The two yoga paths to tracking HRV

Heart rate variability (HRV) tracking is useful when combined with an HRV-focused yoga practice. There are several reasons why you would want to track your heart rate variability. For yoga practitioners there are two main paths or areas of interest:

  • HRV tracking in yoga to measure parasympathetic activity
  • HRV tracking in yoga to measure overall fitness

After all, these two paths have been the focus of heart rate variability studies for decades. For parasympathetic tracking, and autonomic challenges of all types have led physicians, researchers, psychologists, neurophysiologists and others to use HRV tracking as a biofeedback mechanism. For overall fitness tracking, coaches, trainers, and elite athletes of every type of sport use HRV tracking to optimize training and to avoid overtraining. Technology now provides tools for yogis to design studies and practice routines as part of our overall path toward greater self-awareness.

Which path are you on? You could be on both paths! In fact you may be loving your yoga for the combined benefit of fitness and reduced stress. You could be using yoga to improve your overall fitness and also be doing yoga to balance your autonomic nervous system. Many beginning yogis soon discover this dual path even if they have approached the practice with one or the other path as their primary motivation. This duality of fitness and autonomic balance is precisely why heart rate variability can be a key measure of the effects of yoga.

There are important distinctions between the two paths of tracking HRV. The ways of looking at data gathered during tracking for parasympathetic activity versus overall fitness is very different. The data can be gathered simultaneously but the analysis is looked at in a completely different way.

Data that comes from tracking heart rate variability is a view into the interrelation of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It is too simplistic (grossly simplistic, as in gross body) to say that parasympathetic measures indicate reduced stress and sympathetic measures indicate increased stress or reaction to increased physical activity. We must look at the combined features of HRV tracking for the clearest understanding.

The current interest in physical tracking has spawned interest groups that tag themselves with phrases like Quantified Self, Quantified Body, Quants, Self-tracking, and others. Trackers quite often place great emphasis on these important points:

  • Be clear on what you are trying to learn, solve, fix
  • Choose methods you can stick with consistently over time
  • Balance effort needed with value of information received
  • Collect data, analyze data, adjust behavior, repeat

Yoga practitioners might call these important points the Tapas of Tracking, where we exercise discipline and effort for greater self-realization. The fiery discipline of tapas in the hands of a tracking yogi can be one more way to transform spiritually. The Sanskrit verb “tap” means “to burn.” Using tapas with dedication, willfulness, and practice in tracking heart rate variability can create that burning desire to measure the ways we change and transform. Tapas helps us stick to the requirements of tracking and benefit from what we can learn when we approach our practices with conviction.