There are more than 36 million people practicing yoga in the United States, according to Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance. And experts say that's good news for our hearts.
"One of the main reasons yoga is so beneficial is that it can be a cardiovascular activity as efficient as walking, running, or aerobics in improving heart fitness," notes Dr. Delia Chiaramonte M.D., an integrative physician from Baltimore, Maryland. "Since many people are unable to participate in traditional forms of exercise, yoga is the perfect gentle solution for cardiovascular health."
Chiaramonte tells Newsmax that along with the benefits of high-tech devices in our busy lives comes the downside.
"Once upon a time people would be 'done' with work at a certain time but now, for many people, the workday never ends," she explains. "The pace of life has sped up and we don't have the downtime to distress and regroup, which takes its toll on our heart. I think yoga fulfills this need by giving us the time to slow down, breathe, focus inward, and reconnect to the body."
Bonnie Tarantino, a former director of yoga programs at the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine, says that breathing is a crucial key to yoga's heart-healthy benefits.
"Dr. Arthur Guyton, a leading American physiologist and expert on heart disease, believed that heart disease and stroke are caused by a lack of oxygen at the cellular level. Heart disease patients consistently use shallow, chest breathing instead of the deep diaphragmatic breathing we teach in yoga."
This type of breathing, says Tarantino, massages the heart with each breath, helps pump fluid and nutrients into the vascular system, and eliminates toxic waste.
A Dutch study compared two groups of heart attack patients. The first group was taught simple, diaphragmatic breathing while the second group received no training. The group that learned how to breathe deeply had no further heart attacks, while seven of the 12 members of the second group had second heart attacks over the next two years.
Chiaramonte notes that a recent study published in the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine showed that after only six months of yoga practice, participants had decreased levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL while increasing their HDL, often referred to as the "good" cholesterol.
"In another very interesting study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, effective smoking cessation and yoga were associated with the greatest 10-year reduction in cardiovascular risk over such interventions such as following a Mediterranean diet and walking," Chiaramonte says. "For the highest-risk patients, yoga was associated with a 16.7% decrease in cardiovascular risk."
Yoga lowers blood pressure, according to research published in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension. Of the three groups—one that did yoga, another that followed a program of health education and walking, and a third that did both yoga and followed a healthy lifestyle—the yoga groups showed the greatest reduction in blood pressure readings. The American Heart Association says that in addition to the physiological benefits, the meditation component in yoga may also have a positive effect on lowering high blood pressure.
"We know that stress, anxiety, and depression are associated with cardiovascular disease and yoga may be helpful to manage these emotions," says Chiaramonte.
Tarantino says that is essential to focus on your breathing throughout the day so that the body responds to this stimulus by relaxing and understanding it is not in a life-threatening situation.
Some yoga she recommends for cardiovascular health include the standing poses and sun salutations.
"Move slowly at first and build up to longer holds," she says. "Practice poses that are chest and heart openers like cobra, bridge, and camel."
Balancing postures also help quiet the mind and lower the heart rate, says the expert.
"However, if you do have cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure, avoid inverted poses such as headstand or plow," she says.
"Gentle yoga can also play an integral role in recovery from a heart attack as well as preventing one. Heart attacks can often leave one feeling split, broken, and vulnerable. Yoga, which comes from the Sanskrit word which means union, can help reconnect the mind and body. You may experience that you are growing an entirely new heart, stronger and healthier than ever before."
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