You may not be aware of it, but each breath that you take is communicating with your heart.
When we inhale, the heart rate will naturally speed up, and with breathing out, the rate will slow down. This natural and beneficial change in heart rhythm helps to increase the circulation to the lungs during inhalation – maximising oxygen collection to fuel the cells of the body – and conserve heart muscle function by slowing down the rate during exhalation.
When the heart rate and breath flow are in sync, it is called “heart coherence”, and the health benefits can be profound. Research has found that by achieving this rhythmic coherence, you can have a positive impact on many areas of health, including improved immune function, stress resilience (or decreased negative effects from stress), and even promote heart health.
Here is a simple guide to achieving a healthy heart coherence with practice and cultivating mindful awareness.
1. Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down.
2. Focus on your breathing and take note of its qualities: fast or slow, deep or shallow, restricted or flowing, etc. You can place one hand on your chest, the other hand on your belly, and notice which hand moves first and which hand moves most.
3. Next, take your first three fingers and locate the pulse in your wrist, which can be found between the outer edge of the wrist and first large tendon. Once you’ve found it, pay attention to the pulse rate and specifically, the change in pulse rate as you inhale and exhale. This may be difficult to sense at first, but with practice, you will feel the pulse speed up with breathing in and slow down with breathing out. If you are still unable to feel this change in pulse rate, take a few deep breaths in and out until you can feel the noticeable change.
4. Using a breath-pacing app or simple watch, adjust your rate of breathing to be 5 seconds inhale, 5 seconds exhale, no pauses in between. Be careful to avoid OVER-breathing by forcing a deep breath in or out, but instead breathe comfortably and modify your rate to match the 5/5 breath rate. This type of breathing is known as the “grounding breath” and will be a great place to start promoting heart coherence. Keep your fingers on the pulse in your wrist and feel the change in rate as you breathe in and out. This change in pulse rate IS heart rhythm coherence!
Check in on your breathing pattern throughout the day and in various situations. This will build mindful awareness of how your breath rate along with heart coherence, changes throughout the day. You can bring yourself back into balanced heart coherence using the 5 and 5 breath rate, along with feeling the pulse change with each breath in and out, thus supporting the health of your heart and promoting overall wellbeing.
Dr Jason Culp is the Research & Development Director at Chiva-Som International Health Resort.