Yoga, once a mystical practice performed mainly by spiritual seekers striving for inner peace, has become as American an activity as jogging and aerobics.
A small but promising body of research suggests that yoga's combination of stretching, gentle activity, breathing, and mindfulness may have special benefits for people with cardiovascular disease.
Yoga and the heart
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.
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. This body of work suggests that yoga may
- 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
- improve balance, reduce falls, ease arthritis, and improve breathing for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
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.
Beginning yoga can be a challenge. Attending a general yoga class populated by fit 30-somethings who expect a good workout can be a disheartening introduction. If you are a few gray hairs beyond 30, look for a yoga class that includes the full package — poses, breathing, and meditation.
A good yoga instructor creates a safe environment for his or her students and helps them modify poses to meet their abilities and limitations. We have put together information on finding a teacher trained in helping older people — or those with chronic conditions — learn yoga at www.health.harvard.edu/yoga.
December 2010 update