Often when you hear the phrase ‘speak from the heart’ or ‘play from the heart’ we take it to mean to connect and express ourselves from the very core of our being, to say what we feel without any reservations. And this is generally regarded as a healthy thing to be able to do. But, what is often misunderstood is that this phrase is not merely metaphorical- it is now known that the physical organ of the heart has a vital and complex role in our social and mental-emotional health, and is not just a mechanical pump.
“Over the past several decades, several lines of scientific evidence have established that, far more than a mechanical pump, the heart functions as a sensory organ and as a complex information encoding and processing center. Groundbreaking research in the relatively new field of neurocardiology has demonstrated that the heart has an extensive intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a “little brain” in its own right… Containing over 40,000 neurons, its complex circuitry enables it to sense, regulate, and remember.” Rollin McCraty, Phd.
The human heart emits the strongest electromagnetic field in our body, much larger than the brains. This electromagnetic field envelops the entire body extending out in all directions, and it can be measured up to several feet outside of the body. Moreover, this field contains information specific to each person, and can be measured as an indicator of someone’s mental-emotional state.
The Institute of Heart-Math, in Arizona, USA, has made awe-inspiring progress in understanding these mechanisms and processes. A mile-stone discovery was made showing that the Heart Rate Variability (the moment-to-moment change in the speed of the heartbeat) is a clear indicator of positive and negative emotions, and that when we are in a positive state, the hearts powerful regulatory effect on all the other systems of the body creates an over-all improvement in bodily function and health. In other words, feeling good is good for you!
The Heart-Math Institute has gone on to plot the intricate relationships between the brain and the heart, discovering that there is an optimum balance achievable, which greatly improves our cognitive and physiological functioning. This they term coherence and is a natural state that occurs when we feel ‘in the flow’. By lightly placing our awareness in the area of our heart, regulating our breath, and generating positive mental feelings, this relationship can be easily established. Specific methods for heart-brain coherence are freely given on their website, adapted differently for people with health conditions, anxiety, PTSD, or for children. In many ways the secret to creating this relationship lies in the breath and learning how to regulate the breath in different circumstances with ease. At the end of this article we will look at one such method.
Some of the proven benefits of heart-brain coherence are:
Of course, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) it has long been known that the heart holds an influence on every system in the body, on all aspects of health. In the 2000 year-old foundational text of Chinese Medicine, the Huang Di Nei Jing, it is stated,
“The Heart is the Emperor, and from it stems the awareness of one’s being. It is responsible for intelligence, wisdom, and spiritual transformation. The Lungs represent the Prime Minister, which advises and helps the Heart in regulating the body’s capacity for change and transformation.”
Awareness (the mind’s resting ground) is known in TCM as the Shen, and it is rooted in the heart and expressed through the eyes. It is interesting to see how this old wisdom is starting to be reflected in modern science. By using the method of lightly bringing our awareness to the area of the heart, we can think of it as having the effect of centering a scattered mind or bringing it home to rest. It is also interesting to note how the lungs were traditionally considered second in hierarchy to the heart, assisting in its function of ruling over the rest of the body.
The modern understanding on the function of the lungs and respiration is that it is primarily concerned with gas exchange, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. However, there is another vital role it takes in human health and healing which is often overlooked- it acts as a regulator for the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs all the unconscious functions of our body. (The vast majority of all our biological functioning is unconscious) The work of Stephen Elliott has clearly established that when the breath is regulated in a certain way, it enters a coherent relationship with the heart, optimising blood flow and heart rate variability, and has a balancing effect on the ANS. The importance of this is highlighted when we consider how crucial ANS balance is to our everyday functioning and health.
The ANS has two main branches that work in tandem with each other to assist us in our everyday activities and biological functioning- the sympathetic branch, which kicks in during activity and is known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode, and secondly the parasympathetic branch, which is known as the ‘rest and digest’ mode and is essential for healing and restoration. A great deal of modern maladies could be thought of as resulting from sympathetic dominance, people being overly adrenalized and hyper-stimulated, not being able to stop or fully relax, often resulting in mild but constant fatigue and low-grade anxiety. The method I will now describe is a simple but effective way to bring balance to the ANS and create a coherent relationship between brain-heart.
This simple exercise can have remarkable benefits if practiced regularly and brought into daily habits. If the counting aspect is cumbersome for you, try entraining your breath with this recording:
To learn more about balancing the breath and heart-brain coherence join one of my qigong classes and tea ceremonies or have a look through the links provided below.