Have you ever been curious enough to ask yourself why yoga makes you feel so good? If so, have you ever gone farther and thought what yoga does to people suffering any health condition?
The health of our heart and circulatory system is influenced by many factors. Perhaps the most important may be how we process emotional states like fear, worry, stress and anxiety. One of the reasons why yoga works so well is because it also acts on the emotional level. This is sometimes the root cause of the disease. It is surprising that most of the risk factors contributing to the development or worsening of heart disease are caused and started in the mind. An example of some of these risk factors are smoking, type A personality, overeating, bad habits, sedentary life, being overweight, depression, anxiety and isolation. Yoga has been demonstrated to have a tremendous positive impact when practiced regularly.
The best thing about yoga is that it helps us focus on the mind. It makes us feel connected with our physiology (body) and our mental (mind) and emotional state. It helps us switch off and re-connect.
When we immerse in the world of yoga for heart health or heart disease, whether it’s teaching or practicing, we have to always discuss safety first. Certain yoga asanas and other practices may need to be modified for each person. However, despite dealing with potentially life-threatening conditions, it is also important for us –the teachers or therapists- to make it enjoyable with a light-hearted approach.
Yoga and mindfulness can provide an opportunity to re-educate and re-orientate oneself about living with heart disease by becoming more aware of the mind-body connection. In this field of Yoga for cardiovascular health, I have had more success with people that have recently been diagnosed with heart disease than those using yoga as preventative method. These events are occasionally the beginning journey of many changes in lifestyle.
Nowadays, there is growing evidence that meditation and other complementary mind-body approaches such as yoga can be very helpful in the management of chronic conditions. There is also on-going research about the relationship between heart disease and our emotional state. Therefore, we can say that what we think affects directly how we feel. In other words, brain and heart have a never-ending relationship.
In my approach, there are four important areas in working with heart disease where yoga practices may be helpful. I trust the process of healing begins in the mind; however, I deeply believe that if the yoga practice is not there yet, we should use the approach ‘from the outside in.’
Understanding – Feeling – Exploring – Uniting all in on
1. To have a clear understanding in what the diagnosis is.
It is important to know what type of heart issues the person has, and most importantly, to translate the medical terminology into an easy-to-understand language. In some circumstances, rapidly after the person acknowledges what is really happening inside their bodies, there is a rapid sense of self-awareness and self-compassion. Yoga has a lot to offer in this first approach.
2. Understanding stress and the consequences of a stressful lifestyle.
It is crucial to recognize the physical, physiological and emotional effects on our bodies while we are under stress. It is now well known and well documented that stress affects our emotions, and our emotions directly affect our physiology.
Once the person has an understanding of first the medical diagnosis, and then the effect of stress in their lives, I can proceed deeper into their yoga journey.
3. Thoughts & Emotions: are they best friends?
It is essential to develop a practice that helps them to coming into terms with the way things are with their heart disease. Through movement, we can explore our bodies and emotions in a different way. We know that certain yoga postures might bring up emotions that were deeply hidden before.
4. Safely and gradually introducing Pranayama, the power of the breath.
Pranayama, especially full yogic breath, has been shown to be effective in the treatment and management of some cardiovascular diseases and lung problems. However, some breathing techniques like Kapalbhati (skull shining) or Kumbhaka (breath retention) are contraindicated or to be avoided by those experiencing problems with the heart, uncontrolled hypertension and vagus nerve disorders.
One of my favourite pose: Savasana
It must be remembered that as simple as it appears to be, the practice of Savasana is more than just a pose, much more than simply lying down. If taught correctly, it has a tremendous positive effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, and helps to increase personal awareness. Though considered one of the safest, if not the safest of all yogic asanas, when dealing with cardiovascular complication sometimes Savasana needs to be modified. Savasana is a profound mind-body practice, which also aids to not only relieve physical tension but also to develop an internal awareness that will help to recognise where that stiffness might be held.
In cases where the heart muscle has been severely damaged, Savasana with full yogic breath pranayama is the perfect combination to actively participate in the progressive letting go of fears, tension, and anxiety. There is so much to do in this pose! Just the fact that they can learn something new will help them to build self-esteem and self-confidence. Yoga is not be used as a substitute of medical intervention but as an adjunct therapy, which promotes health in a different way. I trust that yoga and its philosophy will be the gold medal in the future of modern medicine. Perhaps this will be possible if we trust its power.