Strike a pose for a healthier heart;
Mountain, tree and lotus might sound like the names of things you’d find in nature, but they’re actually yoga poses that can make your heart stronger and healthier.
In addition to improving your overall health, by helping control weight and reduce stress, Spencer H. Stone a licensed massage therapist and registered yoga teacher at Coral Springs Medical Center in Coral Springs, FL, says yoga offers very specific cardiovascular benefits. “Yoga lowers your resting heart rate and LDL cholesterol, raises your HDL cholesterol, and improves circulation.”
And science agrees. A study from The Continuum Heart Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found an hour of yoga a day can control yours or your family’s blood pressure as effectively as many prescriptions, and in as little as three weeks, patients experienced “significant reduction of blood pressure.”
Finding the right pose for you
Experts say there are no yoga poses that aren’t good for your heart, but there are definitely some that specifically target it. The Continuum study says poses that are “head-down-body-up” like Downward Dog and Standing Half Forward Bend are particularly beneficial in preventing and treating hypertension related heart disease. “Whether sitting or standing, your body is usually upright,” says Mary Kaye Chryssicas a registered yoga teacher in Wellesley, Massachusetts, “but, these poses, called inversions, pump blood toward your head which helps blood flow to the myocardium, as well as send oxygen to your head.”
But, you don’t have to stand on your head to help your heart. Beginner poses like Overhead Reach, Lotus and High Lunge are done seated upright or standing, and increase lung capacity by opening up and aerating the lungs. “Another relatively easy pose, Chair, promotes cardiovascular exercise by prompting you to breathe strategically and adequately,” says Chryssicas “It also stimulates the diaphragm and heart.”
Take a breather
Yoga isn’t merely a series of poses. “A component of yoga involves specific breathing exercises and relaxation/mediation techniques,” says Stone. Similar to heart-friendly poses, breathing exercises help oxygenate your blood providing nourishment to all parts of your body.
One easy, beginner breathing technique is alternate-nostril breathing. “To do this, gently press your thumb against your right nostril, closing it off, and breathe in slow and deep through the left nostril to the count of four. Quickly move your thumb to your left nostril, closing it off and slowly exhale through the right nostril to the count of eight,” says Stone, “Then repeat in reverse, breathing in and out through the opposite nostrils. This is one set.” Stone says start with 3 sets a day, adding one a week until you’ve gradually increased to10 sets.
Before striking your first pose, Chryssicas, suggests starting in a class with an experienced teacher who is familiar with routines that target cardiovascular health. “It will help you learn good habits and correct alignments.”
And, unlike many other activities, yoga can be as challenging or as easy as you want. “You don’t have to turn yourself into a pretzel to soak up the benefits of yoga,” says Stone, “Corpse pose is one of the easiest to do and can be done in bed, lying on the sofa, or on the floor.”
To practice Corpse, Stone says to lie quietly on your back, legs flat out in front of you and feet turned slightly outward and arms out stretched at your sides (or a variation can have your arms straight down at your sides) palms facing upward. Close your eyes and let your body relax, slowly feeling body parts like your shoulder blades and backs of your knees rest on the floor. Hold this pose for five minutes slowly inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
It’s also a heart healthy way to begin your day. Before your feet hit the floor when you wake up, Corpse pose helps keep your blood pressure from spiking in the first hours of your day.
“Mountain, another beginner pose, is a good follow-up to Corpse first thing in the morning,” says Chryssicas. To link these two poses together at the start of your day, Chryssicas says “slowly come out of Corpse by sliding your legs over the edge of your bed and rise into Mountain pose.”
“Take it slow to fully understand how your body moves and what feels like a good stretch and what feels like too much strain,” says Chryssicas, “Yoga shouldn’t hurt.” Yoga also tests your balance so don’t feel pressure to lift your leg too high or reach too far. “The goal is to feel relaxed, and you shouldn’t experience discomfort or pain,” says Chryssicas.
Heart Healthy Yoga Workout
Although even doing one or two poses can be effective, Chryssicas says practicing a heart-healthy yoga work out will yield the most results.
This routine takes just 20 minutes, which Chryssicas says is the perfect amount of time for beginners.
Begin in Mountain pose by standing straight, feet about hip-width apart and your hands either at your sides. Raise one foot at a time, spreading your toes wide before placing them back on the floor. Distribute your weight evenly across the bottom of each foot so you feel grounded, not leaning forward or back. Exhale.
Inhale while sweeping your arms out to the sides and high overhead, into Overhead Reach until your palms are together. Stretch upward, allowing your chest to expand. Then arch backward (but only as far as you’re comfortable so you don’t lose your balance) and look up at your hands. Hold that position for a few seconds while holding your breath.
Exhale and gently bend, or fold, at the waist as far forward (into Forward Fold) as comfortably possible keeping your back straight. Grasp the back of your legs (anywhere from the ankles to the thighs), bend your elbows and very gently tuck your chin to your chest and move your upper body toward your legs. Hold for a few breaths and slowly return to a standing position.
Step your right foot forward. Bend your right knee (into a High Lunge position) and keep it directly over your right ankle. Lean forward and press your fingertips or palms into the floor in line with your forward foot. Roll your shoulders down, pressing your chest forward while looking straight ahead. Relax your hips letting them sink toward the floor while straightening your back leg as much as comfortably possible and rest your back knee on the floor if you need some extra balance. Hold for a few breaths.
Ease into Plank by moving your right foot back next to left foot and straightening your body into the plank position. Place your hands on the floor directly beneath your shoulders and spread your fingers wide as though you were getting ready to do a push-up. You can do this while resting on your knees instead of your toes. Hold for a few breaths.
Move into Caterpillar by bending both knees to the floor while slowly lowering your chin and chest straight down to the floor. Keep your elbows close to your body and lower your chest between your palms while lifting your tailbone toward the ceiling. Hold for a breath.
Drop your hips to the floor to move to Cobra. Raise your head and chest so your torso is supported on your forearms but keep your shoulders down. Press your chest forward and reach toward the ceiling with the crown of your head. Hold for a few breaths.
Press your palms into the floor, straighten your arms and legs, and push your hips up so your body forms an inverted V. Let your head and neck hang freely from your shoulders for Downward Dog. Hold for a few breaths while pressing your heels toward the floor, pushing your hips toward the ceiling for a full stretch. You can also bend your knees slightly or place your hands on a low step.
Return to High Lunge and then slowly rise to Mountain, holding each for 4 to 5 full, deep breaths.