Heart disease is the single leading cause of death in Australia. There is now a significant body of research to demonstrate that Yoga Therapy can play an important role in helping people to manage heart disease.
The European Journal of Preventative Cardiology found that yoga (and not the active, exercise kind of yoga) is comparable to walking and biking when it comes to cardiovascular health.
The study, a meta-analysis of 37 randomised controlled studies, suggests that these benefits could be due to yoga's impact on stress reduction, "leading to positive impacts on neuroendocrine status, metabolic and cardio-vagal function."
What does this mean for ordinary Australians looking to reduce their risk of heart disease? Well, here are the averaged outcomes for the study:
- Systolic blood pressure reduced by 5.21 mm Hg
- Low-density (bad) lipoprotein cholesterol reduced by 12.14 mg/dl
- High-density (good) lipoprotein cholesterol increased by 3.20 mg/dl.
- Body weight decreased by 2.32 kg
- Diastolic blood pressure reduced by 4.9 mm Hg
- Total cholesterol reduced by 18.48 mg/dl
- Heart rate dropped by 5.27 beats/min.
- In patients with existing coronary heart disease, yoga displayed a statistically significant benefit in lowering LDL cholesterol when added to statins and lipid-lowering drugs.
These outcomes significantly lower the risk of heart disease.
How Yoga Helps Manage Cardiovascular Health
Blood circulation and venous return
The contraction and relaxation of muscles required to perform asanas creates a pumping effect in the veins and arteries which can help the heart to pump blood (and oxygen, nutrients etc) around the body.
This can be especially helpful for students who have issues with ‘venous return’, that is, the flow of de-oxygenated blood back to the heart. When veins become weak and the valves faulty, they can allow blood to move backwards away from the heart, creating pools of blood in the veins, known as varicose veins. As well as the pumping action of muscular contraction and relaxation, asanas that elevate the legs (inversions) help with venous return.
Atherosclerosis (clogged arteries)
Atherosclerosis is a serious condition that can lead to heart attack and stroke. While high cholesterol has long been linked with clogged and blocked arteries, studies are increasingly pointing to inflammation in the lining of the blood vessels as an underlying cause (Libby, P 2002). ‘Silent’ inflammation can be measured by levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood.
Yoga can help manage inflammatory conditions in two ways. Firstly, moderate exercise has been show to reduce chronic inflammation (conversely, strong and demanding exercise has been linked to increased inflammation). Secondly, studies have shown that people prone to anger, hostility and depression have higher levels of CRP. Also, when the body is under stress (physical or psychological), the body produces pro-inflammatory cytokines. Yoga is a powerful stress-beater and as such is effective in helping to reduce chronic inflammation.
High Blood Pressure
A 2013 Pennsylvania University study found that subjects with primary hypertension who followed a program of yoga 2-3 times per week experienced a significant drop in BP – greater than a group who changed to a BP reducing diet. While there is more work to be done, the researchers hypothesise this is because of yoga’s stress-reducing benefits.
Yoga Therapy for Heart Health
There are many simple Yoga Therapy practices that are highly beneficial for students with, or at risk of, cardiovascular disease. Practices must be tailored to the needs of every individual and these techniques are guidelines rather than prescriptive.
- Restorative poses
- Forward bends (being aware of blood pressure and using props to support the head)
- Mindfulness techniques
- Calming and cooling pranayama
- Relaxation techniques
- Modified asana (ie. simplified variations of standing poses and slow, repetitive movements from one gentle posture to another)
Learn more about Yoga Therapy programs for heart disease and other health conditions.
The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, published 15, 2014. Paula Chu, Rinske A Gotink, Gloria Y Yeh, Sue J Goldie, MG Myram Hunink.
Libby, P (2002) Inflammation and Atherosclerosis. Clinical Cardiology: New Frontiers 2002; 105: 1135-1143
Cohen DL (2013) Yoga and Hypertension. J Yoga Phys Ther 3:144.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.