“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

― Thích Nhất Hạnh, Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices

It has long been known that our breath is a source of great power in our lives. It factors into almost every spiritual tradition’s story of the origin of life (e.g., God breathes “the breath of life” into Adam in the book of Genesis). The mystique of breath is that it is so vital to our lives, palpable in our bodies, and yet invisible to us (unless it’s very cold out!).

As those who meditate, sing, or play a sport will know, our control over our breath is an important thing. We can cultivate the ability to use our breath in many ways, with various physical results. And while we often experience the link between our breath and our sense of physical well-being, we aren’t always as conscious of the impact of our breath on our emotional life.

But consider this familiar scenario: when we’re surprised by something, we respond with a gasp — a quick and deep intake of breath. At the same time, our attention heightens, our pulse quickens, and the increase in oxygen to our brains gives us a boost into our biologically ingrained fight-or-flight response. As we recover from the shock, our breath gradually slows, our shoulders relax, and we return to our previous balanced emotional and physical state.

This correlation leads to an important question: How can we harness the power of our breath to make our lives better?

Heart Rate Variability & Emotional Coherence

As I’ve written in a previous introduction to the HeartMath Institute, how we feel directly relates to the heart’s electrical rhythms. Our emotions directly affect what’s called our Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and our HRV correlates to our bodily systems such as blood pressure, tension, and inflammation. “Coherence” is the optimal state of HRV, characterized by smooth heart rhythms and the harmonious function of the body’s mental, emotional, and physical systems. When we are coherent, we are alert, calm, and balanced.

When our emotions seem to run amuck our HRV does as well. When our HRV lacks a pattern of steady oscillation, our body systems struggle for balance. WE ACTUALLY SHUT DOWN CORTICAL FUNCTIONS, HAVE LOWER REACTION TIMES, AND LOWER OUR CREATIVITY with a discordant HRV. When the heart’s energetic pattern is disrupted we might continue to live, to survive, but not to thrive. The good news is that there are relatively simple tools that help “reset” the electrical heart rhythms.

Heart-Focused Breathing

One of these tools is known as Heart-Focused Breathing. The Institute of HeartMath® explains,

“Heart-focused breathing is about directing your attention to the heart area and breathing a little more deeply than normal. As you breathe in, imagine you are doing so through your heart, and, as you breathe out, imagine it is through your heart. (In the beginning, placing your hand over your heart as you breathe can help you in directing your focus to your heart.)

Typically, HeartMath recommends that you breathe in about 5 to 6 seconds and breathe out 5 to 6 seconds. Be sure your breathing is smooth, unforced and comfortable. Although this is not difficult to do, it may take a little time to become used to it, but eventually you will establish your own natural rhythm.”

This breathing technique is common to yoga practitioners, meditation practice, and even public speaking coaches (who recommend using breath to calm nerves and ease anxiety before speaking in public). The heart focus is unique to HeartMath and helps us center our emotional core, bringing direct attention to the place where we may be experiencing negative feelings.

The next time you find yourself wrestling with anxiety, fear, or even sadness, try this technique for a few minutes and feel those emotions melt away, replaced by a feeling of centered calm and well-being. It’s amazing how simply focusing on our breath can have such a positive effect on our state of mind.

The Coherence Effect

Researchers at HeartMath and elsewhere have examined how our moods and our presence can affect others in our lives. They’ve discovered some fascinating things about the strength of our connection with others and how we can consciously and conscientiously engage with this phenomenon to better our families and communities. An independent researcher named Steve Morris performed one study that is cited by HeartMath, confirming that when we shift into a coherent state (remember HRV as an indicator of coherence), it helps OTHERS find their balance and composure more quickly.

In this study, ten groups of four people were seated around tables. All of the participants were being measured through heart monitors. Three of the four people at each table were instructed to shift in and out of coherence at random intervals. The fourth person did not know what the others were doing.

The results showed that when the three shifted into a coherent state, the fourth person also became more coherent. This illustrates that one of the best things we can do to support one another is maintain our coherence, which makes it easier for the person having a tough time to regain his or her balance and composure.

One powerful application of this can be seen in interactions between police officers and their communities. When police officers give appropriate, measured responses in high-stress situations, they control the situation in a positive way that makes all parties feel coherent and respected, decreasing the likelihood of the situation devolving into aggression and violence.

Imagine the world we could live in if every one of us sought coherence and to bring greater peace to our communities through our very presence in them!

How do you experience the connection between your emotions and your breath? Share by tweeting @ace_wagner!