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.