Yoga for Heart Health
Ever since the days when I was first training as a cardiologist, I’ve been an advocate of yoga. 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 it when the practice became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, there was little scientific validation for its health benefits, but today yoga is backed by hundreds of positive studies.
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.
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.
In hope of getting more of you started with this heart-healthy activity, I consulted with Larry Payne, PhD—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 (IDG Books Worldwide, 1999) and Yoga Rx (Broadway, 2002).
Dr. Payne suggested five basic poses that he regards as the “most user-friendly” for older folks who want to gently try this relaxation practice. I’ve included illustrations and descriptions of each one. They are great choices.
Proper Breathing Maximizes Benefits
To really to “do” yoga the right way requires using what is called “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.
“The yogis say that the nose is meant for breathing and the mouth is meant for eating,” says Dr. Payne. “We take this advice seriously.”
The focus on breathing is what helps make yoga a mind-body practice. Every muscle and organ in your body is connected to the brain by nerves. By simply relaxing your mind by focusing on a breathing pattern that is longer and slower than normal, you do two things: You oxygenate your system and you focus your mind away from all sources of stress, which in turn relaxes your muscles.
WATCH: How Thai Yoga Calms the Nervous System
Video courtesy of HeartMDInstitute
You’ve no doubt heard people say that it’s beneficial to take a few deep breaths when you’re upset, and there’s good reason for that. When you breathe this way, it forces your mind to focus on the moment and results in an increased sense of well-being.
If you enjoy the simple yoga routine laid out here, Dr. Payne offers a great seven-disc DVD series called Yoga Therapy Rx for people who he respectfully refers to as “in the prime of life.” His DVDs sell for $19.95 each. You can learn more by calling his yoga center at 800-359-0171, or at his website Samata International.
Dr. Payne is quick to point out, and I totally agree, that your best bet is to learn yoga from an experienced teacher. Group classes are available most everywhere—at gyms, spas, and yoga centers—and usually cost around $10–12 per session.
People with special needs should look for a certified yoga therapist who can create a safe and effective routine. People with pronounced limitations can even practice yoga while sitting in a chair. To find a yoga therapist in your area, visit The International Association of Yoga Therapists website. Private instruction runs from $75 to $150.
Let’s Start! Five Poses for Beginners
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. Perform them in the following order.
What to do: 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 postion, start your yoga breathing. The position will remind you about the importance of good posture at a time in life when many people unconsciously start bending forward.
Benefit: Helps shift you from your current state of mind to the more settled mind-body mode of yoga.
Vira bhadrasana (Warrior)
What to do: 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.
Benefit: Many people experience more problems on one side of the body than the other. This maneuver helps fortify balance and stability, opens the chest, and strengthens the joints.
What to do: For a moment, think about your habitual tendency to slump forward during daily activities. It happens everywhere. In the kitchen. At the computer. Watching TV. Most people need to arch their backs to compensate for this chronic forward tilt, and the cobra pose does that.
To begin, 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.
Benefit: This pose manipulates the vertebral discs in your lower back that are pushed the wrong way by slumping, and this helps bring your lower spine back into its natural curve. The pose can often help with disc and sciatica problems.
Apanasana (Knees to chest)
What to do: While 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.
Benefit: After the arching of the back in the cobra pose, the apanasana relaxes the lower back and acts like a massage.
What to do: 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. You may think you are doing nothing with this pose, but you’ll be surprised. Its effects are highly underestimated. In fact, this is the most popular of all yoga poses, and the most used in yoga therapy.
Benefit: Relaxes the body and mind, and helps people discover the essence of yoga: a quiet mind.
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Meet Dr. Sinatra
Dr. Stephen Sinatra is a highly respected and sought-after cardiologist and nutritionist with more than 30 years of clinical practice, research, and study. His integrative approach to heart health focuses on reducing inflammation in the body and maximizing the heart's ability to produce and use energy. More About Dr. Sinatra
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