This study examined the effects of “tanden breathing” by Zen practitioners on cardiac variability. Tanden breathing involves slow breathing into the lower abdomen.
Eleven Zen practitioners, six Rinzai and five Soto, were each studied during 20 minutes of tanden breathing, preceded and followed by 5-minute periods of quiet sitting. During this time, we measured heart rate and respiration rate.
For most subjects, respiration rates fell to within the frequency range of 0.05 to 0.15 Hz during tanden breathing. Heart rate variability significantly increased within this low-frequency range but decreased in the high-frequency range (0.14–0.4 Hz), reflecting a shift of respiratory sinus arrhythmia from high-frequency to slower waves. Rinzai practitioners breathed at a slower rate and showed a higher amplitude of low-frequency heart rate waves than observed among Soto Zen participants. One Rinzai master breathed approximately once per minute and showed an increase in very-low-frequency waves (<0.05 Hz). Total amplitude of heart rate oscillations (across frequency spectra) also increased. More experienced Zen practitioners had frequent heart rhythm irregularities during and after the nadir of heart rate oscillations (ie, during inhalation).
These data are consistent with the theory that increased oscillation amplitude during slow breathing is caused by resonance between cardiac variability caused by respiration and that produced by physiological processes underlying slower rhythms. The rhythm irregularities during inhalation may be related to inhibition of vagal modulation during the cardioacceleratory phase. It is not known whether they reflect cardiopathology.