Does Yoga Experience Affect Heart Rate Variability?


August 23, 2022     benefits of yoga | breath | Yoga Research

Yoga may help balance our nervous system

Research Study At A Glance

The Research Question Asked

Does yoga experience affect heart rate variability during practice?

Type of Study

Randomized control trial with a pre-post design

Methods

Fifteen yoga naive and twelve experienced yoga practitioners completed one twenty-minute yoga practice. To test the effects of yoga experience on heart rate variability (HRV), the research team measured heart rate, respiration, and low and high-frequency heart rate parameters needed to calculate HRV. They took measurements before (baseline), during, and 1 minute after the yoga session.

Results

There was no difference in change in heart rate variability between those experienced with yoga and those new to yoga.

Conclusion

Although yoga did affect heart rate variability, the amount of yoga experience had a limited effect on heart rate variability in this study.

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Background

Yoga practitioners often anecdotally report its calming effects. Researchers have suggested that yoga affects the autonomic nervous system. They have suggested those effects on the autonomous nervous system are a potential mechanism for how yoga creates the effects we feel. Research conducted on yoga so far supports that hypothesis. Yoga has been demonstrated to positively affect heart rate variability (HRV), which is one indicator of the balance and health of the autonomic nervous system.

However, most studies that examined yoga’s effects on heart rate variability and other markers of the autonomic nervous system have measured yoga’s effects on people who are fairly new to yoga. It makes sense that yoga’s effects might vary depending on which yoga practices we’re doing. And, it could vary depending on how experienced we are with those specific practices. So, in this study, the researchers compared the effects of several yoga practices on those new to yoga with those who were experienced practitioners. That way they could explore the effects of yoga experience on heart rate variability.

Research question

Does yoga experience affect heart rate variability during practice?

Research methods

The total sample size for this study was 27 participants. The group was divided into 15 yoga participants who had never done yoga and 12 experienced yoga practitioners. The yoga naive group included 11 men and 4 women who were between 22 and 54 years old. All 12 participants in the experienced yoga practitioner group were women. They were between 32 and 54 years old.

The experimental treatment consisted of one session of yoga. The yoga session was about 20 minutes long. It included components of breath awareness, asana, and pranayama. To test the effects of the yoga session, the research team measured heart rate, respiration, and low and high-frequency heart rate parameters needed to calculate HRV. The measurements were taken using an electrocardiogram (ECG) before (baseline), during, and 1 minute after the yoga session.

The research team then used their data to calculate HRV. They looked at whether there was a difference in HRV before and after yoga. They also looked to see whether there was a difference in the change in HRV between yoga novices and experienced practitioners.

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Results

Yoga experience did not directly affect heart rate variability. There was no difference in change in HRV between the yoga naive group and the experienced practitioners.

For all study participants, those who had a high baseline score of low-frequency HRV parameter before yoga, or a high baseline score of the ratio of low frequency to high-frequency HRV parameter, tended to see that score decrease after the yoga session. Those with a low baseline score of low-frequency HRV parameter, or low baseline score of the ratio of low frequency to high-frequency HRV parameter, tended to see that score increase after yoga. Those new to yoga experienced this normalization of the autonomic nervous system even during the simple “breath awareness” part of the yoga treatment. Experienced yoga practitioners did not, however.

Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?

This study adds some nuance about how yoga may affect our nervous system to the larger body of research. We often hear both practitioners and the media refer to yoga as calming. However, this study suggests that actually, yoga may do something more subtle than that. Rather than only activating the parasympathetic aspect of our autonomic nervous system, it seems that what yoga may be doing is contributing to balance in our autonomic nervous system.

In many ways that makes yoga an even more impactful practice. Whether we start our yoga practice feeling “on edge” or low energy and sleepy, this study suggests that yoga can help. It can potentially help bring us back towards balance by calming us when we’re amped up. And it can energize us when we’re dragging.

Conclusion

If we do yoga, we likely already know that we feel better. This study helps us understand one reason why. Researchers in this study suggest that one of yoga’s mechanisms of action is normalizing our autonomic nervous system. In other words, yoga brings our nervous system back towards balance.

Reference citation

Shinba, T., T. Inoue, T. Matsui, K. K. Kimura, M. Itokawa, and M. Arai. 2020. Changes in heart rate variability after yoga are dependent on heart rate variability at baseline and during yoga: A study showing autonomic normalization effect in yoga-naive and experienced subjects. International Journal of Yoga. 13(2):160-167.

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