A growing body of research from Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that practicing yoga can lower stress and help those recovering from heart attacks.
“A large number of studies show that yoga benefits many aspects of cardiovascular health,” says Hugh Calkins, director of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “There’s been a major shift in the last five years or so in the number of cardiologists and other professionals recognising that these benefits are real.”
Yoga is a mind and body activity that involves moving through a series of body poses and breathing exercises that can improve strength, flexibility, balance and relaxation. Dozens of different formats, or practices, such as hatha, anusara, ashtanga and many others, emphasise different focuses, such as toning, strength training or meditation.
One of yoga’s clearest benefits to the heart is its ability to relax the body and mind. Emotional stress can cause a cascade of physical effects, including the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which narrow arteries and increase blood pressure. The deep breathing and mental focus of yoga can offset this stress.
Worry and depression commonly follow a cardiac event, such as a heart attack, bypass surgery or diagnosis of heart disease. As part of an overall treatment plan, yoga can help you manage this stress.
Yoga may help lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels, as well as heart rate. One study has shown that blood measurements and waist circumference—a marker for heart disease—improved in middle-aged adults with metabolic syndrome who practiced yoga for three months.
Another study has shown that slow-paced yoga classes twice a week reduced the frequency of atrial fibrillation episodes in patients with that condition. In another report, patients with heart failure who went through an eight-week yoga program showed improvement in exercise capacity and quality of life. They also had lower blood levels of markers for inflammation, which contributes to heart disease.
Some research indicates yoga might even help smokers quit, one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease.
Yoga can also improve flexibility, muscle strength and balance. Because it’s often not a form of aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate, John Hopkins recommends that yoga shouldn’t be included as part of your recommended weekly total for moderate to vigorous physical activity.