The history of yoga stretches back as far as ancient India, when people practiced it to increase their tranquility and spiritual insight. Today, many Americans enjoy it to help them relax and increase their flexibility — and may even improve their heart health. However, yoga does not count towards physical activity requirements of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week.
Traditional yoga is done by slowly stretching the body into a variety of poses while focusing on breathing and meditation. “Yoga is designed to bring about increased physical, mental and emotional well-being,” said M. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., counseling psychologist and founder of Cardiac Yoga. “Hand in hand with leading a heart-healthy lifestyle, it really is possible for a yoga-based model to help prevent or reverse heart disease. It may not completely reverse it, but you will definitely see benefits.”
For Overall Cardiovascular Health:
At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150 minutes
At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes; or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits.
For Lowering Blood Pressure and Cholesterol
An average 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity 3 or 4 times per week
Yoga can be used to improve heart health as a preventive measure or after facing a cardiac event, said Cunningham, who has taught yoga for 40 years and is also president of Positive Health Solutions.
Thinking prevention? As part of an overall healthy lifestyle, Cunningham said yoga can help lower blood pressure, increase lung capacity, improve respiratory function and heart rate, and boost circulation and muscle tone. It can also improve your overall well-being while offering strength-building benefits.
Yoga also has proven benefits for those who have faced cardiac arrest, heart attack or other heart event, according to Cunningham. “The acute emotional stress of such an event certainly has a significant and adverse effect on the heart,” she said. “That’s where yoga can be a tremendous benefit to manage the stress.” For example, Cunningham said that half of bypass surgery patients go through depression, facing emotions ranging from anxiety to grieving. “All these things come into play when you’ve got a potentially chronic disease to manage for the rest of your life.”
The calming benefits of yoga may help with that — and you may see benefits right away. After your first yoga class, your blood pressure will likely be lower, you’ll be relaxed and you’ll feel better, Cunningham said.
Long-term, sustained yoga may play a role in improving overall health, according to Cunningham.
“The more energy you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it,” she said. “After 12 weeks, you may see a dramatic increase in exercise functionality, and blood pressure and cholesterol levels may decrease.” If you have heart disease, diabetes or are obese, check with your doctor before starting a yoga program. “I highly recommend going to a qualified and trained cardiac medical yoga instructor,” Cunningham said. To find an instructor in your area, check with your local cardiac rehab center or visit cardiacyoga.com.