You love yoga, and yoga loves you back! One of the important ways yoga does so is by helping the practitioner maintain optimal heart health.
While research in the past on heart health has been centralized around the benefits of aerobic exercise and keeping your heart “fit,” science is beginning to shift toward investigating the benefits of more calming forms of exercise and preventing chronic wear on the heart.
This is to say that research is beginning to reveal that it’s not enough just to raise your heart rate and burn some calories, maintaining heart health actually requires addressing some of the catalysts of chronic heart problems, including high blood pressure, cholesterol, stress level, and body mass index.
It turns out yoga may provide the universal practice which addresses all of these elements. Research indicates that yoga has a significant impact on cardiovascular and cardiometabolic risk factors (Chu, Gotink, Yeh, Goldie, & Hunink, 2016). But to understand this heart-healthy phenomenon, yoga’s benefits must be unpacked further.
Heart Rate and Body Mass Index
However, all forms of yoga, even the slower and more passive forms help to increase strength, flexibility, and balance as well, all vital elements of creating and sustaining physical fitness (Harvard Health Publishing 2019). Yoga has been documented in the empirical literature to exert significant positive effects on body weight, heart rate, and Body Mass Index, and triglycerides, or blood glucose levels (Chu, Gotink, Yeh, Goldie, & Hunink, 2016).
High Blood Pressure
The deep, slow breathing patterns practiced in yoga help to lower blood pressure. In fact, yogic breathing lowered blood pressure by an average of five points after only a few months of practicing regularly (Harvard Health Publishing 2019). Yoga has been shown in the empirical literature to exert significant healthy effects on levels of systolic blood pressure, which decreased 5.21 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure which decreased 4.98 mmHg (Chu, Gotink, Yeh, Goldie, & Hunink, 2016). Given that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiac events and cardiac diseases, lowering blood pressure regularly with frequent yoga practice, particularly in times of stress has a significant potential to enhance heart health.
Yoga also shows a propensity for lowering high levels of cholesterol. Cholesterol is required for cellular structure, but when levels rise too high, cholesterol can lead to the development of fatty deposits in the arteries, reducing blood flow or causing a clog and a rupture. One study from 2016 shows that both low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, as well as total cholesterol have been shown to be positively influenced by yoga practice. In testing, yoga has been documented as decreasing total cholesterol by 18.48 mg/dl (Chu, Gotink, Yeh, Goldie, & Hunink, 2016). Given high cholesterol poses a significant risk factor for cardiac and vascular events and disease, yoga’s ability to lower high levels of cholesterol is a major factor in preventing heart problems.
Yoga practitioners report decreased levels of stress, in fact, a 2012 survey from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health revealed that over 80% of yoga enthusiasts found that the practice reduced their stress (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Yoga also helps defend against chronic stress by regulating and toning the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the relaxation response during which the mind and body recover from the effects of stressors.
Extensive literature shows that psychological stressors (things as common as work stress or marital tension, anxiety and depression) are all risk factors for cardiovascular complications and disease. This is due to the fact that chronic release of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, (which narrow the arteries and increase blood pressure) place the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system into overdrive. This causes an increase in bodily inflammation and blood pressure, both of which contribute to cardiovascular problems (American Heart Association News 2019).
Yoga initiates the opposite response, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, therefore not only relaxing the body and mind, but also reducing the release of stress hormones and the consequences of their downstream effects. Research shows that a single 90-minute session of yoga can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Not only is the relaxation response initiated during yogic practices, this repeated initiation helps to train the brain to more habitually activate the parasympathetic nervous system on a regular basis. This essentially build’s emotional resilience (American Heart Association News 2019).
Yoga also helps to build mindful and engaged awareness in the present moment as well as greater cognizance of both mind and body. Creating greater awareness of this kind makes it easier for practitioners to recognize when their body is in need of care, or when shifts in health and wellness occur. Cultivating mindfulness helps to encourage engagement in health-promoting habits and boosting self-awareness and self-care (American Heart Association News, 2019).
Yoga practitioners typically exhibit better adherence to exercise and diet than do non-practitioners. In fact, a survey from 2012 conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health showed that nearly two-thirds of yoga practitioners reported that yoga motivated them to exercise more habitually. Four in ten yoga practitioners reported that they were compelled to consume a more healthy diet. It is likely that the improved health behaviors and cognition of yoga practitioners reflect heightened mind-body awareness. The neural pathways which support a healthy lifestyle are created and maintained through regular yoga practice. These healthy lifestyle changes are one of the most important factors in the prevention of heart disease (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
Yoga for those with Heart Disease
People with heart conditions can benefit from yoga practices (check with your doctor to be aware of practices which are contraindicated for your particular condition). One study shows that for those affected by paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, in which symptoms wax and wane, a 12 week yoga program combined with deep breathing reduced heart rate and blood pressure, while also increasing mental health scores (Lakkireddy, 2013).
Another study shows that two markers for heart disease, waist circumference and blood measurements improved in those with metabolic syndrome after three months of yoga practice. Patients in heart failure also show benefits from yoga practice: eight weeks of yoga resulted in increased exercise capacity and higher quality of life. Levels of biomarkers for heart disease in the blood were also lower in these participants (American Heart Association News, 2019). As we have discussed, yoga also helps to reduce stress, worry, and depression, which frequently precede and follow a cardiac event (such as a surgery, heart attack, or diagnosis of heart disease). Yoga is a powerful asset in managing and subduing the negative impact on health caused by these emotional events and helps to build emotional resilience even in those who are medically unwell (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2019).
Evidence dating back to 1990 reveals that heart-condition patients who engage in a lifestyle that includes yoga as one of the four heart-health components (the other three are a low-fat vegetarian diet, moderate exercise and the maintenance of loving, supportive relationships) can lead to a reduction in the size of arterial blockages without the use of pharmaceutical medication. Named the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program, this system is so effective and well documented that it has been accepted by and reimbursed by Medicare since 2010 (Harvard Health Publishing).
Research on yoga for heart health gives you another reason to love your practice. A heart healthy lifestyle is essential to cultivating and maintaining cardiac wellness across the lifespan, and yoga may be an extremely effective aspect of that. So unroll that yoga mat, connect with your breath, and stay on the beat with habitual yoga practice.
Harvard Health Publishing (2019). How yoga may enhance heart health. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/how-yoga-may-enhance-heart-health
American Heart Association News. (2019). Is yoga heart-healthy? It’s no stretch to see benefits, science suggests. American Heart Association
Chu, P., Gotink, R. A., Yeh, G. Y., Goldie, S. J., & Hunink, M. M. (2016). The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. European journal of preventive cardiology, 23(3), 291-307.
Lakkireddy, D., Atkins, D., Pillarisetti, J., Ryschon, K., Bommana, S., Drisko, J., … & Dawn, B. (2013). Effect of yoga on arrhythmia burden, anxiety, depression, and quality of life in paroxysmal atrial fibrillation: the YOGA My Heart Study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 61(11), 1177-1182.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Yoga-Heart Connection. Johns Hopkins University.