“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe,
to match your nature with Nature.”
A Dynamic Window into the Autonomic Nervous System
You may have heard of HeartMath®, but did you ever wonder what is or try to explain it someone else? Or perhaps HeartMath® and the concept of heart coherence is new to you altogether. This short article will explore what HeartMath® is (more broadly Heart Rate Variability biofeedback) and how a HeartMath® centered practice can support healing, personal growth, and inner transformation.
HeartMath® is a research and technology institute that focuses on mastering the harmful effects of stress through the power of the human heart, and what it calls “heart coherence”. Physiological coherence, in general, is the synchronization of all the oscillating fields within and outside the body—simply think of it as Joseph Campbell explains in the above quote: we are syncing our heartbeats with the heartbeat of the universe.
The weaker fields within the body (i.e. brain waves, respiration) will align with the stronger field of the heart. Electro-magnetic fields nesting within resonating elects-magnetic fields. It is a moment of tao, all is aligned with the great oneness and flow of the universe.
As a technologically based culture, we have “forgotten” the role of heart beyond that of a pump.
Wisdom Traditions throughout human history understood that the heart is the source of truth and wisdom. People before the scientific revolution “thought” with their hearts, and believed that the heart was the connection between our finite human nature and the infinite universe. Stress halts the communication with our heart and results in chaotic heart rhythm patterns.
Essentially, heart coherence is the harmonious relationship between heart rate and surrounding electro-magnetic patterns, big (earth, sun, universe) and small (brain, respiration). The smaller or weaker fields sync up to the stronger ones, much like a room full of pendulum clocks will eventually sync up to the strongest one.
Essentially, HeartMath® technologies measure the heart’s rhythm using biofeedback. This differs from an ECG where each heart beat is analyzed based on the morphology of the heart beats; rather, HeartMath® measures heart rate variability (HRV), the time intervals between heart beats as shown in this illustration.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the naturally occurring changes in the amount of time between heartbeats, a naturally occurring process. This differs from your average heart rate – the number of beats that occur in any given minute. You may think that if your average heart rate is 60 beats per minute, then the heart should beat once a second.
That would result in zero variation or an HRV of zero (which may not be physiologically possible).
In “A healthy heart is not a metronome,” the authors McCraty R, Shaffer F. et. al. explain how a healthy heartbeat will increase smoothly as you inhale and decrease smoothly as you exhale—independent of heart rate. The metaphor of a metronome may be contrasted to that of a pendulum, which better reflects a healthy heart. As a pendulum swings from the center position off to the left it loses some speed as the influence of gravity kicks in. It again speeds up as it comes back to center; the cycle continues as it ever so slightly slows as it goes up to the right. Similarly, your heart rate slows on the exhale and speeds up on the inhale.
Heart rate is regulated by the vagus nerve (the 10th cranial nerve). Briefly, the vagus nerve “wanders” (vagus, Latin for wander) through the body and affects all major organs and their functioning. It is the second largest nerve in the body, second only to the spinal cord.
Originating deep within the brain, the vagus nerve wanders through the neck, affecting speech, voice, continues through the thorax affecting all the organs of the body, and continues to the pelvic floor.
Ancient yogis referred to the vagus nerve as the “central tuning string of the body,” because when it vibrates at the proper frequency, the heart generates an electromagnetic field that is harmonious and coherent. When the vagus nerve oscillates coherently, it sets the frequency to which the nervous system aligns itself. When the vagus nerve is “out of tune,” the rest of the body falls into a state of incoherence, including the heart.
These heart rate changes are subtle and are likely imperceptible to you. What is important is the rate of change of heart rate. Do you see why it’s called HeartMath®?
You do not need to be a mathematician however to use HRV feedback, you simply practice with an iPhone app and shift from the red zone into the blue and green, green reflecting a high level of heart coherence. Heart coherence is a term coined by HeartMath® that reflects an optimized HRV.
Visually, a heart is a state of physiological coherence generates a sine wave as shown here.
The body’s natural state is one of coherence, yet most people live in a state of incoherence due to high levels of stress from daily routine living. Incoming stressors seem unending in modern-day life.
Stress-filled lives have become the new norm due to high demands from work, family, the information deluge, and global uncertainty that we find ourselves in. Our bodies are designed to become super-charged for survival during a stressful event; however, the body does not differentiate between being chased by a tiger, a near-miss auto accident, a demanding boss, or unrelenting financial pressures.
If stress is not somehow regulated, the sympathetic nervous overpowers the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a chaotic, incoherent heart rhythms. When in a state of stress, the heart’s rhythm is chaotic (left waveform in diagram), whereas in a state of calm and ease, the heart produces a coherent sine wave pattern (right waveform in diagram).
Most disease states are caused by prolonged psycho–physical stress and will be accompanied by low HRV and low heart coherence.
Is Relaxation the Same as Coherence?
A state of physiological coherence is different from being in a relaxed state. When you are relaxed, your heart rate slows down and you may feel calmer. Relaxation does not necessarily begin to heal the body. Heart coherence occurs independently of heart rate.
An Olympic athlete may have a high heart rate during a competition, but when “in the zone” he or she is most likely in a high level of heart coherence. After a body massage you may feel relaxed, but not feeling necessarily feeling in the zone.
A state of relaxation without heart coherence means that the parasympathetic nervous system is now dominating the dance; whereas a state of relaxation coupled with heart coherence means that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are balanced. Neither the masculine (sympathetic) or feminine (parasympathetic) is dominating the dance; rather, it is an equal give and take. The two dancers move as one as they enter into the flow; the tao.
There is a continual ebb and flow of masculine (white in the image) and feminine (black) energies. Continuously moving, always changing, yet energetically balanced. Healing happens when the body-mind enters the tao, or heart coherence.
From a body-mind perspective, heart coherence stops the stress hormones from being released into your body and feel good hormones begin to flow (such as DHEA). The state of heart coherence is healing, in part because the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and hormonal system are working in harmony. The ANS works in harmony where the sympathetic (fight or flight) does not over power the parasympathetic (rest and digest).
The immune response changes, blood pressure decreases, and many physiological benefits have been documented by HeartMath® researchers, and will be the topic of another article. The result is a body-mind that feels good, experiences joy, calm, while peace overtakes fear, anxiety, and stress.
There is no substitute for experiencing the shift from stress and anxiety to peace and calm that is possible with a consistent HeartMath® practice of your own.
To learn more about how HeartMath® works or to inquire about HeartMath® one-on-one coaching services, visit http://heartprana.com/heartmath