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Heart Rate Variability During A Meditation Retreat

Publication date: 05 November 2014

I spent last week at the Vajraloka Meditation Retreat Centre in North Wales. A group of about 14 of us spent the week mostly in silence with little to do other than meditate and practise mindful awareness. I took some biofeedback equipment with me, and though I couldn't take it into the meditation hall I did get a chance to record a couple of sits in my room. The results pleasantly surprised me.

I looked at Heart Rate Variability and breathing (in particular, I took a capnometer) - these are probably my favourite forms of biofeedback. It was the HRV results that were the particular source of interest. I often use HRV biofeedback as a support for my mindfulness meditation practice at home - without it I find my mind is that much more distractable. I used "Mind-Body Training Tools" biofeedback software (developed by yours truly) which gives me some useful measures of heart rate coherence, not available elsewhere. (You can read more about these in the Mind-Body Training Tools HRV Application User Guide.)

Here's the results of my HRV biofeedback sessions in a context of mindfulness meditation practice, over a couple of months prior to retreat. (All the charts in this post are generated by the Mind-Body Training Tools biofeedback software.)

HRV analysis

You see two lines, the red one showing my HRC score averaged over each session, and one point plotted per session - so a total of about 40 sessions here. (The horizontal axis shows session number.) The blue line shows the maximum HRC score per session.

So my maximum score, averaged over the sessions, is almost exactly 70, while my average mean score is 46.3. I hope that makes sense - it just means that in a typical session I average 46.3 and peak at 70.

On the meditation retreat, in both recorded sits, I wasn't using biofeedback (I was merely passively recording - I didn't need feedback as in the retreat context concentration came easily, and particularly in these two recorded sits). Nonetheless in both sessions my peak HRC score was higher than I'd ever recorded before. Here is the better of the two sessions:

heart coherence biofeedback

The peak score is 121 - not far off double what my typical peak score is. (I should say that the units of the score are arbitrary, and so only useful for comparison.)

My breathing rate was steady, as you see in the following chart. On average it was 5.2 breaths per minute, slower than the oft-mentioned 6 bpm for optimal heart rate coherence.

breathing rate in mindfulness meditation

The capnometry data wasn't quite so impressive - I apparently headed in the wrong direction over the course of the session, as the next chart shows. (For those not familiar with capnometry biofeedback, the strap line is, the higher the peak CO2 the better your oxygen delivery to brain cells.) I'm not really sure why it headed downwards - I certainly didn't experience anything subjectively by way of loss of function, except for perhaps a growing "buzzyness" or excitability.

breathing in mindfulness meditation graph

My conclusion is that the heart rate coherence data nicely demonstrates that heart rate coherence is a physiological parameter that usefully correlates with meditative states. In my two recorded sits, subjectively I felt very well - clear concentration, never really losing my focus on the breathing, but also emotionally positive, though perhaps a little on the excitable side rather than calm peaceful serenity.

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