Haha! I listened to that same podcast and thought the same thing. I live science podcasts, but StarTalk can get annoying sometimes.
The promise is simple enough. A data driven approach to the benefits of meditation. The execution is a lot more complicated than the promise and will cost you hundreds of dollars in equipment. Equipment you will use a few minutes a day to calculate a nebulous score. The introduction to Lea Lagos’s Heart Breath Mind Train your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success makes a big promise:
The breathing exercises and peak performance strategies described in Heart Breath Mind will take you on a journey from merely surviving stress to thriving despite it. A critical part of our work together will be developing your somatic awareness—a heightened consciousness of how your body is feeling—so that you will recognize when you are stressed and can take action to shift yourself out of a state of stress and into what is called parasympathetic dominance.
At the core of Heart Breath Mind is a scientific process to systematically gain control over your heart, rewiring your stress response and unlocking your highest potential for performance and positive health.Heart Breath Mind: Train Your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success
I discovered Lea Lagos’s Heart Breath Mind from the Star Talk Radio podcast. I used to listen to Star Talk Radio weekly, but when they maximized ad-revenue by pushing recycled content multiple times a week, I stopped listening. I dipped back in during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. I was happy to hear fresh content. But in my first new episode, Neil deGrasse Tyson downplayed the serious of SARS-Covi-2 and actually encouraged New Yorkers to go out and enjoy themselves. I was listening to This Week in Virology for a month at this point and was sorely discouraged by Neil and Chuck’s sarcastic approach to the pandemic. I had little else to do, so I continued to dip into the podcast to see if Neil corrected himself, or if he had become a mask conspiracy nut job. Eventually he said that he was “following the science,” and downplayed the earlier episode.
How I Discovered Heart Breath Mind
A Sports All-Stars Edition has replaced recycled content to generate ad-revenue. Sport, specifically the science behind making athletes perform at their peak, is big money. I continued to listen, but since I can only handle so much of Neil’s fake laugh and Chuck’s screaming at the microphone, I cheery-picked Sports All-Stars episodes.
A year after Neil’s unfortunate downplaying of the Sars-Covi-2 pandemic, an episode, Hacking the Head, and the Heart caught my attention. The internal martial arts are one of the oldest mindfulness practices and I have practiced Taijiquan and standing meditation for over thirty years. A new method of using the breath to focus the mind and direct the heart intrigued me.
The episode convinced me to purchase Heart Breath Mind. I was doing a lot of yard work, so I grabbed both the Kindle and Audible versions. I finished the book in a day. The Audible version was a wise choice since most of the text is anecdotes from successful clients or training sessions with the author. Self-improvement books require these anecdotes, but science needs evidence, and while there is a lot of hype behind HRV, the evidence is more lacking than the sports-science industry would have you believe.
My Introduction to Heart Rate Variability
I had not heard of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) before I listened to the podcast. HRV is not heart rate. Despite what the podcast and book imply, you cannot measure HRV. You can calculate it, but there is not a standard calculation (warning signal). The breathing practice described in the book is a guided meditation using a smartphone application to guide your in and out breath. Intrigued at scoring a meditation session, I embarked on the ten-week program.
I was immediately frustrated. There is no way to measure and calculate your HRV score without first investing in expensive equipment. I was not ready to do that, and neither should you. Determined to proceed, I downloaded the recommended Elite-HRV application to my smartphone to see what I could learn.
The guided breathing sessions mentioned in the book are in the Elite-HRV application, but without overpriced bio-feedback equipment attached to my phone, I was mostly guessing at my optimal breathing pattern. I settled on the standard four second in-breath, six second out-breath.
Your heart does not beat at a constant rate. When you breathe in, your heart rate rises when you breathe out, your heart rate falls. Most of the day, our breathing does not synchronize with our heart rate. We hold our breath more than we should, like when you trying to write a paragraph. As I am typing, my heart rate is rising, then falling, in a pattern of about four seconds up and six seconds down. If I were breathing properly, I would inhale for the four seconds my heart is rising, and exhale for the six seconds my heart rate is falling. This is resonance breathing.
Determining HRV without the Heart Breath Mind Book
That’s it, you don’t need to buy Heart Breath Mind unless you want to embark on the journaling and mindfulness practices outlined in the ten-week program. I followed the course because I am terrible about sitting in meditation, preferring a round of Taijiquan in the morning and standing meditation or another round of Taijiquan in the evening. I should do all three, and since completing the ten-week program, I am meditating twice a day.
A Heart Rate Variability score is derived by calculating the time between a particular pattern on an EKG. The book and the Elite-HRV smartphone application recommend two bio-feedback devices to capture an EKG. The CorSense is an eighty-dollar (now $165!) pulse-oximeter with Bluetooth. The Polar Strap is an eighty-dollar EKG strap you wrap around your chest when training hard for a sporting event. The Elite-HRV smartphone application uses data from these devices to calculate an HRV score.
At the end of the first week, I wanted to figure out my actual HRV score. But the Elite-HRV application had sent the email address associated with my smartphone to the Elite-HRV organization, which was now spamming me with email pushing their biofeedback products. Between the clunky interface, and grabbing my email address without my permission, I removed it from my smartphone.
The first thing every sage in the long history of mindfulness has said to a student is “focus on your breath.” A pulsing graphic on a smartphone screen is a superb method to make that happen. I hacked a solution with the stopwatch feature of the Windows 10 clock application. Four in, six out is a nice round ten seconds. I put my laptop in front of me, turned off notifications, maximized the Clock application, and started my breath practice at the ten second mark. Breathe in to four seconds, breathe out to the next ten second mark. Repeat. Simple, efficient, and no smartphone required. In the interest of this review, I explored alternate smartphone applications, and found one that has not stolen my email address or asked for privacy busting permissions: Breathing powered by Awesome. If the clock thing is too analytic for you, give this one a try.
Using a Pulse-oximeter with your Heart Breath Mind Practice
Early in the pandemic, I had purchased a pulse-oximeter in case I became sick with Covid-19. I pulled it from its headboard storage and used it to measure my heart rate before and after a paced breathing session. While trying to get a measurement, I realized my pulse-oximeter was sensitive enough to track my pulse in the 4-6 pattern described in the book. In a light-bulb moment, I sat at the dining room table with my hands flat on the table and the pulse-oximeter on my finger. Now I could watch my pulse rise for four seconds, then fall for six seconds, and achieve resonance breathing without an application or stopwatch.
To confirm my pulse-oximeter discovery, I used both the smartphone application and the pulse-oximeter together for a week. After a few breaths guided by the 4-6 pattern on the smartphone application, my heart rate in the pulse-oximeter matched my guided breathing. This is enough evidence to prove that you can bring your heart rate and breathing into resonance.
The premise of Heart Breath Mind is that practicing resonance breathing will improve your HRV score. After the first week of training, I was prepared to purchase something to track my HRV, but eighty, or now almost two-hundred dollars for a device I will use a few minutes a day, was not acceptable. Especially since I was still skeptical about the results.
This was Mother’s Day weekend, and despite tracker blocking in my Edge browser being on maximum, a Fitbit advertisement caught my attention. I did some research, and with Best Buy reward points and a Mother’s Day sale, I purchased the Fitbit Inspire 2 with a year of Premium for half-price. (I wouldn’t pay more).
The sport-science crowd love to criticize Fitbit tracking. They all claim to have another device that will give you better statistics. My research discovered this YouTube channel by a sleep researcher who has all the fancy science equipment to compare his Fitbit tracking against. Fitbit and other wrist worn devices are almost perfect at tracking your health metrics during sleep.
Between poking around on this YouTube channel, and my other HRV research, I discovered the best way to measure HRV is when you are sleeping. This is when your autonomic nervous system is doing all the work. For the next ten weeks, the first thing I did every morning was check my HRV score in the Fitbit application. For the first week, (now my third week of resonance breathing) my score was going up. Resonance breathing was working! I sat down to write a blog post proclaiming my new mindfulness discovery.
I stopped myself because I wanted to be thorough in my review. I am glad I did, because after that first week, my HRV score crashed. For the next six weeks, my HRV score was all over the place. With a bit of journaling, I determined my HRV score tracked my allergy symptoms more closely than it tracked my resonance breathing practice. I have included a screen shot of my scores. If resonance breathing was improving my HRV, you should see a gradual upward slope in the graph, instead you see it jumping around in a standard range determined by Fitbit’s calculations.
Fitbit uses the RMSSD calculation for HRV. The same one used by most sleep research. The standard is 27 plus or minus 12. If you decide you want to chase a higher HRV score, don’t get discouraged by people posting an 84 or even a 140 HRV score. They are using another calculation. As you can see from my chart, my HRV ranges from 13 to 24.
My Conclusion about Heart Rate Variability
My conclusion on Heart Rate Variability is the only score that matters is the one calculated from a complete sleep cycle. The best calculation for this score seems to be the RMSSD value used by Fitbit and other sleep tracking devices. Chasing a higher HRV through resonance breathing is a waste of time. You will get better results with long aerobic exercise.
Resonance breathing, however, is a powerful technique for mindfulness and internal martial art practice. I now use the pacing application to guide my breathing in standing meditation and found it to be a powerful addition to the practice. I will share how to do this in upcoming Earth Dragon Canon training videos. For sitting meditation, you can use an inexpensive pulse-oximeter to achieve resonance. Mindfulness practice has many rich traditions. The desire to profit from these traditions is as old as the traditions. Hearth Breath Mind is no different. The book wraps meditation with something that looks scientific and measurable, then attempts to profit with devices, applications, and subscriptions. Bodhidharma taught us how to practice sitting meditation and his method doesn’t cost a dime.
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