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20-09-2021 | ORIGINAL PAPER

Mindful Versus Diaphragmatic Breathing: Spirituality Moderates the Impact on Heart Rate Variability

Melissa Hunt, Tara Rajagopal, Fumei Cerecino, Meriah O’Neil
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Both mindful breathing and deep diaphragmatic breathing are used in the treatment of emotional disorders and can help people learn to modulate the body’s stress response. While both result in deep, slow breathing, the two approaches are quite different in their origins. We tested whether individual differences in spirituality might moderate their efficacy.


Forty-eight undergraduates from the University of Pennsylvania completed baseline measures of spirituality as well as respiration rate, tidal volume and heart rate variability (HRV) at rest. Participants were then randomly assigned to a video that guided them through a mindful breathing exercise (which mentioned “a long tradition of meditation style exercises that have been used for literally thousands of years”) (N = 21) or a diaphragmatic breathing exercise (N = 27).


Both types of training resulted in lower respiration rate and higher tidal volume over baseline (all ts > 3.78, ps < 0.001), but only diaphragmatic breathing resulted in significant increases in HRV (t(26) = 6.29, p < 0.001). Spirituality moderated the impact, such that spiritual people benefited equally from both types of breathing training, but less spiritual people benefited more from diaphragmatic breathing than from mindful breathing (F(4,46) = 3.69, p = .06).


These results suggest that spirituality may moderate the impact of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in the American context. Discussion focuses analyzes how our results may reflect a misunderstanding of eastern wisdom traditions as they were characterized during colonial times.

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