Yoga for a Healthy Heart

Updated: 
December 06, 2017

You know that yoga has numerous health benefits, but have you ever wondered if it gives you the cardio workout you need for a healthy heart? Well, it turns out yoga has numerous benefits for the heart, including aerobic benefits.

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. Accordingly, the association recommends at least 2.5 hours a week of moderately intense aerobic activity, with about half an hour a day, five days a week of other types of physical activity, including muscle-stretching exercises. Your yoga practice can provide all that and more.

M. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., counseling psychologist and founder of Cardiac Yoga, told the American Heart Association that along with a healthy lifestyle, yoga can prevent and even reverse heart disease to some degree. Many studies have shown that the meditation practices and breathing techniques of yoga, combined with the peaceful, slow stretching of hatha yoga, can help lower blood pressure, increase lung capacity, improve respiratory function and heart rate, reduce incidences of irregular heart beat and palpitations, and boost circulation and muscle tone. Yoga can also improve overall well-being while offering strength-building benefits. It has been shown to increase cardiovascular endurance, reduce heart inflammation, and increase flexibility and quality of life.

Yoga has also been tested as a recovery tool for people that have suffered cardiac arrest, heart attack, or other heart events. The calming benefits of yoga may also help reduce stress, which is identified as a risk factor in developing heart disease, Dr. Cunningham told the American Heart Association.

How Can Yoga Provide the Necessary Aerobic Workout?

Even your peaceful daily stretching yoga provides some aerobic qualities as you adjust to the discomfort of stretching your body into positions it isn’t used to. As blood flow increases, emotional and physical blockages are released, and the heart rate speeds up to cope with the discomfort. This is aerobic, especially if you don’t come out of the pose the minute you feel it becoming difficult.

Most yoga classes teach breathing and relaxation techniques, which help the heart to readjust so that as you relax further into the pose, so does your heart rate.

To get more aerobic benefits, you can also vary yoga classes, including more aerobic forms of yoga a couple days a week. Vinyasa ashtanga—sometimes called power yoga—and Bikram yoga are sometimes recommended for a more aerobic workout.

Ashtanga, according to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who brought this practice to the West, “involves synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of postures—a process producing intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, a light and strong body, and a calm mind.”

Bikram yoga, according to Bikram Choudhury, founder of the system of 26 poses derived from hatha yoga, is practiced in a controlled environment where the room is heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Bikram, the warm temperature increases the heart rate for a better cardiovascular workout, which also allows for more detoxification and protection of the muscles for deeper stretching.

The yoga we do for improved heart and cardiovascular health also benefits the heart in more subtle ways as well. Though research is still marveling over the connection between matter and spirit evidenced by yoga, there is a long human history for understanding the heart as the center of human feeling.

Bharat Thakur, founder of Artistic Yoga, says the heart is central to life. Artistic Yoga concentrates on each and every human aspect, from the physical to the spiritual. “The physical aspect works on flexibility, vigor, and stamina. The spiritual aspect, on the other hand, works upon awareness of the body, alertness, and meditation. It brings about a complete transformation in a human being.”

Sofia Diaz, teacher of hatha yoga and sacred dance at the Department of Somatic Psychology at Naropa University and the University of Colorado in Boulder, teaches that yoga helps us to access love during difficult times, reach beyond the “point of failure” in our lives, and understand the experiences that result from our closure or our openness.

How does yoga help us through a challenge? According to Sofia, holding that difficult and uncomfortable yoga posture while learning to breathe and relax develops heart health on every level, from the cardiovascular workout to the emotional habit of dealing with stress in a controlled situation. Having learned those techniques in yoga, one takes the experience and translates it to human and emotional encounters as well. A well-toned heart can handle stress on every level, from physical to emotional to spiritual challenges.

“The [heart] works ceaselessly, beating 100,000 times a day, 40 million times a year—in total clocking up three billion heartbeats over an average lifetime” says Bharat. Science has shown that the heart’s response to stress—physical, emotional, and spiritual—is its biggest challenge. The practice of yoga could be its best friend.


Resources: 
Yoga and Heart Health, American Heart Association

5 Ways Yoga Promotes Heart Health, Huffington Post

Cardio Tip: Make Sure Yoga Is Also Helping Your Heart, Lizzie Fuhr associate editor Fitsugar

Yoga for Health Heart Part 4, Gulf News