Hatha with Heart

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For the past 10 years, Nirmala Heriza has helped cardiac patients at Cedars-Sinai—the famed Los Angeles medical center that is a national leader in cardiac care—lower their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, normalize erratic heart rhythms, strengthen weak heart muscles, and improve their sense of well-being. But Heriza is not a doctor or a nurse. She is a yoga teacher.

“I work with patients as early as two or three days after surgery, doing deep relaxation and breathing practices,” says Heriza, who is a hatha yoga cardiac specialist at Cedars-Sinai and the author of the book Dr. Yoga (Penguin, 2004). Some of her teaching is one-on-one, often in the form of house calls to acutely ill patients, and she also teaches twice-weekly classes at the hospital.

“Yoga is one of our primary therapies for stress management,” says C. Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., director of Cedars-Sinai’s Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center. “The benefits of yoga for heart patients have been well documented,” she adds, pointing to research by the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, that indicates that lifestyle changes, including yoga-based stress management, can reverse heart disease.

Heriza describes her hatha class, which is based on Integral Yoga (a gentle form that was founded by the late Swami Satchidananda), as “a typical one-hour beginner’s practice” that starts with chanting Om, then moves on to
eye exercises, followed by a modified Sun Salutation, gentle backbends such as Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), forward bends such as Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), and a version of Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose). Heriza finishes the class with a 20-minute guided relaxation.

Since many heart patients want to learn healthy ways of handling problematic emotions, such as anger, Heriza also teaches Pranayama (breathwork) techniques, specifically Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate-nostril breathing). “This gives patients an important tool that they can use to calm themselves,” she says.

Carol Krucoff, R.Y.T., is a journalist and yoga instructor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is coauthor, with her husband, Mitchell Krucoff, M.D., of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve, and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise (Crown, 2000).