Study Finds Yoga May Encourage Heart Health
When science proves what yogis have always known…
Sometimes, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is. But, for many, after practicing yoga, they claim to simply “feel better." Maybe it is because they feel balanced and grounded. Or maybe they cultivated space in a tight part of the body. But, it’s a common phrase yoga instructors hear after class, “Ah, I feel so much better!”
There are probably a number of reasons yogis feel blissed out after class. But according to a new study at Harvard Medical School, yoga produces subtle, but very real benefits in the heart. Maybe the good feeling after class is the side effect of a happy heart?
This new study found evidence that yoga can promote lower blood pressure, better sleep, and less artery-damaging inflammation. Dedicated yogis are probably saying “duh,” but we love when science proves what yogis for thousands of years have always known!
The Power of Gentle Yoga
Though vigorous forms of yoga, such as vinyasa and power yoga, offer health benefits such as strength and flexibility, researchers at Harvard suggest that it’s the more subtle yoga practices that boost heart health. This isn’t to suggest that more vigorous forms of asana (physical yoga) aren’t beneficial. They just encourage a different type of health.
Pranayama (breath control), particularly forms that encourage slow, deep breathing, was shown to lower blood pressure by five points. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean folks can sit down and take a few deep breaths once in a while. According to the study, the benefits are seen after a few months of consistent practice.
Self-Regulation and Meditation
Whether yogis practice vinyasa as a moving meditation or take a gentle class to relax and breathe, the meditative aspects of yoga may help practitioners self-regulate during stress. When the body feels stress, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. It doesn’t matter if you default to fight or flight. Either way, the body responds the same way: rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and excess stress hormones. Keep in mind that stress is stress. So even if the body experiences “good stress,” it responds the same way.
Through yoga, practitioners can learn to regulate stress responses. This is because yoga activates fight-or-flight’s counterpart, rest-and-digest or the parasympathetic nervous system. The rest-and-digest system slows the heart rate, promotes digestion, and encourages relaxation.
Yogis can tap into the parasympathetic nervous system through asana. For some, they learn to regulate stress by working through challenging, sometimes scary postures (e.g. arm balances or inversions). For others, they learn how to cultivate stillness (e.g. restorative or yin). One study suggested that a single 90-minute practice can lower cortisol, a stress hormone. Again, this doesn’t mean that it’s one and done. A regular, recurring practice offers the most benefits.
Healthy Hearts Feel Connected and Have Purpose?
Many arrive at the yoga practice for exercise. But after time, the practice is more than a sweaty workout. Their lives evolve with purpose, connection, and intention. Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, yoga researcher, neuroscientist, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School states, "They [yogis] have a different perspective on the meaning and purpose of their life, and their goals become less materialistic and more spiritual and charitable.”
And though there is insubstantial evidence that developing a spiritual practice has effects on heart health, research from Mount Sinai Medical Center claims those with a higher sense purpose are less likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke, or heart attack.
The widely-recognized and acclaimed Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program uses a yoga-like framework to promote cardiovascular health. According to the Ornish program, a combination of four lifestyle choices— eating low-fat vegetarian diet, engaging in moderate exercise, managing stress, and upholding supportive relationships—can shrink blockages in arteries. The Ornish program is so well-received that Medicare even reimburses patients for it. And, that’s sayin’ something.
Yoga is for EveryBODY!
Looking to boost heart health through yoga but haven’t practiced yoga before? No worries. Yoga isn’t all fancy poses on Instagram. There is a yoga practice for everyBODY! Though there is no wrong way to practice yoga. Different bodies, personalities, and needs require different forms of the practice. We at Dharma Drops recommend seeking out local studios and practicing face-to-face with a well-trained yoga teacher. But, remember, yoga teachers aren’t doctors (unless your yoga teacher is an actual doctor, too). If you haven’t practice yoga before and are experiencing health issues, check with your doctor about the right type of exercise for your current health.
Rebecca Warfield lives in a small town on the southern coast of North Carolina. In addition to being an avid traveler and writer, she is a university English instructor and RYT-500 yoga teacher. Rebecca spent her 20s traveling solo around the globe, studying literature, and dancing. In her 30s, a New Year’s resolution brought her to yoga, and she hasn’t looked back. She currently teaches yoga full time and is dedicated to sharing yoga’s teachings with others. Rebecca is the founded Rebecca Warfield Yoga and Dharma Drops to celebrate the diversity of practices and experiences of yogis and non-yogis alike.