Organic Variability

My most recent hobby horse is the topic of heart rate variability. In addition to being an interesting glance at the effects of training and recovery, it’s also a wonderful metaphor for the yoga experience.

When the body is relaxed and recovered, the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, and the space between heartbeats becomes variable. If your BPM is 60, say, and you’re relaxed and healthy, your heart isn’t beating exactly once every second. Instead, it follows an uneven rhythm. And, contrary to what you might think, that’s a good thing. During stress (including exercise) the variability between beats drops and the rhythm becomes more regular. The breath follows a similar pattern. Watch a spouse, a child, or a pet sleeping, and you’ll find a breath that follows its own organic pattern, sometimes pausing during inhalation or after exhalation, sometimes extending the exhalation so that it’s longer than the inhalation. (My friend Tiffany, ABD in exercise physiology, told me that studies show that children who die from SIDS have extremely regular breath patterns. Cardiologists know that a very ordered, regular, invariable heartbeat is a sign of imminent heart problems.)

When you’re in a state of relaxation, heart rate and breath variable, your cardiovascular and pulminary systems are ready to respond beat by beat and breath by breath to the needs of your body. You are living in the moment, fully present—and that’s yoga.

Sidenote: I have a topic (shoulders, by request) and a sequence for the next podcast episode—and I also have a beastly sore throat. I hope to sound better by the end of the week and put it together. I spend so much time focused on hips and hamstrings that I often neglect shoulders and arms in my teaching.

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