Stepping onto a yoga mat might be one of the best things you can do for your heart. Whilst this is quite a strong statement for me to make, scientific research is starting to prove that practicing yoga regularly can bring many health benefits. There have been studies on how yoga and meditation can benefit the mind and body, and in this article we will explore how yoga can benefit the heart. I’ll also share some yoga asanas that you can practice at home.
How yoga can benefit the heart
To understand how yoga can benefit the heart, we must first understand how the heart works and the job it does. Anatomically, the heart is a muscular organ about the size of a closed fist, nestled between the lungs and slightly off to the left of the chest cavity. Its function is to pump blood through the body via the cardiovascular system (the heart, arteries and veins), to deliver oxygen and nutrients, whilst at the same time removing carbon dioxide and waste. It’s a lovely cycle: the lungs oxygenate the blood. The heart pumps this oxygenated blood around the body via the arteries. Deoxygenated blood from different parts of the body is then directed back towards the heart via the veins, and back to the lungs, where the cycle starts again.
High blood pressure and heart rate, bad cholesterol and inflammation caused by stress, smoking, alcohol, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle can negatively affect the heart and circulatory system and lead to disease.
Yoga is a great way to combat these negative effects as it is an easily accessible physical practice that emphasizes breath, focus and meditation. Practicing yoga brings a deeper awareness of the body, mind and emotions. This allows the practitioner of yoga to become more in tune with their physical and mental health. Indeed, a regular yoga practice can build cardiovascular health, increase lung capacity and improve respiratory function and heart rate. It can also boost blood circulation and build muscle.
Yoga for a peaceful heart
The heart has always been a symbol of our emotions. Some studies have suggested that factors such as grief and depression can contribute to poor heart health. Maybe, you have experienced a tightening or a kind of pain in the centre of your chest when going through a particularly hard time.
Posture could play a role in the functioning of the heart. Think of the posture when a person lacks confidence or is sad. Their shoulders droop and their chest tends to fold down towards the floor. This posture compresses the heart and lungs. If this posture is combined with excess weight around the waistline, it’s no surprise people can start to feel short of breath. I’ve often wondered as a yoga teacher (and a previous role as a radiographer) what role a bad seated posture in the office plays in feelings of depression. Yoga teaches us to sit tall and to open our chest. This can have an amazing effect on our mood, confidence and another great way to see how yoga can benefit the heart.
There are a number of yoga poses that are great for opening the heart chakra (Anahata Chakra), the energetic heart of the chakra system located at the centre of the chest. (The chakras are an ancient concept, which consider how energy moves around the body around seven core points). By practising heart opening yoga poses, we can benefit the heart on a physical level and on an emotional level. Opening the heart area can help bring the experience of loving kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others. If you are interested in learning more about loving kindness, you might like to read our earlier article: how to practice loving kindness and the meditation practice of metta.
On a philosophical level, yoga can also teach us acceptance and non-judgement of ourselves and others. This can help us steady our emotional responses.
Yoga and stress
Another major contributor to poor heart health is stress. In this month’s sister article, Tania explores how stress can affect heart health. Emotional stress causes a negative chain reaction in your body. If you’re feeling angry, anxious, tense, frustrated, depressed or frightened, your body’s natural response is to release stress hormones. These hormones include cortisol and adrenaline. They prepare your body to deal with stress. They cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow. These hormones also increase your blood pressure and blood sugar levels. This “fight or flight” response is thought to date back to prehistoric times, when we needed an extra burst of energy to escape predators.
After your stress subsides, your blood pressure and heart rate should return to normal. But if you’re constantly stressed, your body doesn’t have a chance to recover. This may lead to damage of the blood vessel walls in the circulatory system.
It’s no secret that yoga is a great way to aid relaxation and to decrease stress. By practicing yoga, especially the more relaxing poses like Savasana (corpse pose), or quieter yoga practices like Yin Yoga or Restorative Yoga, the body has a chance to relax, stress hormones are reduced, thereby reducing blood pressure and heart rate. Yoga can also help to promote sleep, which can have a beneficial effect on depression and reduce stress.
Stress may affect us in other ways. It might cause us to neglect our bodies, perhaps by overeating, neglecting to exercise or turning to addictions such as alcohol. Yoga can help us to manage these conditions. Yoga teaches us to look inwards and become more mindful of how we feel within our bodies. When we tune in during our practice, we begin to discover what really makes us feel good and what doesn’t.
Yoga and the breath
The practice of yoga incorporates breath control (Pranayama) and also slow mindful breath whilst practicing the yoga postures. Often when we are stressed or anxious, our breath can become shallow. Yoga teaches us to be mindful of our breath. Practicing breath control exercises (pranayama) has been proven to help improve lung capacity and efficiency. This relates to heart health because when the lungs function efficiently, the blood to be sent around the body by the heart is aerated with vital oxygen. This is especially important for those with lung disease, heart problems and asthma.
Yoga Poses for a Healthy Heart
Below I share four of my favourite yoga poses for a healthy heart, for you to practice at home:
Bridge Pose (Setubandha)
This pose can be practiced actively with the soles of the feet pressed into the floor or passively lying on bolsters/cushions in a restorative version.
- Helps to prevent arterial blockages by resting the heart muscles and increasing blood circulation to the arteries.
- Helps to combat fluctuating and high blood pressure.
- Helps depression by soothing the brain and expanding the chest.
- Relieves stress-related headaches, nervous exhaustion and insomnia.
Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
This pose can be practiced with a brick or bolster under the head
- Relieves depression and anxiety
- Stabilises blood pressure and heart rate
- Energises the body
In the video above I demonstrate how to practice this asana. To come into downward facing dog, start on your hands and knees on your yoga mat. The tops of the feet are on the yoga mat at this stage. Align your knees under your hips and your wrists under your shoulders. Now sit your bottom back towards your heels as much as you can and slide your hands forward as much as you can reach (elbows off the floor). Make sure that the palms of your hands and fingers are spread wide and evenly. Now tuck your toes under, sit back towards your heels again and lift your hips up towards the sky. Come up onto your toes and then stretch your heels back behind you. (It doesn’t matter if they don’t get to the floor!). Hold the pose for a few breaths and then rest back to one of your starting positions.
Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar)
This is a series of yoga poses that are practiced in a sequence and with the breath. It is a very balanced practice and is ideally practiced in the morning. It can be practiced mindfully and slowly or a bit faster to pick up the heart rate and strengthen the heart. We describe how to practice this in our earlier article: what is vinyasa flow yoga and how it can boost your energy. Check out the video!
Legs up the wall pose (Viparita Karani)
This pose is one of our all-time favourites and has so many benefits. It is practiced lying down, with your bottom close to a wall, then with both legs up the wall.
- Regulates blood pressure.
- Helps to prevent cardiac disorders.
- Relieves heart palpitations.
- Regulates blood flow in the body.
- Relieves swollen ankles and varicose veins.
Remember if you have any health concerns it’s advisable to speak to a medical professional, particularly before taking up a new exercise or trying yoga for the first time. They might very well recommend yoga or meditation. We also recommend that you seek out a well-qualified yoga teacher, particularly when trying new asanas. The yoga teacher can also advise you on a particular yoga style that suits your needs.
Come on a yoga retreat
Here at La Crisalida we teach a variety of yoga styles each week. Some of these are more restful like Yin and Restorative yoga which are ideal for stress and depression. We also offer more active classes like Vinyasa or Hatha flow, which are great to help strengthen the cardiovascular system.