Cardiac coherence and Ujjayi breath: when old meets new

The impact of breathing on the nervous system has long been established. Increasing the inhalation volume and the respiratory rate will act on the sympathetic autonomous nervous system, which will activate the body: increased heart rate, vasoconstriction, sweating… Conversely, increasing the exhalation volume and reducing the respiratory rate will act on the parasympathetic autonomous nervous system, which will relax the body: slowed down heart rate, cell regeneration, digestion… And when the two systems are in balance, one is serene, both alert and relaxed.

Cardiac coherence is gaining traction and is now regularly used in the cardiology field. Research has shown that regular practice was regulating blood pressure and was significantly decreasing overall cardiovascular risks, the #1 killer in the world today. But what is cardiac coherence? It is a method based on respiratory techniques bringing the cardiac and respiratory systems into resonance and thus balancing our autonomous nervous system. The principles were developed in the 1990s in the United States from medical research in neuroscience and neurocardiology. The technique is simple: it consists of, 3 times a day, breathing calmly at the rate of 6 breaths per minute (inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling over 5 seconds; rate can vary slightly for each person) for 5 minutes (“365 method”). Inhalation is abdominal through the nose and exhalation is through the mouth with pinched lips. To all yogis, does it ring a bell?

When I learned about the Ujjayi breath, it felt familiar! Cardiac coherence is in fact a simplified or less “throat activation” Ujjayi breath. Indeed, in both techniques, one breathes calmly and continuously (without retention), equalizing inhale and exhale, using abdominal inhalation and some restriction on the exhalation. Ujjayi breath, though, is constricting exhalation at the throat level with mouth closed, whilst cardiac coherence is constricting exhalation at the mouth level, with lips pinched. Hence there is more throat activation in the Ujjayi breath and consequently also more building of heat.

What can we learn on Ujjayi breath from recent research on cardiac coherence? Of course, as the two methods have slight differences, one cannot strictly extrapolate research on one to the other. Nevertheless, given the level of similarly, results on one are very likely to constitute a solid proxy for the other. Firstly, both techniques target the physiological balance of the autonomous nervous system through equalization of inhalation and exhalation. The heart rate is constantly changing, with the heart modulating its activity according to internal and external stimuli. By controlling your breathing, you allow an increase in the heart variability amplitude (an important health indicator). Additionally, there is a direct heart-brain link as the heart informs the brain. And by improving your cardiac pattern, you send positive messages to the brain (less stress, a feeling of well-being). Finally, recent research on cardiac coherence has demonstrated numerous benefits on physical, mental and emotional health with short, mid- and long-term effects. Short term immediate benefits include improvement of cardiac patterns and relaxation. Medium-term benefits, after about 4 hours, include hormonal regulation (the main effect being the decrease in cortisol -stress; also increased DHEA -youth and atrial natriuretic factor- antihypertensive), regulation of neurotransmitters (dopamine – pleasure and serotonin – well-being), increased cognitive abilities (increased alpha brain waves for concentration and memory). Long-term benefits, after ten days, include significant regulation of cardiovascular risk (significant regulation of blood pressure and improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels), improved stress management and emotional balance, improved cognitive abilities, increased immunity (in particular via lower cortisol levels), improved conditions for inflammatory diseases and asthma.

Now taking a step back…yoga is a fascinating holistic practice. It encompasses thousands of years of experience and wisdom. It is almost funny to think that a modern successful technique such as cardiac coherence was just “hiding” there, in the millennial knowledge of pranayama. The potential to derive impactful techniques from yoga for the health and wellness space is endless!