Research on Yoga and Heart Disease and What it Means for You

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The results of a Dutch study released in late 2014 made headlines around the world. What was the big announcement? Yoga is good for your cardiac health. A lot of people may have initially assumed that this was the news they’d been waiting for, proving once and for all that yoga is good exercise. But the reasons why yoga is good for your heart may not be what you think.

The 2014 study, led by Dr. Myrium Hunink at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, and published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, reviewed the data of 37 previous studies, which included almost 3000 people.

The data analysis revealed that people who did yoga lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol, both of which are factors in developing heart disease. In fact, people who did yoga had comparable results to those who walked or jogged. The methodologies of the studies reviewed were diverse, in that they did not all include the same type of yoga or a consistent session length, so a more comprehensive study is necessary to confirm these preliminary conclusions. What’s interesting here is that it hasn’t been discovered that yoga is actually aerobic exercise that raises your heart rate. Instead, yoga seems to work by reducing stress, which in turn lowers high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Yoga and the Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease

These conclusions are borne out in practice by ample evidence from the Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease. The program has worked so well that it is now covered by Medicare and is offered as treatment in hospitals and clinics in nine states.

Yoga is only one component of the program, which includes other critical lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, and "love and support." Significantly, yoga is not classified as part of the exercise regime by the program, but rather as stress management

Susi Amendola, who is the Senior Trainer Stress Management Specialist for the Ornish Programs and director of the Omaha Yoga and Bodywork Center, explains that the goal of the yoga practice is to “down regulate the sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight) and up regulate the parasympathetic response (relaxation response).” This is done using five yoga techniques: postures, breathing, relaxation, meditation, and imagery.

Yoga postures (asanas), in this context called healing movements, are done slowly and with deep awareness. Daily, long-term practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher is recommended for optimum effect. The approach to yoga espoused by the Ornish Program has its roots in Integral Yoga

What This Means for You

If you're already doing yoga, you're probably experiencing its heart-healthy effects without realizing it. However, this doesn't mean that you should neglect regular cardio workouts like running or gym time since they offer different benefits. People with heart disease who want to incorporate yoga should speak with their doctors first to make sure that it's an appropriate activity. If you don't have access to a facility that offers the Ornish Program, Susi Amendola suggests reading Dr. Ornish's books and using his website to find out how to make big changes in your lifestyle, specifically nutrition, fitness, stress management, and love and support, the four pillars of the Ornish Program.

There is also an online community to answer questions and offer encouragement.

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