player waiting for her opponent’s serve. She doesn’t take a solid stance, and she doesn’t move in a predictable direction or in a repetitive or mechanical way. She keeps moving, jumping, randomly shifting from one foot to the other. This is how she remains ready and able to respond in any direction at any time to whatever comes her way.
A healthy heart is always adjusting to the internal and external environment. A healthy heart rate is irregular! It is resilient, responsive, adapting moment to moment. It is alive. So don’t worry and don’t be nervous if you notice your heart speeding up or slowing down. It is doing its job of serving you. Slow-paced breathing increases HRV, supports the heart, and improves stress resilience. The lesson here is to practice breathing at a rate of six breaths per minute. When you do, an interesting phenomenon called “heart resonance” is produced in as little as five minutes. Heart coherence refers to the continuous fluctuations in the heart rate. It is associated with a positive state or mood—a feeling of inner balance and centeredness—alert yet relaxed, energized yet calm. There are a number of ways to create heart coherence. There are cognitive methods such as visualization, for example; and practices like tai chi, yoga, regular exercise, meditation, also increase it. When we imagine or remember a pleasant event or a wonderful experience, the heart tends toward coherence. You can create heart coherence using emotional methods, such as when you generate feelings like love and affection, compassion, goodwill, and gratitude. And you can use evocation methods such as repeating affirmations, declarations, positive verbal statements, prayers, mantras, and so on. However, by far the quickest and most effective way to guarantee heart coherence is through Conscious Breathing. Heart coherence is at its maximum when a resonant frequency of four and a half to six respiratory cycles per minute is attained. In other words, when you breathe at a rate of four and a half to six breaths per minute, you trigger heart coherence.
Studies show measurable benefits with just five minutes of paced breathing at a rate of six breaths per minute, three times per day. You can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels (that’s the stress hormone) by up to 20 percent! Six breaths per minute means five-second inhales and five-second exhales. When you breathe in this way, you get a handle on your autonomic nervous system and influence your physiology in a very positive way. The benefits include a reduction in cortisol levels and increases in oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin as well as an increase in brain alpha waves. All of these benefits can be produced in just five minutes, and they can last for up to four hours or more. Not bad for five minutes of a simple breathwork technique! There is a catch: your breathing practice is only effective when it
becomes a daily ritual, like showering or brushing your teeth. That’s what produces the permanent, ongoing benefits, and it’s how we produce higher levels of fitness and performance, not to mention a healthier heart and a longer life. After seven to ten days of practice, the measurable benefits are significant, and they last for several weeks after you stop. But why stop? The benefits only accumulate when you choose to make this practice a regular part of your day. So why not start today?
Breathe Now: Heart Rate Variability Practice
- Three times per day
- Six breaths per minute
- Five minutes duration
- Make your in-breaths and your out-breaths last for five seconds each. There is an imperceptible pause between inhales and exhales. In this way, you create heart coherence and heart resonance. (See Heart Rate Variability Reminders for clarification of these terms.)
- Sit straight and strong, but relaxed and at ease. It’s easier to breathe fully and freely and to create heart coherence if you are sitting or standing upright.
- Create a conscious intention before each session. State it as an affirmation, an assertion, a command, or a prayer. For example: “I am strengthening my ability to survive and thrive till I’m a hundred and five!” Or “Every conscious breath makes me stronger, healthier, and more alive!” Breathe in for five seconds: through your nose, focusing on sending the breath low into your belly. (It’s okay to breathe in through your mouth if that feels more comfortable, interesting, or enjoyable.)
- Breathe out for five seconds: through your nose, or perhaps through pursed lips as if you are blowing through a straw to make bubbles in your drink, or by making a shhhh sound. Some people like to hum on the exhale. That also works beautifully. Do what feels comfortable or enjoyable.
- Be fully mindful of each breath when you practice. Focus 100 percent on the subtle sensations of breathing. It is not a thinking process, it is a feeling process. This is how we access our unconscious autonomic system and take control of so-called involuntary functions.
- Do your first five-minute practice session as soon as you wake up in the morning, before doing anything else (except perhaps using the toilet). Do this first session before drinking coffee or having breakfast. It is the most important session of the day. Make it a priority.
- Do your second five-minute session about four hours later, just before lunch. This midday session clears away stress and rebalances the nervous system after a hectic morning. It also prepares your system for digestion, and it helps prevent afternoon drowsiness.
- Do your third session at the end of your workday, perhaps in your car when you arrive home or before starting your evening. Practice breathing six breaths per minute for five minutes to help you shift from work mode to family life. On especially long or busy days, you can add one more session, about an hour before sleeping—for example about 10 P.M. if you go to bed at eleven.
- Remember the formula for breathing at resonant frequency:
–Three times per day
-Six breaths per minute
-Five minutes duration
- To reinforce the breathing signal, focus on your heart. You can even put your hand(s) over your heart.
- Focus on positive emotions, wonderful images, and powerful intentions. Use the shhhh sound on the exhale, or purse your lips as if blowing through a straw to make bubbles in your drink.
- Do one or two minutes of practice before an important meeting or activity, to calm and focus yourself, and to prepare physiologically. Do it when you become emotionally upset or offended.
- Breathing at resonant frequency helps not only you, it influences the hearts of those who are close to you. Practice it when your children become agitated. Try it when your baby cries, or when your spouse is angry, upset, or in pain.
Heart Rate Variability Reminders
- Heart rate variability (HRV) is the ability of the heart to accelerate and decelerate in relation to changes in your internal and external environment. The range of this variability reflects your capacity to adapt to and cope with change.
- Heart chaos is the natural state of the HRV curve. The heart accelerates and decelerates as it adapts moment to moment to our internal and external environments.
- Heart coherence is a specific state of increased heart rate variability induced by paced breathing. It represents inner harmony and balance, and it results in many beneficial effects on health and well-being.
- Heart resonance is a specific state of heart coherence attained when breathing consciously and deeply at a frequency of six times per minute