Objective: This study was designed to quantify and compare the instantaneous heart rate dynamics and cardiopulmonary interactions during sequential performance of three meditation protocols with different breathing patterns.
Background: We analyzed beat-to-beat heart rate and continuous breathing signals from 10 experienced meditators (4 females; 6 males; mean age 42 years; range 29-55 years) during three traditional interventions: relaxation response, breath of fire, and segmented breathing.
Results: Heart rate and respiratory dynamics were generally similar during the relaxation response and segmented breathing. We observed high amplitude, low frequency (approximately 0.05-0.1 Hz) oscillations due to respiratory sinus arrhythmia during both the relaxation response and segmented breathing, along with a significantly (p<0.05) increased coherence between heart rate and breathing during these two maneuvers when compared to baseline. The third technique, breath of fire, was associated with a different pattern of response, marked by a significant increase in mean heart rate with respect to baseline (p<0.01), and a significant decrease in coherence between heart rate and breathing (p<0.05).
Conclusions: These findings suggest that different meditative/breathing protocols may evoke common heart rate effects, as well as specific responses. The results support the concept of a "meditation paradox," since a variety of relaxation and meditative techniques may produce active rather than quiescent cardiac dynamics, associated with prominent low frequency heart rate oscillations or increases in mean resting heart rate. These findings also underscore the need to critically assess traditional frequency domain heart rate variability parameters in making inferences about autonomic alterations during meditation with slow breathing.