Resonant breathing is a uniquely-paced breathing exercise. Rather than settling into a timeless rhythm or counting numbers, you’ll be sticking to a set number of complete breaths per minute. In this case, 5. At a pace of 5 full breaths per minute, each breath is allotted 12 seconds. This means you’ll inhale for 5 seconds, pause for one, exhale for 5 seconds, then pause again.
Resonant breathing, also known as coherent breathing, has been shown to maximize your heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the slight difference in timing between beats, perhaps as small as 30-100 milliseconds.
Your body is constantly working to balance two sides of your autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic (the deactivating side of things, also known as “rest and digest”) and the sympathetic (for activating, also known as “fight or flight”). These systems compete constantly, trying to find the right balance for the present moment. In today’s world, our sympathetic nervous system often takes center stage, responding to (and adding to) stress. This creates a long-term imbalance.
There are moments when an imbalance is exactly what you need, such as lifting weights. During that time, you’ll want your body focused on the active portion of the nervous system (sympathetic) to allocate resources to your muscles, instead of having your digestion running strong (parasympathetic). Outside of the times when you’re predominantly using one system or the other, you’ll want them both awake and able to compete. They both need to be capable of responding to the outside world. This leads to variations in your heart rate – one side saying go faster, and the other saying take it easy.
If you have a low heart rate variability, it means that one system is dominating the other. These days, it’s quite often the sympathetic nervous system responding to a myriad of little stresses. While each person will have their own optimum HRV, a higher variability is often a better sign for the body. This is a sign that both parts of the autonomic nervous system are in strong working order.
The fun side of this, of course, is that we can train our bodies to have a higher HRV. All you need is a diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a muscular lining between the chest cavity and the lower organs, running along the bottom of your rib cage. The diaphragm has an unusual shape, as far as muscles go. It can turn convex or flatten out. When it descends and flattens out, it creates lower pressure in the chest cavity. The lungs inflate as air is pulled in. Then, the diaphragm curves up. The lungs are compressed, pressure goes up, and air flows out of your lungs. Meanwhile, the heart is trying to keep your blood pressure balanced. When your baroreceptors (pressure sensors) detect a decrease in pressure, they pass the info on to your nervous system, which in turn tells the heart to beat a little faster to compensate for the low pressure. Meanwhile, an increase in pressure pairs with the heart beating slower. The end result is the same – give your body the oxygen and nutrients it needs, to fulfill the requests that your nervous system is making for the different parts of your body.
This loop of signals takes at least a few seconds to complete, but flows like so – decrease of pressure, baroreceptors inform the central nervous system about the change, CNS tells the autonomic nervous system to speed up the heart, the ANS tells the heart to accelerate, the heart accelerates, blood pressure increases to compensate for the earlier pressure decrease, and so on. The fact that this cycle is not instantaneous – that it takes time to complete – means there is a frequency under which this flow operates.
For humans, this cycle operates at a frequency of 0.1 hz – about 10 seconds per cycle. Breathing at the same pace as your system is built to operate causes the two to resonate.
Each person will have a slightly different resonant frequency. Finding your perfect frequency of breaths will optimize your heart rate variability, and help the whole nervous system out. If you have a heart monitor or smartwatch that enables you to keep track of individual heart beats, you can use it to find your perfect frequency. Start with the 10-12 second cycle of breaths outlined below, for at least a few minutes. Then, for another few minutes, try making the cycle 1 second shorter or longer. Then try 2 seconds. Somewhere in there, you’ll find the right length of time that maximizes your HRV. Each breath will most likely end up being somewhere between 7 and 12 seconds.
If you don’t have the electronic equipment to determine your HRV trends, this is a good chance to develop your mindfulness. Continue practicing different forms of pranayama and breathing awareness, and you’ll develop the awareness necessary to judge for yourself what feels right. Us humans have been chanting, praying, and singing in rhythms that resonate with our bodies for millenia, so I’m certain you are capable of it too. Between now and then, a 10-12 second cycle is a great place to start.
Please try your best to breathe with your diaphragm. The more effective your breath is, the more effective your practice will be. Try to be mindful and aware during each breath. Allow your senses to center on your breathing, and then expand to take in your whole body.
The process is simple:
- Get into a comfortable position, whether seated or laying down.
- Inhale for a count of 5 through your nose
- Hold for a brief moment
- Exhale for a count of 5 through pursed lips
- Hold for a brief moment
- Continue breathing in this cycle for at least a few minutes.
Breathing deeply with the diaphragm, feeling your stomach expand and retract with each breath, can also stimulate your vagus nerve(s). The vagal nerve system runs from the brainstem, down both sides of the neck, networks with nearly all the organs, eventually leading down into the gastrointestinal tract. It largely acts as your body’s internal sense, helping your brain decide how to regulate everything lower down. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Shallow breathing may not do much to stimulate the vagus nerve, but deep diaphragmatic breathing does. An underperforming vagal system takes extra time to turn off the body’s stress and immune responses. This can easily lead to rampant inflammation, among many other issues. Stimulate your vagal system through deep, slow breathing, and in turn strengthen your parasympathetic response.
For grace under pressure, all you need to do is breathe.
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