A coherent heart rate variability (HRV) cycle is an outcome of coherent circulatory emphasis, arterial blood flow being emphasized during exhalation and venous blood flow being emphasized during inhalation. Autonomic balance is realized (given the activity) when blood flow in arterial and venous systems is balanced. Note that if periods of inhalation and exhalation are not even as might occur with asymmetric breathing methods, then the autonomic nervous system must struggle to equilibrate blood flow in the body, i.e. in the greater scheme of things it is necessary that net arterial flow equal net venous flow. This idea is expressed by COHERENCE Clock.
As described in The New Science Of Breath there are two basic Coherent Breathing protocols, one with heart rate monitoring, and one without. They are the same except one uses the actual heart rate as the reference rhythm and the other uses an external timing reference. (COHERENCE owns the patent on generating biofeedback signals to exhale and inhale at heart rate peaks and valleys.)
With Heart Rate Monitoring
Without Heart Rate Monitoring
1. Monitoring the heart rate at the earlobe (or via EKG), exhale at heart rate peaks and inhale at heart rate valleys. BreatheHeart and Valsalva Wave Pro allow Valsalva Wave and heart rate synchrony to be observed and measured. View screens. Cultivate heart rate variability of 20-30 beats but without strain or discomfort.
(The goal of synchronizing respiration with the heart rate takes precedence over the variability goal. This acknowledges that autonomic status changes depending on time of day, digestive status, etc., and with it heart rate and heart rate variability.)
1. Synchronize respiration with audible or visual cues at the nominal frequency of 5 breaths per minute with equal inhalation and exhalation, but without strain or discomfort -inhaling until we are comfortable and then exhaling until we are comfortable - thats it, no holding of the breath, no pausing, no intentionally uneven cycles, etc.
For the vast majority of people - unless cardiopulmonary status is compromised - the period is nominally 6 seconds in and 6 seconds out.
If "comfortable" means shorter times, e.g. 5 seconds, or even 4 seconds in and out, thats fine, especially at first. It is important that inhalation and exhalation times be even.
If warranted, decrease breathing frequency and increase breathing depth very gradually. The CD SLOW Down! is offered for this purpose.
3. It is also very beneficial to "explore" the limits of diaphragm range every day (this way range is built and maintained). This is done by inhaling very fully, extending the diaphragm down-down-down. Then exhaling very fully extending the diaphragm up-up-up. This can be done with or without a balloon. Please see the COHERENCE Newsletter - January 2010.
This point relates to the tendency for our range of movement to gradually shrink if not maintained. This applies not just to movement of the diaphragm but to all movement!
Practice Coherent Breathing for 20 minutes a day for 21 days straight. (Maxwell Maltz - Psychocybernetics). If this is not possible, practice whenever possible.
When feedback is employed daily, the learning process is greatly enhanced and may require less time.
With practice, we begin to recognize when we're not breathing "coherently" and adjust in real time. This "reminder" usually comes in the form of feelings of discomfort beginning to appear.
The goal is to learn to breathe slowly, deeply, and rhythmically all the time, circumstances permitting. In this regard, Coherent Breathing may be thought of as a quiescent form of exercise that we can engage in all the time.
Once "trained" breathing rate and depth vary naturally throughout the day - wandering around trained frequency and depth. Stephen Elliott calls this the "non-linear dynamics of trained breathing ".
We've found that even if one is "well trained", without regular practice, within a few days breathing rate begins to become more rapid, depth more shallow, and rhythm more asynchronous and chaotic, and with this change, undesirable symptoms may emerge. This is especially true if one's life is fast paced and stressful. Why this occurs is a question of critical significance.
While a work in progress, Stephen presently believes the primary benefits of Coherent Breathing to accrue from circulatory effectiveness and efficiency (against the force of gravity in erect vertebrates) where the "thoracic pump" contributes strongly to the movement of blood from the feet and hands to the chest during inhalation and from the chest to the brain during exhalation.
Evoking A Deep Relaxation Response
It is natural that when we exhale, the body tends to relax. Heart rate is a key indicator of the degree of relaxation that is being achieved. If we combine conscious "letting go" with exhalation, the valley heart rate tends to drop. When the valley heart rate drops, as we inhale the peak rises further. So cultivation of the valley contributes to peak to peak amplitude.
If we coordinate relaxation of the face, specifically letting go of the eyes and the jaw muscles as we exhale, the valley heart rate drops even further - the eyes and the jaw are "bridges". During the process of training the relaxation response, as exhalation begins allow the eyes to close gently. When exhalation ends, open the eyes gently. Continue this practice for a few minutes - working with the valley heart rate.
This is important because the valley heart rate is indicative of real time parasympathetic status. So by learning to lower the heart rate valley, we are learning to emphasize parasympathetic function. This "relaxation response" is felt throughout the entire body including all of the low threshold muscle motor units of the spine, the blood vessels, etc.
Cultivation of the "relaxation response" is vitally important to health. In Herbert Benson's latest book Relaxation Revolution, he and William Proctor describe the role that relaxation plays in "gene expression" where they find that mind body practice (specifically involving elicitation of the relaxation response) affects how DNA is transcribed into RNA and RNA into proteins and proteins into cells. The present finding is that approximately 2200 of the 54000 genes in the genome express in a healthful way in mind body practitioners, where in the normal population (of otherwise healthful individuals) they express in a way that produces disease. You can find out more about Relaxation Revolution by reading the December 2010 COHERENCE Newsletter. Purchase Relaxation Revolution and receive The Six Bridges FREE!
Six Bridges is the progressive relaxation exercise that accompanies Coherent Breathing. It teaches us to gain conscious control over 6 anatomical zones of the body that act as "master switches" governing tension in the body, specifically the activation of low threshold muscle motor units. By learning to "manage" these points, we are able to gain a high degree of conscious control over bodily tension at large. With relaxation of low threshold muscle motor units, circulation increases and with it variability of the heart rate.
With deep conscious relaxation of the body, the mind becomes peaceful and still. In fact, we find that when the body is completely relaxed "thought" stops. Here, there is a relationship between thought and bodily tension in that any and all thought produces physical tension. If we consciously hold physical tension at bay, then "thought" cannot occur. This relationship and degree of control can be discovered with regular practice.
When we don't breathe productively over a long period of time, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes dysfunctional.
This leads to sympathetic dominance, a condition shared by most adults to some degree.
Sympathetic dominance results in diminished circulation, muscle tightness, anxiety, pain, and a myriad of other symptoms including aging.
When we start to breathe, exercising the parasympathetic apparatus, the body begins to go through a number of changes.
At the outset, people often feel pain, exhaustion, and other feelings. This is because they really are exhausted and in pain but its been hidden.
If we practice consistently but with patience, these problems will diminish. This being said, it is important to do only what is comfortable.
HRV and blood pressure are closely related. In our research we don't find any instances where HRV is greater than 13 beats and blood pressure is higher than normal. It is also true that as one cultivates HRV amplitude via breathing, blood pressure tends to decrease. The reason that significant HRV and elevated blood pressure are mutually exclusive is that for HRV to be high, arteries must relax during exhalation - and if arteries relax during exhalation, blood pressure cannot be high.
Therefore it is common to see that high blood pressure is accompanied by low HRV amplitude (maybe 3-5 beats). In our study, below 13 beats, 1 beat of HRV relates to 3.3mmHg average blood pressure. As one learns Coherent Breathing and relaxation, HRV tends to increase and blood pressure decrease. Elicitation of the relaxation respond during exhalation is very important. The process for evoking a deep relaxation response is discussed above.
The physiologic means by which breathing regulates blood pressure is believed to be twofold. First, when we inhale with depth it creates a relative low pressure zone in the thoracic cavity and lungs. Venous blood rushes from the extremities (a zone of relatively higher pressure) through vena cava and right heart filling the pulmonary capillaries. Second, following a "complete" inhalation, when we exhale blood exits the lungs under small positive pressure and fills the aorta and arterial tree via the left heart, the left heart shuttling the relatively large volume of blood exiting the lungs by increasing ejection fraction (throughput). At the same time the heart rate slows and the arterial tree relaxes to accommodate this volume of blood exiting the lungs. If the heart did not slow and the arterial tree did not relax, blood pressure would rise excessively.
So, there is an automatic regulatory mechanism that elicits slowing of the heart rate and relaxation of the arterial tree coincident with exhalation - a primary purpose of this mechanism being the governance of viable blood pressure in the arterial tree.
The crux of it is this...If we fail to inhale with depth, this low pressure zone is not realized and the burden of venous return falls to the right heart which must "vacuum" blood back to the lungs, and the arterial tree which must "push" blood through the capillary circulation in order to maintain viable venous flow - which must equal arterial flow.
In summary, when the diaphragm is not "working", the burden is placed on the cadiovascular system. The systemic outcome is relatively higher arterial and venous pressure.
What Is Heart Rate Variability?
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is variation in heart rate. Where the average heart rate may be 72 beats per minutes, a healthy heart rate varies in time. We can think of variation in heart rate as being of two types: a) variation due to breathing, and b) variation due to all other causes, for example, movement, metabolic status, thought, emotion, etc. We are particularly interested in breathing induced heart rate variability. But why does heart rate vary with breathing? The simple answer is that both the heart and the lungs exist to facilitate circulation.
Breathing Induced HRV Demonstrating 20-30 Beats Of Variability
Reductionist thinking has trained us to think of the heart as the organ that pumps blood throughout the body and of the lungs as the organ that facilitates gas exchange. But in fact, there is a larger system at work that comprises the thoracic cavity in which the heart and lungs reside, the abdominal cavity, the cardiovascular system, and the autonomic nervous system control of all - as well as conscious somatic governance of breathing.
When we inhale, the diaphragm moves down creating a low pressure zone in the thoracic cavity and a high pressure zone in the abdominal cavity. Blood throughout the body rushes through the vena cava and right heart into the low pressure zone of the lungs, filling the pulmonary capillaries, blood and air meeting across the extremely thin alveolar surface. The high pressure exerted in the abdominal cavity causes blood to evacuate the mesenteric veins. As we inhale, heart rate speeds up to facilitate the rush of blood through the right heart into the low pressure zone of the lungs. The ejection fraction, the amount of blood that moves through the heart with each beat decreases, the total volume of blood moved through the heart during inhalation being equal to the number of beats times the volume moved by each beat. For more about thoracic and adbominal cavities and breathing, see the February 2009, COHERENCE Newsletter or see Coherent Breathing - The Definitive Method.
As we exhale, the diaphragm moves up creating a high pressure zone in the thoracic cavity and a low pressure zone in the abdominal cavity. Blood that was stored in the pulmonary capillaries exits the lungs via the pulmonary veins making its was through the left heart and into the high pressure zone of the aorta and arterial circulation. The low pressure exerted on the abdominal cavity allows the mesenteric arteries to fill. As we exhale, heart rate slows down but the ejection fraction increases dramatically. This is to facilitate the movement of the large volume of blood stored in the lungs (100s of ml) into the relatively high pressure zone of the aorta, but without causing an undue rise in arterial pressure. Here again the total volume of blood moved through the heart during exhalation is equal to the number of beats times the volume moved by each beat - which must be equal to that moved into the lungs during the inhalation phase.
The pulse associated with this process is depicted below where we see it speeding up during inhalation and slowing down during exhalation. The amplitude of the pulse increases as the heart rate slows and decreases as the heart rate increases.
Pulse Wave Of Coherent Breathing Demonstrating Change In Rate And Ejection Fraction
This increasing and decreasing heart rate (which is accompanied by decreasing and increasing ejection fraction) is "breathing induced heart rate variability". This process is depicted in the graphic below from The New Science Of Breath, Elliott & Edmonson (2006).
Click the graphic to zoom in
Can I use Hearthmath emWave or other heart rate monitor to train Coherent Breathing?
Sure, however, only COHERENCE instruments allow detection, measurement, and correlation of heart rate with blood volume (patent pending) as well as automatic measurement of variability.
For 30 years or more, heart rate variability has been observed and measured. Only now, using BreatheHeart or Valsalva Wave Pro, can we easily observe the physiology behind the heart rate, this being the blood wave that enters and exits the lungs with inhalation and exhalation. The new standard of coherence is the synchrony between the heart rate and its impetus, the breathing induced Valsalva Wave.
You may wish to read "COHERENCE", the September 2011 COHERENCE Newsletter.
BreatheHeart, Coherent Breathing, and Valsalva Wave are trademarks of COHERENCE LLC
COHERENCE, Coherent Breathing, The New Science of Breath, BreatheHeart, and Valsalva Wave are trademarks of COHERENCE L.L.C.