Heart to Heart
Specialized yoga for cardiac health classes like MacInerney's aim, among other things, to restore a heart rate variability that is consistent and stable. But many styles of yoga achieve the same goal. "When your inhalation is longer than your exhalation, it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system," explains MacInerney, referring to the nerves that raise heart rate and blood pressure in preparation for action. "When the exhalation is longer, the parasympathetic system, which lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, takes over. Breathing patterns in pPranayama and yoga work with controlling the ratios of these two systems."
With too much sympathetic stimulation, you have lots of energy, but you are pulled in too many directions. However, with too little, you can't get off the couch to change channels. "Most of us swing from one extreme to the other," says MacInerney. "Yoga helps us achieve balance." (He warns, though, that heart disease patients should never try to manipulate breath without supervision.) While any time on the mat can help you de-stress, Devi advocates an easy-does-it approach—one that links body, breath, and mind. "People tend to do the yoga practice most akin to their own temperament. Those prone to heart problems often have the classic Type A aversion to doing things slowly. They want to push, push, push.
"At the Ornish program, some participants had a difficult time with the slow and gentle pace, but this was the only way they could look for signals of pain and begin to heal. Being conscious of the way they practiced yoga helped influence the way they lived their lives."
At times it can seem like the odds are stacked against women when it comes to a healthy heart. Atherosclerosis begins as early as the teen years or 20s. The risk of women dying from a heart attack in their 30s is higher than it is for men the same age. Come menopause, the risk of coronary problems—especially heart attacks—dramatically increases. But in the face of these odds lies the proven fact that you can substantially reduce your risk every step of the way. Just as simply brushing your teeth can decrease your chances of needing a root canal, time spent on the mat can make a visit to the operating room much less likely.
"We've achieved the American dream and it's killing us," says Devi. Instead of striving, she suggests engaging in acts that feed the heart. Put your health first. Acknowledge what makes you tick. Explore how your life choices affect mind and body.
"We have a long way to go when it comes to slowing down," she adds. And that's exactly what needs to happen to counter heart disease. As Deane Delmas says of her heart scare, "I ate well all my life. I exercised. I never thought it would happen to me." What her busy schedule did not allow, however, is the precious commodity so many women lack today: time to exhale. It's one of the many gifts yoga offers for healing the heart.
Jennifer Barrett is editor of The Herb Quarterly and has written for Vegetarian Times and Delicious magazine. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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