Sound plays a huge role in how well you sleep. Any parent who’s ever lulled a baby to sleep knows the magic of finding the perfect tune. But it turns out we don’t outgrow our susceptibility to dozing off given the right sounds, if the scientific literature on ambient and static noise is any indication. On the flip side, though, evidence shows that noise can also reduce the quality of our sleep and, in turn, deal a serious blow to our long-term health.
There’s no shortage of manufacturers offering ambient noise generators and soothing music as means to get better shuteye. But it turns out there’s another channel you can tune in to, one that beats with a steady rhythm that soothes and sustains: Your heart.
Heart rhythm meditation, or HRM, is a meditation technique that aims to bring your mind and body into harmony, using your heart as a guide. We’ve discussed the value of meditation as a sleeping aid before, and if you’ve given our meditation method primers a look, you’ll know that many techniques confer a sense of balance and calm by anchoring you in the present. When it comes to heart rhythm meditation, your anchor is your body’s beat-by-beat presence. By attuning yourself to that rhythm, you bring your body back in tune with the natural cycles it needs to thrive—sleep included.
Where Did Heart Rhythm Meditation Come From?
Most meditation methods, like qigong or yoga meditation, stand upon thousands of years of history. Heart rhythm meditation also claims a lineage that stretches back decades, but its direct origins are more immediate.
Heart rhythm meditation’s methodology and principles were developed in earnest by Susanna and Puran Bair. At first glance, their backgrounds aren’t what you’d expect from the founders of a popular meditation method: Puran is an engineer and computer scientist, while Susanna is a certified psychologist and counselor. Both, however, are also longtime meditation practitioners and teachers, and the bedrock of their experience and expertise is a decades-long discipleship under the Indian mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan.
This discipleship was—and continues to be—the formative influence for the Bairs’ construction of the system that would become heart rhythm meditation. Inayat Khan was an eminent teacher of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, and he is perhaps best known for bringing Sufism into widespread knowledge and practice in the West. But Inayat Khan didn’t just Sufi thought and traditions; he was also an avid musician, and his core philosophies interlaced sound and Sufism. (In fact, some of his most important works carry titles like “The Music of Life” and “The Mysticism of Sound and Music.”)
Heart rhythm meditation’s central principles take after Inayat Khan’s philosophies, especially their emphasis on love and harmony, and on music as the thread that courses through all of creation. Susanna and Puran Bair first set out these principles, as well as the methods they’d crafted, in a book titled Living from the Heart, which was released in 1998. Since then, they’ve released more books covering various aspects of heart rhythm meditation. The Bairs also started the Institute for Applied Meditation on the Heart, or IAM Heart, which they continue to lead today.
What Are the Principles Behind Heart Rhythm Meditation?
Hazrat Inayat Khan emphasized love and harmony as essential to the cultivation of a transcendent unity throughout creation, and he conceived of music as the thread that coursed through the universe. These beliefs live on in heart rhythm meditation.
Heart rhythm meditation operates on the idea that every heart produces an energy field—a microcosm of the vast, vital field of energy that constitutes the whole universe. Each step in the heart rhythm meditation method aims to help you listen and connect to that radiant source of cosmic/divine energy within you. The connections you foster serve as avenues for bringing your internal systems into natural alignment.
Your physical heartbeat plays a key role throughout this process, bringing a curious intermingling of the concrete and the abstract to the practice of heart rhythm meditation. Longtime practitioners talk about aiming for a synchrony that’s both abstract and concrete. Your consciousness, your ego, your beliefs and desires are all meant to be yoked to the metaphorical heart of your being. Yet at the same time, the aim is to bring your actual breath in harmony with your physical heartbeat, in the belief that this will help bring about a similar accord between key internal systems like the circulatory, respiratory, and nervous.
According to the philosophy of heart rhythm meditation, developing and sustaining this internal resonance will then open the way towards fostering harmony with others’ energy fields. At its height, a heart rhythm meditation practice is thought to allow you to become one with the universe.
What Are the Benefits of Heart Rhythm Meditation?
The Institute for Applied Meditation on the Heart (IAM Heart) lists many concrete benefits borne from sustained heart rhythm meditation practice. Some of the most-touted include improvements in respiratory function, greater blood oxygen levels, and higher heart rate variability (meaning longer periods between heartbeats, often used as a sign of health).
Scientific research has backed several of these claims, such as:
- Potential improvements in lung efficiency
- Improvements in heart rate variability and brain wave rhythms
- Greater resilience to stress, as well as improvements in managing anxiety, depression, and fatigue
- Positive effects on physiological coherence and overall outlook
As other studies show, physical (especially cardiac) health and sleep health are intertwined, and behavioral practices aimed at improving either can break a vicious cycle of negative physiological and mental feedback. With its positive effects both on mindset and on physical and emotional wellbeing, meditation—including heart rhythm meditation—is in an excellent position to help fix both aspects (physical health and sleep health) of that feedback cycle.
How Do You Start Heart Rhythm Meditation?
Heart rhythm meditation is all about finding harmony and resonance within yourself, and the steps that constitute its practice use your physical body as a natural aid for accomplishing that.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Susanna Bair, one of the co-founders of the heart rhythm meditation method, sets out five simple steps for beginning a heart rhythm meditation. What’s important to note is her emphasis on aspects like posture, full breaths, and a consciousness of the body’s natural rhythms like breath cycle and pulse. Unlike some meditation methods that emphasize a disconnection or detachment from material reality, heart rhythm meditation encourages an immersion in the material aspects of existence as a way to, ideally, achieve a balance and “oneness” within yourself and with the rest of the universe.
Since its core elements are simple, focused awareness of one’s heartbeat and maximization of lung capacity through full, controlled breaths, heart rhythm meditation lends itself well to variations. It’s easy for new practitioners to deepen their practice or mix up their routines by incorporating new elements like mantras or different breath cycles. Some of the more common breathing patterns and techniques you can use include:
- Square breathing: exhaling and inhaling for an equal number of counts (usually 6-8) then holding your breath for twice that count (so, if you inhale for 6 counts, you would hold your breath for 12 counts)
- Swing breathing: exhaling and inhaling for an equal number of counts (usually 8-10)
- Cooling breath: with chin raised and tongue held between the teeth, inhaling through the mouth—letting breath pass over the tongue—and exhaling through the nose (usually for 8-12 breaths)
- Ocean breath: inhaling and exhaling for an equal number of counts (usually 6-8), tightening the back of the throat on exhale to press air out and force an expansion of the lungs