Thursday, December 6, 2012

Talk to Aunt Ethel

I was published! In print! What follows is an earlier draft of the article I wrote for the November edition of Yoga Chicago.

I lie in savasana concentrating on my breath. Inhale…one…two…two bottles of milk. I have to get whole-milk for making yogurt and almond-milk for making green juice…I mean…three.

As I attempt again to ignore my grocery list, I start wondering, what the heck am I doing this for? Am I really getting any calmer? And if so, what good is calm really going to do me? I have heard over and over that breathing will help me deal with stress at the Department of Motor Vehicles but am I really spending this much time per week preparing myself for the DMV? I make mental note to examine my teachers' claims that breathing will allow me to restrain myself when the DMV teller informs me that I am missing one item and I will have to go to the end of the line once I get back with it, and get back to breathing…five…six…exhale….

Weeks later I find myself up to my neck in yoga articles, books and scientific journals, which, I suppose is not overly impressive, considering I am sitting in lotus.

I have stumbled across findings that not only verify that I will be less likely to assault DMV tellers because of yoga, but also promise that yoga will boost my decision-making capabilities and self-control. For simplicity, rather than defining self-control as, “the ability to resist abusing DMV tellers,” let's define it as, “the ability to postpone gratification and control emotional responses.”

Yoga's key to self-control and decision-making, not surprisingly, is the breathing and meditation focus. These centuries-old practices allow us to do something amazing, to control our hearts. Controlling your heart-rate sounds like a really neat, although prop-intensive,  party trick (Hold my stethoscope and listen to this!) — possibly one on par with throwing your leg over your head in om pose — but it's way more than that. People who have a wider heart-rate variation (HRV) range have more self-control, including emotional, and better decision-making skills.1 HRV is the range of acceleration and deceleration your heart is capable of. In other words, when you get a fright, how much does your heart-rate speed up and when you calm back down, how low can it go?

You want a wide-range HRV because it is an excellent indicator of mental health; much like cholesterol levels indicate the health of your body. In a longitudinal study, babies were monitored at 9 months, then again three years later, using three methods of behavior prediction: parental opinion, standardized tests (including the Beyley Scales of Infant Development) and HRV. The most accurate indicator of which babies would develop social withdrawal, depression or aggression issues was not the standardized tests, not even parental opinion. It was HRV.1 Babies with greater HRV were less likely to develop those social adjustment issues. Many such tests have established that a low HRV can be linked to higher occurrences of anger, hostility, stress and anxiety.2 

Although personal HRV is an innate quality, it is not completely fixed. Experience can change HRV. For instance, trauma can suppress the heart’s responses; victims of child abuse have smaller-range HRV later in life.3 Nor is HRV completely without conscious controls.

Our body, the fantastic tangle of tissue and tendons that it is, communicates with itself via nerves, like a massive rat’s-nest of telephone line. We can harness these to alter our HRV, thus gaining self-control, (the ability to postpone gratification and control emotional responses) and coveted decision-making skills.

The telephone wires we are most interested in, the physical communication system between your heart, lungs and brain, is the vagal nerve cluster. The vagal nerve starts in your brain-stem, where it plays a key role in decision-making, then wraps around numerous organs, most significantly, the lungs and heart.

The vagal nerve is part of the automatic nervous system. The automatic nervous system is composed of sympathetic nerves (which control the fight or flight response and gears the body up for work) and the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the body down.4 Since the vagal nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, its stimulation will slow down your heart and lungs.*

Yoga can stimulate the vagal nerve cluster by using the parts of it that we do have control over, our breath and higher brain functions (via meditation), to talk to the parts we have limited communication with, the heart. It’s like telling Aunt Ethel (your brain and lungs) about the new puppy we adopted. The news will get back to Aunt Sally (your heart) because Ethel is a gossip, the message just might be a bit convoluted; the puppy might be a pug instead of a husky. So we keep talking to Ethel hoping that eventually the message gets back clearer (this is the importance of practice we will discuss in a minute).

No matter what flavor of yoga you have chosen, meditation and breathing techniques are both central principals. Even the red-headed left-handed stepchild of yoga**, Bikram yoga, is in on the action. When my Bikram teacher, Liz Olson, notices students have removed focus from their breath and are holding it during postures, (often full-locust or floor-bow) she makes the distinction between ‘practicing yoga’ and ‘using yoga poses for exercise’; she announces to her class, “If you aren’t breathing you’re not doing yoga. You’re just doing funny poses in a hot room.”

Yogic breathing techniques also change the speed at which you metabolize carbon dioxide, slowing your body down or speeding it up, depending on which technique you are using.5 And, research shows meditation is key to controlling heart-rate.1

Don’t forget though, it’s not the calm itself that makes for a self-controlled, sound-decision maker; it’s the ability to adjust. Embrace the annoyances in your yoga and everyday life. Distractions in meditation during yoga are simply upping the skill-level of your meditation practice; like reaching the next level in Super Mario Brothers. If the person in front of you is talking or there is a police siren blaring into your home-studio, relax; you have just gained the opportunity to level-up. It’s the same type of self-control increase you would need had someone taken cookies out of the office break-room and put them on your desk. The temptation may be harder to avoid, but the practice is invaluable. You have increased the weight of your mental dumb-bells.

Like any other training, practice makes perfect; keep telling your metaphorical Aunt Ethel that you got a HUSKY. H-U-S-K-Y. Not pug. Husky. Regular yoga and/or meditation will result in better ability to stimulate the vagal nerve cluster, giving you greater control of your heart-rate, resulting in greater control of self, including the ability to pause momentarily, which turns out to be the key factor in better decision-making.2 The knee-bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip-bone…!

To throw a cherry on top of all that yoga-goodness, this stuff is especially important now because our society has ramped up its response-time expectations. Today we, and those around us, expect quick responses; there has been a dramatic decrease in our expected response-time. Mail takes seconds, not minutes, to arrive. We don’t have to plan a visit to the reference library to check a statistic (Thank you, NPR-online for helping me write this article). In fact, the DMV may be the only thing that hasn’t sped up.

Without daily practice, we get worse at being patient (which is a form of self-control), just as we would with any other learned skill. This makes it important to consciously re-insert patience training into our daily lives, just as it was done automatically a few years ago.

So, laying in savasana, I get back to talking to aunt Ethel. It’s frustrating. We end up on tangents like groceries, work and how a disturbingly increasing number of my friends are having children. Still, I know the conversation is important so we keep it up. Exhale…three...four...five.

*A bizarre example of how these systems work in tandem and the critical part the vagal nerve plays in communication between your organs is panic-peeing. The same function of this all-important vagal nerve that slows your heart-rate can also make you pee your pants when you are super-scared.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves work in tandem all the time, like having one foot on the gas and one on the brake all the time. When a spider larger than your cat lands on your shoulder, the sympathetic system kicks your heart and lungs into high-gear, preparing you for battle with the spider. Your vagal nerve quickly counters by putting its, “wait, let’s think about this,” brake on its organs (the heart, lungs and bladder). Sometimes, in it’s hastiness, the vagal nerve over-does it on the bladder, causing it to relax completely. That’s how you piddle your pants.

** I would like to note that there is nothing wrong with being red-headed, left-handed or a step-child; nor is there anything wrong with being a Bikram yogi.

1 Partnoy, Frank. Interview by Diane Rehm. " Frank Partnoy: "Wait: The Art and Scien." Diane Rehm Show. Host Diane Rehm. NPR. WAMU, Washington, DC, 10 July 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2012.

2  Partnoy, Frank. Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. New York: Public Affairs™, A Member of the Perseus Books Gro, 2012. 6. Print.

3  Partnoy, Frank. Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. New York: Public Affairs™, A Member of the Perseus Books Gro, 2012. 12. Print.

4  Blakemore, Colin, and Sheila Jennett, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Body. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. N. pag. Web. 14 Aug. 2012.

5  Broad, William. Interview by John Dankosky. "The Science Of Yoga: The Risks And The R." Science Friday. National Public Radio. Feb. 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2012. .


  1. This is an awesome article! Thank you for posting, Kate! I had never heard about HRV as a measure of mental health. Very interesting for sure and I will read more about it now.

    One little thing though, there is something wonky about your explanation of what HRV is: a) acceleration/deceleration of heart rate OR b) when you get a fright, how much does your heart-rate speed up.

    a) If HRV is a measure of the acceleration it should be "when you get a fright, how FAST does your heart rate speed up/slow back down". Does that make sense? Do you go from 80 bpm to 150 bpm within 2 seconds (higher acceleration) or within 10 seconds (lower acceleration).

    b) How much does your heart rate go up? That sounds like you mean, does it go from 80 bpm to 140 bpm OR from 80 bpm to 170 bpm (not paying attention to how long it takes to go from the low value to the high value). That would be "range" or "speed" of heart rate, but not acceleration.

    I hope I'm not coming across as rude. Just wanted to point out that acceleration/deceleration (how fast does HR go up) and HR range/HR speed (how high does it go up) are different things. I will for sure do further reading on this though. It is a fascinating topic.

    1. Good input! I read this about five times before I realized that I am way too burnt out from work today to look at this. :P Having written this article two months ago, Im going to have to dig old stuff up to review this. I want you to know though that I am absolutely going to do that and really appreciate the input! Thanks! Oh, and a medical editor did read and approve the final draft so we should both rest secure in the knowledge that it ended up right enough. :)