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!

UTTANASANA (Deep standing forward bend)

Meaning: Intense stretch
–  This is one of the poses within the sun salutation sequence
Dristi: Nosetip
Preparation poses:
1)   Paschimottanasana  (West posterior stretch pose)
2)   Ardha Uttanasana (Standing half forward bend)
3)   Forward bend leaning on a chair
4)   Uttanasana with knees bent, then slowly engage quads to straighten
Steps:
1)   Stand in Tadasana with feet hip width apart and hands on the hip
2)   Breathe in and lengthen the spine by arching back
3)   Exhale and flex the hip forward by contracting the hip flexors (including psoas, pectineus and rectus femoris muscles)
4)   When bending forward, shift weight slightly to the toes
5)   Pronate both arms and press palms into the mat
6)   Activate the lower part of the trapezius to draw shoulders away from the neck
7)   Contract deltoids and biceps to flex the elbow
8)   Contract rectus abdominis muscles slightly to deepen the stretch and to protect the lower back
9)   Engage the quadriceps by pulling the kneecaps (patella) up to prevent knees from bending.
10)  Aim to flatten your torso against your thighs
11)   Hold in Uttanasana for 5 Ujjayi breaths, with eyes gazing at the nosetip
12)   Attempt to deepen the stretch with each exhalation
13)   After 5 breaths, slowly inhale and extend the hip joint by engaging the abdomen
14)   Return to Tadasana
Variations to Uttanasana:
Padangusthasana (Standing forward bend with bound toe)
Padahasthasana (Standing forward bend with palms under the feet)
Counter poses to Uttanasana:
Bhujangasana (Cobra pose)
Purvottanasana (East anterior stretch pose)
Muscles lengthening/Stretching:
Erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus (posterior), hamstrings, gastrocnemius
Muscles contracting:
Psoas, pectieus, rectus femoris, trapezius, deltoids, biceps, rectus abdominis, quadriceps
Stretch reflex in Uttanasana:
When bending forward, the muscles being stretched (namely hamstrings, gluteus maximus and erector spinae) will involuntarily contract in order to resist over lengthening. This is a protective response to avoid injury to the muscles. When the erector spinae contracts, the back rounds and this prevents deepening of the stretch in Uttanasana. When the hamstrings contract, the knees flex and this again prevents deepening of the stretch. Rounding of the back and flexing of the knees are very common mistakes when executing this Asana. In order to lessen the stretch reflex, relax into the stretch and practice passive stretching in forward bend. This allows the muscles to adjust to the stretch.
Contraindications to the pose:
1)   People with back injuries – Attempt pose with bent knees and move into the pose cautiously
2)   People with neck injuries – Always lengthen the neck and avoid compressing the back of the neck as you look forward
3)   People with Osteoporosis
Caution:
A disc bulge may occur if too much weight is borne by the Lumbar spine. To prevent this, avoid rounding the lower back.
Benefits of the pose:
1)   Helps to reduce stress and calm the mind
2)   Stimulates the Pineal, Hypothalamus and Pituitary endocrine glands in the brain
3)   Stimulates the liver and kidney
4)   Improves digestion
5)   Relieves headaches, menstrual cramps and insomnia
6)   Helps correct spinal problems such as scoliosis

Calming the Rajasic Mind with Ujjayi Breath

One of the reasons I started practicing yoga regularly is the effect that I noticed yoga has on me in terms of helping me relieve stress. No matter what stress burdens I carry into the yoga practice, I always come back from svasana feeling more centered and calm. Always. When we experience high levels of stress, yoga philosophy describes our mind as going into a rajasic state characterised by agitation, tension (hence tension headaches) and flitting thoughts. Asanas that stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system such as saravangasana (shoulderstand) and baddha konasana (bound angle forward bend) can help to calm the rajasic mind. Additionally, it has been demonstrated that there is a strong link between pranayama (yogic breathing) and state of mind.
When we are in a rajasic state of mind, our breathing is often rapid and shallow and our sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive. Ujjayi breath has a calming ability in that when we breathe through our nose and constrict our throat, we increase the air resistance in our nasal passages which in turn slows down our respiratory rate. As we lengthen the exhalation to twice that of inhalation (e.g. 1:2 ratio) we also increase the circulation of oxygen in our body and release carbon dioxide more slowly. The ocean-like sound created when we practice ujjayi breath also serves as a meditative center that we can focus on all of which helps us to come to a more sattvic state of mind.
I’ve found ujjayi breath invaluable and has taken it to work and used it whenever I feel stressed. The age-old adage ‘just breathe!’ has been imbued with new meaning for me indeed.

Maintain your relationships by Ujjayi breathing

Now back to the main part. So how do you maintain your relationship?
You want to get the your the other half to listen and at the same time hear you out instead of putting you down all the time.
This is the practice known as “Ujjayi” breathing or pranayama technique.
Ujjayi Pranayama – With Bandhas (With Breath retention)
Sanskrit: Ud-jayi Ud=Upward or Superior; Jaya=Conquest/Victory. Also implies restraint or curbing

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika Says about Ujjayi:
Closing the mouth, inhale with control and concentration through the ida and pingala. so that the breath is felt from the throat to the heart and produces a sonorous sound.
This pranayama, called Ujjayi, can be done while moving, standing, sitting or walking. It removes dropsy and disorders of the nadis and dhatu.

Indications:Insomnia, Fluid retention in the body, High blood pressure, Nervousness, Phlegm in lungs
Contra-Indications:People who are excessively introverted should not practise this in excess. Those having heart disease or blood pressure should not practise with Bandhas.
For practise with Bandhas you should avoid alcohol, intoxicants and meat
Benefits of Ujjayi:

  1. Ujjayi is one of the pranayamas that all beginners should practise. It aids in quieting the tumultous, chaotic and outward going mind and helps it to increase its awareness of the internals. It is will also improve you practise of asanas greatly by increasing awareness of the changes happening within.
  2. Ujjayi is a tranquilizing pranayama and is profoundly relaxing at the psychic level and is very effective in soothing the nervous system or decreasing hyperactivity. The effects are obvious within a couple of days of practise.
  3. It is a good cure for insomnia if practised in a lying down posture Shavasana before going to bed. It also has a heating effect on the body and eliminates excess accumulated fluids in the body.
  4. Ujjayi promotes internalization of the senses (making the senses look inward) and is beneficial for the practise of meditation, and for the practise of pratyahara (which is one of the more advanced practises in ashtanga yoga).
  5. Finally, Ujjayi pranayama promotes a healthy relationship with spouses and partners alike. It can be the cure for a lot of relationship ills that has been marring couples through all ages.

Look out for more details in the next blog.