Yoga and the heart


The word “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit term that means union. It aims to join body, mind, and the day-to-day challenges of life into a unified experience rather than keep them separate. There are different forms of yoga, from the gentle, peaceful hatha yoga to the active “power” form called ashtanga. We focus here on hatha yoga because it is a good starting point.

Hatha yoga’s path to balancing the mind and the body involves three interconnected threads: physical postures called “asanas,” controlled breathing, and calming the mind through relaxation and meditation. The three work together.

How could this improve cardiovascular health? Getting into the various postures during a yoga session gently exercises the muscles. Anything that works your muscles is good for your heart and blood vessels. Activity also helps muscles become more sensitive to insulin, which is important for controlling blood sugar. The deep-breathing exercises help slow the breathing rate. Taking fewer but deeper breaths each minute temporarily lowers blood pressure and calms the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for generating stress hormones. The postures and deep breathing offer a kind of physical meditation that focuses and clears the mind. Meditation and the mindfulness of yoga have both been shown to help people with cardiovascular disease.

Possible benefits

The words “may,” “might,” “can,” and “could” are liberally scattered throughout this article. That’s because research into the connection between yoga and cardiovascular disease is still in its scientific infancy. Several dozen studies have explored the possible benefits of yoga for people with heart disease, but these trials are mostly small or lack the scientific rigor needed to show cause and effect. This body of work suggests that yoga may

yoga
yoga (Photo credit: natalielucier)
  • reduce high blood pressure
  • improve symptoms of heart failure
  • ease palpitations
  • enhance cardiac rehabilitation
  • lower cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and stress hormones

Several randomized controlled trials under way should help pin down what yoga can — and can’t — do for people with cardiovascular disease. Even if all of the trials provide unequivocal support for yoga, keep in mind that it won’t offer magical protection against heart disease or a cure for it. Instead, yoga could be a useful method for coping with cardiovascular disease.

Trying yoga

People with heart disease often have other health concerns, like arthritis or osteoporosis, that limit their flexibility. A good yoga instructor creates a safe environment for his or her students and helps them modify poses to meet their abilities and limitations,

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