Heart to Heart
Here yoga stands out in two ways. Some styles, such as vinyasa flow and Ashtanga, provide the aerobic movement crucial for a healthy heart. In addition, time spent on the mat, no matter what the style, enables you to approach any workout, from skiing to spinning, with increased awareness.
"I used to watch people walking on the treadmill while talking or watching TV," says MacInerney of a cardiac rehab program. "They were just mentally passing time until the exercise was done." He sees a big difference in his current program, which weaves mind-body integration into every aspect-including fitness. "Lessons learned in yoga can help you approach exercise with awareness and mindful attention." Rather than seeking to distract the mind during exercise, you immerse your mind in the body, moving away from discomfort, exploring healthy sensations, all the while keeping attention on the breath.
Break bad habits. Addictions of all sorts, whether to certain foods, work, or cigarettes, can contribute to cardiovascular problems. "Yoga can help us build in time for deep relaxation," explains Devi, "one that brings a return to homeostasis, the point where everything comes back into balance." While a single yoga class won't cure your desire, say, to smoke, consistent practice with an emphasis on the breath just might. Says Devi: "An exploration of all levels of the being, going through the different steps of the subtle body, will help unmask—and help you work through—the sources of the habit."
Reduce stress. This is more of a gray area, as some cardiologists still don't view stress as being on par with other heart-jeopardizing risks, like a high-fat diet. And while the AHA acknowledges that stress may contribute to other risk factors, like smoking or physical inactivity, the organization states: "Current data don't yet support specific recommendations about stress reduction as a proven therapy for cardiovascular disease. . . . More research is needed." However, many doctors and researchers are not holding their collective breath for yet another definitive study to arrive. They are moving forward with the conviction that stress reigns paramount among heart disease causes—especially in women.
According to Oz, emotional stress is far more likely to precipitate cardiac arrest for women than physical stress, which was more of a factor in men. Emotional stress often invites an adrenaline rush that causes a rise in blood pressure and heart rate. For women already battling coronary artery disease, this jump can trigger a blood flow shortage to the heart and increase the risk of death.
Given the innumerable emotional triggers that occur almost every day, stress is clearly a problem to reckon with for your health's sake. And the first place to begin—as yoga does—is with the breath. A healthy heart does not actually beat in a perfectly even rhythm. It gently accelerates when you inhale and slows when you exhale. The emphasis on a complete exhalation—part of any yoga class—has a sound basis in heart science. With shallow thoracic or reverse breathing, the heart never gets a break, explains MacInerney. "Yogic breathing acts like a metronome that helps the heart slow down and slip into a gentle, natural, wave-like pattern. If you forget to breathe or have irregular, jerky, or unsteady breathing, it's like a conductor that can't keep time," he says. "The heart can't afford to follow an unsteady rhythm and so strikes out on its own, resulting in little or no coordination between breath, heart rate, and blood pressure."