Yoga Therapy: A holistic approach to a healthier heartFeb 14, 2023
Did you know that heart disease affects approximately 2.4 million Canadian adults, and is the second leading cause of death in Canada? February is Heart Month, a time to spend some time thinking about our cardiovascular health, and what we can to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, and manage existing conditions.
Risk factors for heart disease
You are probably familiar with them: high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity. But did you know that there are some conditions that increase the risk of heart disease in women?
- Family history of early heart disease which put women at greater risk than men.
- Emotional stress. Emotional stress including depression and anxiety impact women's hearts more than men's - in part because they can make it more difficult to follow recommended preventative practice to improve wellbeing.
- Inflammatory diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other inflammatory conditions can increase heart disease risk in women.
- Diabetes. Women living with diabetes experience pain, including the pain of a heart attack, differently and so are at higher risk of silent heart attacks where they do not experience the usual symptoms of chest pain. They might also be less aware of common heart attack symptoms that women experience more frequently including:
- unusual sudden fatigue, especially later in the day
- sweating and dizziness
- heartburn, nausea or vomiting
- pain in their arms and heaviness in the legs
- discomfort in their neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or upper belly
- shortness of breath
- Pregnancy complications. Experiencing high blood pressure or diabetes while pregnant can increase the risk of these conditions after pregnancy.
- Menopause. Lower oestrogen levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in smaller blood vessels.
Researched benefits of yoga for heart health and disease management
Several studies suggest that yoga may significantly improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease including blood pressure, smoking, psychosocial stress and type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Three controlled studies utilizing coronary angiography in advanced chronic heart disease demonstrated that yoga in combination with a low fat vegetarian diet slowed the progress of blocks in blood vessels.
Notably, they highlight the benefits of yoga in improving how much oxygen-rich blood is pumped out of the left ventricle to most of the body's organs with each contraction while improving levels of lipids or fat in the bloodstream, hyperglycemia and decrease in stress, anxiety and depression as compared to the control group.
In addition two randomized trials have also shown that early atherosclerosis (as assessed by carotid intimal medial thickness) is significantly reduced by regular practice of yoga/meditation.
How does a yoga therapist approach heart health and disease?
I approach our work to improve your cardiovascular health in the following steps:
- Assessment: In addition to assessing your range of motion, we will assess a number of quality of life markers to help determine immediate and long term changes that might be feasible
- Goal review: We will explore your short, medium and long term goals for the practice we will design together, as well as how much time you can commit to it
- Practice design to to improve oxygenation and blood circulation through better breathing, reduced nervous and muscle tension, improved sleep, lymphatic function, immunity, digestion and elimination which includes trying tools in a morning or evening practice including:
- Yoga nidra, dharana or a focused meditation to manage stress
- Prāṇāyāma or mindful breathing to help regulate your nervous system, emotional, and stress responses
- Asana or accessible therapeutic movement
- Sound through chanting or humming to improve quality of life, mood and general wellbeing
- Once your immediate symptoms have been relieved, and energy begins to return, we will review the practice and add strengthening components to prevent future complications by improving posture and muscle tone.
- Practice testing, where you do your homework by trying to do the practice on a daily basis. We check in regularly to adapt it to suit your life as situations change.
Through your practice you are encouraged to start slowly and begin with a guided breath work practice to calm and centre yourself to maintain your emotional wellbeing. As you move through your movement practice, you are encouraged to keep your focus on your breath by relaxing into the movement instead of pushing into it to maintain a stable heart rate. This will help keep both your breath and movement calm, fluid and centring to balance the nervous system.
While it might be tempting, please do not pushing hard because this can cause illness flares. Instead use props and eye pillow for relaxation and stillness, and explore dimming the lights and lowering the temperature in the space where you practice to help maintain a comfortable environment.
Learn more about these four steps to managing your heart health and improving your quality of life. They will help you reconnect with your body, breath and mind so you can achieve your goals and feel your best.
Feel more energized, focused and mindful.
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