I had started using Heartmath again after hearing a great podcast by Damien Blankensopp on paced breathing and its positive effects on the autonomic nervous system. As a result, I had started doing paced breathing sessions each morning for 20 minutes. That morning ritual provided a great source of data for experiments on how to meditate better.
My friend Dr. Keppen Laszlo is a chiropractor and I mentioned to him my work with heart rate variability (HRV). He suggested I could improve my HRV by leaning my head back during my measurement session. As he explained it to me, this head position relieves negative pressure on the nerves that are connected to respiration.
If following this advice led to more stable respiration and respiration is the foundation for increasing HRV, it would be possible to capture the improvement during my Heartmath sessions. I decided it was worth investigating.
Would leaning my head back while doing paced breathing meditation increase my Heartmath scores?
What I Did
Each morning I do a paced breathing session for twenty minutes during which I measure my heart rate variability using Heartmath. A paced breathing session means that I breath use an app to ensure I breathe in for seven seconds and out for seven seconds during each respiratory cycle.
For twenty-one sessions, during each session, I either leaned my head back at an approximately thirty degree angle from the verticle or leaned it slightly forward based on a randomly generated instruction. I measured the differences in outcomes of these two head positions by comparing the resulting Heartmath scores.
How I Did It
During the paced breathing sessions I used Heartmath EMWave Pro to measure a score based on the resonance between my respiratory rate and my heart rate. Heartmath gives a score for the amount of time the heart rate frequency is near .1 Hz. When the meditation is more focussed this “meditators peak” is more pronounced.
At the end of each session, I divided the total Heartmath points generated during the entire session by the exact number of minutes and seconds yielding a Points/Minute score. Some sessions were a few seconds longer than 20 minutes and I wanted a precise comparison.
Prior to the twenty-one sessions, I generated a “0” or “1” randomly in a spreadsheet for each day of the study. On the days that a “0” was generated I leaned my head slightly forward during the session. On the days a “1” was generated I leaned my head back during the session.
When the twenty-one days was complete I separated the head forward and head back data into two sets that I then compared using a Student’s TTest. I also looked at and compared the averages.
What I Learned
Leaning my head back during meditation significantly improved my Heartmath measured meditation scores versus leaning my head forward. Here are the averages for the two data sets:
The TTest p value was = .0337. Anything less that .05 is a statistically significant result. There was a clear advantage to leaning my head back during the paced breathing meditation.
I was struck at how conventional wisdom on the standard meditation posture could create a misunderstanding.
If the novice meditator tries to create an upright posture by pushing the back of the head up (at red arrow) the net effect would be the head leaning forward. This would reduce the ability to keep the respiration stable and have the reverse effect of what is desired in the meditation.
If you are a meditator looking to improve your practice, consider your head position. While keeping your back and torso upright relax the neck and ensure you are not leaning forward. This will stabilize your respiration and the positive from this will be more time in meditators peak and a more robust autonomic nervous system.