Step into a typical yoga class and you’re likely to hear at least some reference to the heart. Backbends are often referred to as “heart openers.” Cues like “lift your heart” or “shine your heart forward” are common. And if you practice long enough, you’ll almost certainly catch a mention or two of the heart chakra. But while poetic or esoteric heart-language is often par for the yoga class course, it’s less often that we hear talk of yoga’s effects on the cardiovascular system. Or at least it was until this past December when word spread about new research published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggesting that yoga may help protect against heart disease. And with headlines such as “Yoga is as good for your heart as aerobic exercise,” and write-ups appearing in everything from the Washington Post to Cosmo, what yoga enthusiast wouldn’t be compelled to like, share, and retweet?
While poetic or esoteric heart-language is often par for the yoga class course, it’s less often that we hear talk of yoga’s effects on the cardiovascular system.
The research, led by Professor Myriam Hunink of Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, was a review of 37 randomized studies involving 2,768 participants which found that yoga is linked to the reduction of key risk factors for heart disease, including lower body mass index (BMI), weight loss, improved cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and reduced heart rate. Researchers also found that when it came to these improved risk factors, there was not a significant difference between yoga and other forms of exercise.
Though these new findings are encouraging (and for many teachers and practitioners, validating), they do raise certain questions as well. For instance, how does this work physiologically? Why does yoga—which is not typically considered a cardiovascular exercise—reduce these risk factors? Does this mean that we yogis can skip our morning runs in favor of a few extra sun salutes? (Or, alternately, that those of us who have no morning run to speak of can quit feeling guilty about it if we’re engaging in regular mat time?) Another question rises from the fact that the study was not clear about which styles of yoga produced these benefits. As far as heart health is concerned, would a gentle restorative class or a vigorous vinyasa session be more beneficial?
“I think stress reduction is a big piece of reducing cardiovascular disease risk,” suggests Dr. Carrie Demers, an integrative medicine physician who regularly lectures on heart health. (Stress reduction was also suggested by the researchers as a possible explanation for the reduction in risk factors.) “We think of aerobic exercise as being a way to make the heart stronger. And there’s truth to that. You increase your cardiovascular fitness by doing aerobic work—and we all need that. But the fact that people’s blood pressure and lipid profiles improved, and that they even lost weight by doing yoga (which probably wasn't aerobic), says there’s something else happening.
“I think it comes down to two things,” Demers explains, “that physical movement in general is positive, and that yoga practices reduce stress. We know that stress itself magnifies all the risk factors for heart disease,” she adds. “When you’re chronically stressed, your blood pressure goes up. Your cholesterol goes up because of the increase in cortisol. If we simply breathe, stretch, and relax—that is, do yoga—we decrease our risk for heart disease.”
Due to the nature of this research (encompassing a review of 37 other studies), the study included participants who practiced various styles of yoga. This means that whether or not a more gentle/meditative or a more athletic style of asana would provide greater cardiovascular benefits has yet to be determined. Though if stress reduction is indeed a key factor, either approach could potentially be quite advantageous. In fact, a 2013 study conducted by Maria G. Araneta, PhD, MPH, of the University of California, San Diego, found that restorative yoga may help with weight loss (one of the improvements in key risk factors cited in the research led by Hunink), with the reduction of the stress hormone cortisol cited as a possible factor.
Due to the nature of this research (encompassing a review of 37 other studies), the study included participants who practiced various styles of yoga.
And while admittedly harder to gauge than body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, many see yoga’s spiritual and emotional benefits as a key source of healing as well. “I think maybe there’s more to it than just reducing stress, working the muscles, and breathing more oxygen into the body,” says yoga teacher Shari Friedrichsen, who often leads workshops and seminars on yoga and the heart. “I think it’s that yoga gives us the opportunity to actually begin to pay attention to ourselves, to have self-recognition and understanding of who we are. And I think that’s the most valuable. With yoga we start to look at the heart as part of the organic process of healing the whole self.”
Though more research is needed when it comes to answering the why, how, and “what kind of yoga?” questions, these initial findings are promising. But do they really imply that we can cut out the treadmill time in favor of additional down dogs? Demers stresses that regular aerobic exercise is still important too. “We'll always need to do some aerobic exercise because it makes the heart and blood vessels more robust, more resilient, and more responsive to the stresses of life. Like when you have to run to catch a taxi so you can make it to the airport in time—you’ve got some strength and endurance to meet the demands of that moment. It's possible to do yoga in an aerobic way,” she adds, “but most of us don’t do it that way. There’s a different intention when I practice yoga. When I am out walking or biking for exercise, I am still breathing deeply (like in yoga), but I am purposely working my body. I want to push it and make it sweat. But when I do yoga, I’m focusing on stretching and opening and expanding my body. It's still strengthening, but there’s a different flavor to it. I really think we need both to be healthy people.”