Improved Heart Rate Variability through Yoga

How to Improve Heart Rate Variability Through Yoga and Pranayama: Exploring the Benefits for the Heart, Nervous System, Cortisol Levels, and Overall Health and Wellness

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. It is an indicator of the health of the heart, nervous system, and overall well-being. High HRV is associated with good physical and emotional health, while low HRV is linked with chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and poor cardiovascular health.

Understanding Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

What is Heart Rate Variability?

HRV refers to the variation in time between each heartbeat. It is calculated as the difference between the longest and shortest intervals between heartbeats during a given period (usually a minute). High HRV indicates a healthy and flexible cardiovascular system, while low HRV suggests a rigid and overloaded system.

Heart rate variability is a complex and dynamic process that is influenced by many factors, including age, gender, genetics, physical activity, diet, and stress. It is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which consists of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “rest and digest” response.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, causing our heart rate to increase and our HRV to decrease. This is a normal and adaptive response that prepares us to deal with a threat. However, when stress becomes chronic or excessive, it can lead to a state of sympathetic overdrive and reduced HRV, which is associated with a range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.

Why is HRV Important for Health and Wellness?

HRV is a sensitive indicator of the body’s response to stress and the state of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the heart rate, breathing, digestion, and other vital functions. By monitoring HRV, we can gain insights into our physical and emotional states, and take proactive steps to improve our well-being.

Research has shown that individuals with higher HRV tend to have better physical and mental health outcomes. For example, high HRV has been associated with better cognitive function, improved sleep quality, reduced inflammation, and lower risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, low HRV has been linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

Fortunately, there are many ways to improve HRV and promote overall health and wellness. These include regular exercise, mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and stress reduction techniques such as yoga and massage therapy.

By taking care of our physical and mental health, we can improve our HRV and enjoy the many benefits that come with a healthy and flexible cardiovascular system.

The Science Behind Yoga and Pranayama

Tish Ganey teaching pranayama
Tish Ganey teaching Pranayama
Yoga is a traditional practice that has been around for centuries. It involves physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and self-awareness training (meditation) to promote physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The practice of yoga has been shown to have numerous benefits for the body and mind.

The Effects of Yoga on the Body

Research indicates that regular yoga practice can help reduce stress levels. This is because yoga has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released in response to stress. Lowering cortisol levels can help reduce anxiety and improve overall mood.

In addition to reducing stress, yoga has also been shown to lower blood pressure. This is because yoga postures can help improve circulation and blood flow throughout the body. Improved circulation can help reduce the strain on the heart, leading to lower blood pressure levels.

Yoga has also been shown to improve respiratory function. This is because many yoga postures involve deep breathing, which can help increase lung capacity and improve overall respiratory health. Improved respiratory function can help reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses and improve overall physical performance.

Finally, regular yoga practice has been shown to enhance cognitive performance. This is because yoga can help improve focus, concentration, and memory. Additionally, the mindfulness training that is a part of yoga practice can help reduce stress and improve overall mental health.

The Power of Pranayama: Breathing Techniques for Improved HRV

Pranayama is a specific type of breathing practice that involves controlling the breath to achieve specific physiological and psychological effects. Research suggests that pranayama can improve heart rate variability (HRV) by increasing parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity.

The PNS is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response. When the PNS is activated, the body is able to relax and recover from stress. This can help improve HRV, which is a measure of the variability in time between each heartbeat. High HRV is associated with better overall health and a reduced risk of heart disease.

Pranayama has been shown to be an effective way to increase PNS activity and improve HRV. This is because pranayama involves slow, controlled breathing that can help activate the PNS and reduce stress levels. By practicing pranayama regularly, individuals can improve their overall health and reduce their risk of heart disease.

Benefits of Improved HRV Through Yoga and Pranayama

Strengthening the Heart and Cardiovascular System

The heart is one of the most vital organs in the human body. It pumps blood throughout the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to the cells and organs that need them. The cardiovascular system is responsible for maintaining this process, and any disruptions can lead to serious health problems.

One of the benefits of improved HRV through yoga and pranayama is that it can help to strengthen the heart and cardiovascular system. By practicing these techniques regularly, you can lower your blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease, and improve your circulation. This can help to ensure that your heart and cardiovascular system are functioning at their best, and reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other related conditions.

Enhancing the Nervous System Function

The nervous system is responsible for regulating many of the body’s functions, including our stress levels, emotions, and physical health. When the nervous system is functioning properly, we feel calm, relaxed, and in control. However, when the nervous system is overactive, we can experience anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions.

By improving HRV, we can enhance the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest, digest, and repair functions. This can help to promote relaxation, improve sleep quality, and reduce the risk of chronic stress-related illnesses. In addition, by practicing yoga and pranayama regularly, we can learn to control our breathing and calm our minds, which can further enhance the function of the nervous system.

Regulating Cortisol Levels and Reducing Stress

Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress. It is an important hormone that helps the body to respond to stress, but when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, it can lead to a range of negative health effects, including anxiety, depression, and weight gain.

One of the benefits of yoga and pranayama is that it can help to regulate cortisol levels in the body. By practicing these techniques regularly, we can reduce inflammation, promote relaxation, and provide a natural way to manage stress and improve mental health. This can help to reduce our risk of chronic stress-related illnesses and improve our overall quality of life.

Boosting Overall Health and Wellness

By improving HRV and enhancing the function of the heart and nervous system, yoga and pranayama can help to boost overall health and wellness. These practices have been shown to improve immune function, promote healthy digestion, reduce pain, and improve cognitive function, thus providing a natural route to better health and vitality.

Furthermore, practicing yoga and pranayama regularly can help to improve our self-awareness and mindfulness. By becoming more aware of our bodies and our thoughts, we can learn to better manage our emotions, reduce our stress levels, and improve our overall quality of life.

Yoga Poses and Pranayama Techniques for Improved HRV

Best Yoga Poses for Heart Health

When it comes to maintaining a healthy heart, yoga is one of the best forms of exercise. Not only does it help to improve cardiovascular health, but it also promotes relaxation and reduces stress. Some of the best yoga poses for heart health include:

  • Bridge Pose: This pose helps to improve circulation and strengthen the heart muscle. To practice, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Lift your hips up towards the ceiling, keeping your feet and shoulders on the ground. Hold for several breaths before lowering back down.
  • Cobra Pose: Cobra pose is great for improving respiratory function and opening up the chest. To practice, lie on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders. Slowly lift your chest off the ground, keeping your elbows close to your body. Hold for several breaths before lowering back down.
  • Fish Pose: Fish pose is another great pose for improving circulation and opening up the chest. To practice, lie on your back with your legs extended and arms by your sides. Lift your chest up towards the ceiling, arching your back and placing the top of your head on the ground. Hold for several breaths before lowering back down.
  • Supported Shoulder Stand: This pose not only strengthens the heart muscle, but also helps to improve thyroid function and reduce stress. To practice, lie on your back with your legs extended and arms by your sides. Lift your legs up towards the ceiling and then use your hands to support your lower back as you lift your hips off the ground. Hold for several breaths before lowering back down.

Pranayama Techniques to Increase HRV

In addition to yoga poses, pranayama techniques can also be very effective for increasing heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat, and is an important indicator of overall cardiovascular health. Some of the best pranayama techniques for increasing HRV include:

  • Deep Breathing: Deep breathing is a simple yet effective technique for promoting relaxation and increasing HRV. To practice, sit comfortably with your eyes closed and take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Alternate Nostril Breathing: This technique helps to balance the nervous system and increase HRV. To practice, sit comfortably with your eyes closed and use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale deeply through your left nostril, then use your ring finger to close your left nostril as you exhale through your right nostril. Continue alternating nostrils for several breaths.
  • Ujjayi Breathing: Ujjayi breathing is a powerful technique for calming the mind and increasing HRV. To practice, sit comfortably with your eyes closed and breathe in and out through your nose, constricting the back of your throat slightly to create a “whispering” sound.

Combining Yoga and Pranayama for Maximum Benefits

While yoga poses and pranayama techniques can be effective on their own, combining the two provides even greater benefits for heart health and overall well-being. By practicing yoga and pranayama regularly, we can improve the function of the heart and nervous system, promote relaxation, and reduce stress. So why not give it a try and see how it can benefit you?

Full disclosure: this post written with artificial intelligence assistance using prompts that I entered into the AI tool “” –—Tish Ganey

Annamaya Kosha – Our PHYSICAL Body

Yoga in the Physical Body

The practice of yoga is probably best recognized for what it “looks like” in the physical body. Yoga asanas, the yogic postures are recognized immediately in American culture. Who hasn’t seen a picture of someone standing with wide legs, one knee bent, with their arms extended out to their sides? And then thought, “oh, they are doing YOGA!” This physical practice of yoga is an activity for our physical body, for our Annamaya Kosha. Annamaya Kosha is the layer, or part of ourselves that stands apart from other aspects of our being. It relates to our physical body.

Names for the physical body and for the other five “bodies” are broad categories of our being. These five layers or Koshas help us to recognize the unique and important aspects of these different parts of ourselves. They are separate parts, but completely interrelated as everything in our universe seems to be! These divisions or “sheaths” give us a way to understand and discuss our selves in greater detail. They identify the need to heal.

The Five Koshas:

1. Physical Body – Annamayakosha
2. Breath/Energy Body – Pranamayakosha
3. Psycho/Emotional Body – Manamayakosha
4. Witness/Wisdom Body – Vijnanamayakosha
5. Bliss Body – Anandamayakosha

Yoga without breathing is “just stretchin'”

One of my favorite yoga teachers is known to remind the class, in his southern way, that doing yoga without a real focus on the breath is “just stretchin’.” Even though we divide the physical body from the energy body in a list of the Koshas, we cannot separate them! With Annamaya and Pranamaya, we are moving the physical body in synchrony with the breath/energy body as if it were one thing. And it is! We move the arms up and inhale, we move the arms down and exhale. That is yoga!

Yoga therapy and balance within the Koshas

The discussion of the Koshas and of working with these layers of existence is the basis of yoga therapy. In a traditional yoga class the topics of breath, emotion, body awareness, and body wisdom are sometimes introduced. In yoga therapy, they are at the forefront of any approach. Yoga therapy starts with the Koshas. For individual yoga therapy, zeroing in on imbalance among the Koshas is where the healing begins. Group yoga therapy also uses the Koshas to identify common imbalances for which the yoga therapist can guide individuals within the group. All healing begins with balance in the Koshas.

Slowing the physical body, slowing the energy body

In the physical body we tie together breath and movement in yoga. Using our physical body we can work to slow down each of these aspects in the practice. We slow the physical body so the breath can work to slow down our energy body. We slow the breath and the energy so the physical body will slow down and find greater relaxation. Working in tandem in this way, IS the way. The breath practice within the movement practice is actually the special sauce of yoga! And in this way we are able to notice the other Koshas as they come online, as we practice consistently.

Many paths, one mountain

This quote of many paths, one mountain reminds me of what happens when yoga becomes a regular, consistent practice. Often times we start out thinking and wanting a purely physical practice. We want exercise! As we learn the postures and begin to take the general shape of each posture, we are ready to “hear” more from the yoga teacher. We begin to hear and incorporate the instruction to move on the inhale, settle in on the exhale (or the reverse, as the posture may require). Slowly we are led up the path, and up the mountain. This mountain is the journey to our true nature. There are many paths up this mountain. Yoga is one. Spiritualism is another. Family. Community. Work. Caregiving. Birth. Death. These can all be foot paths up the mountain.

Many people, one place

All these varied paths may hold some new intelligence or understanding as we explore what it means to be human. And what it means to be our own human, individual selves. Individual but also part of the collective. There are different parts to ourselves and within our own true nature we have these layers, these Koshas. But still, being just one person (one in five, five in one, if you will!). One person as a member of a larger group of humans on earth. We are together in this one place but having many different experiences.

Yoga is the yoke

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that generally translates to “yoke.” There are many variations on this idea and what the word yoga means. My preferred explanation is that yoga is a yoke. It joins the parts of ourselves to form the whole. It creates a yoke, where the parts of ourselves are joined one to the other. This yoke forms another yoke of joining all people together in the common experience of living through and with the Koshas. We’re all one!


Pranamaya Kosha – Our ENERGY Body

Prana is Vital Energy

Pranamaya Kosha is the name of the part of ourselves that deals with Energy. Prana is a Sanskrit word that means “vital energy.” It is the force within the body that animates or electrifies our being. The idea of Prana (or Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine) is one of the few concepts that doesn’t have a relative term in Western medicine. The major body systems and organs are defined and recognized in some manner in most ancient, traditional, and modern medical practices. And many healing practices also recognize the more subtle presence of energy.

For some reason, the idea of energy within the body is missing from the modern medical lexicon. Maybe it is because it cannot be seen as a distinct object within the anatomy. Or maybe it is not easy to measure or detect with an instrument, like heartbeat with a stethoscope. It might simply be too woo-woo because we don’t yet fully understand it. To make this more unnerving, most people can relate a direct experience of feeling or using this form of personal, vital energy.

The Sanskrit term “Pranamaya Kosha” may sound like something that is too foreign to understand. Sanskrit names for our yogic postures, practices and philosophies are sometimes used in yoga class. But Sanskrit can sometimes be intimidating! After all, many yoga teachers will guide the class into “Downward Facing Dog” with never mentioning its Sanskrit mouth-full-of-a-name: Adho Mukha Svanasana!

The Sanskrit names for the five Koshas can have a similar effect when we first hear them. It might be easier, or more straight forward to refer to the Koshas as layers that make up the whole person. Our five layers or Koshas, in yogic philosophy are an easy way to broadly categorize parts of ourselves. These layers may overlap and are deeply interconnected. If you ever run across a Kosha coloring book, be sure to color outside the lines!

Koshas are the parts of ourselves, that together, make up the whole person. They are divided in a ways that help us to identify our levels of balance. For example someone who has a physical injury may feel like they are off balance in their physical body (Annamayakosha). Someone who feels happy and relaxed may be in that state because their witness body (Vinjnanamayakosha) has reached a high level of acceptance and surrender. It is through the awareness of these parts of ourselves that we are able to maintain health and well-being.

Yoga can help bring balance back into our lives, and help us keep areas of our lives in balance through awareness and yogic tools.

The Five Koshas:
1. Physical Body – Annamayakosha
2. Breath/Energy Body – Pranamayakosha
3. Psycho/Emotional Body – Manamayakosha
4. Witness/Wisdom Body – Vijnanamayakosha
5. Bliss Body – Anandamayakosha

Read more about the Koshas on my other website.

Come to Tampa Yoga Therapy to focus on the Pranamaya Kosha, the energy body. The approach for this Kosha is to bring more awareness to the inherent energy in the body. You may notice this Kosha includes the name of our breath practice: Pranayama. Breathing is one of the best tools we have to move Prana (energy!) in the body. Our complete practice allows us to move and breathe to help focus, generate, channel, and transform pranic energy.

Managing and Moving Your Energy

Moving Energy – Expansion or Reduction?

The play of opposites are common to many of the ancient traditions. In Yoga Therapy and in Ayurveda, the “sister science” to yoga, we speak of energy qualities of Brahmana and Langhana. These are the opposites of expanding energies (Brahmana) and contracting or reducing energies (Langhana).

We may loosely refer to these same ideas across many different traditions of healing and well-being. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the concept of Yin and Yang is similar. In modern, allopathic medicine, we look to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems of the larger autonomic nervous system.

All of the systems and traditions within these various practices recognize some form of “energy” in the body. It goes by many names: Prana, Qi or Chi, or response of the nervous system. There is wide acceptance that energy in the body does exist, that it has electrical and electro-magnetic qualities, and that it is extremely important to our health. It is common knowledge that sometimes we need to increase energy in the body. And also honor it’s opposite: the need to soothe, slow and calm the strong forces of energy in the body.

We practice the opposites in Yoga Therapy with postures (Asana) and yogic breathing (Pranayama). Examples are Sun Salutations to expand or increase energy in the body, or Savasana to relax or reduce the expenditure of energy in the body. With Pranayama we may choose to breathe very slowly as a Langhana practice, or flip our energy level to high with a Brahmana breath practice like Breath of Joy.

Managing Energy – What do you do first?

All yoga helps us “manage our energy.” Yoga Therapy is targeted and strategic. In Yoga Therapy we explore this concept of energy, balance, and the opposites of Brahmana and Langhana as we assess the five Koshas. Yoga Therapy recognizes the need to have balance within the five Kosha bodies: physical body, energetic body, emotional body, spiritual body, and bliss body.

  1. Describe and Assess. The first step in Yoga Therapy is to determine which area or Kosha needs to achieve a greater balance of energy.
  2. Evaluate and Listen. Yoga Therapists do not diagnose or treat conditions, that’s what doctor’s do! Yoga Therapists listen to their clients and determine what support the individual needs for their healing journey.
  3. Select and Co-Create. Yoga Therapy is a holistic exploration into managing life energy. The Yoga Therapist works with the individual to choose from a wide range of yogic “tools” for the greatest possibility of positive outcome.
  4. Organize and Evaluate. A Yoga Therapy practice program and plan is developed. An ongoing evaluation continues to allow the plan to flex based on the individual’s on-going needs.

Moving Energy with Brahmana and Langhana yogic practices

Yoga Therapy practices help individuals tap into the energy centers of the body. Through body awareness practices, energies can be felt. As we learn to become familiar with our own brand of energy and energy centers, we can move toward transforming and directing our own energy. The form of energy has specific qualities that relate to the Koshas. For example, physical body energy can be experienced as being energizing in the body. Emotional body energy can be noticed as a sense of calm, or its opposite: anxiety and stress.

Brahmana means to expand and heat up.
The effects of a Brahmana-styled Yoga Asana and Pranayama practice include:

  • Warming and vigorous
  • Increased metabolism
  • Stimulated nervous system
  • Sympathetic nervous system “dominance”
  • Stimulated mind
  • Heated body
  • Energized and engaged

Langha means to reduce and “fast.”
The effects of Langhana-styled Yoga Asana and Pranayama practice include:

  • Cooled and eased
  • Slowed metabolism
  • Relaxed nervous system
  • Parasympathetic response
  • Calm mind
  • Relaxed and refreshed





Pranayama: relearning to breathe

Breathing – what’s the big deal?

Inhale, exhale. That’s a breath. What more is there to know about inhaling and exhaling? You may feel like I’ve got this because we unconsciously and involuntarily take about 20,000 breaths a day. If you feel you’re an expert at breathing because you do it all day long, then I urge you to rethink and relearn. A good start would be to pick up a copy of a book by James Nestor: Breath, the New Science of a Lost Art. Then come to a Tampa Yoga Therapy class and learn pranayama.

Oddly, Nestor doesn’t specifically mention pranayama or even yoga until about the fifth chapter in. Most of his eastern credits go to Buddhism and his personal practice. But after that, he’s all in with an extended bibliography that speaks to one of my favorite topics: Many of the ancient practices of yoga are complementing (and in some cases, outperforming) modern medicine. Of particular note are pranayama and meditation. We are fast-learning the neurophysiology behind these yogic practices of self-regulation.

What does it mean to relearn to breathe?

People are extremely intelligent. But we can be sluggish on system intelligence because our smart body works on autopilot. Those who take the time to study their own systems with acute awareness usually come to rethink and relearn A LOT. Matters not if you lived 5000 years ago, or were born yesterday. It turns out if you pay attention and develop emotional awareness around your autonomic nervous system, you will find your true nature within this “lost art” of breathing.

Your chances of greater breathing skills are improved when guided by an experienced pranayama teacher. With guidance, encouragement, and practice you expand your repertoire of different breathing patterns. You learn different pranayama practices for different effects on the body. For example, to calm down the nervous system you begin to ease into longer periods of holding the breath. Gaining breath holding skills give us  greater control over respiratory and autonomic systems with less exertion and effort.

What does holding my breath have to do with breathing?

Well, nothing! It is a whole, separate topic. But it has everything to do with slowing down your systems and calming your brain. Reducing the number of breaths we take — by holding and slowing, actually improves the functions most affected by our breath patterns. (Note: James Nestor goes in for great detail on oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange with scientific experts in his books and on his website). Learning to slow the breath through retention is literally at the heart of the benefits.

This is especially true as we move into pranayama practices like Anulom Vilom that involve learning the breath retention techniques. With Anulom Vilom there is a slight holding in of the breath at the top of the inhale, and a short holding out of the breath at the bottom of the exhale.

And benefits of relearning to breathe are . . . ?

Reduced stress, less anxiety, better digestion, improved sleep, and a statistically significant decrease in blood pressure in both systolic and diastolic levels, after a few weeks of a regular pranayama practice. Should I continue, or is that list sufficient? Smile. Patterns of inhaling and exhaling in specific pranayama techniques give us back some of the control we need over our “modern” autonomic nervous system. Read modern=out of control.

In therapy sessions and therapeutic yoga classes at Tampa Yoga Therapy, a wide range of pranayama and meditation practices are main components. Some examples are Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), Anulom Vilom, the variation that includes breath retention; diaphragmatic breathing, counting breath, and “box breathing” techniques. Once comfortable with Nadi Shodhana, Anulom Vilom, and some of yoga’s basic pranayamas, we can begin extending our pranayama practice to include more repetitions and longer periods of breath holding. Meditation dovetails directly into pranayama. Where the mind goes, the prana flows. We relearn and rethink our way into a more intentional way of being.


Nestor, James, “Breath: the New Science of a Lost Art,” Riverhead Books, May 2020. More at

Mayank Shukla, Diksha Chauhan, Ritu Raj, “Breathing exercises and pranayamas to decrease perceived exertion during breath-holding while locked-down due to COVID-19 online randomized study,” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Vol. 41, November 2020

Pooja Agrawal, Abhishek Sinha, Rinku Garg, “Effect of 4 weeks of Pranayama training and 6 min walk test on blood pressure in healthy subjects,” International Journal of Scientific Research, Vol. 9, No. 8, August 2020