Yoga for Heart Health

According to the American Heart Association,coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, causing about 1.5 million heart attacks each year.  Recent research has shown yoga and meditation to reduce blood pressure, lower the pulse rate, improve the elasticity of the arteries, regulate heart rhythm, and increase the heart’s stroke volume.  Yoga, in short, is good for your heart.

Stress is considered a major contributing factor in heart disease. Stressful situations raise your heart rate and blood pressure, and release stress hormones, which all can injure the heart and the blood vessels, especially during prolonged or repeated exposures. Yoga is widely known for its ability to reduce stress and promote a calm relaxed state, which in turn reduces stress hormones, decreases the heart rate and lowers blood pressure, helping to control and prevent heart disease.

The breath has a strong influence on the rhythm of the heart through the inner connections in the central nervous system. Slow deep breathing is encouraged by hatha yoga, pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) and verbal recitation of mantras.  And this smoothing and lengthening of the breath slows the heart rate, regulates the heart rhythm, oxygenates the blood, and induces a feeling of calm and well-being. All of the benefits of establishing a slow steady breath rhythm have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Because of their effects on both the physical and energetic bodies, specific types of yoga postures can be used to control and prevent heart disease.  Upper back-bending poses open the chest to improve heart function and respiration.  Side-bending poses open the energy channels of the liver, gall bladder and heart to help remove physical and energetic blockages in the heart and chest. Spine lengthening poses promote good posture to reduce compression on the heart and lungs and to facilitate proper functioning of the heart.  Shavasana (corpse or relaxation pose) is deeply calming and has been shown to reduce high blood pressure in just a few weeks.  Inversions help to rest the heart muscle and improve blood circulation, but are contraindicated with unmedicated high blood pressure. Findings show that people who practice yoga and meditation at least three times a week may reduce their blood pressure, pulse and their overall risk of heart disease.

Meditation is renowned for its ability to calm the mind and reduce stress.  It also can reduce heart-harmful emotions, such as anxiety, hostility and hopelessness.  And studies have shown that a daily meditation practice can reduce the amount of fatty deposits in the arteries, as well as lower blood pressure.

Practicing yoga naturally leads one to choose a healthier lifestyle, which most often eliminates or minimizes heart disease’s dietary risk factors of refined sugar, alcohol, high cholesterol and fat rich foods, and caffeine

While all of these yogic practices together they create powerful healing synergy on the heart

Yoga for Tendonitis

Tendonitis is the inflammation or irritation o fa tendon (the attachment of a muscle to bone). Excessive repetitive movements most often cause tendonitis, but it can also be caused by a minor impact on the affected area, or from a sudden more serious injury.  The symptoms of tendonitis are: pain and stiffness, usually around a joint, which is aggravated by movement. Tendonitis is usually a temporary condition, but may become a recurrent or chronic problem

The healing of tendonitis occurs in two main stages, acute and subacute.  Yoga supports the healing process in both stages by activating the body’s lymphatic system and by improving local circulation.  Yoga is best used for healing in the sub acute stage of tendonitis, as well as for preventing recurring bouts of tendonitis.

For acute tendonitis, rest the injured area fo r4-6 days.  Do not perform any movements that require strength, aggravate the injury, or produce any pain. Elevating the affected area during the inflammation stage helps to control any swelling thereby reducing the throbbing that often accompanies acute inflammation. Inversion poses will be very helpful to reduce inflammation by activating the lymphatic system, and will also provide elevation if the injury is located in the lower body.  After the swelling has subsided (usually after the first 48 to 72 hours), very gentle and slow range of motion movements can be performed, but do not stretch the muscles that trigger the tendonitis pain.

The sub acute stage of tendonitis follows and lasts between 1-3 weeks. Gentle stretching is the first step of rehabilitation.Stay focused on the breath and the sensations of the stretch, but do not stretch to the point of pain.  The next step is to slowly and gentlystrengthen the muscles surrounding and attached to the injured tendon. Begin with slow, gentle non-weight bearing movements and gradually increase the amount of motion and number of repetitions. As symptoms resolve, gradually resume using weight-bearing movements. Strengthening the surrounding muscles restores full support to the effected joint and reduces the risk of recurrent tendonitis.  An adequate warm-up before and correct posture during yoga is essential in this healing stage of tendonitis.

Once the acute and sub acute stages of tendonitis or subsides, preventing recurrences is crucial to avoid developing a chronic condition.  Developing conscious use of muscles, correct posture and good alignment as well as reducing repetitive movements are necessary. A regular yoga practice will address all these needs, as well as keep the tendons in good health.  Care must be taken in yoga to not push or over stretch that can injure or irritate the tendons.

Tendonitis can sometimes recur with a return to physical activity, and prolonged bouts of this painful condition can lead to a thickening or rupture of the tendon. Thus, if the symptoms of tendonitis reappear, it is essential to return to following the movement guidelines for the acute stage.

A yoga practice should be used to supplement conventional therapy, not replace it. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms do not improve.

How Yoga Heals

It has become common knowledge that yoga is good for you. Currently yoga is being used as a therapy for cancer, infertility, lung disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, insomnia, high bloodpressure, and joint pain.  Yet there is very little awareness and understanding on exactly how yoga heals, even in the yoga and medical communities. The key is to understand the relationships between stress, yoga and disease.

Medical research estimates as much as 90 percent of illness and disease is stress related.  A few of the many diseases and conditions that have been linked to an over active stress response include: cardio-vascular disease, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, some types of diabetes mellitus, some autoimmune diseases, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, reproductive problems, and suppression of the immune system.

What we feel as stress, is the product of the sympathetic nervous system or the “fight or flight” response: an almost instantaneous surge in heart rate, cardiac output, blood pressure, sweating, shallow breathing, and metabolism, combined with a tensing of muscles. Internally, the “fight or flight” response shuts down digestion and elimination and reduces blood flow to the internal organs. Short term, this stress reaction is a good thing. The “fight or flight” response prepares us to respond to any environmental threat by fighting against it or fleeing from it.  But long term, continuous exposure to stress is harmful, placing excess wear and tear on the body’s systems and severely limiting the body’s natural maintenance and healing abilities.

Chronic stress can lead to continuously high levels of cortisol. This hormone at normal levels helps to maintain an active, healthy body (including regulation of metabolism and blood pressure). But excessive amounts of cortisol can suppress the immune system and cause sleep disturbances, loss of sex drive and loss of appetite. High levels of cortisolcan also increase your heart rate, blood pressure and your cholesterol and triglyceride levels (risk factors for both heart attacks and strokes). The by products of cortisol act as sedatives, which can lead to changes in mood, especially to feelings of depression.

Fortunately, the body has a natural counterbalance to the “fight or flight” response, called the parasympatheticnervous system or the “relaxation response.”  The parasympathetic nervous system becomes activated when the threat or stressor has passed or ended, but it can also be consciously activated by deepening the breath and by relaxing the skeletal muscles.

When activated, the parasympathetic nervous system lowers blood pressure, heart rate and respiration (the pace of the breath). Digestion and elimination are allowed to be stimulated, and blood is free to travel to the digestive, reproductive, glandular, and immune systems —systems necessary for the promotion of long-term health. The “relaxation response” is also known as the “rest and renew” stage, when the body has the time and resources to heal the body and to respond to illness.  Obviously, by increasing the frequency, time and depth of the  “relaxation response” we not only allow our body to recover from illness and disease, but we also practice preventive medicine by allowing the body to perform all of its essential maintenance tasks.

Yoga’s emphasis on long, deep breathing and conscious relaxation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes its “rest and renew” functions.  In fact, a recent study has shown yoga todecrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood.  Themeditative practices of yoga help to reduce the reactiveness of the mind tostressors and to lessen the intensity of the “fight or flight” response. Yoga also teaches us to see potential stressors as challenges rather than threats, enabling one to avoid the stress response entirely.

Not only does yoga’s ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system reduce stress and allow the body to heal itself, but the practice of yoga also improves the body’s inherent healing abilities.  The inverting, twisting and compressing that occurs in yoga postures enhances the circulation of blood and body fluids.  This increase in circulation not only improves the body’s ability to deliver the materials needed to allow healing to take place, but also activates the lymphatic system to maintain normal functioning of the immune system and inflammation response. Yoga poses also improve muscle strength, flexibility and range of motion, all very important for the healing and prevention of musculo skeletal diseases such as arthritis andosteoporosis.  Yoga’s emphasis on deep breathing combined with backbends improves lung capacity and function.  Practicing yoga also encourages one to lead a healthier lifestyle, through developing the self-awareness and discipline required for positive behaviour modification.

Go to the Edge

When holding a yoga posture you want to go to your edge. The edge is the place where you feel a deep stretch in your body or you feel the body working hard, but not going past that to where you hurt yourself or over work the body.

The edge is a magical place, but a scary place too. Getting to know your edges is getting to know your body. Its a body thing, not a mind thing, so let go of any thoughts or distractions. Slow down and listen to the body, easing your way closer and closer. Find the place between pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, creation and destruction, openness and protection. Balance there, feeling both worlds, feeling everything, and breathe.

While yoga possesses such a strong support to the body’s healing mechanisms, it is important to view yoga as an adjunct or complementary therapy, and not relied upon as the only therapy for healing disease

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