The heart of the matter: One way yoga supports resilience
We can measure countless processes in our bodies to get a picture of our overall health. Heart rate variability (HRV), the very small fluctuations in the time between heartbeats, is one window on overall health—and on stress and disease. Yoga has been shown to increase HRV both during sessions and in general among people who practice regularly.
What is heart rate variability?
Our heart rate is measured as average beats per minute—feel your pulse and count the number of beats over 60 seconds. HRV is the tiny changes—in milliseconds—in the regularity of those beats. Our pulses are not like metronomes striking the beat at exact divisions of time. Instead, the beating of our hearts changes ever so slightly each time the heart muscle contracts, variations that can be detected by sensitive machines.
Although it is measured in milliseconds, HRV is a clear and powerful indicator of the state of our bodies. We hope to see variability, not evenness, in HRV—this variability is a healthy response to small changes in the person, such as breathing efficiency and rate, and in their environment.
Variability here equals resilience. If you have ever tried standing on one leg, you may have noticed that you are constantly making tiny adjustments to maintain your balance. Similarly, the healthy heart is constantly adjusting to find balance and meet the demands placed on it by our activities, emotions, thoughts, and surroundings.
Yoga therapy aims to help people restore and maintain balance physically, mentally, energetically, emotionally, and spiritually and uses the kosha model as a guide to whole-person health. Multiple studies* and this comprehensive review of the research show that yoga is effective at increasing HRV.
Here are some of the many yoga practices that can increase HRV:
- yoga asana practice, moving the body in synchronization with the breath
- slow, full, diaphragmatic breathing, as we might do in pranayama (breathwork)
- meditation, including yoga nidra, mindfulness, witnessing, inner silence, loving kindness, body scanning, and others
- slow breathing with exhalation longer than inhalation
- moving with close attention to the sensations of the body (interoception)
To find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist to teach you these practices and others that support resilience, search IAYT’s database.
*For example, see these studies:
Balakrishnan B, et al. Long-term effects of hatha yoga on heart rate variability in healthy practitioners: Potential benefits for cardiovascular risk reduction. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2023; 29(4):97-101.
Christa E, et al. Effect of yoga-based cardiac rehabilitation on heart rate variability: Randomized controlled trial in patients post-MI. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. 2019; 29(1):43-50.
Ganesan S, et al. Effect of yoga therapy on disease activity, inflammatory markers, and heart rate variability in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2020; 26(6):501-507.