Heart to HeartOne mid-november afternoon a few years ago, Deane Delmas returned to work from a lunch break with a throbbing pain in her arm. A colleague called the on-site nurse, who took her blood pressure and found it within normal range. But when the 72-year-old social worker still continued to complain of the pain, the nurse called her longtime physician. "Rush Deane to the emergency room," the doctor told her. "She could be having a heart attack."
A close friend packed her into the car. "She drove me to the emergency entrance and then went out to park," Delmas recounts. "By the time she came back, everything was code red. I'd passed out and flatlined for a long time. They used CPR, defibrillators, you name it. They thought they were going to lose me."
The doctors sent her to another Austin, Texas hospital, one that specializes in heart treatments. Using a procedure called angioplasty—in which a small balloon is inserted into the artery to open blockage and improve blood flow—the staff there was able to save her life. A couple weeks of rehabilitation later, they discharged Delmas with a short list of suggestions: Eat right, exercise, and take cholesterol-lowering drugs.
The story would have ended there, as it does for the countless other Americans who manage to survive cardiac arrest, if it weren't for Delmas's curiosity. Already a healthy eater and an exercise fanatic by normal standards (she completed a marathon in Alaska the year before), she felt something was lacking from the prescription. "After I got back on my feet again, I began to look at my schedule," she says. "It was all assertive, aggressive—lifting weights, brisk walking, and the like. Something was missing."
Stress reduction turned out to be the needed ingredient, and yoga fit the bill. "I didn't realize I carried so much tension throughout my body until I took my first yoga class for cardiac patients," she says. "I learned that correct breathing, nice and deep with long exhalations, would eventually bring my hypertension down." Indeed, Delmas's blood pressure readings, which once spiked dangerously high at periods throughout the day, now told a different story. "I keep a daily record at home. These days, rather than jumping up and down, the numbers have evened out to a healthy range."
To say that yoga has found its place in the field of cardiology would be a stretch. After all, most doctors don't even mention it to their high-risk patients, as Delmas later found out. But it might just be a matter of time, given the revolution underway in heart disease care as it applies to women. The number one killer in the United States, cardiovascular disease has long proven a gender-blind threat. But for reasons ranging from inadequate research to lack of outreach to simple gender bias, both doctors and their female patients have been slow to take it seriously. Sobering statistics and updated gender-specific research, though, have recently shed new light on how and why this disease affects women. The biggest surprise? Now more than ever, all signs point to yoga as one of the best ways for women (and men) to take charge of their cardiovascular health.