One of the keys to deal with elevated heart rate (i.e. anxiety) is to learn how to stimulate your vagus nerve through proper breathing. The vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection and controls your relaxation response. You can stimulate your vagus nerve by practicing diaphragmatic breathing with the glottis partially closed. Use your dead time to practice this technique consistently, turn it to a habit and you’ll be amazed by the results.
The vagus nerve is the most important element of the parasympathetic nervous system (the one that calms you down by controlling your relaxation response).
It originates from the brainstem and it is “wandering” all the way down, into the belly, spreading fibers to the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines and glands that produce anti-stress enzymes and hormones (like Acetylcholine, Prolactin, Vasopressin, Oxytocin), influencing digestion, metabolism and of course the relaxation response.
Vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection, and it is the cabling behind your heart’s emotions and gut instincts. The key to manage your mind state and your anxiety levels lies on being able to activate the calming nervous pathways of your parasympathetic system.
You cannot control this part of the nervous system on demand, but you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve by engaging Ujjayi Pranayama (Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique)
Strengthening this living nervous system can pay great dividends, and the best tool to achieve that is by training your breath.
Breathing with your diaphragm (Ujjayi Pranayama)
The diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. It is belled shaped and when you inhale it patterns out (or should flatten out), acting as piston and creating vacuum on you thoracic cavity, so your lungs can expand and air gets in.
On the other side it creates pressure, pushing the viscera down and out, expanding your belly. That’s why good breathing practice is described as abdominal breathing or belly breathing.
Breathe with the glottis partially closed
Glottis is at the back of your tongue and it is closed when you are holding your breath. Here we want have it partially closed. It is that feeling you have in your throat while you exhale and make a “Hhhhh” sound in order to clean your glasses.
It also resembles the way you breathe when you are in the verge of sleep and you are about to snore a little bit.
By controlling the glottis you are:
•Controlling the air flow, both during inhale and during exhale
•Stimulating your vagus nerve
Practice this 7/11 (seconds) diaphragmatic breathing technique.
•Inhale - diaphragmatically through your nose, with your glottis partially closed, like almost making a “Hhhhh” sound for a count of 7
•Hold your breath for a split moment
•Exhale through your nose (or you mouth), with your glottis partially closed, like almost
making a “Hhhhh” sound for a count of 11
One breath cycle
Practice for 6 – 12 cycles and observe the results.
This is the foundation of proper breathing, of lowering heart rate and anxiety relief.
Eventually, when your newly acquired breathing skill is established and abdominal breathing becomes a habit, you’ll find your body constantly operating at a much lower stress level.
You will also notice (or sometimes you will not even notice it) how your breath responses to stressful situations; your body will be conditioned to automatically control your breath and by this, your stress and anxiety.
You might not be able to control your environment, but you can control how you react to it.
As we discovered above, nothing is as effective in lowering the heart rate as reverse, or diaphragmatic, breathing is. As It allows the air in the bottom of your lungs (Co2) to be efficiently transported out and replaced by fresh oxygenated air, thus fostering emotional stability and clearer decision making during intense physical activities, potentially stressful and or unexpected surroundings.
The Physio-Psychological Effects of Ujjayi Pranayama
There are a variety of psychological and physiological factors that affect your heart rate. The pace of your heart is unique to your body. It is self-regulating. You don’t have to do a thing and it keeps beating. It maintains its own rhythm to keep you alive. But your hormonal responses and your central nervous system (CNS) and autonomic nervous system (ANS) can affect the speed and rhythm of your heart. Hormones send chemicals into your blood to affect your heart's pace. Also, your heart beats faster or slower depending on how your nerves stimulate your heart.
External input from your nerves and hormones automatically increase your heart rate. Think back to when you were driving your car and somebody cut you off. Your heart raced uncontrollably although you were just sitting quietly (or not so quietly). Practicing Ujjayi Pranayama during a yoga class (but not only) can help an individual develop a higher sense of Mindful-Awareness. Thus, allowing such individual to predict and efficiently override a conditioned physiological response, regulate the heart rate when threatened and handle any situation appropriately.
The medulla of your brain is the “control-center” for your heart rate. It either speeds or slows your beats per minute. Your ANS has two components:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), it speeds your heart rate by releasing hormones and chemicals (norepinephrine, epinephrine, and catecholamines). When your heart rate increases to a frenzy this is termed tachycardia. There are no cardiovascular benefits when your sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate. It is simply your hormones sending stimulating chemicals to your heart, and nerves directly affecting your heart to respond to an emergency.
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), it resides in your brain stem. This is the area that slows your heart rate. A chemical that your PNS releases to slow your heart rate is called acetylcholine. When your heart rate slows, you experience bradycardia. Yogis can slow their heart rates to the less than 20 beats per minute (BPM). And the famous magician, Harry Houdini was able to survive in a coffin-sized airtight box for hours.
Your nerves and hormones together regulate your heart rate when you are moving, and when you are still. As you begin your practice, your heart rate speeds up because your PNS is inhibited. That is, the mechanisms that slow your heart are essentially turned off, and your BPM naturally increases. Other factors (besides exercise) that affect the pace of your heart include blood sugar levels, different foods, lack of sleep, anxiety, fear, anger, heat and humidity.
In the High humidity and heat during the BeU Hot Flow the sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate by directly stimulating the nerves. Practicing 4 to 5 times per week increases the parasympathetic nervous slowdown by stimulating your vagus nerve.
During yoga and other forms of physical activities or exercise, your CNS is the most influential factor determining your heart rate. When you get in your car to go to the studio, your CNS starts to send messages to your medulla: Prepare for activity! The heart rate increases even before you begin your practice. Just by anticipating your yoga, your heart rate can increase as much as 100%.