Augmented Meditation: HRV Training

I am writing this at the end of the year, looking back in order to distill what has been most impactful in improving my quality of life in 2016.

The tool/practice I have been most enthusiastic about is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training. It has helped me to be more relaxed in stressful situations.

At the Technische Universit├Ąt in Vienna, a few minutes before giving a presentation.
Photo by Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda.

What is Heart Rate Variability?

HRV describes variations in gaps between heartbeats. As it turns out, your heart does not beat at a constant frequency like a metronome. There are always small variations between beats. These variations can be analyzed to assess physiological stress levels.

HRV has been used by Soviet Union sports scientists since the 70s. Hospitals use it to treat patients with cardiac diseases, and Psychologists use it to treat depression, anxiety, and ADD/ADHD. Over the past decade, HRV has spread across many fields and is gaining popularity as a measure of overall health.

How to Control Your Nervous System

Some of the world’s most effective performers use HRV as an integral part of their training. This includes Olympic athletes who are extremely careful about investing their resources only in tools that are effective. I am not an athlete, but what makes it so valuable to me is the instant visual feedback on what is happening in my body.

Here is a screenshot from a recent training session.
I started the session feeling quite stressed and breathing poorly. By the end, after less than ten minutes, I felt relaxed and centered.

The Effects of Stress on the Body

I am usually uncomfortable in groups of strangers and feel this discomfort as tension and sweatiness. During “crunch time” before a deadline, my jaw and upper back can get very tense and I don’t sleep well. These are examples of my body being affected by stress.

Over the past few years, I have learned to be more attuned to my internal states and to have some control over how I feel. I am working towards living my life differently. I want to become less reactive and better able to choose how I respond to pressure. HRV training with guided breathing is a tool for dissolving tension and being present with what is.

I believe that my body is my most important instrument. As my relationship with my body gets richer and more intimate, so does my work as an artist and teacher.

How does HRV Training work?

My HRV training sessions revolve around breathing practice. To change my mental state, I change my body, my physiology. The most direct way to affect my body is through breath. It’s been amazing how immediate the effects are. Heart rate variability makes these changes visible, in real time, on the screen of my phone.

HRV training requires a smartphone, an app, and a precise instrument to measure your heart rate. There are generally three options for taking measurements:

  1. A chest strap
  2. An optical sensor in the form of an ear clip or finger sensor
  3. A smartphone camera

Historically, chest straps have been least comfortable but most accurate. Smartphone cameras have been most comfortable but least accurate. Ear clips or finger sensors fall somewhere between. I have been using a Bluetooth ear clip from Kyto Fitness. (Links below.)

The Kyto ear clip sensor.

HRV Apps and Sensors

I’ve tried 11 apps in order to find the one I like best. Here is what I’ve learned:

Free Apps
There are many free apps that measure simple heart rate (HR). What we need is something that goes a step further and measures heart rate variability (HRV). Unfortunately, all of the free apps that I’ve found require an external sensor. (As of December 2016.)

$7 App + $25 Ear Clip
This is what I got and I’m happy with it:  Kyto Bluetooth Ear Clip. This sensor has been compatible with all the other apps I’ve tested. The Complete Coherence app was the first I tried, and after reviewing many alternatives it is still my favorite app for the actual training sessions. It’s available for iOS and Android.

$4 App + Built-In iPhone Camera
If you want to get started without an external sensor, the app with the highest value for the lowest price is HeartRate+. The interface is not as attractive as Complete Coherence mentioned above, but unlike any other app, both HeartRate+ and Complete Coherence allow you to customize the breathing pattern, which is rather important.

No smartphone?
You can practice breathing without visual feedback. Just by listening to your body. Try to maintain the same breathing speed for a few breath cycles. Most people relax optimally at around 6 breaths per minute. Give this a go right now: Breath in through your nose for 4 seconds, pause briefly, breathe out through your mouth for 6 seconds, pause briefly. Continue for around ten rounds and notice the change in how tense or relaxed you are.

By the way, have you ever been told to “take a deep breath and relax”? What I’ve learned from HRV research is that this is bad advice. If you want to calm yourself it is much more effective to focus on maintaining the same speed of breathing rather than breathing deeply.

I invite you to pick one of the methods above and give it a try!

If you want to get deeper into breathwork, check out the Wim Hof Method or traditional Pranayama (breathing yoga).


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