More than a stretch: the benefits of yoga can extend to the heart

As a longtime yoga enthusiast, I am always happy to hear about the benefits newly attributed to this ancient practice. Doing yoga a few hours a week helps me feel calmer and more balanced, both physically and mentally. Now new research suggests that my habit can help my heart, too.

A review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that yoga can help reduce the risk of heart disease as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking.

As I write in the April issue of Harvard Heart Letter, the review’s studies looked at different types of yoga, including milder and more energetic forms. Participants ranged from healthy young people to older people with health problems. Overall, people who have taken yoga classes have seen improvements in a number of factors that affect the risk of heart disease. They lost an average of five pounds, lowered their blood pressure by five points, and lowered their harmful LDL cholesterol by 12 points.

The results did not surprise Dr. Gloria Yeh, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the review article. “Yoga is unique because it integrates physical activity, breathing and meditation,” says Dr. Yeh. As she explains, each of these positively affects cardiovascular risk factors, so combining them was bound to be beneficial. Additionally, two other ancient practices that combine slow, fluid movements with deep breathing – tai chi and qigong – seem to offer similar benefits.

Performing a variety of yoga postures gently stretches and exercises the muscles. This helps them become more sensitive to insulin, which is important for controlling blood sugar. Deep breathing can help lower blood pressure. Calming meditation, another key part of yoga, calms the nervous system and relieves stress. All of these improvements can help prevent heart disease and can definitely help people with cardiovascular issues.

Most yoga classes end with a few minutes of meditation, often lying flat on your back with your eyes closed. This pose is called savasana. Some teachers say that stretching and yoga poses release energy, making it easier for you to relax in a meditative state. I certainly find that to be true. Whenever I meditate I still remember what one of my favorite teachers said at the start of Savasana: “Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Relax.”

Because yoga is less tiring than many other types of exercise and is easy to modify, it’s perfect for people who might otherwise be wary of exercise, says Dr. Yeh. It can be a good addition to cardiac rehabilitation, which can help people recover from a heart attack or heart surgery. Christie Kuo, RN at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, incorporates yoga into the cardiovascular rehabilitation and heart disease prevention classes she teaches there.

Muscle stretching encouraged by yoga poses is a good way to cool off after walking, biking, or other aerobic conditioning, Kuo says, while deep breathing and meditation also help. “It is important to pay attention to your breathing during the weight training part of the rehab. And mindfulness and greater awareness of meditation can help you cope with the stress of your illness, eat healthier and sleep more soundly, all of which helps your recovery, ”she says.

If you are new to yoga, consider starting with a beginner or “soft” class, especially if you are over 65 or have health concerns. Two of the most popular forms of yoga taught in the United States, Hatha and Iyengar, are good choices for beginners. Hatha yoga offers gentle, slow, and fluid movements, with an emphasis on integrating breathing with movement. Iyengar is similar but places more emphasis on body alignment and balance and uses props such as straps, blankets, and blocks.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health offers advice on choosing a yoga teacher or other alternative therapy. In my opinion, a good teacher always asks, “Are there any injuries or conditions that I should know about before I start?” The best speak personally with each student as people roll out their mats and get settled in. If you can, try a few different classes with different teachers to find the one that’s right for you.

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