• Yoga Therapy and Heart Health 
  • Heart Health: A Background
  • Why Use Yoga to Support Heart Health? 

Heart health is perhaps one of the most important factors that determines our overall wellbeing. Cardiovascular problems affect people across the globe and represent one of our greatest health challenges in the 21st century. While only one part of the wider picture, there is evidence to suggest that yoga could become an important part of our collective efforts to achieve better heart health, increasing our quality of life and easing the pressure on health systems around the world. 

We all know it’s important to take care of our heart, and many of us are aware of the importance of lifestyle factors in achieving this aim. However, while many heart problems could be managed or prevented through lifestyle changes, sticking with healthier habits is often easier said than done. 

As a society, we can facilitate individual change by strengthening the means – such as access to healthy food and smoking cessation services – through which people can more easily achieve those changes. In offering a heart healthy, stress-relieving practice that can be tailored to the needs of each person, yoga provides another way to support people in achieving their health goals – both in itself and by becoming a keystone habit around which other positive choices are made. 

Yoga Therapy and Heart Health

“Yoga has been shown to help with anxiety, stress and depression, conditions which affect many people who have suffered a cardiac event or have undergone cardiac surgery. If you have a heart condition, regularly practising yoga can be a way of helping to deal with stress and therefore helping you to cope with your condition.”

The British Heart Foundation

Heart and circulatory disease (a.k.a cardiovascular disease or CVD) is a broad term, encompassing every illness which affects the heart or blood vessels. While some cardiovascular illnesses are congenital, many are associated with atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and can be prevented or managed through lifestyle changes. 

Improved treatments and greater understanding of CVD has meant that deaths from this group of illnesses have fallen by half since 1961, and greater survivorship means that more people are living with conditions that require ongoing management. 

Both the British Heart Foundation and American Heart Association endorse the use of yoga (when used alongside aerobic exercise) as a heart-healthy practice, and one which can help people cope with the emotional impact of experiencing a heart problem or cardiac event. 

Stress appears to be a key contributor to issues such as high blood pressure, which can exacerbate or lead to heart problems.. When we experience stress, it creates a series of bodily reactions, including the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline – which narrow our arteries and increase blood pressure. 

Living consistently with stress have also been linked to poor lifestyle choices, with a survey by the Mental Health Foundation finding that, of adults who reported experiencing stress: 

  • 46% reported that they ate too much, or ate unhealthily due to stress. 
  • 29% reported that they started drinking or increased their drinking. 
  • 16% reported that they started smoking or increased their smoking.

In various studies, yoga has been found to stabilise our nervous system and reduce stress in a variety of ways (1, 2)

For people looking to prevent future heart problems, practicing yoga alongside other exercises in a general yoga class could help them maintain a healthy heart. Those who have suffered poor heart health and other co-occurring health issues, on the other hand, can find yoga more accessible with the help of a yoga therapist, who will understand how best to adapt the practice to their particular health needs. 

Heart Health: A Background

In the UK, cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death and disability, accounting for 27% of deaths and affecting an estimated 7.6 million people – or 11.4% of the entire UK population. Worldwide, CVDs are the number 1 cause of death, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year, one third of which occur prematurely (defined as before the age of 70). 

  • Cardiovascular diseases are in the majority of cases a comorbidity – around 80 percent of people with heart and circulatory diseases have at least one other health condition.
  • Around twice as many people are living with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK than with cancer and Alzheimer’s disease combined.
  • CVDs include vascular dementia, stroke, cardiomyopathy, heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms, known as arrhythmias. 
  • It is estimated that up to 90% of CVD may be preventable. Prevention of CVD involves improving risk factors through: healthy eating, exercise, avoidance of tobacco smoke and limiting alcohol intake. 

Why Use Yoga To Support Heart Health?

“There’s a huge body of literature that says psychosocial stressors such as work and marital stress, as well as anxiety and depression, are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease”

 Dr. Puja Mehta, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

The rationale behind using yoga as a tool to improve our heart health is manifold, influencing the many factors which can contribute to cardiovascular disease. These factors include: 

Smoking: Yoga and mindfulness have been found in studies (3, 4) to be useful smoking cessation tools. One study found that those practicing yoga had 37% greater odds of achieving abstinence than those participating in a general wellness intervention, while mindfulness is linked to behavioural changes that help people quit smoking for good. Even if a person has smoked for years, quitting lowers the risk of heart and circulatory diseases, and within an hour of not smoking people’s heart rate and blood pressure will get lower – immediately reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

Mental Health: Our mental health and heart health are closely linked. Depression can be as big a risk factor for coronary heart disease as smoking, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. As we explore in more detail on our depression, trauma and anxiety pages, yoga can be an extremely effective way of managing and recovering from mental health problems when used as an adjunct therapy – positively affecting our neurochemistry, endocrine system and outlook in a variety of ways. 

Obesity: Obesity is an extremely complex issue, and not one which should invite judgement or shame. However, being overweight and having high levels of visceral fat (which surrounds our organs) in particular is strongly linked to the development of cardiovascular disease.  Yoga has been found to be helpful in alleviating obesity, with this study on a 12-week intensive yoga intervention finding that participants’ waist circumference, waist-hip ratio, body weight, BMI, and percentage of body fat all reduced, while also increasing their percentage of muscle mass.(5)

One factor that cannot be ignored in discussions regarding obesity and health is that people are less likely to engage with practices such as yoga if they feel unwelcome in classes or unrepresented in imagery surrounding yoga. It is therefore vital to make yoga a body-positive community and increase diversity in the depictions of those who embrace the practice. 

Blood pressure and cholesterol: When yoga was combined with aerobic exercise such as running and swimming, a study by the American College of Cardiology (6) observed that participants experienced double the reduction in high BMI, cholesterol levels and blood pressure in comparison with people who were taking part in just one or the other exercise. Further study has also highlighted promising indications (although more research is needed) that yoga has the potential to lower cholesterol (7).