An N of One

Calming the Monkey: what happens to your heart beat during meditative Yin


I generally tend to be on the “hyper” end of the behavioral spectrum with lots of distractions and moving about. I suppose some would characterize this as “yang” or “monkey” personality. To complement some of my high-energy activities, I try to practice a slow and passive yoga called Yin. You’re basically in one supine or seated pose for a loooooong time… like 3 to 5 minutes… not moving! Don’t think I’m that still even when I’m asleep. It’s quite tough for me. But as I get older, I hope to cultivate stillness in my internal space. I find “forcing myself” to slowdown like this is calming and healing.

Few weeks back, I attended a yin workshop that was led by a dear friend. The practice culminated in a form of guided meditation that, I believe, is described as awake-sleeping. It was a novel experience for me, sort of an altered state of consciousness. Here I’ve graphed out my heart rate (beats per minute or bpm) during that session.

Right before class started, my heart rate was at 80 bpm. That’s higher than usual and it may have been because (a) I just managed to parallel park, or(b) because right before class, we had a brief conversation about healthcare and social injustice (my stress may have been elevated by that).

Time-course of heart rate. Orange bar at bottom indicates time when session started and ended. The two red horizontal bars indicate the normal range (between 60 to 100 bpm)

Looking at the chart, it seems like it took me a little while to get settled. We were in downtown Memphis, and there was the lovely chaos outside… and not-so-lovely obnoxious sound of a very loud bike (I remember that well because those loud motorbikes where they’ve messed with whatever pipe to make extra loud sounds give me a mild stress response). Aside from the general din, my monkey mind was very much distracted by a group of very happy and probably inebriated ladies on one of those pedal bike bars. They weren’t yelping or hooting or singing or anything. They were just going “yaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy yaaaaaaayyyyyy” in unison at a high pitch. I was amused by that and I had all these questions about them (Who are they?! What are they celebrating?! Are they old enough to drink… because they don’t sound like they are old enough to drink!!).

However, despite these distractions, by the 45th minute, my heart rate slowed to under 50 bpm, and went down to as low as 47 bpm. That’s actually quite low considering I was still awake and in downtown Memphis and among people and not on my own. To provide a heart rate reference, the average heart rate, according to the American Heart Association and NIH, is 60–100 bpm (the red horizontal lines in the graph). But in trained athletes… or very calm individual… the heart rate can be between 40–60 bpm. Means the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to keep things circulating, and lower the bpm, the better (i.e., within reason of course… going into unhealthy bradycardia would be bad!).

It was not like the noise outside ceased or the pedal bike ladies got quite. I could still hear them, but they were oddly drifting far away. I could mostly hear the soft voice of the teacher inside gently prompting us to shift our focus to within. I was awake but not quite awake. I think I would have gotten nervous if I didn’t already know and trust the instructor. The “teacher effect” can be very strong (has noted in a previous entry).

So unlike other forms of exercise, this yin class caused a slowing of the heart. We all need that every now and then, I think. Particularly in people who may be prone to hyperactivity, or to stress and anxiety, this could be therapeutic and immensely beneficial. So yes, I’ll continue to practice yin. Try it, if you haven’t before. Also great for elleviating back pain. And great remedy for post-run tire muscles too. Fun times with Yin!

[please excuse typos and errors; not proofread and author makes lots of typos]