Monthly Archives: January 2013

Fun with biofeedback (EmWave2 review)

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I decided to pick up a biofeedback device to capture heart rate data during meditation in order to measure trends, and see how that data compares to other data already captured by my Fitbit One (which I use to capture exercise time/intensity, sleep time/effectiveness, etc.). After looking around a bit online, I decided to get an EmWave2. It’s small (about the size of an iPod) and portable, with fairly robust  desktop software to view detailed data and trends.

The EmWave2 seemed like an easy way to capture heart rate data and the desktop tool showing average heart rate, session time (length), coherence… wait, what? What’s coherence?

emwave2-data 

I confess, “coherence” feels like a cheesy, new age term to me. It really just means how well you match your breathing rhythm to that of the EmWave2 or desktop software, measured via pulse sensor. Here’s how it works in practice:

  1. You turn on the EmWave2 and either place your thumb on the device button or clip the pulse sensor to your earlobe. (I use the earlobe sensor since it’s less distracting.)
  2. Then, the EmWave2 displays a cascade of steadily rising and falling lights that you focus on – your goal is to match the rhythm of your breath to the light display.
  3. When your heart rate closely matches the light display rhythm, you’ll hear a soft tone (indicating you’re in the “blue zone”). When your breath optimally matches the light display, you’ll hear another, lower tone (indicating “green zone”). If there’s a significant disparity between your breathing pattern and the light sensor, you won’t hear any tones at all.
  4. Once your breathing pattern optimally matches the light display for several seconds, you’ll hear a series of gentle tones – similar to the “level up” sound during video games but less frenetic.
  5. I found that when I matched the “green zone” (optimal) level for an extended period of time, I experienced an intense relaxation response similar to meditation.

Using the EmWave2 is fun and based on my testing, an effective way to invoke relaxation. Having to concurrently watch the light pattern and monitor your breath doesn’t require effort, but rather a level of focus similar to meditation (notice a trend here? Smile ).

As you can see from the bar chart above, I tested different approaches for using the EmWave2: Playing the bundled desktop EmWave games, or just using the portable EmWave2 device by itself… watching  the lights and monitoring my breathing as outlined above.

I found that using the EmWave2 on its own was the easiest and most effective way to quickly enter a more emotionally relaxed state in just 5 minutes (although I prefer using it for 10 minutes or so, to extend the intense sense of relaxation). In the bar chart above, those bars with the largest green area were when I used the EmWave2 by itself (vs using with the desktop software).

One note: The EmWave desktop games have a dated feel. While the monitoring software works well, I felt the whole desktop software suite could use an update to provide a more up-to-date “look & feel,” navigation, etc. Nonetheless, the monitoring software does provide an effective way to view your session data (for an individual session, and via the bar chart, over time).

The EmWave2 isn’t necessarily cheap (currently about $170 on Amazon.com). However, for folks who want the benefits of meditation but find it challenging to “get in the zone,” the EmWave2 is an easy (and easy to learn) way to elicit the relaxation response.

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Confessions of a newbie meditator

Metaphysics

Long ago, I read a book by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard named The Relaxation Response. It explained that individuals who meditated experienced a greater sense of relaxation and a variety of health benefits, including lower blood pressure, less insomnia, reduction in chronic pain (among others). To learn how to elicit the relaxation response, see Massachusetts General Hospital’s web page.

I’ve meditated off and on over the years, but never kept it up because I wasn’t sure I was doing it right. (Yes, I do realize that’s a silly reason!)

I recently ran across former monk Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace app when looking for relaxation apps to load onto my phone (note: it’s available for both iPhone and android). The app features a series of Puddicombe’s guided meditations that are brief, easy to follow and secular. I’d never heard of Puddicombe before but thought, hey, this sounds interesting and it’s only 10 minutes per day, so why not? I installed the app and so my renewed meditation practice began…

At first, I had trouble sitting still for 10 minutes. My mind would wander off over and over again — I’d think about a project at work or a chore I needed to do. Listening to Puddicombe’s guided meditations, I understood this was all normal — I didn’t worry about it and just continued to meditate for 10 minutes each day. I soon finished Take 10 and subsequent programs, and am now working my way through the Headspace “Discovery” series of guided meditations.

Note: The headspace programs beyond Take 10 aren’t free. I chose to purchase them because Puddicombe’s approach using a blend of insight and mindfulness meditation works so well for me. Certainly, there is an abundance of free guided meditation audio available on the web and videos on youtube.

Although I’ve only been meditating for about 7 weeks, I’ve found the benefits to be substantial and noticeable. I feel calmer and less anxious. I find that tension melts away quickly as I sit down to meditate. Throughout the day, I am more aware of when I start feeling tense, and understand how to use breathing and visualizations to feel calmer. When I’m confronted with a stressful situation, I’m better able to take a step back and not take it personally — I can let it go more quickly. I feel more patient and happier. Using my Fitbit One and web dashboard, I notice my sleep trends have improved: I sleep longer and awaken less frequently. I generally feel more refreshed when I get up in the morning.

Each time I sit to meditate (20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes again the evening) it feels like an oasis of relaxation. It’s like taking a vacation without leaving home. I use the headspace program for one meditation daily, and then use an app called Insight Timer for a more free-form meditation later in the day. Note: Insight Timer has iOS and Android versions available.

I’ve only just restarted my meditation practice but find the benefits overwhelmingly positive and well worth the time. If you’re struggling with stress of some kind in your life (and hey, who’s not?), meditation is definitely worth trying.

Video

TED Talks – Andy Puddicombe: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes

I enjoyed this brief (10 minute) video about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.