Simultaneous focus on body, breathing, and mind may be just
what the doctor ordered.
Yoga, once a mystical practice performed mainly by spiritual
seekers striving for inner peace, has become as American an
activity as jogging and aerobics. Its newfound popularity could
be a boon for people with high blood pressure, heart failure, and
other forms of cardiovascular disease.
"Yoga is an excellent activity for people who haven't exercised
in years or those who aren't very strong," says Dr. Suzie
Bertisch, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School who
has studied the benefits of yoga and other mind-body techniques.
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
Yoga and the heart
The word "yoga" comes from a Sanskrit term that means union. It
aims to join body, mind, and the day-to-day challenges of life
into a unified experience rather than keep them separate. 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
The words "may," "might," "can," and "could" are liberally
scattered throughout this article. That's because 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, but
these trials are mostly small or lack the scientific rigor needed
to show cause and effect. This body of work suggests that yoga
reduce high blood pressure
improve symptoms of heart failure
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
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
Beginning yoga can be a challenge. Attending a general yoga class
populated by fit 30-somethings who expect a good workout can be a
If you are a few gray hairs beyond 30, look for a yoga class that
includes the full package — poses, breathing, and meditation —
rather than one that offers just "yoga-flavored exercise,"
cautions Carol Krucoff, a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative
Medicine and co-director of the Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors
People with heart disease often have other health concerns, like
arthritis or osteoporosis, that limit their flexibility. A good
yoga instructor creates a safe environment for his or her
students and helps them modify poses to meet their abilities and
limitations, according to Krucoff and her yoga partner, Kimberly
Carson. Or, as one of their principles of practice for teaching
yoga to seniors states, "Teach people, not poses or conditions."
Krucoff practices what she preaches. In 2008, when she needed
open-heart surgery to replace a failing aortic valve and fix an
aortic aneurysm, she used the meditation techniques she teaches
to relax before going into surgery, as well as deep-breathing and
meditation techniques right away during her recovery.
"You don't have to be a passive recipient of treatment. The
breathing and relaxation aspects of yoga are something you can do
for yourself when it seems like everyone is doing things to you,"
We have put together information on finding a teacher trained in
helping older people — or those with chronic conditions — learn
yoga at health.harvard.edu/yoga.