Improved sleep, more flexibility, increase in stamina and energy levels, reduced stress levels, etc are perhaps few of the most common and immediate benefits experienced by a regular yoga practitioner. Yoga being a more than 5000 year old tradition, is now regarded in the Western world as a holistic approach to health and is classified by the National Institutes of Health as a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).
In the recent years many evidence-based studies on Yoga have found that Yoga practice can improve overall quality of your life and well being. A regular Yoga practice that incorporates yoga asanas, breathing and meditation can help you prevent diseases and also recover from it.
Therapeutic aspects of Yoga such as enhanced and improved respiratory and cardiovascular function, improved flow of oxygenated blood, it’s ability to promote recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduced levels of stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain, make Yoga a form of mind-body medicine that integrates physical, mental and spiritual components that result in improved mind-body health.
Speaking about good health, the health of your heart is an essential component of your wellbeing. One common health ailment affecting this generation is cardiovascular disease. Heart diseases have become widespread and is affecting people of all age groups.
Evidence shows that stress contributes to heart disease, strokes as well as other chronic conditions and diseases such as cancer. Other major causes of heart diseases are bad food habits and unhealthy lifestyle choices. Thus today, even youngsters are falling prey to heart ailments.
Some alarming facts about heart disease:
- About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
- The Global Burden of Disease study estimate of age-standardized cardiovascular disease (CVD) death rate of 272 per 100 000 population in India is higher than the global average of 235 per 100 000 population.
- Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type of heart disease, killing over 370,000 people annually.
- Heart disease is reportedly killing approximately 17 million people in the world.
- Some major risk factors can be controlled and of these, the main causes are high blood pressure, stress, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, diabetes and a sedentary lifestyle.
Taking medications might cause other health complications as these medications usually involve dosages that may cause harmful side effects to other internal organs.
While exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping a check on diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol by maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle are other highly recommended tips to keep cardiovascular diseases at bay, what is that one solution which can positively impact all areas of your life?
Is yoga for heart disease and yoga for heart problems truly effective?
Let’s find out.
Yoga for heart
A review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that there is promising evidence of Yoga on improving cardio-metabolic health, similar to the effects of typical cardio activity like brisk walking or running.
When it comes to best cardio-workout for your heart, a “cardio” exercise that uses repetitive contraction of large muscle groups to get your heart beating faster is considered the most beneficial type of exercise. It helps strengthen your heart and blood vessels, improves the flow of oxygen, lowers the levels of cholesterol and blood pressure, reduces risk of strokes, diabetes and heart diseases.
However, when it comes to choosing one best workout, Dr. Ben Levine, founder and Director of Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM, Dallas) is of the opinion that what is most important is to do something and to do it regularly…be it jogging, swimming, playing golf, hiking, aerobics of zumba, dance, or Yoga.
You have to take care of your heart, and you have to start doing it now.
But ask someone who has practiced Ashtanga Yoga or has attended an hour long Vinyasa session or try practicing 5 to 10 rounds of sun salutations yourself. With sweat dripping down your forehead, elevated heart rate and deep breathing, you would certainly wonder if this counts as cardio? Is Yoga cardio?
Although holding a yoga asana alone cannot be categorised as cardiovascular fitness, modifying your practice and training your body to flow in a rhythmic and continuous flow, such as Vinyasa, can help you reap all the benefits of a cardiovascular fitness.
The American College of Sports Medicine explains that aiming for 65 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, staying in that range for at least 20 minutes, and doing it three to five days per week should help an adult maintain cardiovascular fitness.
Yoga is unique because it covers the body, mind and emotional health by integrating yoga postures, pranayama and meditation. Dr.Gloria Yeh, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School explains that each of these elements positively affect cardiovascular risk factors. In addition, two other ancient practices that join slow, flowing motions with deep breathing, Tai Chi and Qigong, seem to offer similar advantages.
The practice of Yoga for heart patients is not only beneficial at the level of physical fitness but also makes one more aware of the daily choices they make and their overall lifestyle. Below, we have discussed details and benefits of yoga for healthy heart, pranayam for heart and yoga for heart disease prevention.
Yoga poses for healthy heart
- Tadasana (The Mountain Pose)
This pose establishes a state of concentration and calmness. The mountain pose helps in strengthening the vertebral column and the heart. The deep breathing involved also expands the lungs. The pose helps in developing and activating the nerves of the entire body and is also good for regulating the menstrual cycle in women, tadasana is a great cure for problems related to indigestion.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Steady the body and distribute the weight equally on both feet. Avoid locking your knees and lift your kneecaps instead. Lengthen the spine, tuck the tailbone in and engage abdominal muscles to protect the lower back. Widen your shoulder blades and release them down your back. Relax your arms and rest them beside your torso.
Keep the fingers engaged and straight. Soften your face muscles and eyes and breathe deeply.
- Vrikshasana (Tree Pose)
The tree pose is excellent in developing a firm and balanced posture. It broadens the shoulders and opens the heart making you feel confident and happy. The tree pose improves balance as it strengthens the spine and is a great form for neuromuscular coordination. Besides giving full benefits for the heart, Vrikshasana enhances concentration and is largely recommended for kids and students.
Stand with your feet hip width apart and focus on a fixed point. Bend the right leg, grasp the ankle and place the sole of the right foot on the left inner thigh.
The right knee should point to the side and the closer the right heel to the perineum the better. Once you find the balance, you can place your hands in namaskar mudra in front of the chest or even raise them above your head.
Release and repeat by standing on the right leg for 5-7 breaths.
- Veerabhadrasana (Warrior 1 Pose)
Popularly known as warrior pose, this posture helps in improving balance and increases stamina. It also improves blood circulation thus releasing stress. The posture engages your shoulders, arms, legs, ankles, thighs, back and glutes. This pose is great for heart related problems as the heart rate goes up while you hold the posture.
Stand with your feet wide apart, roughly at around 4 to 5 feet distance with the right foot and the toes pointing to the front of the mat. Align the right heel with left heel, but turn the left foot outward at a 45 degree angle.
Bend your front/right leg at the knee and keep the shin perpendicular to the floor. Keep the back leg straight and adjust your hips and shoulders so they face the front of the mat. You can modify the pose and balance the back leg on toes instead. Inhale and stretch your hands over the head with palms facing each other or hold them in namaskar mudra and look up. Else, you can choose to look straight.
Remember to keep your shoulders relaxed and chest lifted
- Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
It is a great pose to calm the mind and can be used as the foundational pose to get in and out of other standing asanas. This pose strengthens the nerves and muscles in the limbs and back. It stimulates circulation, especially in the upper spine – between the shoulder blades.
You can get into this pose from a child’s pose or by coming on your hands and knees. Spread your fingers, keeping your hands shoulder-width apart and feet,hip-width apart. Lift your knees off the mat and lengthen your spine towards the ceiling. Become aware of the deep stretch on the back of the leg.
Try not to squeeze the shoulder blades, instead draw them towards the spine and lower them, creating more space in upper back and releasing tension around the neck area. Tuck your head in and stay in the pose for 5 to 10 breaths. Rest in child’s pose.
In the Utkatasana yoga posture, you can feel the heart and respiration rate increase. This posture stretches the chest and stimulates the heart. The literal meaning of Utkatasana is intense posture or powerful posture. Practicing this pose regularly helps in exercising the spine, hips and chest muscles. Also helps in strengthening the lower back, torso and lower body.
- Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
This forward bend helps calm the nervous system, reduce stress and anxiety as it helps increase flexibility in hip joints and give a deep stretch to hamstring muscles. It is also helpful for those suffering from insomnia. It improves circulation and increases vitality.
Sit with legs outstretched and relax the body. The feet can be together or hip-width apart. You can also sit on a block or cushion for flexibility and comfort. Slowly bend forward and slide the hands down the legs.
Try to grasp the feet or big toes, if not rest your hand on any part of the leg that can be reached comfortably. Avoid bending the legs or rounding the spine. Bend the elbows and gently bring the trunk down towards the legs. Hold for as long as comfortable and slowly return to sit upright.
- Salamba Bhujangasana (Sphinx Pose)
This posture helps open your chest and stimulate blood circulation in heart region.
Lie down on your abdomen, stretch your legs straight at the back and keep them slightly apart. Place your palms downward, on each side of the head and make sure your forearms are parallel to each other. Relax in the pose for few minutes.
Keep the elbows close to the body. Raise the head, shoulder and chest, while keeping the palms, forearms and elbows on the mat. Stay here for a few breaths and slowly lower the body.
- Savasana (Corpse Pose)
This deep relaxation pose can be practiced any time of the day to de-stress and relax and should definitely be practiced after asana practice. It helps relax body and mind completely and increases inner awareness.
Lie flat on your back with arms and legs relaxed and palms facing the ceiling. You can place a yoga blanket or headstand pillow under the head for support and comfort. Shift the awareness from the body to the breath and continue to breathe in a natural relaxed manner.
Hridaya Mudra (Heart Gesture)
Mudras are gestures that can alter mood, attitude and perception, and which deepen awareness and concentration.
Hridaya mudra is categorised under hand mudras which brings more awareness to the chest area and diverts the flow of prana from the hands to the heart area, improving vitality of the heart.
In the subtle body, this mudra helps energise the anahata or heart chakra. It helps release pent-up emotions and can be practiced safely and easily even during emotional crisis or acute situations. It helps unburden the heart and is highly beneficial for the heart.
Sit any comfortable meditative posture and rest the hands on your knees with palms facing upward. Fold the index fingers so that the tip of the index fingers touch the root of the thumbs (like in jnana and chin mudras). Join the tips of the middle and ring fingers to the the tips of the thumbs, while the little fingers remain straight. Close your eyes and relax the body. You can hold this mudra for upto 30 minutes.
Your heart is the softest place on earth. Take care of it.
Care for your heart while you sleep
Did you know that you spend more than one third of your life sleeping? It is thus important to care for your heart while you sleep. If you sleep on your stomach or on your left side, the extra body weight adds to the pressure on your heart while it continues to pump blood as usual.
This additional burden on your heart tends to wear your heart out more quickly. To add years to your life, try the simple technique of sleeping in Savasana position, i.e., sleep on your back. Even sleeping on your right side can reduce the strain on your heart.
Can Yoga pranayama exercises cure heart disease?
Yoga schools such as Patanjali Yogpeeth and teachers who practice traditional and therapeutic form if of Yoga, claim that Pranayama like ‘Anulom Vilom’ for 30 minutes daily has helped clear heart blockages and if done for 90 minutes, 90% of the heart blockages could be removed.
The ancient Yogis studied nature in great details and noticed how animals with slow breath such as elephants and tortoise have long lifespans, whereas those with fast breathing rate such as dogs and birds, live only for a few years. On the physical level, this is because respiration is directly related to the heart.
A slow breathing rate keeps the heart stronger and better nourished. Deep breathing also increases absorption of energy, enhancing dynamism, vitality, general well-being and results in a longer life-span.
Anulom Vilom (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Sit comfortably and bring the right hand in front of the face. Rest the index and middle fingers gently on the eyebrow centre (or fold them). Gently place the thumb on the right nostril and the ring finger on the left nostril. The little finger is comfortably folded. Close your eyes.
Close the right nostril with the thumb and breathe in deeply (without strain) from the left nostril. Next, close the left nostril with ring finger and release the pressure on the right nostril to exhale. Next, inhale through right nostril and exhale through the left nostril in the same manner. Note that the time for inhalations and exhalations should be equal.
This pranayama for heart patients has calming effects and relieves anxiety, establishes a calming rhythm for the brain and heart, assisting people with cardiovascular and nervous disorders or any other stress-related condition.
Another amazing breathing technique is Bhramari pranayama (Humming Bee Breath), which helps release stress and cerebral tension. It also helps alleviate anger, anxiety, insomnia and increases the healing capacity of the body. The vibration of the humming sound creates a soothing effect on the mind and nervous system.
Which yoga asanas to avoid if suffering from heart diseases?
Dr.Asit Khanna (cardiac sciences, cardiology) suggests that though Yoga is the best practice to prevent and reduce the risk of heart diseases, it cannot cure all heart diseases. If you are diagnosed with heart diseases it is best to avoid poses that makes your heart work rigorously or poses where the heart pumps blood against gravity.
It is best to seek advice from your doctor and also practice Yoga poses for heart health and pranayama under the guidance of a Yoga expert or teacher. Few asanas to avoid are Chakrasana (wheel pose), inversions like headstand or Sarvangasana, or Viparita Karani asana. If you are the risk of heart attack, these poses may further add strain on your heart in order to circulate the blood to lower parts of the body.
Likewise, if you are suffering from heart disease or high BP, you should refrain from practicing dynamic breathing exercises such as Kapalbhati and Bhastrika pranayama.
Health benefits of Yoga for heart patients
Is Yoga good for your heart?
The answer is, yes, it is.
However, there are various kinds of heart problems, such as heart attack, coronary artery disease, enlarged heart, heart valve disease, irregular heart rhythm and many more. And each can result in various symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, heaviness, burning sensation in chest, dizziness, etc.
Studies show that though we could be genetically predisposed towards…say a heart condition, it’s our mind, thoughts and feelings. . . which will determine if the disease manifests or not. What Yoga does is helps us approach this holistically.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes Yoga as centuries old mind-body practice, which brings in more mindfulness into your daily life. Studies have suggested that mindful activities like Yoga can not only motivate you to exercise and eat healthier, but also improve quality of life and mood in people with heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses.
Most of the yoga poses for heart health, including breathing and meditation, are gentle and can be done anywhere and by anyone. Studies prove that yoga works for cardiac patients; however, today there are various styles of Yoga, thus it is best to choose a practice that is safe and meets your requirement.
According to a 2014 study published in Indian Health Journal, researchers found that those who participated in yoga as part of their cardiac rehab program showed significant improvements in LVEF after 1 year as compared to the non-yoga group or patients treated with a more traditional cardiac rehab routine.
The Yoga group had a better reduction in BMI, reduction in blood glucose, cholesterol levels, and mentally and emotionally – there was significant decrease in their stress levels, anxiety and depression. The study concludes that adding Yoga based relaxation to conventional post-CABG cardiac rehabilitation may help in preventing recurrence.
Deep breathing can help lower blood pressure, meditation or yoga nidra or even a savasana can help calm the body, nervous system and mind, and all these together can definitely help people with cardiovascular problems, says Christie Kuo, a registered nurse at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital who integrates yoga into the heart disease prevention classes and cardiovascular rehab program.
Hugh Calkins, M.D., director of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at Johns Hopkins is of the opinion that in the last five years or so there has been a major shift in the number of cardiologists and professionals recognizing that the benefits of Yoga are real when it comes to people recovering from cardiac episodes.