Yoga is known to strengthen the connection of mind and body and has long been touted for its many health benefits. But one lesser talked about benefit is yoga for heart health, and the practice’s profound effects on the heart.
However many health experts have weighed in on the benefits regular yoga practice can have on the heart – like stress reduction, lowering inflammation, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and better oxygen circulation.
Is Yoga for Heart Health Really Backed by Science?
When my mom had to have open-heart surgery seemingly out of nowhere because of two substantial artery blockages, I felt helpless.
I realized I had very little knowledge of what could help her now or what could prevent any of us from ending up in her situation. So I immediately began to dig into the research.
As a long time yoga practitioner, I know yoga has tons of health-enhancing benefits, but I was surprised to find so many specific to heart health.
Dr. Mehrdad Rezaee, president of medical staff and chair of the cardiovascular services department at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, California, told US News that “yoga counted as an exercise activity with profound cardiovascular impact.”
So let’s take a closer look at the impacts yoga can have on your heart health by combating these common heart disease risk factors.
Here Are 10 Hearty Benefits of Yoga for Heart Health:
Get ready to have your mind blown.
1. Reduces Stress
According to John Hopkins Medicine, stress can cause health issues that have a domino effect on our bodies.
Any type of stress (like emotional, mental, or life events) causes a release of cortisol and adrenaline that can actually narrow your arteries and bump up your blood pressure – two big factors in heart disease and heart attacks.
The deep breathing and mental focus that comes with yoga for heart health can help to release stress, reducing cortisol and adrenaline levels.
2. Activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is what’s responsible for sending us into the “fight-or-flight” response when we feel like we’re in danger (whether it’s perceived or actual). The parasympathetic nervous system is what brings the body into a more calm, relaxed state.
In an interview with the American Heart Association, Dr. Puja Mehta, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta said:
“There’s a huge body of literature that says psychosocial stressors such as work and marital stress, as well as anxiety and depression, are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease. With chronic stress, the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive.”
The relaxing and grounding exercises in yoga can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system so that our bodies are not constantly in panic mode.
3. Lowers Blood Pressure
When blood flows through your arteries, moving to and from your heart, it puts pressure on the artery walls.
This is what we call blood pressure and when blood pressure is high, it can damage the walls of the artery, making it less elastic, which can actually decrease the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart.
That’s when we start to see heart disease occur. One study has shown a substantial decrease in blood pressure amongst those with hypertension who practice yoga regularly, especially when all three elements were included: postures, meditation, and breathing.
4. Decreases Blood Sugar Levels
According to research at the American College of Cardiology, “Elevated glucose levels in the blood can damage and cause inflammation within the vessels. This causes injury to the vessels in the body and can lead to narrowing of the vessels and ultimately cardiovascular injury.”
So how can yoga help lower blood sugar levels? It’s another case of stress relief.
Stress can cause excess glucose to be released from your liver and into your bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise. Using yoga for heart health as a stress relief tool can help get those levels back down.
5. Brings Down Cholesterol Levels
Only a small handful of studies have been done to link yoga with improved cholesterol levels, but the research is promising.
The biggest factor, most likely, is found in stress reduction (surprise, surprise!). Lower levels of stress have been linked to lower levels of cholesterol. Another theory is that yoga can also aid in weight loss, which then results in lower cholesterol levels.
6. Reduces Inflammation
Dr. Mark A. Steiner, a cardiologist with the Orlando Health Heart Institute in Orlando, Florida, told US News that:
“Some studies have noted lower blood levels of markers for inflammation, which contributes to heart disease. With chronic stress, the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, which can lead to inflammation and increased blood pressure.”
We’ve already touched on how yoga for heart health can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and send signals to the sympathetic nervous system that it can back down and relax. One great result of that is reduced inflammation.
7. Improves Oxygen Circulation
Deep breathing and the slow, controlled breath connection with movement in yoga can improve oxygen circulation in the body.
Boosting oxygen circulation means your heart doesn’t have to work so hard. It goes without saying that removing any excess pressure on your heart will help it beat and function more effectively.
8. Helps You Get More (and Better!) Sleep
How is sleep related to heart health? By our friend, blood pressure.
According to the CDC, “During normal sleep, your blood pressure goes down. Having sleep problems means your blood pressure stays higher for a longer period of time. High blood pressure is one of the leading risks for heart disease and stroke.”
Want to see how yoga can help you sleep better? Practice This 30-Minute Bedtime Yoga Sequence For Better Sleep (Free Class)
9. Reduces Episodes of Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is an extremely common type of abnormal heart rhythm condition.
According to a review published in December 2015 in the Journal of Arrhythmia, practicing yoga was linked to a drop in the number of episodes experienced by patients who have atrial fibrillation.
Yoga can help this condition by reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and reducing depression and anxiety – all of which help avoid triggers that can cause the heart to speed up.
10. Weight Management
Maintaining a healthy weight is an important aspect of heart health, as being overweight can increase your chances of having high blood pressure and high cholesterol. (However, it’s important to note that what qualifies as overweight is specific to each body and should be determined by a doctor.)
According to Harvard Health Publishing, “There is good research that yoga may help you manage stress, improve your mood, curb emotional eating, and create a community of support, all of which can help with weight loss and maintenance.”
How Much Yoga Do You Need In Order to Experience the Heart Health Benefits?
So just how much yoga do you need to practice before seeing these amazing heart health benefits? There are a few studies and reports to help us out.
US News reports that one study “found lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of ‘feel good’ endorphins just 10 days after participants began a yoga practice as part of the study.”
And Harvard Health reviewed a study of people with coronary artery disease:
“From more than 300 potentially relevant studies, they identified seven clinical trials that compared yoga – done anywhere from one to 14 times a week for at least a half-hour per session – to usual care or exercise. Yoga was linked to improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, body mass index, and quality of life.”
While there may not be a magic number, we know that regular yoga practice can have profound effects.
What Type of Yoga for Heart Health Is the Best? What Style Gives You the Most Benefits?
There are so many different styles of yoga, it can be confusing to decide where to start or to determine which is best for you.
Gentle yoga practices, like Hatha, can be a great place to start. Vinyasa style practices can be more swift and get the heart rate up.
Ultimately, the type of yoga is not as relevant as practicing consistently. But, Dr. Ostfeld warns, “People with advanced heart disease, however, may want to avoid practicing [any] form of yoga in extreme temperatures, as it may exacerbate health issues.”
It’s also important to speak with your doctor before starting any regular exercise routine.
Get All the Benefits of Yoga for Heart Health
The amount of information about heart health can be overwhelming; I know it was for me when I began researching after my mom’s open-heart surgery.
But knowing that yoga has so many benefits for heart health has renewed my commitment to my daily practice of asana, meditation, and breathwork.
Whether it’s a quick morning meditation or squeezing in a 20-minute Vinyasa practice in the afternoon, I know that each time I step on my mat, I’m paving the way to greater heart health.
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. The views expressed are those of the author and should be attributed solely to the author. For medical questions, please consult your healthcare provider.
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