Yoga For Heart Health
Those familiar with yoga understand that the practice works with individuals as whole people–body, mind and soul. Yoga is also coming into the medical mainstream, with the medical world beginning to recognize its benefits as a treatment form, when combined with traditional methods. Those familiar with yoga may or may not also be aware that heart disease is a major medical concern. The Centers for Disease Control reports that “heart disease is the leading cause of death for people of most ethnicities in the United States, including African Americans, Hispanics, and whites.” (1)
Ancient cultures saw the heart as the seat of our emotions, while modern culture has largely regarded it as the organ that pumps life-giving blood throughout the body. We mostly now see the brain, with its firing neurons and moving neurotransmitters, as the place where thoughts and emotions originate. On the other hand, modern science is coming to understand cardiovascular impacts on emotion, such as the strong connections between anxiety and breath rate, pulse, and body temperature—all of which are closely tied to the condition of the heart.
We are now also more seriously recognizing the role of lifestyle choices—such as activity levels, diet, and comprehensive physical fitness factors—in heart health. For instance, the CDC lists common risk factors for heart disease, which include being overweight or obese, as well as physical inactivity. As more of a lifestyle than a physical fitness practice, yoga has much to offer in all of those areas. With these growing understandings, yoga is in a place to put the “heart” back into treatment of heart disease.
The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that yoga can “help lower blood pressure, increase lung capacity, improve respiratory function and heart rate, and boost circulation and muscle tone.” (2)
Yoga’s focus on maintaining consistent breathing while engaged in moderate physical activity (focusing on both stretching and strengthening, together or individually) could certainly account for those benefits.
Because of the physiological link between breathing rate and heart rate, pranayama, yoga’s science of breath control and awareness, can perhaps contribute to heart health. The emotional aspect of heart disease care is another area to which yoga can offer powerful benefits. Lifestyle choices have a strong cognitive and emotional component: it takes commitment to goals and joy in making better choices to give up another sedentary night with a takeout dinner in favor of eating a nutritious, balanced meal after a whole-body workout. The Yoga Sutras’ values of truthfulness, commitment, and non-harming (to self or others) can be concrete and accessible guidelines to make such positive lifestyle changes.
The AHA additionally cites the significant heart health benefits of stress reduction. M. Mala Cunningham, PhD, contends that a cardiac event such as a heart attack can put immense stress on the heart. Yoga practice be helpful here, through moderate physical activity combined with focus on breath.
Mental health can also be a concern after a cardiac event; bypass surgery patients often cope with difficult emotions including anxiety and grief, writes Dr. Cunningham. “All these things come into play when you’ve got a potentially chronic disease to manage for the rest of your life,” he claims. (2) Skills such as mindfulness and acceptance can help heart patients keep things in perspective. Overall, as prevention for or care after potentially fatal cardiac complications, yoga can be a healthy lifestyle practice in the face of heart disease.
Like anything, yoga is no “cure-all” and the medical sphere has its doubts and uncertainties. The AHA describes that yoga doesn’t “count” toward its recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity every week (roughly 30 minutes five days a week). On the other hand, a Forbes.com article (3) describes how a “study published … in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that practicing yoga had the same effect on reducing cardiovascular markers as other forms of exercise, like brisk walking or biking.”
Perhaps yoga’s focus on breath awareness and maintenance, as well as its whole-body, balanced approached to fitness, results in those benefits, regardless of the amount of actual cardiovascular exercise—defined as maintaining an exercise intensity that keeps the heart pumping at a high rate for 20 minutes or more—that it involves. In any case, it seems like the jury is still out on the cardiovascular benefits of yoga. This humble writer believes that we can certainly still enjoy yoga’s cardiovascular benefits, as we have always personally found them, as the science gets clearer.
As with any medical condition, those with heart disease should avoid certain asanas, or take a modified approach to practicing them. Inversions are contraindicated in such cases, because—despite their benefits for many of the body’s fluid systems, including cardiovascular fluids—they can strain the already over-taxed heart muscle.
Triangle Posture (Trikonasana) is best practiced against a wall, with the top hand resting on a hip. Those with high blood pressure should look downward, rather than upward (as in the common gaze held in the posture) in the posture. Navasana (Boat Pose) should be practiced with utmost caution, if it all, preferably the gentler form of the pose (knees bent rather than extended) and releasing the posture with any shortness of breath and/or chest pain.
Despite these precautions, it’s possible for those with heart conditions to engage in yoga practice that is tailored to suit their needs and to gain many benefits toward recovery. Yoga can help them to truly care for their hearts, as we’ve regarded for centuries-- including thoughts and emotions-- while medical professionals offer what they need for the strengthening and healing of the heart muscle and vascular system. The practice is there to help in a modern world of hearts that sorely need it.
Study with YogaUOnline and Dr. Baxter Bell- Yoga For Heart Health: New Insights for Healthy Aging
Kathryn Boland is a CYT 500 and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!