What with World Heart Day on the 29th of September and World Stroke Day on the 29th of October, let’s see how yoga helps our heart health.
Yoga has four distinct components that helps our heart, bringing measurable improvements to our cardiovascular health, lowering our blood pressure, improving our sleep, and mitigating inflammation to our arteries.
Of course, most of us view yoga as a form of exercise. Some see it as stretching, others see it as gymnastics, and maybe some of us see it as just lying around on cushions and bolsters. Yes, yoga is all this and much more!
We know exercise is good for the entire body, not just the heart. And the wonderful thing about exercise for heart health is that certain exercise programmes can help us regain elasticity of the heart muscle, even if we only begin exercising before the age of 65.
Cardiologists from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Resources in Dallas discovered that we can reverse stiffening of our heart muscle that can develop from lack of physical activity if we commit to an exercise programme (see here).
What you need to know about this exercise programme is that yoga fits in easily, and can be included in the moderate, high intensity and restorative exercise sessions prescribed by the Southwestern Medical Center’s cardiologists.
Do we really need discuss further about how yoga can fit into exercise routines to help our heart? If you do have queries, however, please do comment below or contact me here.
As an end note on exercise, I would like to add that research reveals that three hours of exercise per week can reduce their risk of a heart attack for men as much as by 22%.
2. Breath work / Pranayama.
Yoga’s breath work – or pranayama – really helps with stress management. This consequently helps our heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, our breath is one of the body systems we can voluntarily control, which in turn helps to control other systems in our body that works involuntarily.
When we breath deeply and slowly (with no breath retention / kumbhaka, unless we are used to it), we trigger our parasympathetic nervous system that helps to bring our heart rate down. When we breathe fast and shallow, we trigger our sympathetic nervous system that increases our heart rate.
Our heart rate is important because our heart’s function is important. Our heart pushes out oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood through our body. When our heart is not functioning well, our whole body is affected. Heart rate is central to this because our heart’s function (cardiac output) is directly related to the heart rate and the stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out with each beat).
If we normally need a higher heart rate to push out blood to our body parts, it also means that we are triggering our sympathetic nervous system – the system that kicks in when you are stressed – as part of our norm. Basically, this means if you have a high heart rate all the time, you are stressed all the time!
In conclusion, if we use our breath to help control our bodily systems, we also help our heart to slow down a bit in and then build up its strength, just using the breath.
[Of course, I realise that I have simplified things incredibly above, so please do correct me if I am wrong in the comments, so we all can learn.]
Meditation is integral to yoga, whether it be sitting down to contemplate the body or breath, or yoga philosophy, or whether it is the meditative movement that we do as begin asana practice.
If we look at yoga movement as just doing movement or fitness, then all we have is the first element – exercise. But yoga is far more than this. In certain yoga schools, we have the element of drshti or eye-gaze, a concentration point for us as we move. Other schools or yoga teachers will seek for us to focus on body parts, or the sense of energy, or on the elements contained in our bodies – such as earth, water, fire, air and space.
All of this is integral to yoga mat practice, all of this is part of meditation. and all of this helps us to develop a stronger mind and body connection. And how does meditation help our heart?
It helps reduce stress and anxiety, which can lower heart rate and blood pressure while reducing harmful hormones. Research confirms that people who practice meditation are significantly less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die within five years.
Meditation can be a useful part of cardiovascular risk reduction… I do recommend it, along with diet and exercise. It can also help decrease the sense of stress and anxiety.
It appears to produce changes in brain activity. It also can lower your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels, and levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress.
In a nutshell, this article summarises that meditation “helps reduce stress and anxiety, which can lower heart rate and blood pressure while reducing harmful hormones.”
Finally, yoga helps us relax. From the second point, we know our breath can help to to relax our body systems. From the third point, we know meditation helps to reduce stress and anxiety in us. And of course exercise helps to recuse stress. Just to cover more on exercise that now:
Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts — or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over.Harvard Health Publishing, “Exercising to Relax”.
So, with yoga, we experience a triple dose of relaxation. The National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health ran a survey in 2012 that revealed more than 80% of the respondents (yoga practitioners) said that yoga practice decreases their stress.
Heal your heart with yoga.
Just a little more data before I conclude: the same 2012 survey mentioned in the para above revealed about two-thirds of respondents found yoga motivating them to exercise more regularly, while four in 10 said they were inspired to eat healthier. This may be because of the heightened mind-body connection that yoga brings to its practitioners.
You’re more aware of the positive feelings you enjoy when you eat healthy foods and exercise. You’re also more likely to notice the negative effects of eating junk food and sitting on a couch all day…
They have a different perspective on the meaning and purpose of their life, and their goals become less materialistic and more spiritual and charitable…Asst. Prof of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and yoga researcher and neuroscientist, Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa.
Some research has found that having a higher sense of purpose in life helps to lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and related cardiovascular problems, compared with people who have a lower sense of purpose.
So together, actually, there are more than just four components of yoga that lead to incredible benefits for your heart. I love bringing yoga to people. I hope you have found this blog post useful.
Please do comment below or contact me!
Yoga and Heart Health:
Yoga, Stroke & Stroke Recovery