Yoga Therapy: Heart Disease Isn’t Just About the Heart

Updated: 
December 06, 2017

Did you know that people who suffer from heart disease are also at a higher risk for stroke, aneurisms, and vascular (circulatory) problems? Heart disease and stroke continue to be the two biggest killers of our time, but few people realize just how interconnected these issues are. Understanding this connection offers deeper insights into what causes heart disease and stroke, and may cast new light on why yoga therapy has proven effective in reversing heart disease.
 
What is heart disease and how are all these serious concerns interrelated? The medical term for heart disease is cardio-vascular and of  the vascular, or blood-vessel system. This means that while symptoms may initially show up in only one area, the causes of the disease are present in the whole circulatory system—from head to toe. Heart disease, in short, is not just about your heart. disease: a disease of the heart.

Calcification can occur in any region of your blood vessels, whether in your heart (coronary arteries), the arteries leading to the brain, such as the carotid artery, or the arteries in your legs. No matter where it happens, the same process is occurring: the arterial plaque has suffered a rupture, which has filled in with calcium. This is the beginning of the calcification of the arteries, which will eventually lead to fullblown cardio-vascular disease if not halted in its early stages.

While small plaque ruptures may seem benign, they are precursors to larger and larger ruptures—the kinds that gradually lead to the clogging of the arteries that cause heart attacks, aneurisms, and strokes. Regardless of where the calcification is turning up, once the health of the arteries is compromised, it has a spill-over effect into many parts of the body’s function. 

This makes a recent study showing that there might be a link between the body’s flexibility and the health of the arteries even more interesting. As we reported elsewhere on YogaUOnline, new research suggests that, among people over the age of 40 and up, flexibility (as measured by whether you can touch your toes when sitting on the floor) might be correlated with the risk for heart attack or stroke.

How? Loss of muscular flexibility might indicate that the arteries as well have lost flexibility and become stiff and rigid. Healthy arteries are flexible and elastic, and this is important to keep the arteries healthy and blood pressure normal. Age-related stiffening of the arteries is a precursor of the loss of arterial integrity associated with some of the symptoms of cardio-vascular symptoms, including high blood pressure. 

The link between flexibility and arterial health casts new light on why yoga therapy has proven useful in the treatment of heart disease. In his program to reverse heart disease, Dr. Dean Ornish’s has demonstrated that heart disease can be halted and even reversed using a lifestyle program for heart disease prevention including yoga therapy, a cholesterol-lowering diet, and other lifestyle measures.

It has previously been assumed that yoga therapy was useful in treating heart disease because it helps reduce stress naturally and thereby normalizes high blood pressure and other stress-related contributors to heart disease. However, the study linking flexibility to arterial health suggests that there may be other pathways through which yoga therapy enhances cardiovascular health.

The take-away message is that keeping the muscles pliable and flexible through regular yoga stretches may not just be sooting and relaxing, it may well keep your arteries healthy and pliable and thereby help support that health of your cardio-vascular system.