There is increasing evidence that yoga is beneficial for prevention, retardation, and reversal of heart disease.
Current recommendations regarding the prevention of heart disease advise individuals to integrate “structured exercise,” specifically moderate intensity aerobic activity, into one’s routine five days a week, complemented by strength training two days a week. Although there is no mention of regular yoga practice in these recommendations, there is increasing evidence that yoga is not only beneficial for prevention, retardation, and reversal of heart disease, but is also important for spiritual healing and well-being.
Your blood pressure is elevated. You blame it on chronic stress and the bag of chips you finished in the waiting room. Your doctor wants to treat you with medication. What should you do? Practice yoga. Although many physicians have become accustomed to prescribing multiple antihypertensive medications, in a randomized controlled trial of middle aged adults, daily yoga practice was as effective as medical therapy in controlling high blood pressure (Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, April 2000). Yoga effectively reduces blood pressure by reducing excitatory hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and aldosterone. It also improves the function of specialized receptors that control blood pressure.
Your doctor tells you that your cholesterol levels have increased, you are borderline diabetic, and you’ve gained 30 pounds in the past two years? Now what? Practice yoga. Modern-day yoga has become more rigorous, recruiting large muscle groups and substantially increasing caloric expenditure. Yoga lowers cholesterol levels, decreases body weight and fat stores, and improves the body’s ability to transport sugar to working muscles. A 17 percent decrease in LDL-cholesterol was reported in patients with moderately elevated cholesterol who participated in daily yoga for three months (Acta Physiologica Scandinavica Suppl, 1997). In a study of over 100 patients with diabetes, improvements of blood glucose and reductions in oral diabetes medication were noted in those who completed a 40-day yoga class (Diabetes Research Clinical Practice, Jan. 1993).
Maybe you were experiencing exertional chest pain and you had an abnormal stress test. A subsequent cardiac catheterization showed moderate blockage in your coronary arteries. You don’t want stents and you don’t want bypass surgery. Time for yoga? Recent studies suggest that it may complement conventional medical therapy. In addition to treatment with certain medications (cholesterol medications [statins], aspirin, and blood pressure drugs), patients with documented coronary disease who participated in a one-year yoga intervention several times per week used less nitroglycerin for angina, demonstrated improved cardiorespiratory fitness, required much less need for revascularization with stents or bypass, and actually exhibited more coronary plaque regression and less plaque progression when compared with a sedentary group (Journal Association of Physicians India, July 2000).
You had a heart attack 10 or 20 years ago? What’s done is done, but now only one-third of the pumping capacity of your heart remains and you often feel short of breath. What can you do? Practice yoga (in addition to remaining on standard medical therapy, of course). Nineteen patients with advanced heart failure were studied to determine the effect of yoga on their health.Ten were randomly given standard medical therapy. The other nine were given standard medical therapy complemented by a yoga intervention. After eight weeks, the yoga patients showed greater improvements in levels of inflammatory markers, exercise capacity and quality of life (Journal of Cardiac Failure, June 2008). It has been postulated that yoga improves heart failure symptoms by reducing sympathetic drive, similar to beta-blocker therapy, and through improved breathing techniques.
The popularity of yoga continues to rise. What was once considered to be a system of physical and mental disciplines may now become central in the treatment of patients seeking alternatives or complements to traditional medical therapy. As we continue to learn more about the advantages of yoga, perhaps we can all benefit from less drugs and more downward dog.
Justin Trivax, MD FACC