Ever since the days when I was first training as a cardiologist, I’ve been an advocate of yoga for the heart. This fantastic form of exercise and relaxation is believed to have started about 5,000 years ago in India, but only began to be taught in the West about a century ago.
I first became interested in yoga when the practice became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. In my mid-thirties, I was asked to coach a high school wrestling team and yoga helped me to limber up and ready myself for coaching. It was the best medicine I could possibly use for my joints and muscles.
More recently, the science backing the power of yoga to improve heart health has literally exploded—and I’ve seen firsthand the power yoga can have on heart health. But what really drove that home from me was my experiences lecturing on heart health at a yoga retreat in Sivananda. When I brought a machine that measured heart rate variability with me to the retreat, the yoga instructors had textbook perfect numbers!
How Yoga Improves Heart Health
The Sanskrit word yoga means “union” or “integration,” and the practice does just that. It makes us stronger, more flexible, and able to function at a higher level both physically and mentally. It slows the activity of our sympathetic nervous system, which pours out stress hormones that can make us sick.
Over the years, I’ve seen yoga help many patients with their cardiovascular health, blood pressure, anxiety, depression, lower back problems, arthritis, and even digestion. And the research on yoga for heart health is extremely impressive.
For example, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that in patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, yoga significantly reduced the number of atrial fibrillation episodes. Plus, it improved their blood pressure, heart rate, mental health, and overall quality of life.
In another study published in the International Journal of Cardiology, researchers reviewed the results of 41 previous studies on the impact of yoga on cardiovascular disease risk factors and found that yoga had a positive impact on everything from heart and respiratory rates, to blood lipids, and blood sugar.
Yoga also helps to improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is the measure of the variation in time between your heart beats. The conscious breathing techniques used in yoga have a calming and balancing effect on HRV, enhancing your cardiovascular health.
Over the years, I’ve often recommended yoga to my patients and readers. I know that some of you do it because you’ve told me so. But if you don’t, it’s not too late to start. When done properly and gently, you don’t have to worry—as many seniors do—about hurting yourself.
The Best Yoga Poses for Heart Health
For the best advice on yoga for heart health, I consulted with Larry Payne, Ph.D. who is one of the foremost yoga teachers in the country. Dr. Payne is the co-founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, a group for professionals who teach yoga to individuals with medical or physical limitations. He also co-developed the yoga curriculum at the UCLA School of Medicine and is a co-author of Yoga for Dummies.
Dr. Payne recommends the following basic yoga poses for heart health. As you do each of these poses, you want to practice “yoga breathing.” That means breathing purposefully through the nose—you inhale and pause for a moment, then you exhale and pause for a moment, usually in conjunction with a specific movement.
- Tadasana (Mountain): Stand comfortably with your feet about 4–6 inches apart, toes pointed forward. Look straight ahead and stand tall (align your ears with the middle of your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles). One way to make sure you’re doing this correctly is to stand with your back against a wall. Once you are in position, start your yoga breathing.
- Vira bhadrasana (Warrior): Start in the mountain pose but rotate your left foot outward a quarter turn and extend your right arm forward until it is parallel to the floor. Take one big step forward with your right foot so that your foot is beneath your outstretched hand. Then place your hands on your hips. With your back straight, bend your front knee. You should be able to see your toes. If you can’t, gently extend your foot a little further. Now straighten the leg, let your arms hang to your side, and inhale. While breathing in, bend the front knee again and raise both arms over your head. Then, as you exhale, slowly bring your arms back down to your sides and straighten your knee. Repeat this motion three times. On the third repetition, hold the posture for about 6–8 breaths, which is about 30 seconds. Repeat the same movement with the other side of your body.
- Bhujangasana (Cobra): Lie on your stomach with your legs slightly separated. Turn your heels out and point your toes in. Bend your arms so your hands are beside your shoulders, and your palms are against the floor. Keep your elbows tucked close to your sides and drop your shoulders. As you inhale, lift your head and torso upward as high as you can while still keeping your hips on the floor. Don’t lift the hips. Keep your buttocks loose. As you exhale, come back down to the starting position (this is one position that you do not want to hold at the top). Perform this movement 6–12 times according to your ability. If you cannot raise yourself all the way up in the manner described, try using your forearms for support—just be sure to keep them flat on the ground.
- Apanasana (Knees to Chest): Lying on your back, bring your knees to your chest. Then place each hand on the sides of your legs just below your knees, as if to gently hold the knee inward. If you have knee problems, you can put your hands on the backs of your legs for added stability. In apanasana, you can do any one or several movements: holding the knees, squeezing them closer to the chest in an inward/outward motion, gently rocking forward/backward, or rocking laterally.
- Shavasana (Corpse): Lie on your back. Your legs should be straight, with your feet naturally turned out. Place your hands at your sides, palms up. If you have a lower back problem, you may bend the knees instead of keeping them straight. Stay in the position for 3–5 minutes. Focus on your breath. After doing this position regularly for a while, increase the time to 15–20 minutes. As you lengthen the time, the pose will become like meditation.
I do the Warrior and Cobra poses daily when I exercise, and they have made a real difference in my health and overall mental outlook. As you practice yoga for heart health, do not force any of these poses. If a pose doesn’t feel comfortable, adjust it or skip it. In the beginning, hold the poses for about 30 seconds unless otherwise noted, and slowly work up to about a minute.
In addition to practicing the heart healthy yoga poses, you can also add alternate nostril breathing, where you hold one nostril closed as you slowly inhale to the count of 4 through the open nostril. Then you close the other nostril and exhale to the count of 8 through the now open nostril. You then continue alternating. It is an excellent way to release stress, which is good for your heart and overall health.