Christina Sarich, Contributor
In a recent six-year study conducted on over 2800 men from Copenhagen, Denmark, scientists discovered that the resting heart rate has a whole lot to do with the length of our lives. Ancient yogis knew this too, when they pointed to elephants and other large mammals with slow breathing rates and slow-beating hearts that lived to be over 100. Conversely, animals like dogs and squirrels live short lives because their hearts beat faster and their resting heart rates are often higher.
Our resting heart rate is an indication of many important vital functions in the body, including our ability to regulate important endocrine secretions to balance hormones, and also to ensure the health of the autonomic nervous system.
The typical resting heart rate (RHR) is around 60-100 beats per minute, and while exercise has shown to lower the RHR over time, the new study from Denmark is showing that despite our attempts to stay young by racking up the miles on a tread mill, a high resting heart rate can kill us sooner rather than later. According to Thorsten Jensen, a cardiologist who worked with colleagues in a study at Copenhagen University Hospital, people with an RHR of 80 beats per minute die up to five years earlier than those with, say, a resting pulse of 60 beats per minute.
Our Nervous System is Like Grand Central Station
The autonomic nervous system is what controls every involuntary activity of the body – our breathing, our heartbeat, digestion, respiration, cellular functioning and more. As our bodies require different levels of oxygen and nutrients, the heart rate, or cardiac output fluctuates to meet these needs. When we are stressed out (even by strenuous exercise) the nervous system responds to fluctuations in the heartbeat to make sure the body stays in balance.
The master controller of the autonomic nervous system is in the medulla oblongata of the brain. It is here where messages are given to sustain appropriate influences on the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system via specialized neural pathways. Many techniques of yoga aim at changing the messages at Grand Central Station, instead of trying to usher changes from the myriad trains running in all directions to a number of boroughs like in the maze of subways originating from New York City. If you can communicate to the whole fleet of trains with one relaxation response, why do it any other way? As our nervous system channels the excitable moments into our medulla oblongata, it regulates the heart beat to either speed up or slow down.
As the Copenhagen study is revealing, a faster resting heart rate may mean your body is ready for action at every moment, but quite possibly at the expense of your long-term vitality.
Yoga Techniques Have Proven to Lower the Resting Heart Rate
Meditation and yogic techniques like slow, steady asana and certain pranayama practices have been proven to lower the resting heart rate.
The International Journal of Biological and Medical Research has shown this in a study involving 50 participants and another article in the Internal Journal of Yoga describes a similar effect. The International Journal of Stress Management, discusses this effect, and so do hundreds of other peer reviewed articles.
How to Lower Your RHR in as Little as a Month With Nadi Shodhana
In Punjab India, people experienced a lower RHR in six weeks, and many started to see decreases in as little as four weeks. They did this by practicing just one yogic technique called Nadi Shodhana pranayama.
Nadi Shodhana and Balancing the Active and Passive Aspects of Ourselves
Nadi Shodhana is practiced in Hatha yoga, primarily, but in other branches as well. The word Hatha, actually is derived of two Sanskrit words meaning ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ and these are metaphors for the parasympathetic, or feminine aspect of ourselves, and sympathetic nervous system, or the active, masculine aspect of ourselves. They were both important evolutionary developments so that we could, on one hand, breathe and keep our hearts beating without thinking about it, and on the other, run like mad should a large jungle animal want to devour us, or if we needed to take our hands away from a hot fire quickly.
The unfortunate aspect of modern life is that it has driven our sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands into a state of constant fight-or-flight due to the low-level (and sometimes off-the-charts level) stress that accompanies our every day activities.
This is where Nadi Shodhana comes in. This practice of breathing through one nostril and then the other, awakens dormant energies in the Ida and Pingala nadis, secondary charkas that are located in the left and right nostrils, and associated to the left and right brain, and yes, also the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems and their regulation.
Nadis, for those who are not trained in yoga, are like small points of energy throughout the body much like acupressure/puncture points in Chinese medicine. In the yogic perception of the body there are over 72,000 points that must be free from energetic stagnation before we can be truly healthy and awakened.
When we practice Nadi Shodhana, we do it primarily as a means to pacify the sympathetic nervous system, which runs on the neurotransmitter, adrenaline, to allow us to fight or flee in stressful situations, or perceived stressful situations. If sitting at a red light too long instigates your fight-or-flight response, you also increase all the nervous system-induced casualties of that feeling – a heightened heart rate and respiratory rate, more adrenaline and cortisol being pumped into your blood, and as a terrible feedback loop, more stress in reaction to the initial discomfort or displeasure of having to wait behind a slow driver. You can imagine how many instances like this one throughout the day might trigger this sympathetic nervous system.
When we can control this response, through practices like Nadi Shodhana, the brain is given different signals. We also regulate the pranic energy of the body – the subtle energy that allows us to eventually reach enlightenment. Shodhana means ‘to purify’ and since we are breathing through the Ida, or left nostril, more passive, feminine nostril, we purify those qualities. When we breathe through the right nostril, or Pingala nadi, we purify the more masculine or ‘sun’ centered aspects of our personalities. Ideally we need enough get-up-and-go, and passive, allow and flow to accomplish anything positive in life.
While breathing through the right nostril only, can be beneficial for those who suffer from ailments like obesity and diabetes, since it builds heat in the body, the balanced breathing of Nadi Shodhana through both the right and left nostrils, allows the air that is heated by the right nostril to be cooled by the left. We always begin by breathing through the left nostril, because this is the aspect of us that needs to be awakened – the passive, allowing, nurturing aspect which neutralizes the heat, or excess of stress.
While the physical benefits of Nadi Shidhana are almost immediate, with practitioners experiencing a lowered resting heart rate and respiratory rates within as little as one month of consistent practice for just five minutes a day, longer term practice can start to augment other Hatha yoga practices that aim at dissolving the ego-bound self and helping one to reach full enlightenment. This happens when the purified energies of both Ida and Pingala nadis are joined with the other purified energy of the charkas along the spinal column or Sushumna, and reach the higher charkas, first Ajna chakra, or the pineal gland, and later the crown, or Sahasrara chakra. When the subtle energy channels are thoroughly clear, kundalini energy can rise to cause an awakening. Consciousness then expands greatly.
How to Practice Nadi Shodhana
For best results, Nadi Shodhana should be practiced after a Hatha yoga session of asana (yogic postures), or if you don’t already practice yoga, in a peaceful, meditative posture without distractions.
You should begin with a basic yogic breath. This means as you inhale your belly will expand, utilizing a full diaphragmatic breath, and as you exhale the belly will hollow out as you pull it back in toward the spine. Start with a 1:1 ratio of breathing in and out. Over time you can increase this. You will form a pranava mudra (hand gesture) of curling in your pinkie and ring finger of the right hand, in order to close the right nostril with the thumb to begin. You will not retain the breath in the basic version of nadhi shidhana, however, in more advanced versions, you can add a retention of the breath with three bhandas or energetic locks. (You can read more about these here.)
Exhale through both nostrils. Cover the right nostril and inhale slowly through the left. Cover the left nostril and exhale slowly through the right. Slowly inhale through the right, cover the right nostril and exhale slowly through the left. This consummates one round of Nadi Shodhana. Your breathing pattern will resemble a rainbow as you close one nostril and breathe through the other. Attempt to practice around five to ten rounds every day for at least one month. While many yogic texts will also recommend to augment the efficacy of this practice, you can just start by eating a cleaner diet, with more organic fruits and vegetables in order to help the body purify itself.
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World.
This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.
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