Historically, the approach to preventing heart disease in America has involved some form of aerobic exercise. However for many Americans with pre-existing heart conditions, those with muscle and joint pain, those who are older, or those who simply do not enjoy high-impact workouts, exercise is avoided altogether. But now researchers have found that low-impact yoga workouts are beneficial in improving risk factors for heart disease and may be an effective therapy for the health of your heart.
What is Yoga?
The word yoga comes from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, and is often interpreted as meaning "union", as in unifying the mind, body, and spirit. There are two general aspects to practicing yoga- pranayama (breathing exercises) and asanas (physical postures)- and these two aspects are always practiced together.
The philosophical basis of most of today's yoga practices rely on a series of aphorisms written in the 2nd century known as the Yoga Sutras of Patajali which classifies asanas as one of the eight "limbs" of yoga. Each asana has specific physical benefits, particularly increasing strength and flexibility through stretching achieved by breathing and holding the correct posture. The poses can be done quickly in succession, increasing heat and circulation in the body through movement, or more slowly to increase stamina and perfect the posture.
But while many people think that yoga is just stretching, the majority of the other "limbs" of the Patajali are more concerned with mental and spiritual well-being than physical activity. Stretching is certainly involved, but as the Patajali points out yoga is really more about creating balance across the spirit, mind, and body. So while the body becomes flexible and strong through pranayama and asanas, so does the spirit and the mind.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that science is now supporting yoga may have a positive effect on reducing the risk of heart disease, a chronic illness recently linked to independent risk factors such as depression and spiritual detachment. For several decades, many Americans have already known that practicing yoga is a gateway towards reducing stress, balancing mental activity, and growing spiritual awareness.
While there may never be enough science to support those claims, a recent study has discovered the significant effects of yoga in lowering traditional risk factors for heart disease such as blood pressure, obesity, and total cholesterol.
The Effectiveness of Yoga in Changing Risk Factors for Heart Disease
Published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, the study on the effects of yoga in modifying risk factors for heart disease included 37 randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The study compared the effects of yoga on common risk factors for heart disease in relation to those people who do not exercise and those who engage in aerobic exercise.
Compared to the group that did not exercise, the group practicing yoga showed significant improvement in reduction of body mass index, reduction of systolic blood pressure, reduction of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and increase in high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). Significant secondary changes also included lowered body weight, diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and heart rate. Yoga also showed significant improvement when used in addition to medication. However no changes were found with fasting blood glucose nor glycosylated hemoglobin (diabetic markers).
When compared to aerobic exercise, yoga showed comparable effects on cardiovascular risk factors. Researchers believed this may be due to the impact of yoga on reducing stress.
Paula Chu, et al, "The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials ," European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/2047487314562741