More than a stretch: Yoga’s benefits may extend to the heart

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

As a long-time yoga enthusiast, I’m always happy to hear about benefits newly attributed to this ancient practice. Doing yoga for a few hours each week helps me feel calmer and more balanced, both physically and mentally. Now, new research suggests that my habit also may be helping my heart.

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

As I write in the April issue of the Harvard Heart Letter, the studies in the review looked at different types of yoga, including both gentler and more energetic forms. The participants ranged from young, healthy individuals to older people with health conditions. Over all, people who took yoga classes saw improvements in a number of factors that affect heart disease risk. They lost an average of five pounds, shaved five points off their blood pressure, and lowered their levels of harmful LDL cholesterol by 12 points.

The findings came as no surprise to Dr. Gloria Yeh, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the review article. “Yoga is unique because it incorporates physical activity, breathing, and meditation,” says Dr. Yeh. As she explains, each of these elements positively affects cardiovascular risk factors, so combining them was bound to show a benefit. In addition, two other ancient practices that join slow, flowing motions with deep breathing — tai chi and qigong — seem to offer similar advantages.

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

Most yoga classes end with a few minutes of meditation, often done while lying flat on your back with your eyes closed. This pose is called savasana. Some teachers say that yoga stretches and postures release energy, making it easier for you to relax into a meditative state. I certainly find that to be true. Whenever I meditate, I still recall what one of my favorite teachers used to say at the beginning of savasana: “Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Just relax.”

Because yoga is less strenuous 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, a registered nurse at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, integrates yoga into the cardiovascular rehabilitation and heart disease prevention classes she teaches there.

The muscle stretching encouraged by yoga postures is a good way to cool down after walking, cycling, or other aerobic conditioning, says Kuo, while deep breathing and meditation also help. “Paying attention to your breathing is important during the strength-training part of rehab. And the mindfulness and greater awareness from the meditation can help you cope with the stress of your illness, eat more healthfully, and sleep more soundly, all of which help your recovery,” she says.

If you’re new to yoga, consider starting with a beginner or “gentle” class, especially if you’re over 65 or have any medical conditions. Two of the most popular forms of yoga taught in the United States, hatha and Iyengar, are good choices for beginners. Hatha yoga features gentle, slow, smooth movement, with a focus 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 tips on choosing a yoga or other alternative therapy teacher. To my mind, a good teacher always asks, “Are there any injuries or conditions I should know about before we get started?” The best ones speak with each student personally while people are rolling out their mats and setting up. If you can, try a few different classes with different teachers to find the best fit for you.

Comments:

  1. Sudhanva Char

    Your columns on Yoga are very interesting to me, a certified yoga teacher. I wish to mention that scientific studies have proven yoga as effective. Controlled clinical studies have been underway for several decades especially in India, the home of Yoga. This is despite the fact that the yoga system of health care has been in existence for several millennia with enormous amounts of therapeutic evidence about its efficacy. Medical journals such as JAMA, The Lancet, British Medical Journal, New England Journal of Medicine and many others have published research papers underscoring the benefits of yoga practices for both physical and mental ailments not just in a placebo-like manner, but in statistically significant scales. I have a few volumes of outcomes of dozens of controlled studies in yoga therapy undertaken by the Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation, Bangalore, stressing that yoga is more consciousness-based rather than matter-based. Wellness and robust health can be promoted naturally and health care costs can be rationalized. I see however, considerable circumspection in taking it on board even where clinical evidence is unambiguous about its advantages in issues such as cardiac illnesses, diabetes, mental depression, stress management and many others. Medical practice can only be so much richer and so much more successful by accepting yogic techniques.

  2. Tanja

    Anytime is a good time to practice yoga. Yes, you can do it before going to bed.

  3. cc

    When is the best time to practice yoga? Can I do it before going to bed?

  4. Patricia Lotterman

    Julie Corliss! Great article.
    Warmed my heart (pun intended) to read, “there’s nowhere to go, and nothing to do.”

  5. Bala Subramaniam

    As was pointed out Chandra Rangnath, yoga has four limbs. Hatha yoga by itself is only one limb. The key to all the learning and the practice is the correct way of delivery and learning. Doing body postures is to make sure your body is not in the way of meditation.

    I would strongly suggest looking into the following link, ishayogafoundation.org. As a physician, I would say we are only beginning to scientifically understand the benefits of yoga. Needless to say we are only skimming the surface.

  6. Chandra Rangnath

    Hatha yoga and Iyengar yoga are both names for the four ‘limbs’ of Patanjali maharishi’s eight-fold practise (called the ‘asthaanga’ – eight limbs) , viz ‘aasana’ (the postures), ‘pranaayama’ (control of the breath), ‘dhaarana’ (concentration) and ‘dhyaana’ (meditation). However, yoga practise is fully effective only when the other ‘limbs’ of the asthaanga are integrated with our exercises and mediation, viz having pure thoughts, keeping the body clean, being contented, restraint in sense-pleasures, study of sacred literature and silent repetition of a mantra, if possible. Yes, we can make a start in yoga by doing the exercises, controlled breathing and silent sitting…but to reap the full benefit, the other do’s and dont’s should be gradually embraced (or shall I say, the other limbs will present themselves to the sincere practitioner quite naturally ! ).

  7. Sherry Longbottom, RN, CYT, CPYT, Holistic Fitness Nurse

    Excellent article! As a certified yoga instructor and a registered nurse, I have experienced firsthand the benefits of yoga for physical and emotional health. It’s extremely therapeutic when taught correctly. Thank you for the wonderful article.

  8. David Cornelius

    I’m not much into reading, but somehow I got to read many articles in your webpage. It’s fantastic how interesting it is for me to visit you very often.

  9. Mussarat

    Look quite useful,would like to join the easy yoga /meditation for mental relaxation and physical fitness.I am 65years of age,what is your suggestion

    • Harold Feinleib

      Google Iyengar yoga in your area. It is especially good for older people. The use of props allow anyone to do the pose even if they have limited flexibility. As you become more flexible over time the props are adjusted.