Yoga: Good for Your Heart

Yoga pose to open Heart

Practitioners of Hatha yoga have long praised the ability of the practice to calm the mind and heal the body.  The great teacher BKS Iyengar came to his teacher TKV Krishnamacharya to heal his ill health. Now, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, GA have supported this observation with new evidence that the physical practice of yoga asana can greatly benefit heart failure patients.

Heart failure is defined as a chronic disorder that limits the efficiency of the heart preventing it from pumping a sufficient amount of blood through the body. Though the study is preliminary, the initial findings are very positive.  Medically, the study concluded that an eight-week course of yoga can help reduce the inflammation that is linked to death in heart failure patients, and when done wisely, is completely safe. There was also a significant difference in the main biological markers between yoga participants and traditionally treated patients.  Participants in the study experienced a 26 percent decrease in symptoms based on a quality of life assessment, compared to only a three percent drop of those who were treated on traditional medical therapy. In addition, the doctors conducting the study referenced the immense benefits of the body-mind connection in healing and quality of life.

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Heart failure patients often experience difficulty in exercising due to fatigue and shortness of breath, and the study found that as an exercise, hatha yoga was completely accessible to these patients.  It touted the benefits of the mild aerobic exercise of hatha yoga due to the strong emphasis on the breath linked with more gentle movements of the body. As exercise is of utmost importance in maintaining health and lowering depression in chronically ill patients, an accessible program is of great significance.

Drawing awareness to the importance of the mind-body connection is a gigantic step in bridging the gap between treating the symptoms and healing the whole person, which has been an ongoing criticism of traditional western medicine. Almost anyone who has ever practiced hatha yoga can attest to the mental and emotional enhancements that occur as a result of practice. Even those who come to the mat for purely physical reasons usually feel a sense of mental ease and steadiness following even the most demanding practice. So, at last the medical community is beginning to recognize the truths that so many practitioners have known all along, and it’s always nice to have scientific proof for what we already know!

Many of us are aware that our emotional health has a direct effect on our physical well being.  I myself, during an extremely stressful period in my life, developed a stomach ulcer as an effect of stress. So it is no surprise that even if the cause of the dis-ease in the body isn’t directly related to our emotional health, the state of our mind can have a great impact on the severity or healing of our physical issues. In the recent past, a visit to the doctor would result in a stack of prescriptions to deal with your individual physical symptoms, but the root cause of the suffering might be overlooked.  The process has been to treat the symptoms and you will feel better. But treating the symptoms doesn’t often treat the cause of illness, which can frequently be traced back to this mind-body connection. As humans, we are not sets of independently functioning systems that have no connection with each other, instead we are a complex connection of interwoven, interrelated organs, systems, and structures that enable us to survive and be healthy.  When one of these systems is deficient or stressed, the other systems suffer.  One of the insights from this study is the importance of maintaining whole health when fighting dis-ease in the body. Another study out of Yale suggests that this whole health approach can also help prevent the occurrence of heart dis-ease and its markers.

As a practitioner and teacher of hatha yoga, the biggest challenge I see with these findings is encouraging those who have never practiced yoga to come to the mat. Especially for those who have a view of yoga as contortion, “only for flexible people,” or have trepidation about bringing awareness to themselves.  We now have the research to back our constant claims that yoga can benefit your health, but we still have the hurdle of fear of the unknown to overcome. So how do we begin to bring people to the mat? Well, studies like this one provide a strong support, as do gearing classes toward a specific population.  My father suffers from heart disease and would not even consider yoga as an option due to the fact that he thinks everyone in the class must be young, strong, and flexible.  In his defense, most of my students do fall in to one or more of the previous categories. As a teacher, it is fun and challenging to have a class full of physically fit practitioners eager to learn.  But, is there not a greater reward in gearing our classes to the specific needs of a group of students in a way that would greatly improve their quality of life?

This is not to say that wherever you are reading this you are not already teaching or taking one of these types of classes. The majority of classes out there, though, are being modeled after the aerobics craze of the 70’s and 80’s; big classes of skinny, sweaty people. So now, science is showing us evidence of deeper and more profound health benefits as well as earnest mental and emotional connections.  In the classic tradition of hatha yoga, teachers taught in a way that addressed each student’s needs specifically and effectively. So now, as western medicine begins to bridge the gap between mind and body, those of use who experience and teach the benefits of hatha yoga should begin to take these findings into the classes at the studios and gyms where we teach.

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We may find that once we do, the work of hatha yoga will open up a whole new experience to both the students and the teachers, and to both body and mind.  One of yoga’s biggest effects is that it begins to unfold awareness of our bodies and our unhealthy patterns.  Many yoga practitioners attest to the experience of whole life changes as a result of beginning a hatha yoga practice.  Possibly for yoga practitioners who come to the mat with an experience of di-ease, the awareness can be the most effective healing tool that yoga can provide.

Ultimately, when we can begin to see the ability of hatha yoga to affect the whole person, then maybe we can begin to address our sharing of hatha yoga on a more individual basis.

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