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5 Ways Yoga Promotes Heart Health

In honor of American Heart Month, here are five ways that yoga promotes a healthier heart.
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The controversial New York Times article, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," has sparked heated debate about yoga injuries. The article discussed very rare and extreme injuries allegedly caused by yoga such as strokes, nerve damage and spinal injury. It cited a few incidents dating back to the 1970s and some emergency room statistics, but didn't include any medical studies about yoga injuries.

By highlighting these sensationalistic aspects, the readers were misled. They were left with a false and imbalanced impression of yoga since there wasn't a mention of yoga's benefits.

The article did not refer to the hundreds of studies highlighting yoga's therapeutic benefits. For example, medical research shows that yoga promotes heart health and decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American adults. February has been proclaimed American Heart Month, spotlighting heart disease prevention and resources.

In honor of American Heart Month, here are five ways that yoga promotes a healthier heart.

1. Yoga Meditation Lowers Heart Attack Risk

A small study presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando reports transcendental meditation (TM) could potentially lower the risk of heart attack and death by up to 47 percent in patients with heart disease. Transcendental meditation (TM) is a form of yoga meditation introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s.

Researchers at the Center for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee randomly assigned African American patients with heart disease either to a group including TM and high blood pressure drugs or a group with high blood pressure drugs only. TM was practiced for 15 to 20 minutes a day for five to nine years.

The researchers found that the TM group experienced a 47 percent reduction in heart attack and death rates, as compared to the other group. The findings also revealed that the TM group had a significant reduction in blood pressure and psychological stress.

2. Yoga Supports Healthy Heart Rate

A study published in the International Journal of Medical Engineering and Informatics, found yoga supports healthy heart rate. Heart Rate variability (HRV) measures beat-to-beat changes in heart rate, indicating how well the heart responds to changes in the autonomic nervous system. HRV is high in healthy people and reduced in those with heart disease.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, Uttrakhand, India, analyzed HRV spectra of the electrocardiograms (ECG) of 42 healthy, experienced yoga practitioners and 42 healthy non-yoga practitioners (ages 18 to 48).

The researchers found that autonomic parasympathetic vagal control was stronger in the yoga practitioners, compared with the non-yoga practitioners. Strong vagal control is associated with better autonomic control over heart rate and a healthy heart.

3. Yoga Meditation Promotes Healthy Blood Pressure

A study published in the American Journal of Hypertension in 2005 shows yoga transcendental meditation (TM) may lower high blood pressure.

Researchers at the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa, randomly assigned 150 African American men and women with high blood pressure to 20 minute twice daily TM, progressive muscle relaxation or conventional health education classes. The participants continued their standard medical therapy. Blood pressure measurements were obtained from the participants at three, six, nine and 12 months after treatment.

The researchers found that the TM group had the greatest decrease in blood pressure, compared with the other two groups. Furthermore, meditation participants used blood pressure drugs less often than participants in the other two groups.

4. Yoga Reduces Irregular Heart Rhythm

A study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans reports yoga can reduce episodes of atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm). Atrial fibrillation is a a leading cause of stroke.

Researchers at the University of Kansas Hospital assigned 49 patients with atrial fibrillation to supervised yoga practice. The participants continued their standard medical therapy. Heart monitor measurements and questionnaire responses were obtained from the participants. The patients took 45 minute yoga classes three times a week for three months.

The researchers found that participants had about half the episodes of irregular heart rhythm, compared to episodes before yoga classes. Symptoms of anxiety and depression were also reduced.

5. Yoga Helps Heart Failure Patients

A small study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reveals that yoga improves cardiovascular endurance, heart inflammation, flexibility and quality of life in African American heart failure patients. More than five million Americans have chronic heart failure, a condition where the heart can no longer sufficiently pump blood to meet the body's needs.

Researchers from Georgia State University in Atlanta administered either yoga therapy or a control group to 40 patients with heart failure for eight to 10 weeks. Treadmill, flexibility, EKG tests, blood samples and quality of life questionnaire responses were obtained from the participants on the first and last day of the program.

All the patients participated in a home walk program. The yoga group also participated in 16 yoga therapy sessions for heart disease patients.

The researchers found that the yoga group had a 22 percent improvement in aerobic capacity. Furthermore, flexibility was improved by more than 4 cm on sit-and-reach tests. Findings also revealed that the yoga group had decreased inflammatory markers associated with heart failure and improved quality of life scores.

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Elaine Gavalas is an exercise physiologist, yoga therapist, weight management specialist, nutritionist and healthy recipe developer.