Heart Rate Variability and How to Monitor and Reduce Your Stress Levels

Heart rate variability by Simon Borg-Olivier

Figure 1: Heart rate variability in an adult with controlled slow breathing: horizontal axis is time, vertical axis is heart rate, ascending lines correspond to slow controlled inhalation, descending lines correspond to  slow controlled exhalation; by Simon Borg-Olivier (click on this image for full photo)

 

This photo shows a graph of my heart rate variability (HRV) over 5 smooth breaths in a simple seated posture. Notice how on inhalation (line going up) my heart rate goes up to as high as 72 beats per minute. Then when I exhale (line going down) my heart rate goes down to as low as 42 beats per minute. Increased HRV is one the best indicators of internal health. Good yoga can easily teach this and that is exactly what I want to teach you this weekend if you can come. For adults HRV is generally very poor without something like good yoga in your life. Much of the yoga practices I see around the world actually causes more stress (and worse HRV) than good health. Yoga is ideally the art of doing stressful things while being relaxed yet getting stronger and fitter. This morning 9 daughter Amaliah did this exercise and her HRV went back and forth between 38 to 115 beats per minute on each breath while just sitting relaxed for a few minutes. Now that’s the healthy state most kids have! Adults have to work for it!

 

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Figure 2: Heart rate variability in a normal adult with natural breathing; no obvious correlation with breath is seen here; horizontal axis is time, vertical axis is heart rate, by Simon Borg-Olivier (click on this image for full photo)

 

I took these photos using the App called Stress Doctor. More about this App and HRV below …

Stress Doctor is a great mobile app that helps you reduce your stress level in just 5 minutes.

Stress Doctor relies on proven biofeedback techniques to help sync your breathing with your autonomous nervous system (ANS). This synchronization increases your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which in turn lowers your heart rate, reduces your stress and anxiety levels and controls your blood flow.

HRV and Stress

HRV is the variation in interval between heartbeats. High HRV is achieved when a person is relaxed and breathing slowly.

Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) is a naturally occurring variation in heart rate that occurs during a breathing cycle and is dirctly proportional to HRV. Higher RSA (higher HRV) is indicative of a nervous system that is more equipped to handle stress.

HRV biofeedback training includes monitoring RSA and adjusting breathing patterns to increase HRV. This training is an effective tool to moderate stress and anxiety levels and depressed mood.

Effect of Breathing

Your heart rate varies naturally, increasing during inhalation and decreasing during exhalation. Breathing influences the transmission of sympathetic and vagus impulses to the sinoatrial node and in turn controls your heart rate. The vagus nerve reduces heart rate and the force of contraction, and is primarily responsible for controlling the heart’s rhythm. When we inhale, the vagus nerve activity is reduced and the heart rate increases. On exhale, activity is increased and heart rate decreases.

Because the breathing pattern required to stimulate your optimum level of vagus impulses is unique to each individual, biofeedback is necessary to determine the breathing pattern that best aligns with your nervous system. A long exhale for instance is usually considered good for relaxation, however exhaling too long can be ineffective.

Stress Doctor measures your RSA, determines the optimum level of vagal activity to maximize HRV, and paces you through your ideal breathing pattern to achieve a higher HRV, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety levels and improves overall mood.

Kundalini, Chakras, Prana and Two Real Intertwining Snakes

Figure 1: (a) Top: Chakras and how to activate them; 
Bottom Left: (b) Intertwining snake snakes in my house; 
Bottom Right: (c) Nadis and cakras from http://edgeba.webs.com/thekundaliniserpent.htm
(Please click on the photo to get full enlarged version)

by Simon Borg-Olivier

In this blog I want to discuss some points about Kundalini energy and Chakras. Much of the information available on the subject of Kundalini is esoteric and so not easy to justify with rational conventional science. I think the best explanation of the science of kundalini comes from Jana Dixon and her excellent book ‘The Biology of Kundalini”. The main purpose of this blog is to elucidate a few simple points that relate to the physical locations of the chakras and how controlling these can help you to improve the health of your spine, your internal organs and your circulation.

In Figure 1b and the in the attached video below are two beautiful 3 metre pythons that live in our house (mostly in the roof). My herpetologist mentor Professor Rick Shine says that they are either making love or wrestling for dominance for mating. Actually seeing them do this is very rare and special and so reminds me of many amazing things including the double stranded helix of the DNA molecule that holds the blueprints of our genetics. They also remind me of the mystery of kundalini, the coiled serpent-like energy lying mostly dormant at the base of our spines.

The inter-coiling of two snakes is such a common symbol in our mythology that is represented most obviously in the Caduceus, which is the staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology. One myth suggests that Hermes saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. He separated them with a wand and thus brought about peace between them. As a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of love and peace. This is related to the seemingly combatant sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems coiling up the spinal cord. Mostly the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are seen to have opposing functions, the sympathetic is for ‘flight, fight or freeze’ while the parasympathetic is for ‘relaxation, recovery and rejuvenation’. In many situations one will dominate and subdue the other, but in some situations such as in heightened sexual arousal both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together in harmony to hopefully create love and peace.

In hatha yoga the two spiralling snakes are referred to as the nadis (subtle channels) Ida and Pingala and the spinal cord contains the sushumna nadi. When viewed from above the head the spiralling of these channels looks like the yin yang symbol or even the ancient swastika symbol . The places where the snake-like spiral nadis crossover up the trunk is the supposed location of the main chakras (energy centres) of the body. Each of these main chakras corresponds to and seemingly has relationships with main endocrine glands and also major nerve plexi. The ‘opening’ or ‘unlocking’ of, and the voluntary control of the chakras is a major aim in hatha yoga and can in fact be the tool that allows yoga and yoga therapy to be effective. In order to heal any part of the body especially the internal organs or body systems the only thing we can actually control is our mind, which can control muscles, which can affect posture movement and breathing.

A common belief in yoga circles is that a key step to allowing the kundalini energy to rise up the spine is to open up or unblock the chakras. The question is …‘What does this mean on a scientific level? In this blog I want to describe prana (energy or life energy) and, what can be thought of as its more subtle form, chitta (information or consciousness), then describe a few key points related to the regions associated with the main spinal chakras and their associated nerves plexi and endocrine glands. These are the points that the mind can focus on while regulating posture, movement and breathing. These points can make any physical yoga practice as well as any physical exercise or therapy safer and more effective to give health and longevity as the main aim and strength, flexibility and endurance as by-products.

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Exercises for the Healthy Development of Babies and Children

by Simon Borg-Olivier

In this 9 minute video I am using my understanding as a physiotherapist and yoga teacher Simon Borg-Olivier to give exercises to my 9 month old son Eric. This training takes advantage of the natural spinal reflexes that are most prevalent in babies. These spinal reflexes help to facilitate the  exercises that I am getting him to practice. I think it beneficial to gently and intelligently introduce the first stages of these exercises from as early as one day old. At the end of the video you can see some photos of how Eric and his sister (who was given a similar program as a baby) have developed up to about 7 years old.

Babies and children can be exercised from a very early age. I believe it is important to play with your children and also to massage them. I would like to also emphasise that you have to be careful with what you do of course, and always monitor your child’s reactions (for example smiling or crying). Many people tend to be overcautious with young children when actually even babies are quite resilient and really thrive with physical stimulation. As in the case of adults it is important to build up to each new exercise in a slow, gentle and progressive manner. Also for children it is important to not pull them unexpectedly by their arms or legs as this may damage their joints, but with gentle training even babies can use their own strength to hold their entire body weight.

The main spinal reflex that I take advantage of is the ‘stretch reflex’ (myotatic reflex). The ‘stretch reflex’ causes the reflex activation (tensing or ‘switching on’ of any muscle that is unexpectedly lengthened by a force that is external body (such as gravity or the use of another persons limbs). I use this reflex with Eric, for example, by having him sit up cross-legged and then while holding his thighs I (an external force) gently try to push him backwards (spinal extension and hip extension). The sudden lengthening of his abdominal muscles (spinal flexors) and the front of his hips (hip flexors) makes his abdominal muscles and  the muscles at the front of his hips (hip flexors) active (tense or ‘switched on’) and thus helps him to practice doing ‘sit up’ exercises. Similarly, when I hold him in the air by the hips facing down and let his upper body fall towards the floor, the back of his trunk and back of his hips get a sudden lengthening (stretch) and this cause the ‘stretch reflex’ activation of the his back muscles (spinal extensors) and the muscles at the back of his hips (hip extensors). In another exercise I balance Eric on my shoulders and then I move suddenly causing Eric’s legs to move away from my shoulders and causing his inner thighs to unexpectedly lengthen. The sudden lengthening of his inner thighs initiates a ‘stretch reflex’ activation of his inner thigh muscles, which enable him to squeeze his thighs against my shoulders so as to not lose his grip. The same principle allows Eric to stand on my hand. Although his balance is not yet developed, so he can not stand by himself (and would not encourage standing at his age anyway) he nevertheless has no problems standing on my hand because as soon as his knees want to bend with gravity the muscles in front of the knee (knee extensors) become lengthened by the (external) force of gravity and cause a ‘stretch reflex’ activation of these muscles to keep him standing. All of this work can be also applied to adults in similar ways.

This video and lot of related information for adults is taught in the Yoga Synergy online course ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ as well as the live 200 hour ‘Yoga Synergy Teacher Training’ Courses.

 

The Sad Passing of Guruji Sri BKS Iyengar

 By Simon Borg-Olivier, 20th August 2014

Today was the passing of our beloved Guruji. For those of us who were privileged enough to have met him and study under his guidance it is a sad day. We send our love to him and his beautiful family, especially to his two children Geetaji and Prashantji from whom we have also learnt so much. I think that the world of modern yoga owes a debt of gratitude to Mr Iyengar. We are all lucky to have been living in the same time as him. Very few people who practice yoga today have not been affected by his brilliant teachings.

Sri BKS Iyengar, Our first meeting, January, 1986; One month Australian and American Intensive Course; Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune, India

 

I have so many great memories of Guruji as I am sure so many people have as well. On this special but sad day I just wanted to share a few of his sayings and some old photos that me and Bianca Machliss have from our studies with him in the 1980′ and 1990’s.

I had the honour and privilege of meeting and studying with Sri BKS Iyengar 8 times from 1986 to 1997.
To me he was the wisest of the wise, the strictest of the strict and one of the most playful and often childlike people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
In January 1986 Guruji told us words about yoga that have resonated with me every since. He said that …
.
”Yoga is when every cell of the body sings the song of the soul.”
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— B.K.S. Iyengar January, 1986; One month Australian and American Intensive Course; Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.
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Accessible Spinal Movements for Internal Health, External Energy and a Pain Free Back

Basic Spinal Movements

In this blog I will be examining a sequence of postures done from a simple standing posture that in its simplest form involves moving the trunk and spine into its 8 main ‘pure’ positions. This is one of the most effective and accessible practices for anyone and can give tremendous release of back and other pain as well as significantly increasing energy levels, improving functional core strength, reducing stress and improving the health of your internal organs.

The key to effective spinal movements and core stabilisation is to always be able to breathe into the abdomen using the diaphragm and always initiate each spinal movement from the region of the navel and the ‘navel spine’ (L4-L5). Once you release the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation that many people habitually use to ‘engage their core’ using abdominal breathing or at least the feeling that you can breathe into the abdomen, then the spine is free to move from its base at the ‘navel spine’ (L4-L5) near the sacrum. Once you move your spine using the internal forces (trunk muscles) rather than external forces such as gravity, the use of another limb or momentum, then this will create tremendous core strength. In other words to move the spine you must initiate movement from the core with a sense that the core feels relaxed enough to breathe there. At this point the abdomen may feel quite soft to touch. However, once the movement begins the abdomen begins to firm because it is moving. This is an important key to functional mobile core strength and a pain free back.

Figure 1: The list of main postures in the spinal movements sequence is as follows:
1. ‘Complete spinal lengthening posture’ (Urdhva hasta merudanda 
tadâsana)
2. ‘Back spinal lengthening posture’ (Pascima merudanda tadâsana)
3. ‘Front spinal lengthening posture’ (Purva merudanda tadâsana)
4. ‘Side spinal lengthening posture’ (Parsva merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)
5. ‘Twisted spinal lengthening posture (Parivrtta merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)

This simple but effective spinal movements sequence forms the basis of the YogaSynergy Fundamentals Sequence as taught in our 120 hour online course

A. Structure of the ‘Spinal Movements Sequence’ (Meru danda tada vinyâsa):

The eight main movements of the spine that are practiced in this sequence (vinyâsa) are actually 4 opposing pairs of movements. These are:

1a. ‘Shortening’ (Spinal compression) (standing with a ‘neutral spine’),

1b. ‘Lengthening’ (Spinal traction) (standing with a straight spine),

2a. ‘Forward bending’ (Spinal flexion) (lengthening the back of the body),

2b. ‘Backward bending’ (Spinal extension) (lengthening the front of the body),

3a, 3b. ‘Sideways bending’ to right and left (Spinal lateral flexion) and

4a, 4b. ‘Twisting’ (Spinal axial rotation) to right and to left side

The purpose of this smooth flowing and dynamic linked sequence of postures (vinyâsa) is to enliven the spine by moving each vertebra.

This sequence acts directly on the spine by guiding it to move with its own volition. The shoulders and hips are used to assist the spine in order to utilise and enhance the connections within the body.

The actual list of main postures in this sequence is as follows:

  1. ‘Complete spinal lengthening posture’ (Urdhva hasta merudanda tadâsana)
  2. ‘Back spinal lengthening posture’ (Pascima merudanda tadâsana)
  3. ‘Front spinal lengthening posture’ (Purva merudanda tadâsana)
  4. ‘Side spinal lengthening posture’ (Parsva merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)
  5. ‘Twisted spinal lengthening posture (Parivrtta merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)

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