Yogis know the poses that "open" the heart, but did you know that regular practice can also help protect your ticker over the long term?
In honor of National Wear Red Day, the American Heart Association's campaign to raise awareness of heart disease (the#1 killer of women), here are 5 ways that yoga keeps your heart going strong.
And don't forget to wear red yoga pants on Friday to spread the word!
1. Love how you feel after class? That's your stress melting away.
Stress may affect behaviors and factors that are proven to increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating, according to the American Heart Association. Chronic stress may also cause some people to drink too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure and may damage the artery walls. A regular yoga practice, on the other hand, is likely to calm you down, making you less likely to lean on caffeine, sugar, fatty foods or alcohol to "numb out," says Hazel Patterson, Urban Zen Integrative Yoga Therapist and teacher trainer at YogaWorks in Los Angeles.
"Moving with the breath, in other words linking expanding movements with the inhales, and contracting or softening movements with the exhales, starts to create a dynamic which calms the nerves and moves that stress energy out of the body," she explains.
For your go-to bliss-out pose, Terrence Monte, a Managing Teacher at Pure Yoga in New York City, recommends the Seated Forward Bend. To make it even more delicious, place a rolled blanket or towel under your knees, and rest your forehead on a block or other prop placed on your shins.
2. It's a feel-good workout.
Maintaining a normal BMI (body mass index) can help your heart, according to the CDC, and regular physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight. Yoga, Monte says, is the "best resistance workout on the planet" —meaning it's easy on the joints and uses your own body weight to build strength. Become a fat-burning machine by building long lean muscle—Monte suggests Plank Pose as all-over strengthener that does double-duty by targeting your core and shoring up your back.
3. It blasts belly fat.
Excess abdominal fat has been linked to increased risk for heart disease. By strengthening the large muscle groups in the body, such as the gluteals and quadriceps, yoga gets your body burning more calories, meaning you are less likely to store them as fat around your middle, Patterson says. "Standing poses like Warrior II held for a little longer than the mind is comfortable with is a great way to build these powerhouse muscles," she says.
4. It "opens" the heart.
What does it mean to "open" your heart mean anyway? "Asana is the practice of putting your body in challenging shapes. Yoga, on the other hand, is the practice of integrating what you learn on the mat with what you do off of it," Monte explains. "As you become more mindful about your body, your breath, your language in challenging poses, you become more aware about your own perceptions (read: misperceptions) of the world."
Rather than the obvious heart-openers (Fish, Camel, Locust ), Monte suggests a pose that's really challenging to stay vulnerable in, like Chair Pose. "Sit as low as you can with your lumbar spine as long as possible for as long as you can. Notice how your mind, your language, your perceptions change as the intensity increases," he says.
5. It changes your diet.
A healthy diet (heavy on colorful fruits and veggies, fiber and heart-healthy fish and light on red meat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and processed foods) is critical to heart health, and studies have linked regular yoga practice to mindful eating.
"As you connect to your body, breath and perspectives in challenging shapes on the mat, you connect more to what you do to it off the mat," Monte says. "Suddenly, if you have to do yoga in the morning, it gets much harder to have that fourth martini, that fried whatever, that extra serving of needless sugar. You develop a sense of respect for this absurdly miraculous body that has developed over millions of years of evolution."