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Yoga for Heart Health

I recently attended an online workshop with Dr. Baxter Bell regarding yoga’s role in heart health. This is a topic that is important to me as a heart disease survivor, health coach and yoga teacher. Cardiovascular disease (CD) is responsible for nearly 800,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and is the number one killer of all men and women, more than all types of cancer combined. The most astonishing fact is that 80% of CD is preventable with lifestyle changes.

Yoga’s influence on heart health is receiving increased recognition in mainstream medicine circles. “Studies by Herbert Benson, M.D. at Harvard Medical School, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, M.D. at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, have conclusively shown that yoga and meditation boost immunity and reduce stress, an underlying factor in many chronic illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. Prestigious hospitals, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Columbia Presbyterian in New York City, and HMOs, such as Kaiser Permanente, now offer yoga classes to their patients—powerful proof that yoga works.”

The program offered by Dean Ornish, which includes yoga, has even been approved by Congress to be covered by Medicare. Ornish’s program includes a vegan diet, daily walking, daily relaxation (yoga and meditation), pranayama, and group support. Participants have experienced weight loss, the ability to decrease medications, improved cholesterol and blood sugar, a decrease in blood pressure and inflammatory markers.

Of the risk factors for heart disease (hypertension, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, age, family history and stress response), yoga can influence all but age and family history. Tension held in the body caused by stress can inhibit blood flow increasing the workload for the heart. Practicing yoga can have a balancing effect on the autonomic nervous system, release tension in the chest cavity, strengthen the heart muscle, smooth the muscles that surround arteries and veins, and the rhythmic contraction and release of muscles can assist in movement of blood back to the heart from the lower extremities.

Depending on the level of cardiovascular disease, the tools of yoga (asana, pranayama, meditation, naada, philosophy and karma) can be modified to meet the needs of the practitioner. All of these tools can be applied in either langhana (quieting and calming) or brahmana (heating and activating), and positively impact the practitioner’s heart health.

Dr. Bell provides additional resources and information on his blog Yoga for Healthy Aging, and his website has details regarding workshops and retreats. Stay tuned for WholeHearted Health’s Yoga for Heart Health coming soon.

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