February is American Heart Month, sponsored by the American Heart Association (AHA). According to AHA, 1 out of 4 Americans will suffer heart disease in their lifetime. More and more studies show that the practice of yoga is good for your heart. Yoga can help to lower blood pressure, increase heart rate variability, ease stress, and promote better sleep.
There is quite a bit of evidence-based research proving the benefits of yoga for heart health. According to a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers discovered significant improvement in quality of life by participants suffering from heart failure. Yoga therapy improved their flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, inflammatory markers, and overall quality of life over the course of 8-10 weeks.
Dean Ornish, MD was the first to develop a program combining healthy diet, exercise, rest, and yoga that has been shown to actually reverse heart disease. According to Susi Amendola, who manages Ornish’s yoga program for heart disease, “In Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, we use many techniques from the Yoga tradition, including postures, breathing, relaxation, meditation and imagery. These five techniques support overall health and well-being. The most optimal benefits come from integrating not just the postures, but also relaxation, breathing, meditation and imagery. Together, they have a powerful and profound effect on restoring health to the heart.”
My teacher, Joseph LePage, founder of Integrative Yoga Therapy, has been teaching a 10-week Healthy Heart yoga program for over 15 years at a clinic in Brazil that treats patients with heart disease. According to Joseph,
…the deepest and truest healing comes from the cultivation of positive qualities, called bhavanas. Each of the 10 weeks of the Healthy Heart Program takes one of these qualities as its theme, and by the end, the participants have developed a new way of seeing themselves, life, and other beings—which I feel is the essence of yoga healing. This 10-week journey of healing is based on three essential principles of yoga therapy. Among these is that the yoga therapy journey is a homecoming to a place of inner balance, awareness, and wholeness that, however distant, is always present as a potential for each of us. Yoga therapy sees each person as an expression and reflection of the infinite possibilities and intelligence of the source energy. The skill and practice of the yoga therapist comes through an in-depth understanding of all the facets of yoga, in order to open the appropriate doorway to the student’s own potential for health, healing, and awakening, all of which is already present.
Pranayama (breath control) and Meditation are key in healing heart disease. One of the “cooling” or “langhana” pranayamas we use is called “Kaki” breath. Forming your lips into the shape of a beak, you breathe in through your nose, and slowly exhaling through pursed lips, like you are blowing out a candle. This helps to lengthen the exhale, slowing the breath, calming the heart, and helping to lower blood pressure.
In addition, gentle stretches and restorative yoga can also be very beneficial, but be sure to practice under the guidance of an experienced instructor/therapist who knows how to modify yoga for heart disease, as there are many postures that are contraindicated for this condition, because they may raise your blood pressure. It is important to always get the advice of your medical doctor before embarking on any exercise program, but since many doctors are still not aware of the many different kinds of yoga, make sure they understand the differences between gentle, therapeutic yoga, and a power vinyasa class.
Yoga therapy can also work alongside conventional treatments to help reverse heart disease and heart failure and minimize the side effects of medication. For more information on how yoga can affect heart health as well as a variety of other chronic diseases, check out https://yogatherapy.health.
Cheryl Sidwell, 1000 C-IAYT, 500 RYT, E-200 RYT, YACEP: Cheryl has been practicing Yoga for over 20 years. She is currently 500-RYT with Yoga Alliance. She earned her 200-RYT yoga teaching certification at Marianne Wells Yoga School and completed her 300-hour certification in Advanced Yoga Therapy with Joseph LePage’s Integrative Yoga Therapy school, now part of Kripalu. She is a member of IAYT (International Association of Yoga Therapists) and completed her 1000 C-IAYT certification in Integrative Yoga Therapy at Kripalu. Cheryl believes firmly that Yoga is for Everyone! She can design and lead a practice for clients ranging from Senior Citizens to Athletes. Cheryl specializes in Gentle & Therapeutic Yoga & Somatic Movement Therapy, Trauma Informed Yoga and Yoga for Caregivers. She has worked with a variety of clients on their journey towards health and wellness dealing with a wide range of illnesses including osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, heart conditions, multiple sclerosis, scoliosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, digestive disorders, cancer recovery, weight loss and anxiety disorders.