Review: HeartMath Inner Balance helps you take a few deep breaths
At a Glance
In our always-on, always-connected world, who wouldn't benefit from reducing stress? Sometimes all we need is a reminder to take a deep breath. HeartMath's Inner Balance Trainer aims to help you do just that by acting as a digital breathing coach. HeartMath says that the Inner Balance Trainer is intended to not only reduce stress levels (and their effects), but also can help monitor mood changes and teach users to "focus on appreciation." Which all sounds great to me—if a digital device is really capable of doing all that.
The science behind the Inner Balance Trainer is based on HeartMath's proprietary and award-winning emWave® Technology, developed to encourage awareness of your heart rhythm pattern. HeartMath believes that learning how to alter your heart rhythm pattern, primarily through deep breathing, can improve feelings of wellness and promote personal growth.
The ideal here is to achieve coherence—a state of being that is identified by order and harmony in psychological and physiological processes. Translation: Awareness of breathing and heart rate can encourage a more relaxed state of being and therefore, less stress and stress-related side effects.
Design and setup
The Inner Balance Trainer consists of the HeartMath Sensor—a tiny heart rate sensor that your clip on to your earlobe—and the free Inner Balance App. Currently, the system is only available for iOS devices although HeartMath promises an Android version in 2014.
While clipping a sensor to your earlobe may sound uncomfortable, it's actually very gentle—you barely feel the clip once it's on, and it doesn't pull or pinch at all. It is a bit awkward to wear the clip with earrings however, so you'll likely want to remove jewelry before taking it for a spin.
Set-up is, naturally, completely stress free—all you have to do is download the app, plug the sensor into your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch using the 30-pin connector (or a Lightning adapter for iPhone 5), and clip the sensor comfortably to your earlobe. When launching the app for the first time, it will begin with a quick, guided overview of the features. The interface is very simple and user-friendly, I'd even say it's enjoyable—the colors and clean design do actually feel calming to look at.
User interface and experience
At the start of your training session, you choose your mood from a wheel of colored emoticons. Then you begin the process of synching your breath along with the expansion and contraction of the rainbow-colored lotus-flower-like wheel, or Breath Pacer, that dominates the screen. You can also watch your pulse, or Heart Rate Variability (HRV) pattern, at the top of the screen; short instructions and encouraging statements will appear at the bottom of the screen.
Alternatively, if you prefer to look at a babbling brook during your practice you can do so—or you have the option to upload a photo from your device. The goal is to reach a high "coherence" level, which is pretty easily achieved by staying focused on synching your breath with the pacer. You'll get a green light on the Inner Balance indicator when you're in the high coherence zone, blue for medium coherence, and red for low.
You can continue the breathing exercise for as long as you want; just tap the screen to finish your session. You can see how you did in the Session Results screen—how long the session was, how long you were in each coherence zone, your coherence over time, and an Achievement score for that session.
You also have the option to record any observations or thoughts about your session for future reference in a journal entry. When you go back to look over your entries, you can see your mood at a glance as well as details for that session. Being able to review all that data over time seems very valuable and interesting, especially if you keep up your practice regularly at different points in the day.
HeartMath recommends practicing in the morning, during the course of the day, and at night before bed—which is quite convenient if you're using the Inner Balance Trainer on your iPhone or iPad Touch. I was using it on my iPad and found it easier to practice at home in the morning and when I got home from work. When it becomes available for Android I could see incorporating it into my workday more—a few minutes of deep breathing before an important meeting couldn't hurt!
While the everyday benefits of the Inner Balance Trainer may be hard to measure—it's not a pedometer or activity tracker after all— I really enjoyed using it and I can see how, much like yoga and meditation, regular practice could reduce overall stress levels and help someone better deal with stressful situations. Pranayama (meaning "extension of the breath or life force" in Sanskrit), the practice of controlling the breath, is at the core of yoga philosophy and those with a regular yoga practice can attest to the importance of healthy breathing . If technology tools can make it easier to bring this practice into everyday life, why not take advantage?
Overall, the Inner Balance sensor is comfortable to wear and the app is very easy to use. Results may vary depending on the person, but personally, I found the breathing practice sessions calming. Practicing with the Inner Balance Trainer delivered an immediate feeling of relaxation often associated with deep breathing.
With regular practice it seems very likely that this system could help incorporate healthy breathing and intuitive stress-reduction techniques into the user's everyday life—and it would be an ideal companion for those who are already focused on deep breathing (yoga and meditation fans this means you!). That being said, it's not going to provide the in-depth physical data that circuit trainers or runners are looking for, as this device is more about tracking wellness than fitness.