Taking Care of Your Heart
Updated: Jun 11, 2019
I’m pretty heavily focused on the ways that yoga, meditation, and breath work can retrain our nervous systems helping us recover from trauma and develop more resilience as we move through continuously stressful lives and times. In fact, as YHI ages, this has become my focus for the entire organization. In learning about this, an important physiological dynamic keeps coming up in my reading. So today, rather than dive into reaction versus response as promised in my last post, I’m dipping into the importance of heart rate variability (HRV).
Here was my introduction to HRV…
“...higher HRV [greater variability] is associated with a healthier, more flexible cardiovascular system, a more balanced and resilient stress-response system, and overall greater health and longevity… People with anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress, attention deficit disorder, excess aggression, cardiovascular disease, and irritable bowel syndrome have reduced HRV and dysfunctions in their stress response systems.” This is from “The Healing Power of the Breath” which was required reading for my yoga teacher training through Yoga Teachers College.
So without even knowing exactly what HRV is, we know that the research points to its importance.
It’s come up for me again in the introduction to the book “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga”. Basically our heart, when functioning properly, has a variable rhythm. As we inhale, our heart rate speeds up. As we exhale, our heart rate slows down. You can feel this just by taking your pulse as you take some slow, deep breaths. It’s subtle, but it’s noticeable.
Lucas Rockwood (founder of Yoga Teachers College and YogaBody) talks about inhalation, exhalation and their relationship to the nervous system this way. (Click here for his TED talk on this subject - it’s well worth the 12 minutes. ) He tells people to think about the last time they almost got into a car accident. Did you inhale or did you exhale?
I’ll give you a minute to think about that…
You inhale. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that you gasp - sucking in a big pocket of air. As you gasp, your heart rate ratchets up and now you’re in the age old survival state - a biological imperative that comes from having once been within the food chain rather than on top of it. Do we fight, do we run, do we play dead? Logic is not what we need in this survival state, we need instinct, we need to make split second decisions.
Now think about the last time you were on a date with that special someone and they lean over and tell you that they love you. Or someone you deeply care about wraps their arms around you. What did you do? Did you inhale or did you exhale?
You exhale. Maybe you even sigh with relief. And as you exhale, your heart rate slows down. You drop your guard and allow your nervous system to quiet.
I listened to a podcast last week (The Connected Yoga Teacher (SO GOOD)) on this topic and the guest, Dr. Ginger Garner said that one of the best ways to come out of a triggered state of mind (anxiety or panic attacks is one way people demonstrate that they’ve been triggered) is to connect with people - the right people of course. Now that we know what happens to our breath and heart rate around people we love and are safe with, it makes sense that that connection is calming and healing.
A healthy HRV allows our nervous system to appropriately respond to the stimuli around us while finding balance again when the stimuli has ceased. Without healthy HRV, we are often stuck in survival mode or somewhere close to it. According to Dr. Van Der Kolk in “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga”, “well-regulated people tend to have robust HRV, which is reflected in their ability to have a reasonable degree of control over their impulses and emotions”. The research conducted at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute found that people who have had traumatic experiences have much lower HRV which “could help explain why traumatized people are so reactive to minor stresses and so prone to develop a variety of physical illnesses.”
Back to yoga. The Trauma Center focused their research on “whether yoga could, indeed, change HRV.” They found that it does. How does yoga do this, you might be wondering?
Well, in a yoga class where the teacher focuses on the breath. When you learn to breathe in through your nose and out through your nose; when you learn that your inhalations and your exhalations should be the same length (in yoga classes and throughout the day - there are times when it is appropriate to switch this up) and that you should make sound as you breath by pinching the back of your throat just enough to emit a sound like waves washing on the beach, you are retraining your nervous system. Your heart is connected to your lungs so breathing is actually massaging the heart and overtime a regular breathing practice can increase your HRV.
Here’s a breathing exercise you can do anytime day or night (except maybe not when you’re walking or driving at first, just in case). Inhale through your nose to the count of 4. Exhale through your nose to the count of 4. Do it about 10 times. Because the inhalations and exhalations are even, this practice will not make you tired or amp you up. It’ll just help you tap into your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
In addition to the breath work, yoga helps people connect with their bodies. I took some classes from a teacher trained in Himalayan Yoga and one key component is to frequently come back to mountain pose and do a quick body scan. Where do you feel the tension, do you have pain or discomfort somewhere, do you feel more open in one place than you did at the last scan, or maybe more open on one side than the other. This is something that I now incorporate into most classes that I teach. There is power in being present in your body. I mentioned in my last blog that we store trauma in our bodies and as a result many of us stop paying attention to the signs. We get used to chronic pain or discomfort or illness. We don’t stop to look inward. Being present in our bodies and breathing intentionally are two fundamental pillars of yoga and are both directly related to increasing HRV.
You can do this anywhere too - you don’t even have to be in mountain pose.
I had students do a body scan while they were in child’s pose today,
in mountain pose, and in their final resting pose (savasana - after doing some reading on teaching yoga to veterans, I no longer use the name “corpse pose”). I do this during the day while I’m sitting at my desk sometimes. All we’re doing here is bringing our awareness back into our bodies - we can do it literally anywhere, anytime. My favorite way to do this is to put my right hand over my heart and my left hand on my abdomen (see photo). The feeling of your hands on your body really helps you direct your focus to those places. This is something else I heard in The Connected Yoga Teacher podcast (I'm so sorry I don't remember which guest said it) but the guest has her clients put their hand over their heart to help them draw attention and direct love and compassion to themselves.
I’ll follow this blog up with how HRV is related to reacting versus responding and what the difference between those two things are anyway. If you read my last post, you’ll know that I promised to talk about reaction versus response this time but as I started writing about HRV I realized that this was an important framework in my current understanding of these concepts. So I started here.
Disclaimer - I don’t claim to be an expert on these things, just to be a perpetual student. I’m writing as I learn and as I think through the topics that I address here.
Talks, TEDx. “Change Your Breath, Change Your Life | Lucas Rockwood | TEDxBarcelona.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Dec. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QTJOAI0UoU.
“115: The Polyvagal Theory and Yoga with Dr. Ginger Garner.” The Connected Yoga Teacher, 6 May 2019, www.theconnectedyogateacher.com/115-polyvagal-theory-yoga-dr-ginger-garner/.
Brown, Richard P., and Patricia L. Gerbarg. The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions. Shambhala, 2012.
Emerson, David and Elizabeth Hopper. “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body.” Amazon, Amazon, 19 Apr. 2011, www.amazon.com/Overcoming-Trauma-through-Yoga-Reclaiming/dp/1556439695.