Breaking News

Yoga and Heart Conditions: Safety and Benefits

Yoga and Heart Conditions: Safety and Benefits

There are several benefits of yoga for heart conditions, as long as you keep these important safety considerations top of mind.

Yoga is often touted for its ability to calm the mind, but a growing number of studies show that these benefits may extend to your heart.

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are any conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels. CVDs are incredibly common. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1 in every 5 deaths in the United States was caused by heart disease and related conditions.

Some of the most common CVDs are coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmia, heart failure, and heart attack.

Healthcare professionals commonly recommend cardiovascular exercise (also called aerobic exercise) to improve heart health. But it doesn’t always address one of heart disease’s top underlying causes: stress.

Yoga is another option. It has physical benefits, including flexibility and improved strength, and even some aerobic benefits, depending on the style. But yoga also has a long list of stress-reducing benefits. These include clarity of mind, improved mood, and improved sleep.

Still, not every aspect of yoga is appropriate for people with heart conditions, and some practices may worsen issues. Let’s look at the reported benefits of yoga for heart conditions, as well as some important safety considerations.

Aside from the specific exceptions listed later in this article, some types of yoga may offer heart-healthy benefits. As always, speak with your medical team about your specific symptoms or condition — especially before beginning a new exercise routine or yoga practice.

Here are some benefits of yoga for heart conditions:

1. Cardiovascular conditioning

Most people think of walking or bicycling when they hear the term “cardio” exercise, but a 2018 study confirms that Vinyasa flow style yoga can be an effective alternative to strengthen one’s heart.

2. Lowered cholesterol

A 2021 study of Vinyasa flow found the style to significantly lessen lipid concentrations (fat stores), lowering cholesterol.

3. Controlled blood pressure

For people with hypertension and arrhythmia, maintaining one’s blood pressure can be critical. Older studies have shown that yoga may reduce blood pressure, but a more recent study found that it may even be helpful for people with prehypertension, making yoga potentially cardio-protective.

4. Improved quality of life

Additional symptoms that accompany heart conditions can include edema (swelling of joints and limbs), headaches, and exhaustion. All of these affect people’s day-to-day and quality of life.

A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found yoga significantly improved quality of life for multiple coronary heart disease patients.

5. Possibly reduced mortality rates

Though there is a call for larger studies to replicate findings, there’s promising data that yoga may help reduce morbidity and mortality rates among CVD patients.

6. Potentially fewer cardiac distress episodes

Yang points out that yoga is good at bringing people into the present moment and “tuning them into what their body is feeling.” This could be a critical skill for someone with a heart condition, helping them recognize more quickly when something isn’t right.

The term yoga is an umbrella term for multiple modalities which include stretching, breathing, and meditation.

Styles of physical yoga range from slower-moving restorative yoga — which involves supporting the body with props and holding shapes for extended periods — to faster-moving Vinyasa flows.

Dr. Ingrid Yang, a hospitalist physician at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, California, and author of “Adaptive Yoga,” says that you should consider both the type of yoga one you want to do and your specific heart condition. It’s also important to work with a skilled instructor.

Here are a few styles of yoga or breathwork that are generally inappropriate for heart conditions

Hot yoga

In 2020, the European Society of Cardiology released extensive guidelines for engaging in physical activity with heart conditions. They observed that people with Brugada syndrome, which disrupts the heart’s natural rhythms, should avoid heated activities where one’s core temperature is raised beyond 102.2℉ (39℃).

Most hot yoga classes are heated to 95℉ (35℃), but some Bikram yoga classes have been reported to be as high as 105℉ (40℃).

Yang warns that dehydration followed by overdrinking water are more likely to occur in hot settings.

She explains, “Fluid balance is very important for people with heart conditions. People have a tendency to overdrink fluids when they are dehydrated by the heat which can sometimes create a situation where they require hospitalization for supplemental oxygen and/or medications to [remove] some of the extra fluid.”

Certain Pranayamas

There’s a style of Pranayama (yogic breathing) called Kapalabhati breath (breath of fire), in which practitioners forcefully exhale in succession.

One review of various Pranayamas and the heart referenced a case study in which a spontaneous pneumothorax was caused by a person doing this technique. Another 2017 study observed that the Kapalibhati breathing technique negatively affected people’s blood pressure.

It should be noted that the patients in these studies did not have heart conditions, and these events seem more likely to be one-off occurrences than a consistent danger of the practice. Regardless, be sure to practice pranayamas like Kapalabahti with a trained instructor.

Some Kundalini

Other studies found yoga to be related to adverse effects if it was practiced too frequently or incorrectly.

For example, a 2019 article in the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention, warns of “Kundalini syndrome,” in which practitioners may experience headaches, elevated blood pressure, and an elevated heart rate after doing the style without proper supervision.

Since yoga is a blanket statement for a wide variety of practices and there are many different cardiovascular diseases, there are no one-size-fits-all modifications for heart conditions.

Still, there are some general considerations to keep in mind:

  • Avoid overheating: Heat is hard on the heart. It makes the heart work harder, which for people with heart conditions can be dangerous. This applies to hot yoga practice, but also regular practice — some people just run hotter than others, and some locations are hotter than others. In fact, one longitudinal study found higher mortality rates among people with heart conditions as extreme heat becomes more common.
  • Use a wall for balance: A wall or partner for additional support can be especially helpful for people who have low blood pressure and have a tendency to get light-headed easily.
  • Avoid any stressful classes or poses: Despite its reputation for reducing stress, yoga can be stressful if you’re doing a class or pose that’s inappropriate for your abilities.

Make sure to always let your instructor know which medical conditions you have prior to class. If you’re experiencing any adverse symptoms during class, call your doctor right away.

However, Yang also suggests that if symptoms continue even after you have discontinued the movement or activity, you may want to visit your nearest urgent care or even emergency department.

Yoga — whether it’s the physical poses, breathwork, or meditation — is helpful for cultivating body awareness and presence, as well as for lowering stress. These can be critical skills for someone facing a cardiovascular condition.

Yang reminds us that, “While many cardiologists are big fans of yoga and its benefits, they are not all experts in yoga.” Many medical professionals may recommend a patient “do yoga,” without considering the wide variety of styles and intensity.

Yang reminds people to be extremely clear with their doctors about the type of yoga they’re considering so that their doctor can more specifically advise them on how to adjust their practice and when they may need to stop.

If you find the right style of yoga based on your unique condition, you could see improvements in more than just your mental health. Your heart health may improve, too.