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While many yoga students share that they feel better after attending their weekly yoga class, is there  scientific evidence  that yoga actually helps the body?  Yes!  Overwhelmingly, the scientific community has concluded that yoga not only offers psychological benefits, but physiological benefits as well.  Yoga’s focus on breathing, balance, stretching, and strength building all combine to improve the cardiovascular system.  Don’t like high-impact cardio workouts?  No problem. Yoga is an excellent low impact exercise alternative.  As a low impact exercise, yoga exists as a key component to a well-rounded approach to heart health.  Let’s take a look at how a dedicated yoga practice can support a healthy heart.

Mantras and Rhythms

A 2001 study appearing in the British Medical Journal presented research examining whether or not the effect of prayer and yoga mantras could affect autonomic cardiovascular rhythms.  While the study was small including only 23 individuals, researchers found that participants who recited the Ave Maria or a yoga mantra did demonstrate changes.  Researchers looked for changes in the participants’ breathing rates and frequency of cardiovascular oscillations among other factors.  The researchers concluded that the recitations of either prayer or yoga mantras could positively affect cardiovascular rhythms.  Perhaps most importantly, data showed that baroreflex sensitivity, which is one mechanism that assists the body in maintaining healthy blood pressure levels, increased; this increase would suggest an increase in the body’s ability to better maintain a constant blood pressure level.  

Reversing Ischaemic Heart Disease

Ischemic heart disease occurs when the heart muscles experience damage or stress resulting from reduced blood supply.  The body’s blood supply is most often reduced due to more restrictive coronary arteries, medically referred to as atherosclerosis.  A 2004 study entitled “Beneficial effects of yoga lifestyle on reversibility of ischaemic heart disease: caring heart project of International Board of Yoga”, found that lifestyle changes, including a dedicated yoga practice, could aid patients in regressing heart disease.  While the study concluded that there were clinical benefits to practicing yoga, it was not yoga alone that yielded these results; the 71 participants agreed to regularly practice yoga in addition to making dietary modifications and participating in stress management activities for one year.  

As an Ancillary Intervention

An analysis published in the International Journal of Cardiology reviewed many studies regarding whether or not yoga could provide positive benefits to reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors.  The researchers evaluated studies that focused both on individuals in the general population as well as high-risk disease groups.  Researchers looked at a number of factors important to heart health including systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and cholesterol levels among other risk indicators.  Data revealed that yoga could indeed support cardiovascular health.  While not a cure, yoga can support a proactive approach to improving an individual’s overall heart health.

Ayurveda and Yoga

A 2005 literature review found that the combination of Ayurveda and yoga may be an effective method in addressing heart disease or hypertension.  The name Ayurveda can be traced to two Sanskrit words which translate closely to mean “life” and “knowledge”.  While the Ayurveda approach to medicine incorporates many aspects of healthy living including certain herbs and spices as well as meditation, yoga exists as a key component to promote both physical and mental health.  Viewed as a low-impact exercise, yoga exists as an excellent choice for individuals at any physical ability looking to improve their overall heart health.  Yoga’s effectiveness at decreasing the risks of heart diseases and hypertension increase when paired with certain aspects of Ayurveda such as preparations including garlic and turmeric.  

While yoga does not exist as a miracle cure, scientific research supports yoga’s ability to improve cardiovascular health as part of a comprehensive holistic approach.  Yoga’s attention to breath work can help the body increase oxygen levels and decrease overall stress levels.  Overall, decades of data supports yoga’s ability as a paired intervention to decrease a number of cardiovascular risk indicators including high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  Regularly practicing yoga while making positive dietary choices including specific attention to heart healthy herbs such as turmeric can increase an individual’s ability to improve his or her heart health.  Every yoga teacher approaches teaching differently; therefore, you may need to try several different classes before finding your ideal match.  If you’re just beginning your yoga journey, inquire if your local studio offers a punch card—these cards allow students to drop into a variety of classes and sample different types of yoga as well as teaching styles in order to find the best match.  Commit to yoga: your heart will thank you!
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