Breathing our Way to Coherence

Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. on changing your breath to change your heart and brain

The more I look and listen, the more I discover about the benefits of breathwork. And the more conscious we become of our breathing, the more deeply and evenly we breathe, the more benefits we receive – benefits in our physical health and athletic performance, our stress levels, our mental agility, our emotional wellbeing. Benefits in our ability to sleep deeply, restfully, to overcome trauma, to connect with our community, and to excel in demanding situations, like test-taking or public speaking.

But here’s the problem: once you leave the tranquility of your morning quiet time, step off the yoga mat, or walk out of the gym, what happens to your breathing then? When things get hectic at work, when you’re in a tense conversation with your partner, or when traffic begins to back up – are you even aware, any longer, of what your breath is doing, and what it’s doing to you? At times like these, if you’re anything like me, the calm, even breathing often goes right out the window. And don’t get me wrong, it can be valuable to let your nervous system protect you with fight-or-flight instincts when real dangers present themselves. But what about when the stressors just keep on coming? When the pressure is a long, slow squeeze, rather than a short dash back to the safety and comfort of home?

What if there was a real-time monitor of my inner condition? Wouldn’t it be great if you could hold something in your hand that could help you to stay in a state of conscious and aware breathing, and to realize the very moment you’ve left it? If you could see the changes resulting from your breathing as they occur? Since its foundation in 1991, HeartMath Institute has been creating systems and tools to achieve this kind of awareness. Their mission is to help people to “reconnect with their hearts, where they re-balance and rejuvenate, by reducing stress, and learning to self-regulate emotions.” To complement their extensive array of practices and resources, they have produced the emwave sensor and software, which show you, in real time, how your HRV (heart rate variability) – and in turn, every aspect of your mental-emotional state – is being shaped by your breathing.

My own first experience with the emwave technology was eye-opening to say the least. It was exciting and encouraging, but it also shattered a few illusions. Going into the session, I must confess, I approached it like a test to take, a challenge to rise to. I figured, hey, I have a decent chance of doing pretty well on this thing. I mean, after all, I have a breathwork practice that’s at least somewhat regular. I study yoga. I try to cultivate gratitude, connection, and compassion, at least whenever I’m thinking about it. All of these things should be helpful for keeping my breath – and my HRV results – pretty stable and coherent, right?

Well … some of that happened. My meter definitely registered in the good zone (coherence) for a decent portion of the session. But what surprised me was how often – and how quickly – my HRV would become chaotic, and my meter would dip down into the not-so-coherent zone.

But what is coherence anyway? In the general sense of the word, if we’re making sense to each other, then that means we’re being coherent. But HMI uses the term in a much more specialized sense: “Coherence is the state when the heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation,” says Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., HMI’s director of research. “It is a state that builds resiliency – personal energy is accumulated, not wasted – leaving more energy to manifest intentions and harmonious outcomes.” Sounds pretty nice, right? Well, that was the gleaming lantern I found myself chasing through the fog of distracted attention.

And that’s what it really all comes down to: distracted attention. You sit there while the device listens to your heart rate. You focus on breathing evenly, deeply. You enjoy the responding good news of the monitor, as it shows your HRV climbing into the happy zone. Then, you think, “Hmmm … I wonder if the time is going to go by quickly as I’m doing this, or slowly? Will it feel like a meditation session, a blood pressure test, or more like a car ride to a distant relative’s house across the countryside, back when I was a kid? And what do I want to do when I get done with this, anyhow?”

Suddenly, you realize your coherence level has dropped. You check your breathing, and, sure enough, it’s become more shallow, less even. You’ve slipped out of grateful existence mode, and dropped directly into planning mode, trouble-shooting mode, which always has more than a few fires (i.e., threats and dangers, according to your survival brain) to put out. More to the point, you’ve found your chatterbox brain (or “the monkey mind,” as some call it) trying to take you for a ride. Like a toddler melting down to avoid bedtime, it’ll do anything to escape the tranquility of the present moment, anything to resist drifting into a state of peaceful stillness).

But then, just at the right moment, the emwave calls you back. Registering the change, it pulls you out of your mental wanderings, and back to the present moment. The present breath. Awareness of being there, the sensations of your body, the rhythms within/without it. It’s as if a Zen master has reached out from across the room and tapped you on the shoulder. She noticed the moment you got carried off on the mind’s runaway train, and she’s reminding you that you have an appointment with the here and now.

All things told, it was a valuable experience for me, even though – or perhaps because – it let me know just how far I was from having coherence as my default state. I would recommend it to anyone who is remotely interested, either just as an insightful experience, or else as an invaluable tool for a daily practice. And it is just one of the many resources and initiatives developed and put forth by the HeartMath Institute and Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. who is both an ICFB MasterClass Speaker and presenter at The Breathing Festival.

Dr. McCraty is a psychophysiologist. Put simply, this field studies not only the effect of the mind on the body, but also of the body on the mind – and the endless feedback loop that continues between the two systems, as each shapes the other. With that in mind, it’s not too difficult to imagine why he’s devoted so much of his life and work to an organization that empowers people to drive all parts of the system, together, into optimal states. This task starts with those voluntary actions we can perform at will, such as expressing gratitude, cultivating kindness, and at the simplest, most fundamental level, breathing consciously. With his deep store of knowledge and experience in the field, Dr. McCraty is the ideal person to convey how these systems interact, and how we can best make use of them to spur our lives into their happiest, most fulfilling states.

“There are neurons in the lung that are sensitive to stretch,” he explains. “So when I breathe in, they increase their firing output.” These signals communicate breathing quality to the brain, which in turn modulates heart rate. The resulting heart rate goes on to profoundly affect a wide variety of brain functions. “Simply put, the quality of the signals the heart is sending to the brain affects our emotional experience.” And this emotional experience, in turn, is communicated back to the heart, and further affects heart coherence.

“Now when we’re feeling things like anxiety, frustration, impatience, anger, etc., that creates a rhythm in the heart we call an incoherent rhythm, a very chaotic looking heart rhythm.” And that rhythm will be expressed as a neural pattern back up from the heart to the brain. There, it interferes with the thalamus’s ability to “synchronize global activity, which results in cortical inhibition.” This translates to impaired reaction time, coordination, and visual field. Perhaps more distressingly, it impairs planning, goal-setting, and the discrimination of appropriate behavior. “When we’re desynchronizing, because we have these emotion-driven incoherent rhythms hitting the thalamus, the neural machinery that underlies those skills are taken off-line, because they require the greatest  degree of synchronization to perform optimally.”

Despite the complex systems involved, given Dr. McCraty’s insight, it’s easy to see how such incoherent states of heart and mind can cripple our performance and leave us making poor decisions we’ll soon regret. He illustrates this point with the all-too familiar experience of saying something you wish you hadn’t when someone says or does something that makes you upset. In some cases, when caught in this emotional feedback loop, we can even lose partial awareness of what we’re saying or doing. This brings to mind the term “seeing red,” a metaphoric description of this state of emotionally-induced temporary blindness.

But these are only the negative effects, which we can hope to avoid. What benefits can we achieve with our breath, our consciousness, by fostering coherence of heart and mind? We can experience the beauty of the moment, gratitude, and connection. We can accelerate our problem-solving skills. We can speak our minds with care, and hear our friends and family members clearly, instead of being taken hostage by a volatile chain-reaction of emotions. We can set the best goals for ourselves, and then have the perspective and ingenuity to achieve them. And, if the broad vision of Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. and the HeartMath Institute is to be realized, we can build communities of connection, love, and care throughout our world.

“We now understand that breathing is the first step in changing the rhythm of the heart, but a change of heart changes everything,” he concludes. “It’s the access point. This is the mechanism as to why breathing techniques work. We’re modulating and changing the rhythm of the heart, which has body-wide and global effects.”

Brought to you by the International Center for Breathwork.

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