Soothe Your Body & Soul with YogaAimee Hughes, ND May 1, 2008
A healthy heart is a stress-free heart. While this may be challenging to achieve in the often disquieting nature of modernity, there are many ways to combat the habitual stresses we experience. Yoga has proven to be one of the most effective ways to deal with stress on our minds and bodies, especially our hearts.
Yoga can work wonders, particularly for the circulatory system. In standing poses, the lateral wall of the heart is completely stretched and toned up so that there is healthy blood flow on the walls. Inverted poses allow the lymphatic system of the legs and muscles that help in pumping the blood upward to rest. In horizontal positions the heart and lungs are rested, rejuvenated, and well-ventilated, thereby helping to reduce blood pressure. And finally, bending postures, when done mindfully and without strain, can improve blood supply to the myocardium and will tone up the cardiac muscle.
Yoga can also be cardiovascular in nature depending on the pace at which you move through specific poses. The sun salutation is an excellent example. When this series of poses is linked together the heart starts pumping and the blood flowing. Let your breath guide you through these poses, as the deep inhalation and exhalation relaxes the mind and greatly reduces stress to the heart.
Sun Salutation: Start in Mountain Pose with your palms pressed together in front of your heart. Inhale and lift your arms overhead as you arch into a slight backbend. Exhale while lowering your arms and then fold your torso into a standing forward bend.
Inhale while bringing your right leg back into a Lunge. Exhale and step your left leg back into Plank Position. Hold the position and inhale. Exhale and lower yourself to the ground. On an inhalation, arch your torso and straighten your arms into Upward Dog. Exhale back to Downward Dog by tucking your toes under and lifting your hips toward the ceiling.
On an inhalation, step your left foot forward into Lunge. Exhale and swing your right leg forward to Standing Forward Bend. Lift your torso as you inhale and reach the arms overhead until you are standing with a slight backbend.
Finally, lower your arms on an exhalation and return to the place you started, Mountain Pose, with your palms together in front of your heart. Repeat the sequence on the opposite side to complete a full round. Five full rounds are a perfect early morning ritual.
LOWER YOUR STRESS LEVELS AND REDUCE HYPERTENSION
Studies have shown that a regular yoga practice moderates the heart rate, encourages good circulation, and lowers blood pressure. Dr. Satish Sivasankaran, MD, who conducted a study on the effects of yoga on heart health at the Yale School of Medicine (2003), reported that volunteers taking a six-week yoga-meditation program improved blood vessel function (the way vessels contract and expand to aid blood flow, a measure of healthy vessel function) by 17%. Moreover, study participants who had heart disease had close to a 70% improvement.
Certain asanas have a cooling effect on the body which help to calm metabolism and reduce hypertension. Postures which require prolonged breathing patterns can actually lower the body’s temperature. Try the following postures to ease blood pressure levels.
Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose: Curl up into a ball near a wall, and then roll on to your back while taking your legs up the wall. Keep your legs relatively firm, just enough to hold them vertically in place. Release the heads of the thigh bones and the weight of your belly deeply into your torso, toward the back of the pelvis. Soften your eyes and turn them down to look into your heart. Move slightly away from the wall if you feel a strain. Breathe gently and deeply here for five to ten minutes.
Some asanas are particularly effective in relieving stress. Move into Bridge and Plough poses when you feel a bout of anxiety coming on. The Bridge calms the brain while opening the chest and rejuvenating tired legs. The Plough helps balance the endocrine system and quiets your nervous system. It is ideal for taming irritability and beating the blues.
Bridge Pose: Lie on your back with the feet planted close to your buttocks, palms on the floor. Breathe in, on the exhale press the feet into your mat to lift the tailbone. Clasp your hands together underneath you and walk the shoulder blades closer together so that your weight rests on the posterior shoulders and feet. Lift your hips upward. Hold for several breaths and then slowly roll the spine down to the ground, one vertebra at a time.
Plough Pose: Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, legs straight out in front of you, feet together and knees tightened. On an exhale, bend your knees and bring your thighs into the chest. Roll the shoulders away from your head, expanding the chest. On another exhalation, swing your buttocks and legs up, supporting your back with your hands, and extend your legs overhead, placing the toes on the floor behind you. Keep the thighs active by tightening your knees to create space between your face and your legs. Breathe slowly and hold for as long as is comfortable. To come out, roll down one vertebra at a time. Rest here on your back for several deep breaths.
One essential ingredient to stress reduction and the maintenance of a healthy heart is proper breathing technique. Yoga breathing or Pranayama has a mysterious power to soothe and revitalize a tired body, a flagging spirit, or a wild mind. As you practise the following exercise, strive to distribute your breath evenly throughout your entire lungs – top and bottom, left and right, front and back.
Seated Meditation: Sit quietly with your eyes closed. Tune into your breath, becoming aware of the steady flow through your nostrils. Whenever your mind wanders, simply bring the awareness back to the breath. Begin with five minutes daily, and then gradually lengthen for as long as you have time for. The breath is your mind-stillness anchor. By gradually retraining your mind to become still and focused on something you choose, like the ocean’s rise and fall, you release tension from the surface mind, allowing physical and mental ease.
Alternate nostril breathing: Nadi Shodana is said to balance the two major nadis (energy flows) of the pranayama kosha (energy body), which are a bit like the outward, or active, and the receptive, or passive sides of our nature. It also balances left and right brain function, improving mental clarity. Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Hold your right hand in front of your face with your middle and index fingers curled toward your palm. Place your thumb next to your right nostril and your ring finger next to your left nostril. Use your thumb to close your right nostril and inhale, slowly and deeply through the left. Pause. Release your right nostril and use your ring finger to close the left nostril; exhale slowly and fully. Pause, keeping your left nostril closed; inhale slowly and deeply. Pause. Release your left nostril and close your right nostril; exhale slowly and fully. This is one full round of nadi shodana. Start with five to ten rounds, and increase as your comfort level grows.
A regular yoga practice can strengthen, tone, and relax the heart in amazing ways. Your circulatory system will love you for making Yoga’s life enhancing asanas a part of your daily routine.
Note: If you have high blood pressure, or any other heart related ailment, it is recommended that you check with your doctor, and an experienced yoga teacher before you attempt any of the poses mentioned in this article.