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Yoga and its heart-healthy benefits

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. Smoking, high blood pressure, a lack of exercise, high cholesterol, anger and stress are some of the key risk factors for developing heart disease. But studies have shown that regular yoga practice can help improve your health on many levels, thereby lowering your risk of developing heart disease.

If you practice yoga exercises like these regularly, it can give your heart health a boost by improving your breathing, reducing your stress and anger, and improving your blood flow.

Understanding yoga

Before diving into yoga exercises for heart health, you need to understand the concept of yoga and the different kinds of movements involved.

The practice of yoga isn’t just limited to āsana (physical movements). A complete yoga practice incorporates prānāyāma (breathing exercises) and meditation, along with a series of physical postures.

The goal of a yoga practice isn’t to have rock hard abs or a beach-ready body. Yoga takes us inward; it allows us to develop focus and concentration step by step.

In āsana, we begin our practice with gentle movements to warm up the body. We then progress to movements which build strength and increase flexibility. The key requirement of the physical practice is to coordinate the breath with the movement, which helps us sustain focus throughout the practice. As the practice progresses, the focus continues to deepen and allows the individual to move their attention inwards. This inward movement of focus connects us with our breath and with our minds.

With the perfect combination of physical movements, breathing exercises and meditation, you can keep your heart healthy and help prevent heart disease down the road.

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Yoga exercises for your heart

Some beneficial āsana for heart health include postures that open the chest region. For example, in Virabhadrāsana (Warrior I), your arms are raised and your back is slightly arched. This gentle backbend helps to expand the muscles around the chest and gives you the ability to deepen your breath. By doing so, you are able to circulate more oxygen to the heart and allow it to function more optimally.

Forward bends, such as Paschimottanāsana (seated forward fold), are also beneficial as they are calming to the system and can help you keep your stress level down.

After a carefully curated series of āsana, prānāyāma comes next. You can modify your breathing exercises to fit the season or time of day, or what mood you may happen to be in.

For example, if you are feeling overheated due to anger, physical strain or even the weather, you can use śītali breath (draw in air with a curled tongue into the mouth and exhale through the nostrils) to cool the body down. Anger has been noted as a risk factor in developing heart disease, so by using śītali breathing, you can help to cool your system and manage your outbursts of anger.

Practice breathing for 5-10 minutes and be sure to focus your attention on your inhales and exhales. Then, your mind will be ready for a deeper state of concentration. That’s where meditation comes in.

Meditation for a stress-free life

Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind in a particular direction, so as to change your current state of being. A meditation practice — when guided by a skilled teacher — can help you reduce your stress, improve heart health, make better choices and see life more clearly.

If you struggle with a flighty mind, unable to make decisions or keep commitments, try meditating on a mountain. A mountain is strong, stable and cannot be moved. By bringing your attention to the qualities of a mountain, you can develop stability within yourself and feel more grounded.

We are constantly bombarded by distractions and desires in our daily lives — be it television shows, commercials, social media or fidget spinners. The list goes on and on.

Our minds hop back and forth through these distractions throughout the day and it affects us on a deep level — we complain that we cannot sleep, we make poor food choices, we increase our drinking, we go on fad diets, we spend too much time on social media. All of these behaviors take us out of ourselves and leave us in a state of constant wanting, which stresses the mind and as a result, the body. We live for the external, and the external leads us to ill health, stress and poor mental focus.

But through regular yoga practice, you can move your focus inward and develop a connection with peace and joy instead of stress and anger. You may find yourself choosing a nourishing homemade meal over fast food, or choosing not to get upset when someone cuts you off on the highway.

When you are less affected by external distractions and more in tune with your own body and health, you are able to respond to life with a peaceful heart. And when we act from the heart, we can bring more health to the heart.

Disclaimer: Yoga practice is not meant to replace conventional medical care, but rather, to supplement. If you think you might be living with a heart condition, please consult your physician before you begin yoga practice.

About the author

Akshaya Chinapa Reddy
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Akshaya Chinapa Reddy is a certified yoga teacher at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center – Round Rock. She has been teaching yoga for over 8 years and is currently working on her yoga therapist certification. She is passionate about teaching and studying yoga and Ayurvedic cooking, and hopes to infuse all her clients with a love for yoga.

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Yoga and its heart-healthy benefits