Mindlab: Breathwork & Heart Health

We all want our hearts to be healthy, fact! There are many ways to support our hearts health one way is conscious breathing also know as controlled breathing or in the practice of Yoga it is known as Pranayama.  Those of you who have a regular Pranayama practice will know of it’s benefits, but for those of you who have never investigated a regular practice, we are hoping that this series of blogs looking at the scientific research may enthuse, encourage and inspire you to investigate it further.

The best place to start for this particular science fact is with the heart rate.

Heart rate is accelerating and decelerating constantly. This fluctuation is know as Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Research evidence increasing links high HRV to good health and a high level of fitness, whilst decreased HRV is linked to stress, fatigue and even burnout.

It is known that HRV and respiration rate effect each other, and this interdependency is referred to as Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). The heart and the respiratory system are irregular oscillators, and their interaction is weak. However, if respiration is guided, then one of the oscillators becomes regular. If the pace is slow, the synchronization dependence between the two oscillators increases and becomes stronger: slow respiration produces higher HRV amplitudes.

Another aspect of controlling respiration is that exhalation affects baroreflex (also known as Baroreceptor Reflex) sensitivity causing a vagal response, which slows down the heart. Baroreceptors are mechanoreceptors found in the heart Baroreceptors are mechanoreceptors located in the carotid sinus and in the aortic arch. Their function is to sense pressure changes by responding to change in the tension of the arterial wall. The baroreflex mechanism is a fast response to changes in blood pressure.

(Baroreflex is one of the body’s homeostatic mechanisms that help’s to maintain blood pressure at nearly constant levels). At inhalation this “vagal brake” is released and the heart accelerates because of tonic sympathetic influence. RSA is the result of this on-off vagal activity. RSA is regarded as a measure of vagal tone. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental and physical health. Coming back to RSA, pronounced RSA is beneficial to circulation and improves well-being, whereas uneven or reduced RSA is a predictor of circulatory problems.

So activities where we are slowing our respiration will produce the above benefits. So yoga breathing practices (Pranayama), chanting and singing all have wonderful healing benefits due to the conscious regulation of respiration.

When embarking on controlled breathing practices, we always recommended to search out a trained breathing coach or Pranayama teacher who can assess your breathing pattern. After many years of pranayama practice and specific trainings in pranayama we believe it is important to get the correct guidance and support when approaching a regular breathing practice.

A note of caution: In this day and age of over and instant information availability, it is not recommended to simply apply something you saw or heard about elsewhere and proceed to carry it out as a practice and hoping for it to transform your internal landscape or to overcome a physiological or mental condition – especially something like anxiety related to breathing dysfunction. Please take the time to understand and build foundational practice before doing advanced practice, and do so under guidance, ensuring you have the right tools for the right task, practiced in the right way.

Happy Breathing

See the full research article doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334