New Yoga Study: Inversions Improve Major Marker of Heart Health

Coronary heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. So any indication that the practice of yoga can improve heart health is worth taking note of.  A recent small-scale study of people new to the practice of hatha yoga demonstrated that yoga increases the heart rate variability in beginning yoga students, an indication that the practice has a restorative effect on the autonomic nervous system.

The study was one of the first to focus specifically on the effects of inversions, i.e. yoga postures where the head is below the heart. Twelve healthy men and women, aged 25-60, volunteered to participate in the 8-week yoga program (60 minutes, once each week). Researchers measured their blood pressure and heart rate variability (HRV) at the beginning of the study and eight weeks after beginning yoga. The yoga practice included a series of inverted postures, with practice time increasing from seven to twenty minutes during the duration of the experiment. None of the participants were involved in any other type of regular exercise.

After the 8-week study period, results showed a significant improvement in the heart rate variability of participants. High HRV is viewed as a sign of a healthier heart; high HRV indicates greater parasympathetic control, which in turn suggests a restorative effect on the autonomic nervous system, an increased vagal tone, and reduced sympathetic activity in the heart.

The study found no impact on blood pressure, possibly because participants already had normal or close to normal pressures, and large changes were not expected. Previous studies have indicated that eight to twelve weeks of yoga done by people with mild to moderately high blood pressure was as effective as medication for hypertension, but these studies used a mixture of yoga postures and breathing exercises.The present study was limited by the fact that it only included a small number of participants and no control group. The researchers suggest that larger studies are needed to confirm the effects of yoga on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States, and it affects millions each year. While more research is needed to prove beyond doubt the effectiveness of yoga for heart health, a growing body of studies indicates that yoga reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease and improves heart health. For some, such early findings may be just enough to take the results to heart.

Check out Dr. Timothy McCall’s course on YogaUOnline: Yoga for High Blood Pressure – Do’s and Don’ts for Yoga Teachers

Increased heart rate variability but no effect on blood pressure from 8 weeks of hatha yoga – a pilot study by Marian E Papp, Petra Lindfors, and Per E Wandel, February 11, 2013.

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